Space Between the Scenes: The Art Behind Scene Transitions

‘Napoleon claimed that the greatest battles were waged at the margins of the army’s logistical maps, and this is true for film: it is the transitions between sequences where the soul of the film is frequently most revealed.’  - Walter Murch, Editor

by Jeffrey Michael Bays

Modern feature films contain on average 30 to 50 scenes, each dramatizing a single story event as part of an overall chain of events (Bordwell 2008).  If all of the transitions between these scenes were the same, the film would become disappointing for the viewer, even if only subconsciously.  Audiences expect to be taken on a journey from one time and place to another with emotional spectacle, timed precisely to allow a bond with characters as they move through the story world.  What choices do directors have at scene transitions?

A classic transitional hook in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ moves from a flying bone to a similarly shaped space station, bridging thousands of years from one scene to the next.

American filmmakers Stephen Gaghan, Ron Howard, and Walter Murch recently championed the importance of transitions.  Editor Walter Murch discussed his beliefs with FilmSound.org in 2004 in which he proclaimed: ‘for both practical and aesthetic reasons, cinema could not exist without transitions.’  He said scene transitions are essential because they represent change, and that ‘without change there is no perception’ (Ganti 2004).  While his interview sheds some light on the editor’s perspective, Gaghan and Howard reveal a director’s thought processes.  Gaghan, in his 2006 interview with Creative Screenwriting Magazine, referred to scene transitions as the ‘unsung hero,’ saying that their role in cinematic storytelling is even more important than plot or character.  Gaghan’s proclamation that ‘transitions are everything in movies’ emphasizes his belief that cinematic storytelling thrives on the juxtaposition of locations.  His process for writing Syriana (2005), a film which crosscuts between multiple settings, began by arranging the random ‘moments’ and then noting where transitions started to ‘emerge’ as a result of their combination (Goldsmith 2006).  Likewise, Ron Howard’s process as a director involves making notes in the margins of his screenplay as to how he would create the transitions.  In his 2007 discussion with USC film students, he explained that he often finds ideas for scene transitions while on location scouts by imagining whether a scene, for example, could use a wide shot, or whether the sound of footsteps on a marble floor would be more dramatic (Howard 2007).


In television and radio, modern audiences instinctively anticipate that a commercial break is imminent following an increase in plot intensity, and stage plays employ long scene breaks as a technical necessity while props and furniture are being moved.  Cinema has taken this rather mechanical and often necessary function and turned it into an art form, hiding its pauses to ensure a forward stream of momentum.  It is an act of trickery, because on the one hand the filmmaker does not want to generate fatigue in the viewer, but at the same time wants to convey a sense of continuum and perpetuity not inherent in the novel or play.  Modern epic films in excess of three hours do not include intermission; the viewer is expected to remain captivated through the duration.  Keeping this balance between forward momentum and relief requires creativity on the part of the director.  The decisions rely heavily on the overall rhythms of the film and what the viewer needs to feel at any given time.

While they tend to go unnoticed, scene transitions can be made obvious.  In fact, American film editor Walter Murch advocated a disorienting function of the junction, to purposefully prod the viewer’s attention:

…it is the editor’s job to make sure that the audience is conscious of the transition from one scene to the next, otherwise there will be confusion… The more alert the audience is at those moments of transition, the greater the opportunity we have to reveal things to them… (Ganti 2009).[1]

Tectonic Collision of Scenes

When two scenes are placed next to one another, inherently a boundary forms.   According to the montage theorists, this ‘dissonant juxtaposition’ is part of a ‘tension-based assembly’ (Bordwell 1993, p.121) in which drama is excised from the ‘friction’ between them.  At a scene level it is like Earth’s tectonic plate boundaries generating earthquakes, or, as if when two magnets are forced together they either repel or attract – the implication being that where drama exists the boundaries are charged.

