Narratives very rarely elapse in real time. While a film may run for ninety minutes, its story might span days, weeks or decades. This article explores the tips and techniques every filmmaker should know for manipulating time.
Focus on the story
According to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, drama is “life with the dull bits cut out”. When you’re making a film, it’s important to remember that a scene that isn’t important to your story is best left on the cutting room floor. Better still, try to edit these scenes out when you’re writing the screenplay.
First time filmmakers are often tempted to show everything.
Let’s imagine the opening sequence of a film. It’s a classic tale of boy meets girl. A first-time filmmaker will often feel compelled to show every aspect of the character’s morning routine: the alarm clock, feet hitting the floor, turning on the shower, taking a towel off the rack, toast popping up in the toaster, getting a jar of peanut butter from the pantry, spreading the peanut butter on the toast, pouring a glass of orange juice, grabbing his schoolbag and heading out the door.
All of this is utterly unnecessary. It has nothing to do with the story.
It would be much better to start with an alarm clock, its sound continuing into the next shot as the character leaves for school. While he’s walking down the street, we cut to a point of view shot of a girl walking in the opposite direction, then to a close up of his gobsmacked expression. This is much more engaging!
The most conventional way to structure time is using a linear narrative which shows events unfolding in order.
Even in linear narratives, however, directors often omit events to move the story forward. We might cut, for example, from our character sitting at their desk to a shot of them leaving work later that day. The audience understands that time has elapsed and the transition is virtually invisible.
Establishing shots are often used to signify a change in time or place. In many ways, they’re the glue that holds a narrative together and enable filmmakers to leave out large chunks of time. Imagine our main character sitting down to breakfast. We cut to an establishing shot of an office building, then to a shot of the same character sitting at a desk. The audience understands that time has passed and it isn’t necessary to show the intervening action.
Narratives don’t have to be linear. Techniques such as flashback and flash forward can be used develop your story in engaging and interesting ways. Flashbacks are momentary cuts to past events which may consist of a single shot or entire scenes. There are many films than include flashbacks, including Citizen Kane and The Dark Knight Rises. Flash forwards, which reveal events that will happen in the future, are less frequent. At the end of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan uses flash fowards to help resolve the narrative, cutting to shots of Commissioner Gordon giving a eulogy for Harvey Dent and destroying the bat signal, as Batman disappears into night taking the blame for Two Face’s crimes. Retrospective narratives begin in the present, cutting back to previous events for most of the narrative. A great example of this is Saving Private Ryan, which begins and ends with a World War II veteran visiting the grave of a fallen comrade.
A montage is sequence of individual shots which, when edited together, show the progression of time. One of the most famous examples is Rocky when Rocky Balboa is training to take on the world heavyweight champion. In Ed Wood, director Tim Burton uses a montage to show the title character, played by Johnny Depp, making Plan 9 from Outer Space. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) becomes a ninja in the space of four minutes. In Army of Darkness, Ash (Bruce Campbell) prepares to fend off a horde of marauding zombies in just a few minutes. As Team America: World Police points out, you can achieve a lot in a montage. Montage is a shorthand way of conveying information that would otherwise take a long time – binging, boredom, drunkenness, failure, falling in love, handwork, makeovers and travelling. TvTropes features an exhaustive list of the different ways that filmmakers use montage.
Speeding up footage can be an effective way to show the progression of time. In 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle uses fast motion to show the progression of time as Aron Ralston (James Franco) attempts to cover his body before the temperature drops too low and he freezes to death. In Limitless, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a frustrated writer who discovers a drug that unlocks the unused portions of his brain, allowing him to complete a novel overnight. Although fast motion can be used to manipulate time, students need to be aware that it’s more conventionally used for special effects or comedy. In Aliens, James Cameron uses fast motion during Bishop’s game of five finger fillet. In Gladiator, Ridley Scott speeds up the movement of tigers in the arena. Thanks to Keystone Cops and Benny Hill, audiences largely perceive fast motion as a comedic technique.
Time-lapse is another technique that students can use to manipulate time. It seems to be used most often in establishing shots to convey the passing of time. 127 Hours features numerous time lapse shots of the desert landscape. In Zodiac, David Fincher uses time-lapse, with a little help from CGI, condensing the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid into mere seconds.
If you want to create you own time-lapse footage, many DSLRs come with a built-in intervalometers making the process much easier. There are also a number of apps for iOS and Android allowing users to create time-lapse sequences using their phones, include Osnap, Miniatures Pro, Magic Lapse and TimeLapse.
