Scene Tectonics: Damage-Control Your Edit with Eight Tips for Scene Transitions

We’ve all been there–the editing room-turned-rescue center. Here’s a secret to surviving those agonizing hours: Tightening up the transitions between scenes, sequences, and acts is often the key to saving a film that just isn’t working.

You’ll start thinking about how those bigger pieces interact to create drama, like when Earth’s tectonic plates crunch together to make volcanoes.

Everything happens during scene transitions: Characters change and move, plot revelations surface, and the audience is the most engaged. Legendary editor Walter Murch once said transitions are “where the soul of the film is frequently most revealed.” That’s a good starting point when thinking about transitions—as a process of unearthing the emotional core of your story. A scene transition is change: a shift from one emotional state to another, everything in turmoil.

So what are some tactics to use when piecing together your film’s moving parts? The good news is, if you enter the editing room armed with lots of scenery shots, reaction shots, and a good pot of coffee, there may yet be hope for your struggling edit.

1. Design a Chess Board

The easiest first step is to go through all of your transitions and make sure there’s an obvious visual shift from one scene to the next—indoor to outdoor, chaos to calm, night to day, etc. These binary oppositions tell the viewer that there are two separate events to be considered in relation to one another. Not only does this provide a necessary aesthetic jolt, it also allows the audience to follow your story more seamlessly. Lack of distinction between cuts can feel like playing chess with only white pieces or squares—contrast is essential to keep track of the game. The same is true in your film. If all of your locations look too similar, you’re going to strain the audience.

Make it easy to compartmentalize the different pieces of your story. The viewer’s brain often remembers plot information based on a location in which it was revealed. For instance, if your film has one scene on a windy bridge, the audience will file that away in their mental “windy bridge” folder, and recall that bridge when piecing the story together. If, instead, your entire film takes place on the windy bridge, your audience is going to have a harder time juggling the parts.

2. Give ’em a Break

What I’m about to tell you might be a scary thought for some readers: It’s OK to dissipate tension in your film.

The truth is, a narrow obsession with keeping things tense is a common amateur mistake. When your film continues at a sustained level of intensity, without variation, it can cause fatigue or boredom in the viewer, like listening to a song that only has one note. Give your audience a break! Remember that your tense moments will seem even tenser if they are surrounded by periods of calm.

Establishing shots can be your friend in the editing room when you’ve overloaded on tension and things are starting to feel worn out. Use them after a tense sequence has climaxed. This pause will allow your viewers to reflect and let their imaginations drift freely before the next big event.

Story clues can be planted here, but the focus should be making sure everyone sitting in the theater is synchronized into the same mood in preparation for what you’re about to throw at them. Mood-setting holds a tremendous amount of power. By changing a scene’s context, drama becomes comedy and boredom becomes suspense…

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