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How Hollywood Can Inspire Your Courtroom Presentations

Name the last movie you watched.

Can you remember how many times there were edits? How many transitions? What kind?

Most of us have watched movies our entire lives without really attending to their cuts and transitions – but our brains still do. It’s why a great editor can be as important to a film’s effectiveness as its director or star actor (even if they’re significantly less celebrated). In fact, the story goes that the original Star Wars was “saved,” or at least significantly aided, by those who edited it.

Whether we’re actively thinking about them or not, transitions offer cues to viewers, denoting things such as a dramatic climax, an ending, a passage of time, or a change in location. Straight cuts, fades, wipes, etc. – these are all tools film editors use to help the audience follow along with the story. And the wrong transition, or a lack of one, between elements of your story can do the opposite, making things confusing or incongruous.

So, let’s examine an oft-overlooked technique we can use to bring our visual presentations to the next level.

Why Look to Hollywood When Crafting a Courtroom Presentation?

Modern media is a great source of inspiration for your trial presentations. While the subject matter at trial might be unfamiliar, dense, and/or uninteresting, how it’s presented shouldn’t be.

And for great editing and compelling storytelling, Hollywood has long been the standard as far as what your average juror is accustomed to. Similar to how we can use icons to quickly communicate a simple message to jurors, there’s a shared language to many of the commonly used transitions, too. There’s an understanding between presenter and viewer: X signifies Y.

Should your slide deck look like a Michael Bay movie? No. But the idea behind all this is to help jurors feel like what they’re seeing in trial is a bit more like what they’re seeing in their everyday lives. So, not only what’s on your PowerPoint slides, but how you move between slides, should be considered in all your courtroom presentations.

Some Classic Transitions to Use in Trial

1) Straight Cut

Quick, no frills, and to the point, the straight cut is the most common transition by far. It’s a shift from one shot to another, with nothing in between. Think of an action scene, cutting rapidly from shot to shot to show new punches and new angles.

This should be your most common transition as well, simply because as you continue on to discuss a new segment of the same subject, the straight cut is the most direct route. It’s as simple as clicking to the next slide in your PowerPoint presentation. Jurors will know you’re adding to what they just saw, and you won’t waste their time getting there.

In other words, the straight cut takes no effort on your part. You’re already using it. Congratulations!

2) Fade

A fade-out represents a slow transition of the screen to (generally) black or white, and a fade-in begins on a black or white screen and slowly reveals the picture from there. Hollywood tends to use these to convey a change of time, place, or topic, and you’ll be most familiar with their use at the start of a film (fade-in) and at the end (fade-out).

Fades often provide the viewer a means to release tension by gradually moving away from one subject to another. There’s a sense of completion – hence their frequent placement at the end of a film or act. Their slower nature can also suggest time is passing between one scene and the next; in fact, you can adjust the length of your fades to suggest a longer or shorter time lapse.

Figure 1 below is an example of a document presentation where we added two fade effects to walk the jury through experts’ complex analysis of testing on work gloves. The first, a fade-in, helped introduce jurors to this new subject. Then, a quick fade to-and-from black (also called a “fade-through”) transitioned jurors to the results of additional tests, performed a few days later. Because the presenting attorney needed to take his time breaking down test results that the jurors might struggle to understand, fades likewise helped us slow down the flow of visual information.

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Figure 1: Fade In and Fade Through Black

Another more dramatic way to use a fade in your presentation would be to fade out after a particularly powerful video clip. For instance, giving jurors a slow comedown after a witness gives that perfect sound-bite damaging your opponent’s case leaves jurors to ponder and absorb those words before you move on.

3) Wipe

A wipe transitions to the subsequent shot by pushing or overlapping the previous shot from one side (or occasionally from the top or bottom). These can be ideal for depicting a change in location within the same time period, or a fast and direct time lapse that is less dramatic than a fade.

The versatile wipe transition has a ton of utility in the courtroom for cases where you need to make comparisons. The most common use of a wipe is with timelines, but as you’ll see below, it can be used with maps, and even machinery tutorials. Consider the following examples:

  • On a lengthy timeline, where you definitely don’t want to cram everything in with tiny icons and text, the wipe can transition the viewer forward in time to the next period to be examined. In Figure 2, we used wipes to carry jurors forward, showing when a relationship began, when our client discovered it, and how and when our client responded. This keeps the chronology connected in jurors’ minds, rather than breaking up the timeline with cuts between each shorter segment. Subtle, but effective.
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Figure 2: Timeline Wipe

  • Wipes can be used on maps to move from one part of the world to another, or to zoom in on one particular location. In Figure 3, we used a wipe to compare cases of infections in the U.S. with those in Europe, within the same annual period. Again, rather than cramming everything into one hard-to-see map, the wipe allowed Europe to be simply an extension of the same map, while putting emphasis on the differences between regions.
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Figure 3: Map Wipe

  • In Figure 4, a series of dissolving wipes overlays the same graphic outline with new text and internal views of a water heater. This technique offered jurors a fluid look at the function of the heater when installed correctly, compared to how it actually functioned due to the plaintiff’s improper installation.
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Figure 4: Schematic Wipe

Rules of Using Transitions

  • Use the most appropriate transitions that tell your story. Unlike in film, the courtroom sadly isn’t a place where you can live out your experimental auteur fantasy. Sticking with the transitions that best fit what you’re trying to convey and are most likely to be understood is always the way to go.  So, imagine in the Map Wipe example above (Figure 3), you instead wanted to compare the number of infections in the U.S. from 1990-1999 with that of 2000-2009, perhaps to show a shocking increase in cases. There, it’d be most appropriate to use a fade rather than a wipe, to depict the dramatic increase that occurred over time.
  • Don’t use too many. Again, the straight cut will make up the majority of your transitions. Tossing in a bunch of fades and wipes where they don’t fit will distract your audience and reduce the power of the fades and wipes that actually matter.
  • Minimize other slide-change effects. Likewise, the only person entertained by dancing text on screen is the presentation’s creator. To everyone else, it interrupts their train of thought. There’s a place for subtle text zooms or slide-ins, but it’s few and far between.

Final Thoughts

Adding effective transitions to our visual presentations is just another part of our larger goal to speak to jurors in a familiar way that tells a story. Keep it simple – don’t try to break the mold – and you’ll still have a presentation that feels modern and connects with your viewers.

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By:  Adam Bloomberg – Managing Director of Visual Communications & David Metz – Consultant

[A version of this article was originally published in Law360.]

 

 

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