A TV Director’s Biggest Decision

2 min

During the course of a live television show the director cutting the event will make hundreds of decisions over the span of a 2-3 hour program.

One of the biggest decisions this individual will have to make is whether the transition between shots will be a cut or a dissolve.  Yes, there are certainly numerous other commands that will be uttered but the choice of how to get from one camera to another will be the bulk of the instructions.

In this article I’m going to define the rationale to be considered when making the choice between each of these two actions and when the most appropriate time to use each one occurs.

A cut or take between two sources, usually between two cameras, is quick, hard and exact.  A dissolve or mix between two sources is slow, a relative term to be sure, soft and easy flowing.

The decision between which of these two actions is used can be argued to be a subjective decision, but as a director I believe there are some hard and fast rules that need to be followed.

A cut or take will always have immediacy to it.  A cut keeps things moving along at a good pace.  A cut is hard and definitive – an instant decision.  On the flip side a dissolve will definitely slow the speed of the action down.

For me, a cut will always be my first choice for a quick moving event whether that’s a sporting event or a music video.  The times when I would choose to use a dissolve would be when moving off a close-up of someone, if time permitted, or the shot just naturally called for it due to the framing of the shot.

Another time that dissolves would be the natural choice is when directing a musical.  The tempo of the music may dictate a series of dissolves versus cuts.

A dissolve which takes place between two images is also a good transition to use to dictate the passage of time.  The duration of a time passage dissolve should be longer than a dissolve during live action.  The length of the transition would be at least 30 frames or one second.

There’s nothing I find more incongruent than watching a Director’s cut of an event which is completely counterintuitive to how I feel the transitions should be occurring.

I know that I’ve gone on record in other articles stating directing is a subjective art but even within subjectivity I think there must be some rules that need to be followed.

The beauty of having as much choice of viewing material out there is that audiences will always be subjected to numerous styles from numerous directors.  This variety will give ‘up and coming’ directors a good base to learn from and assist them in coming up with their own guidelines to follow.

I understand that one must always be pushing the boundaries of the accepted norms but for me the rule of when to cut versus when to dissolve will always be an easy choice.


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Rick Davis


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