In this model, Scene A and Scene B are those scenes which surround a scene junction. The characteristics of the boundary can be described as either aesthetically harsh or soft.  The Coen Brothers brought a harsh physicality to the scene junctions in Miller’s Crossing (1990), creating a sense of real boundaries existing within the story space, imposing closed doors at nearly every movement from Scenes A to B.  Door knocking in Miller’s Crossing is utilized as a means of permission to enter a space at the beginning of scenes, and door slamming as a means of punishment.

The Coen Brothers manifested scene boundaries within the film space in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ (1990), forcing the characters to cross doors at each junction.

Characters in Miller’s Crossing frequently slam doors when they leave and arrive, creating a harsh boundary aesthetic.  The scene boundary can create an aesthetic shock to serve as punctuation to emphasize an important moment.  The boundary in Miller’s Crossing is being used as an intimidation device between characters, and the corresponding sound serves as metaphorical gunshot to unsettle the viewer.

Storytellers tend to use binary oppositions for the sake of clarity; one thing is defined against another.  As film scholar Arthur Asa Berger explained, we first make sense of something by recognizing that ‘it is not its opposite’ (Berger 1997, p.31).  In modern scene transitions we find oppositions from one scene to the next, e.g., day to night, indoor to outdoor, city to country, close-up to wide, solitude to crowd, quiet to loud, etc.

For an example of binary oppositions, Paul Haggis utilizes them almost exclusively in the scene junctions of Crash (2004), a film about the racial rifts in a contemporary American city.  Haggis switches between outdoor and indoor at nearly every junction, and on exceptions where he goes from indoor to another indoor, the lighting is significantly different, e.g., dark to light.  As well, he often juxtaposes scenes along the lines of upper class vs. lower class, authority vs. criminal, minority vs. white etc.  In Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) Tom’s head is bald in the future time period, contrasted against long hair with beard in the ancient past; both are contrasted with his present-day hair.  These contrasts of aesthetic from Scene A to Scene B mutually help to define each locale against its opposite, and thus generate a meaning not inherent in the two.  We internalize the race boundaries, for instance, in Crash due to the emphasis, just like we internalize the class boundaries in Titanic when Cameron juxtaposes scenes from upper and lower decks.  We internalize Tom’s poor health in The Fountain’s future against the present, whereas we notice Tom’s primitive ignorance in the past timeline because it counterpoints his struggle to use his scientific intellect in the present.

Further, a scene is given emphasis through its sudden absence.  When Scene A disappears we are prompted to consider what it once was, and we define the new presence of Scene B first by the mere fact that it is not Scene A.  This effect is made most explicit in the common practice of cutting to black at the end of films.  Miller’s Crossing, for example, cuts to black forcing the viewer to contemplate the meaning of what was.  If the scene had continued, the viewer would still be contemplating what is, perhaps anticipating more action.  This effect is often used as punctuation when a line from the end of Scene A echoes in the viewer’s mind simply because the source of the line (the actor) is no longer present on the screen.  The presence of black screen, however, does dissipate the effects of collision between the two surrounding aesthetics – they are no longer juxtaposed.

Linkage of Scenes and the Hook

Linkage is essentially the opposite of collision, in that the director edits the shots in a way that allows them to join for a unified purpose.  Australian film scholar Karen Pearlman referred to linkage as a ‘smooth train of images’ (Pearlman 2009, p.165).  Linkage occurs when two scenes are placed together with similar aesthetics: day to day, desert to desert, close-up to close-up, etc.

Linkage can also connect dissimilar scenes with what Bordwell called the hook in order to smooth their association. Bordwell defined the hook as an audiovisual device linking scenes through chains of cause and effect, in which a device at the end of Scene A (cause) is connected to a device at the beginning of Scene B (effect).  These hooks can be variations of audio or visual material, connecting both sides of the scene junction in a causal way, much like a suture holds together two pieces of fabric (Bordwell 2008).  Commonly, the hook raises a question through a lingering line of dialogue and provides an answer either visually or through a connecting line of dialogue. Or, action is promised, and then the follow through is shown in progress.  Two images can be hooked together like Stanley Kubrick’s infamous scene junction in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) cutting from a flying bone in Scene A to a flying space station in Scene B, bridging thousands of years by hooking similarly shaped objects performing similar motions.

