Screenwriters and editors love to create seamless transitions, and this is one of their favorite tricks.
Filmmakers have a vast array of tools at their disposal when it comes to formatting cuts, shots, and transitions. One such tool, the pre-lap, is a transition that has been used by countless filmmakers, from Sam Raimi to Edgar Wright to Christopher Nolan. Despite its prevalence, the pre-lap is often overlooked.
However, Pentex Productions analyzed the use of this transition in films in his video, which breaks down the editing tool and how it can be used to create humor, tension, emphasize themes, progress the story, and develop characters. As a screenwriter, understanding the various editing techniques available to you is crucial to crafting a compelling and engaging story.
Check out his video below, then keep reading to see what we think you need to know about pre-laps and how screenwriters can format them in their screenplays.
What is a Pre-lap?
A pre-lap is an editing technique that introduces the audience to sounds from a scene before we cut to it. This creates a sense of cohesion and narrative flow. The best uses of this transition emphasize characters, locations, themes, or stories while providing cohesion through the film’s narrative.
Off-screen dialogue, a montage with voice-over, a chyron, or a sound transition are all pre-laps that connect Scene A to Scene B in a way no other transition can do. Adding this transition seamlessly blends the sound from one scene to another.
A pre-lap might remind you of a J-cut, but there is a major difference between the two. A J-cut typically refers to overlapping dialogue within a scene to create a natural flow. This tool is specifically used to transition between scenes, not shots.
When to Use a Pre-Lap
There are a few reasons why you would want to use this invisible transition in your film. It is used to create a seamless transition between two scenes and to convey a sense of continuity in time and space.
Pre-laps can be used for several reasons, such as:
- To maintain continuity: If the scenes are connected in time and space, a pre-lap can help maintain continuity by indicating that the next scene is a continuation of the previous scene.
- To create suspense: A pre-lap can also be used to build suspense by letting the audience hear the sound of the next scene before they see it. This can create a sense of anticipation and keep the audience engaged.
- To emphasize a sound: A pre-lap can also be used to emphasize a particular sound, such as music or dialogue, and draw the audience’s attention to it.
Pre-laps are commonly used in films and television shows and can be a useful tool for filmmakers to create seamless transitions and maintain continuity in their storytelling.
Examples of Pre-Laps in Film
There are endless examples of pre-laps in cinema that I can point to. But first, let’s talk about the film that popularized the use of this invisible trick.
The film that is often credited with popularizing the use of pre-laps in film editing is Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles. The next great pre-lap comes from director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Both of these films use the transition to maintain the audience’s engagement while also connecting them with the character’s internal struggles.
Here are a few more examples of a pre-lap transition in modern cinema:
House of Gucci
Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci is a film that straddles the line between dark humor and drama. The outrageously thick Italian accents and this pre-lap scene will never fail to make me laugh, which is why I believe Scott’s intentions were to make a dark comedy about the super-rich attempting to get away with murder. Check out the pre-laps in House of Gucci:
One of the simplest ways to show a character’s journey through a film is by using a pre-lap to connect a significant shift in their life. Forrest Gump showcases this perfectly as Forrest (Tom Hanks) transitions from running away from bullies to becoming the star running back for a college football team. The sound of the whistle simply connects this transition so the audience doesn’t get lost along the way.
This scene helps to establish the theme of The Matrix. We don’t know if Neo (Keanu Reeves) is really asleep or somewhere else. We can hear the sound of his alarm clock going off near the end of the scene before it cuts to him waking up at his desk, but there is still a veil of mystery about what is real and what isn’t.
I can’t watch the ending of Arrival without sobbing, but that’s the point behind this powerful ending. Sure, I could have chosen any Nolan film to showcase how a pre-lap is used at the end of a film during a large sweeping montage that ties all of the loose ends of the story, but Arrival uses a pre-lap as an effective narrative tool that helps establish the story’s themes and plot devices.
How to Format a Pre-Lap Dialogue in Your Screenplay
Screenwriters can add pre-laps into their screenplays in several ways. They can add off-screen dialogue to a scene, a montage, a chyron, or a sound transition from Scene B to the end of Scene A before the cut.
Screenwriters can incorporate dialogue or sound effect pre-laps into their script for dramatic or comedic effect.
If the audio being pre-lapped is dialogue, simply set up the pre-lap next to the character’s name in parenthesis. For example, CHARACTER NAME (PRE-LAP). Then, write the character’s dialogue that the audience will hear before the next scene’s visuals begin.
Here is an example of pre-lap dialogue:
Be sure to put the poison…
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
Craig hands Jane a small unmarked vile of clear liquid.
…in your wife’s morning coffee.
Writers can also use (V.O) for voiceover narration in place of (PRE-LAP) to indicate that the sound should be performed using voice-over narration.
How to Format Pre-Lap Sound Effects in Your Screenplay
Adding audio as a pre-lap is just as easy to format in your screenplay as dialogue. Once the character’s dialogue ends, you can indicate the description of the sound from the next scene will be in your current scene by using “PRE-LAP” in the beginning.
Here is an example of a pre-lap sound:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
John looks out the window.
I can feel it. There’s a storm coming.
PRE-LAP: An explosion of THUNDERCLAPS.
EXT. SIDEWALK – DAY
Under his black umbrella, John runs through the pouring rain to meet an unknown man in a suite with an identically black umbrella.
Pre-laps are a vital filmmaking tool that screenwriters, directors, and editors love to use. I recommend that you rewatch your favorite film and notice that this transition is more than likely there.
The best way to learn how to make this transition invisible is by writing it seamlessly into a short screenplay. For editors, I recommend finding a project that allows you to practice editing this transition so you can master working with this necessary element.
What is your favorite example of pre-laps in film or TV? Let us know in the comments below!