020 - Recently I took a short trip and on the plane I carried along my favourite drug to get me through my semi-mild fear of flying – my iPhone. In “Airplane Mode” I use it to watch movies. I don’t know about you but I find watching movies teleports me to another world where I swear the plane could be on fire and on rapid decent and I’d be more excited about the car chase in front of me.
And what was on the bill today? A movie I had wanted to see for a while but was never quite in the mood for at the video store: Sideways. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are a brilliant, fresh duo. I really loved the character study of these two. And Kevin Tent was phenomenal. I mean truly magnificent.
Who is Kevin Tent? (sigh) The editor of course! Duh!?! Kevin cut the movie. Or, to put it another way, Kevin dissolved the movie. Kevin and I think exactly along the same lines as to what dissolves are for.
Back in film school we were taught, “Dissolve: a transitionary device in film where two scenes blend, via opacity, from one to the next communicating to the viewer a change of time or place”. Well, like Robin Williams quoting a textbook definition of poetry in The Dead Poet’s Society I say to my film prof, “Excrement!”.
Yes, dissolves can be used that way. But frequently it’s due to a lack of imagination on the director’s part. In short, it fixes a time/place change problem that should have been solved in pre-production. When I was an assistant, I learned from my mentor, Andy, that dissolves are really a paintbrush. If carefully woven they are poetry in light leading the eye smoothly from one place to another while at the same time invoking a unique, emotional tone.
In Sideways Kevin almost always uses dissolves in artistically. There is the transition of Giamatti’s face to a beautiful sunset just when he’s happy for the first time in the movie. Or the dissolve between the actors walking away in close up to a wide shot with no passage of time at all. Or the multiple overlays of imagery while the four characters enjoy wine and conversation at the dinner table. Look closely and you’ll see Kevin works very hard to ensure no face slams into another face, no recognizable form competes with another during the dissolve. Instead things, people, or places dissolve into a “pocket” or a non-cluttered area of the frame, smoothly leading the eye around the frame from point to point. Is time passing? Maybe. But that’s not what Kevin’s trying to do here. He’s carefully sewing the visuals together in a poetic dance.
Senior editors with premature gray, such as this blog writer, would refer to this last example from Sideways as “bi-packing”; the film optical term used to describe superimposing one image over another - often between dissolves. It’s an art form. If you want to see this in action for a few minutes solid watch the opening toy sequence in Rob Reiner’s often forgot film North. Toy trains dissolve seamlessly into hills, which pan over and dissolve perfectly with dolls. Cheers to you Robert Leighton.
That’s not to say things can’t be shaped into a director’s mind. There are some awesomely preconceived dissolves in Highlander along with a few funky but calculated wipes for good measure. In fact I find the measure of a good director is often when they don’t use dissolves. They know what I know - which is dissolves are not strictly speaking “needed”to craft the story.
And so with this, my 20th blog, I impart upon you the sage words of Andy, my mentor. “Fishy”, he’d say, “A good dissolve is a long dissolve.” Long, I learned was much more than two seconds. By making it long you’re forcing the brain to resolve one image going into the other – slowly. You’re trying to create poetry. And if it’s long and it’s not working you know you need to try something else.
Like maybe a cut.