James Cameron utilized the hook quite frequently in his epic Titanic (1997), a film about a modern day treasure hunter looking for a lost diamond worn by Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) the last surviving passenger on the sunken ship.  In one example the older Rose (Gloria Stuart) arrives via helicopter along with her fish bowl full of goldfish, then Cameron cuts to the next scene inside the ship – a close-up of the fish bowl now sitting on a dresser.  The presence of the fish bowl at the end of Scene A and the beginning of Scene B, especially with it being in a different location, serves as a visual hook between the junction.

A scene junction in James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ (1997) in which a fish bowl is used as a visual hook to bridge the two scenes.

Cameron is also able to provide a hook between the contrasting upper deck and the lower decks in an instance where Jack invites Rose below.  At the end of Scene A Jack asks, ‘so you want to go to a real party?’  The question is answered as Cameron immediately cuts to Scene B: the lower deck alive with Irish music and dancing, in which Rose is taking part.  Titanic includes notable visual hooks between the present and the past, bridging a span of eighty years.  Near the beginning, Rose is describing her experiences aboard the ship as the camera pans toward a video monitor showing the sunken Titanic from the submersible.  Cameron dissolves smoothly from the bow of the rotting ship to an exactly matching, freshly painted bow in 1912.  Later he brings us back to the present in the same way, just as the young Rose and Jack (Leonardo DeCaprio) embrace on the bow of the ship, the scene dissolves seamlessly to the matching bow of the sunken shipwreck.  The same device is repeated throughout Titanic to give the sensation of a timeless link between old and new.  Midway through the film, Cameron brings us back to present day through a notorious close-up of young Rose’s eye as it transforms to her aged one (from Kate Winslet to Gloria Stuart).

Transports: Geographic Movement of Character

A significant choice a director has at every scene junction is whether to show a character’s journey from Scene A to Scene B.  Since every scene junction inherently contains an increase in plot intensity corresponding with the reactions of the protagonist, the director chooses the degree of dramatic intensity needed at each junction with which to express it.  The minimalist choice to not express character in a scene junction is just as important as the choice to do so – the lack of expression in surrounding junctions creates an emphasis on the ones that do.  More essentially, if the plot revelation in Scene A was profound enough, lingering on it may be necessary for the viewer to internalize it.

Two scenes are commonly bridged by a transport scene, serving to express the emotions of the protagonist traveling through geography.  When characters react emotionally to plot revelation, they tend to move.  It is found even in single location films such as Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957), and both Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Lifeboat ­(1944) – characters reposition themselves within the confined space for dramatic effect.  Often the movement of the protagonist through geographic space is a means of dramatic expression.  Transport scenes added between Scene A and B show this movement, often characterized by an echoed resonance of new plot information.  Transports are scenes of geographic movement which tend to utilize vehicles to carry the protagonist safely from Scene A to Scene B.  According to film scholar Tom Cohen (2005, p.14), they ‘cancel the site of departure, home, while providing, in its acceleration of rushing frames, no arrival or even present…’  Thus they become an omnipresent state of subjective character examination, in which the viewer is fully involved in a ‘hyperbolism of cognitive accelerations’ (Cohen 2005, p.15).  The transport is a function of the rise in plot intensity at the scene junction – at point at which the viewer is fully engaged.

Zach Braff’s character riding a motorcycle in ‘Garden State’ (2004) is an example of a protagonist reacting to plot intensity by moving through geography.

