Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to let transitions tell the story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 25, 2011

Image: Miemo Penttinen/Flickr

In the video world, a transition is the term for the way we move from one shot to another, and there are many different types:

  • straight cut: the shot changes over a single frame
  • mix/dissolve: the two shots dissolve into each other over several frames
  • wipe: an electronic border ‘slides’ from one shot to another
  • flash-dissolve: the shot dissolves through bright white to another
  • L-cut: where sound and vision do not match over the transition
  • alpha-transition: very complicated, animating a third piece of video to create the transition

…and the list goes on

Transitions are very powerful visual tools and can add huge meaning to a story. Think how the shot of Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan dissolves over 60+ frames to the older version of his character: before our eyes 60 years of history pass – without uttering a single word.

Visual journalists can use transitions too, but they rarely do. Instead they’re limited (by employers or convention) to cuts, dissolves and flash-dissolves.

But here are two inspiring examples of transitions not just taking us from one place to another, but actually telling the story. Both have been shared widely in the last week – sadly, for different reasons.

Symmetry: Everynone/RadioLabs

The folks from Everynone‘s latest project is based on the concept of symmetry. The guys who make this are telling a story solely in pictures, with a few sound effects. They have no dialogue to fall back on: so the pictures matter.

They brilliantly explore the very visual idea of symmetry, but cleverly transition from one place to another in a way that adds enormous meaning – without saying a single word. Notice how, at 17 seconds, the ball in the left screen transitions to the ball in the right; how the film makers take us from the beginning of a story to the end – simultaneously.

Because the previous shot is intrinsically linked to the one that follows, the transition is loaded with meaning.

Diary: Tim Hetherington

But the most extraordinary use of transitions I’ve seen is by Tim Hetherington, the award winning photojournalist and Oscar nominated film maker sadly killed in Libya last week. Last year he created an experimental visual journal of his 10 years as a war correspondent, and called it Diary.

The way Tim transitions from shot to shot is…well, extraordinary. He dissolves from a mosquito net to an aircraft window like melting butter; he takes us from Liberia to London in 20 frames with a simple transition – and without saying a word. I was lost for words when he matched the changing of a lens to a full moon. It reminds me of how Orson Welles takes us into the El Rancho through a skylight in Citizen Kane.

I didn’t watch Diary until Tim’s death, but I really think this is visual storytelling in a distilled form. I doubt you have 19 minutes to spare: just watch as much as you can.