What is a dissolve in film? Dissolves are some of the most commonly used editing transitions in all of film. We’ve seen them used to expert effect in films like Citizen Kane, Saving Private Ryan, and more. We’re going to explain the dissolve definition in a simple and concise way. Then we’ll show you how to use dissolves in film and television. By the end, you’ll know how to add dissolves to your own videos.

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Dissolve Video Editing

The dissolve in film editing explained

Dissolves are gradual editing transitions that bring us from one image to the next. In truth, dissolves are incredibly common editing transitions. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of it this way: there are two options for transitioning between shots: the first is to cut, the second is to dissolve. 

DISSOLVE FILM DEFINITION

What is a dissolve in film?

dissolve is a gradual editing transition that moves from one image to the next. Most dissolves occur over 24-48 frames (1-2 seconds in films shot at standard frame rate) but there’s no limit to how long they can be. Dissolves can either be used liminally (open, obvious) or subliminally (hidden, intended to be observed by the subconscious). 

Dissolve editing applications:

  • Fading in or out of a scene
  • Washing in or out of a scene
  • Gradual matching between shots

History of the Dissolve in Film Editing

Where did dissolves originate?

Dissolves have been used in cinema since the inception of film production. George Méliès, one of the best movie directors of all-time, is widely credited as the pioneer of dissolves. And he helped popularize them in what we now consider the book of film language. Méliès’s 1899 film adaptation of Cinderella features a bunch of rudimentary dissolves. Check them out in the video below.

What is a Dissolve in Film?  •  Dissolve Transition in Film in Méliès’s Cinderella (1899)

By the 1940s, dissolves had become ingrained in the zeitgeist of cinema. Around this time, directors began to use dissolves in ways more creative than just transitioning from image to image. Some dissolves were used intentionally to make audiences question the narrative/thematic events on screen.

Perhaps no film better exemplifies this idea than Citizen Kane, what most people consider Orson Welles’s best movie. Check out a montage of editing transitions from Citizen Kane below.

Dissolve Shot in Film  •  Dissolve Transitions in Citizen Kane

Kane wasn’t the first film to use dissolve transitions creatively in addition to technically, but up to that point, it was the best to do it. By elongating certain dissolves, Welles added emphasis to the two images – and the subtext between them. All in all, it was a major step forward for dissolves in film.

Dissolve vs Fade

Types of dissolves 

There are a lot of different types of dissolve transitions. Let’s break down a few of the most iconic dissolve transitions with movie examples.

MATCH DISSOLVE

The match dissolve is an editing transition where one image dissolves to another image while the composition of the frame stays the same. Perhaps the best (and most iconic) example of a match dissolve can be found at the end of  Saving Private Ryan, one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies.

Check it out below.

What is a Dissolve in Film?  •  Match Dissolve in Saving Private Ryan

This type of dissolve is also often referred to as a “morph cut.” In many ways, it’s not a typical cut or dissolve — it’s a unique blend of the two techniques that shows change over time without losing visual composition.

Here’s another similar example from Schindler’s List:

Dissolve in Film Editing  •  Match Dissolve in Schindler’s List

Here, the match dissolve serves to transition us from the film to real-life. The use of this technique is masterful — and it’s one of the most sobering moments in all of film history.

CROSS DISSOLVE

A cross dissolve is when one shot fades out as the next one fades in. A great example of a cross dissolve can be found in the “horse head” scene in The Godfather. This cross dissolve occurs in the first part of the video below.

Dissolve vs Fade  •  Cross Dissolve in The Godfather 

In this scene, the cross dissolve serves to lull us into a state of tranquility; which makes the discovery of the horse head all the more upsetting.

FADE/WASH

We call dissolves gradual transitions because they take place over time. This period of time could be seconds or even minutes – most of the time, it’s 1-2 seconds. Fades (to or from black) and washes (to or from any color) are examples of dissolves because they’re gradual transitions between two images. 

This next video from Fandor does a great job of explaining fade and wash transitions in film.

What is a Dissolve in Film?  •  Fade to White by Fandor

So just remember: anytime a video transition takes place over time, it’s a dissolve, not a cut.

Dissolve in Film Editing

How to use dissolves

Back in the early days of filmmaking, optical printers were used to add video transitions. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to add video transitions. The two most popular video editing programs – Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro – both have preset video transitions.

To add dissolves in Final Cut Pro, simply click on the bowtie emblem and scroll to “dissolves,” then drag and drop one of the preset dissolves onto the editing timeline. 

Dissolve Editing • Dissolve Transition in Film in Final Cut Pro

Dissolve Editing  •  Dissolve Transition in Film in Final Cut Pro

In Premiere Pro, go to the “Effects” panel, search “dissolve,” and similarly add one of the presets to the timeline.

Up Next

Ultimate Guide to Video Transitions

Dissolves are just one type of video editing transition – there are dozens more. Up next, we’ll break down a bunch of different video editing transitions, from wipes to washes, and everything in between. By the end, you’ll know the most popular video editing transitions and how to use them in your own works.

Up Next: Guide to Editing Transitions →
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