Garden State (2004) is a clear example of the use of transports as a recurring motif, as director Zach Braff puts his protagonist on a sidecar motorcycle during moments of character expression.  For example, as Andrew (Zach Braff) is speaking to his father in his office, his father insults him, prompting Andrew to exit the doorway without saying a word.  The plot intensity rises as we internalize the severity of the anger between father and son echoed in his last line.  As he walks out of frame in Scene A, Andrew walks through a door into the garage, and up to the motorcycle, swiftly whipping the cover away from it in an emotional release.  With a close-up of contemplation, the imagination of Andrew is clear on his grin as he decides he will have a good time riding this bike.  The proceeding shots are of the protagonist speeding down the empty suburban streets at night.  The journey here is a clear expression of a character trying to escape an unfair world.  No sooner than the journey begins, a policeman catches him speeding, blazing after him with flashing lights, bringing him back under oppression once again. As the two vehicles roll to a stop, we enter Scene B, plot intensity forgotten, as we wait to experience the meaningful dialogue between Andrew and the policeman.

Scenery: Context and its Rippling Effect

Every scene begins with a process of discovery.  The viewer must first determine which characters are in the scene, where they are in relation to each other and the setting, and how that relates to the previous scene.  The beginning of all Scenes B are microcosms of the opening scene, as they lure the viewer from an objective contextual place into a more subjective one.  The common fragmented skylines and cityscapes mixed with the opening credits of a film begin painting the emotional context of the story and cueing genre elements.

Cinematic context can be described as a temporal process by which any moment within a film space is defined by everything that has happened before it, and subsequently defines moments that follow.  The result is a flowing process which generally moves in one direction.  Contextual flow is of great importance to filmmakers because it effects every creative decision on an emotional level.  American editor and film scholar Roger Crittenden (1981, p.77) wrote about a ‘rippling effect’ in which the feeling of a sequence is profoundly tainted by one small change made before it.  Director David Lynch used a musical analogy:

‘You start somewhere, and then, note by note, you slowly build up until you reach a particular note that creates a strong emotion.  But it works only because of all the notes that came before it’ (Tirard 2002, p.127).

When a film isn’t conveying plot information, it is laying down non-plot cues such as scenery and music to establish an overall mood and attitude.  The film’s director makes a rhythmic choice at each scene junction of A and B of whether to express the contextual mood through sceneryScenery is a cinematic construction of dramatic space in which an event can occur, where the surrounding is of more primary focus within the frame than the characters.

This scenery from Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ (2000) provides relief during an intense sequence.

Rhythmically, the expression of scenery is used to relieve tension and the absence of it propels tension.  Expression of scenery is characterized by a lack of plot information – an emotional expression of the mood and context. If the director chooses to abbreviate the scene junction without expressing scenery, the result is a lack of relief for the viewer.

Scenery can also have the effect of taking the viewer out of the narrative, perhaps by design, in what Canadian film scholar Martin Lefebvre calls ‘spectacular mode.’  This shift away from ‘narrative mode’ engulfs the viewer for a brief moment in pure landscape (Lefebvre 2006, p.29).  Wide landscapes and cityscapes can convey a feeling of grandeur and scope, as comparison of scale toward a small insignificant character.  An absence of this grandeur and scope can induce a claustrophobic feeling, as is the case in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). In The Shining Kubrick’s intentional lack of windows creates an internal world devoid of the passing of time, and, thus he resorted to on-screen titles to indicate days passing.

Music and Transitions

Music and scene junctions inhabit a symbiotic relationship.  While one can exist without the other, more often than not film directors employ music at the junctions.  The presence of music in film, is primarily a signifier of transformation to a new state – new scene, new location, new event, new mood, etc.  Often it tends to accompany temporal manipulation such as collage, slow-motion, and flashback initiation (Gorbman 1987, p.55).  Since scene junctions are such arbitrary technical shifts, music tends to ease the viewer through the change, perhaps by shifting rhythm or providing contrast to silence.  American film scholar Claudia Gorbman (1987) described the ‘pleasuring’ function of music to ‘hypnotise’ the viewer away from technical distraction, and also to ‘ward off the displeasure of the image’s potential ambiguity.’  Gorbman said:

‘Music removes barriers to belief; it bonds spectator to spectacle, it envelopes spectator and spectacle in a harmonious space. Like hypnosis, it silences the spectator’s censor. It is suggestive; if it’s working right, it makes us a little less critical and a little more prone to dream’ (Gorbman 1987, p.55).

