The Dissolve: Transition

Poster image for Archaeologies of Fashion Film conference, London, July 2018. 

Two women chat, one seated on a low wall, the other lounging against it. The scene is part of a short 1925 fashion film, possibly a cinémagazine feature to be shown to a public audience in a mixed cinema programme. Within a few seconds, the women’s image fades while another comes into view, a close-up of the left-hand woman’s head and shoulders. This sequence, where one image gradually disappears while a second one gradually appears, is a dissolve, an early film technique used for transitioning between shots. The transition is unobtrusive because the two women continue talking, as if this all happens in real time. But in fact, in moving from a full-length shot to a close up via a dissolve, two distinct moments in time are elided through being overlapped in a short sequence.

This type of transition is typical of many 1920s fashion films. They are often barely noticeable because they’re achieved in very few frames, and it’s easy to mis-perceive them as a straight cut from a full-length figure to a close-up of the same person, albeit a slightly blurry one. To really understand how the transition is done, you often have to repeatedly stop the film, isolating and freezing the individual frames. And then, what initially seems like a very simple film of fashion modelling in 1925, becomes complex, particularly for the issues it raises about time, representation, the body andfashion. This made me wonder if these blurry images could also be construed as pictograms of the relationship between contemporary and historical fashion film, a relationship which is layered, multifactorial, and entangled.

These points are central to the Archaeology of Fashion Film project’s aim to challenge genres and upend film histories. The temporal complexity of this apparently simple film frame made it the perfect poster for the Archaeologies of Fashion Film conference in July 2018. Its superimposed images seemed to encapsulate our theoretical and methodological ambitions to reroute chronologies and disturb linear time by using some methods from media archaeology to think about fashion film, both today and in the past. 

But the poster image also set me thinking about the history and meaning of the dissolve itself. The Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) makes brilliant and innovative use of the technique, but it was not limited to the avant garde in the 1920s: on the contrary, it was widely used across film genres, including in newsreels of Paris fashions like this one. Nor was it new. The French filmmaker Georges Méliès was probably the first to use a dissolve in his féerie, or fairy tale film, Cendrillon (Cinderella) of 1899, while in the USA Edwin S. Porter used it in Life of an American Fireman (1903), the first American film with a plot.

After that, the dissolve rapidly became the commonest method of segueing between scenes, although straight cuts were also used to a lesser degree.  Only in the late 1920s did the straight cut very gradually begin to replace the dissolve as a way of transitioning within a scene, while at the same time the dissolve began to be used to signify the passage of time.   Up to c.1906 the passage of time was primarily shown by the use of ellipses in one-shot films, occasionally augmented by cuts. Ellipses were achieved by the camera operator stopping the camera while filming an event and then resuming filming after a short period.  Much later in the century, when jump cuts became acceptable ‘film grammar’, they began to be used in a similar way to the first dissolves.

But it would be a mistake to think of the first dissolves as part of the lexicon of an emerging cinematic language. André Gaudreault is at pains to point out that ‘the presence of dissolves so early in film history is not an early use of what would later become a part of classic film language; it was an inheritance, rather, from the magic lantern show: lantern operators could move from one glass slide to another by means of a technique known as ‘dissolving views’. In a similar way, Tom Gunning argues that where the same scene is shown twice from two different points of view, it should not be interpreted as an avant-garde practice as it later became when Sergei Eisenstein employed it in October (1927) but, rather, a continuation of magic lantern narrative as identified by the film scholar Charles Musser.

The dissolve, then, like other early film techniques, has its origins in 19thcentury magic lanterns and magic theatre. But it continued to be widely used in fashion films of the 1920s, which can be argued to be simultaneously modern and retrograde: despite looking like ‘documentary’ footage of modern women strolling casually in the park, these films also display fantasy and fairy tale effects in their use of dissolves, which seem to propel the spectator forwards into the pictorial space of the film, as the full figure model transitions into a close-up without apparently having moved towards the audience. 

In other words, while our poster image captures the up-to-the-minute fashions of 1925, it is seated on the bedrock of the old: older histories and technologies of the body, fashion and moving images. Furthermore, it supports the argument that the first fashion film was part of the cinema of attractions, where the spectacle of cinema was more concerned with effect than narrative, even film as late as the 1920s. 

In the 19thcentury theatre, féerie plays in particular may have included magic lantern effects, thus incorporating a proto-cinematic effect into popular theatre. Then, in the early 20th, when Méliès adapted stage tricks from his own magic theatre for his first films, he put his transformation effects to work in the service of ‘fantastical scenes’ rather than as part of ‘natural views’.  And what is fashion if not a fantasy of transformation?  Marketa Uhlirova describes ‘the fleeting visual pleasures of animated forms and colours’ in early ‘marvellous cinema’ which brilliantly epitomised the tension ‘between material realities that were being asserted, to an almost obsessive degree, and then withdrawn again.’ This surely is also the conjuring trick of fashion with its rapid style changes: the trickery of presence and absence, first vividly immediate and then bafflingly gone. In this sense, the dissolve is a technique that would appear to be custom-made to picture the protean quality of fashion itself. 

But there is also something specific to fashion in this use of the dissolve: the way it brings the viewer into close proximity with the body of the model. In my next post I’ll explore the dissolve in relation to corporeal space in 1920s fashion film, while my third post will look at the dissolve in relation to fashion time.

– Caroline Evans

References

James E. Cutting, Kaitlin L. Brunick, Jordan E. Delong, ‘The Changing Poetics of the Dissolve in Hollywood Film’, Empirical Studies of the Arts, Vol.29 (2), 2011, 149-169.

André Gaudreault, ‘Editing: Early Practices and Techniques’ in Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Early Cinema(London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 204-206.

Tom Gunning, ‘Editing: Temporal Relations’ in Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Early Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 211-213.

Ben Nicolson, ‘Five Wonderful Effects in Man with a Movie Camera…’, BFI, 2017,https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/five-wonderful-effects-man-movie-camera, accessed 5 February 2019.

Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (3rd ed.) London: Starword, 2009.

‘Dissolve’, The Columbia Film Language Glossary, https://filmglossary.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/term/dissolve/, accessed 5 February 2019