Much like scenery, music is one way of expressing dramatic space through mood and attitude.  It can also use a sort of ‘cultural coding’ to evoke historical geographic setting and atmosphere (Gorbman 1987, p.58).  As American film scholar Jeff Smith states, music can ‘signify the emotional valence of a particular setting.’  He uses the example of Psycho (1960) in which the old house near the Bates Motel is turned into a ‘spooky old house’ through Bernard Hermann’s score.  Likewise, the planet in Scott’s Alien (1979) is turned into something more ominous by the mood-setting effect of Jerry Goldsmith’s scratchy and howling score (Smith, Jeff 1999, p.158).  In some cases, music ‘evokes a larger than life dimension which, rather than involving us in the narrative, places us in contemplation of it’ (Gorbman 1987, p.68).  Finnish architect and film scholar Juhani Pallasmaa described the process eloquently:

‘Music usually has the role of reinforcing atmosphere and emotions in films, creating forebodings and surprises, strengthening a sense of reality or unreality, and mediating between different events and scenes in order to create a sense of continuity’ (Pallasmaa 2001, p.119).

Rhythmically, music can be used as ‘necessary relief’ or as a propeller of tension through a scene junction.  Like a concrete mixer that lays down wet cement to build a house foundation, music can lay down any mood the director wants for a specific scene, be it comical or dramatic.  Because of the rule of context however, the director is keenly aware that once a scene begins with a certain mood, e.g. comical, it will have Crittenden’s ‘rippling effect’ on everything that happens after it.  The music score has the power to force a mood, and then change it, in a way that no other narrative element can.

Ellipses and Time Expression

All scene junctions are in some way a manipulation of time, transporting the viewer from one time to another instantaneously.  Viewers also expect ellipses – the important parts of a story are placed together while the intermediate events are omitted.  As director Alfred Hitchcock once put it, is cinema is ‘life with the dull bits cut out’ (Truffaut 1986).  Missing events in a film are often designed to actively prod the viewer to question and internalize the plot.  In other words, viewers expect things to happen smoothly and when faced with a shocking gap in continuity, it sparks the imagination to search through possibilities to find a connection that fits.  On the other hand, flashbacks and flashforwards give the viewer glimpses of information – filling in those missing pieces.

Styles of ellipses range from the simple cut to complex collages minutes in length.  In filmmaking, the collage is a form of time expression at the scene junction serving the purpose of linking Scene A to Scene B with a series of shortened scenes, usually to summarize a series of events.  This is quite common in opening sequences (and often just before Act 3) in which the song helps emphasize a mood in contemplation of the events transpiring.

Collage also enables the director to use multiple scene collisions in fast succession with sound effects, creating a hyperventilated rhythm.  Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007) and Greg Marcks’ 11:14 (2003) both use this between scene junctions.  This device, also known as the ‘hip-hop montage’ by Darren Aronofsky (2000), utilizes a rapid burst of split-second images along with hyper-present sound effects, propelling the tension forward.  It serves as a form of fast-forward where time is compressed in order to rush to the next big event.  Hot Fuzz protagonist Nicholas (Simon Pegg) is shown going through a routine as a policeman with a shock cut from Scene A in a police car to quick flashes:

  1. His hand opens a locker
  2. Flips over a page in his log
  3. Makes an entry in his log
  4. Opens the locker again
  5. Hangs his uniform coat

This example of the hip-hop montage lasts no more than a few seconds, and is a prominent junctional style throughout the film.  In 11:14, a film which follows multiple plotlines all coinciding at the time 11:14pm, Marcks uses the hip-hop montage to rewind time as he switches from one plotline to another.  In this usage it tends to generate a feeling of manic, subjective presence on the screen instead of the traditional objective and reflective viewpoint.

The expression of time at the scene junction can go beyond rhythmic time manipulation and be manifested in more visually creative ways.  Temporal objects can be defined as objects within the story world having the sole purpose of indicating time has elapsed, such as clocks, calendars, burning candles, etc. Ornamentals are extras added to a scene junction in order to make the presentation more overt.  These ornamentals exist outside the story world and serve as a function of the narrator.  In Jeremiah Chechick’s holiday-themed comedy Christmas Vacation (1989) the passages of time at the ellipses are made overt by an Advent calendar with an unidentified hand reaching into the frame to uncover the next day.  This device would appear to be completely unnecessary in Christmas Vacation, as the calendar makes no appearance in the context of the story or to the characters.

Scene transitions are the modern cinematic art – only just beginning to be explored.  The lonely director sitting in front of a new screenplay is tasked with a palette of creative choices.  He or she has in front of them a mass of fifty scenes which must be pieced together into a feature film of around two hours, in a way that keeps the audience engaged but not fatigued.  This director must make a decision at each of the fifty junctions as to how much expression is warranted at each key moment in the narrative.  Perhaps two or three key moments need transports to convey a character’s emotional reaction, or maybe half need scenery to add necessary relief to plot intensity.  Perhaps a few could use a hook to keep things flowing, and some of them could be just straight cuts to keep things clean and concise.  The combinations are endless.

See my new book Between the Scenes: What Every Film Director, Writer, and Editor Should Know About Scene Transitions: http://www.amazon.com/Between-Scenes-Director-Writer-Transitions/dp/1615931694

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References:

Aronofsky, D 2000, Requiem for a dream, audio commentary, Artisan Entertainment.

Berger, A 1997, Narratives : in popular culture, media, and everyday life, Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications.

Bordwell, D 1993, The cinema of Eisenstein, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 120-190.

Bordwell, D 2008, ‘The hook: scene transitions in classical cinema’, David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, <http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/hook.php>.

Cohen, T 2005, Hitchcock’s cryptonomies: volume 2, war machines, Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Crittenden, R 1981, Thames and Hudson manual of film editing, London, Thames and Hudson.

Ganti, K 2004, ‘In conversation with Walter Murch’, FilmSound.org, Accessed 4 March 2011: <http://filmsound.org/murch/interview-with-walter-murch.htm>

Goldsmith, J 2006, ‘Syriana Q&A’, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, podcast, Accessed 5 August 2010: <http://creativescreenwritingmagazine.blogspot.com/2006/01/syriana-qa.html>

Gorbman, C 1987, ‘Why music? The sound film and its spectator’, in Unheard melodies, Indiana Uni. Press, Indianapolis, pp.53-69.

Howard, R (2007, January 9), USC School of Cinema Arts Series, iTunesU , University of Southern California. Retrieved from iTunes.

Lefebvre, M 2006, Landscape and film, Routledge, New York.

Pallasmaa, J 2001, The architecture of image: existential space in cinema, Rakennustieto, Helsinki.

Pearlman, K 2009, Cutting rhythms, Focal Press, Oxford.

Smith, J 1999, ‘Movie music as moving music: emotion, cognition, and the film score’, in Passionate Views: film, cognition, and emotion, Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith, John Hopkins Uni Press, Baltimore and London, pp.147-167.

Tirard, L 2002, Moviemakers’ master class : private lessons from the world’s foremost directors, Faber and Faber, New York.

2 thoughts on “Space Between the Scenes: The Art Behind Scene Transitions

  1. Hi,
    I love your interpretation of film, sound and transitions. I would also love to use the quote you began your blog with. Brilliant for describing why transition is so important… where did you get that quote from? I have now read a lot of Murch’s writings and haven’t found it. There is only one other reference to this quote online. Did he give a speech or something? Please let me know because I want to use the quote in a research essay that I am writing and would love to be able to quote from the man, rather than through a secondary reference.
    Thanks for the great blog on film, totally useful and friendly in its comprehensiveness.
    Cheers,
    r

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