Slow motion is traditionally used create suspense and increase the drama of scenes. One of the traditional issues with filming slow motion is frame rate. Slowing down video footage shot at 25 or 30 frames per second usually results in stilted and jerky footage. Editing software like Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut is capable of minimising this to an extent but it never looks fantastic. Some cameras, including the GoPro, are capable of shooting at higher frame rates but at the moment we’re still very much limited by technology.
Its After Effects, it’s possible to achieve nice, pseudo slow motion shots using the puppet tool. This video is a great example of this effect, which is achieved entirely using still photographs There are a number of tutorials on YouTube which explain how to achieve this effect. It’s very straightforward and something I hope to attempt with my Year 10 students in coming years.
A jump cut occurs when two visually similar shots are edited together, creating a jarring jump from one to the next. Although jump cuts are usually considered a mistake, they can be used to show the progression of time by filming a sequence and cutting large chunks out of it. At the beginning of Snatch, director Guy Ritchie uses jump cuts to speed up a sequence showing a group of jewel thieves removing their disguises.
Reversing footage is a highly stylised effect which is often used in narratives that repeat events. In Vantage Point, for example, reversed footage is used to show events winding back so they can be told from another perspective. In Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright uses reverse footage in a montage as Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) explains his theory of who is behind a grisley series of murders.
A freeze frame is when the image pauses. This is often used, along with the sound of a camera, to simulate still photographs. Freeze frames are also used to signify the end of a narrative. Good examples of this include The Breakfast Club and Rocky. In Snatch and The Faculty, a momentary pause is used to introduce characters in a stylised way.
Flash frames are distinct from flashbacks because the audience is only given a brief, almost subliminal glimpse something. In many cases, this use of editing is highly subjective, providing the audience with a brief glimpse into the mind of a character.
Split screen gives filmmakers the opportunity to divide the frame and is usually used to show simultaneous action. This technique was also used extensively in the television series 24 to show events unfolding at the same time. In 500 Days of Summer, a split screen is used to show the difference between expectation and reality as Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon Levitt) visits his former girlfriend.
Parallel editing is used to show two events which are usually occurring simultaneously. In Misery, director Rob Reiner uses parallel editing to show Paul Sheldon (James Caan) desperately trying to make it back to his room before the psychotic Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) discovers he has been exploring the house. Peter Jackson similarly uses parallel editing in The Lovely Bones to ratchet up suspense as Lindsay Salmon explores the house of a suspected murderer. In Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg shows Oskar Schindler moving into his new apartment while a Jewish family is relocated to a ghetto.
A smash cut is a sudden transition to another shot before it would normally end. In American Beauty, Sam Mendes smash cuts from a tranquil aerial shot of suburbia to an overshot of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) laying face down on his bed. Edgar Wright uses smash cuts for stylistic effect in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz to create transitions between otherwise mundane scenes. In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood smash cuts from a close up of a furious Walt Kowalski to the aftermath of the argument as he children burst from the house.
Speed ramping is when the speed of footage changes during a single shot. It is often used in fight scenes to increase the drama. A frenetic fight scene will often slow down as a punch connects only to speed back up in seconds. Director Zac Snyder uses speed ramping extensively in 300 during the Battle of Thermopylae when Spartan warriors clash with the invading Persian army. Director Guy Ritchie also uses the effect during a boxing match in Sherlock Holmes, when the title character plans how he will incapacitate his opponent.
Superimposing two or more shots on top of each other can be used to convey the passing of time. In Zodiac, director David Fincher superimposes footage of detectives and reporters investigating the Zodiac murders with newspaper headlines and letters from the killer, creating a montage spanning years.
While whip pans aren’t exactly a way to structure time, they can be used to show a quick transition from one place to another. In Scott Pilgrim vs The World, director Edgar Wright makes extensive use of whip pans when Scott Pilgrim is searching for Romona Flowers at a party. “Dude,” he says. “She’s totally real!” Edgar Wright whip pans to another shot of him asking a friend what they know about her. Edgar Wright also makes extensive use of whip pans in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
Wipe by cut
Named by Verna Field, who used the technique when working on Jaws, a wipe by cut is when someone passes in front of the camera, then cuts to a different shot as someone else finishes passing in front of the camera. Putting a slight cross dissolve between these two shots means that the transition is almost imperceptible. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg and Verna Fields used wipe by cuts when Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is watching people swimming at the beach.
Audio match cut
An audio match cut is when two similar sounds fade into each other. Director Alfred Hitchcock famously used an audio match cut in 39 Steps, cutting from a shot of a woman screaming to the shot of a train blowing its whistle. In Dead Calm, director Philip Noyce uses an audio match cut, transitioning from the sound of a heartbeat to the sound of wiper blades. In Season 2 of Breaking Bad in an episode called ‘Over’, an audio match cut is used to transition between a shot of Walter White using a power tool at home, to a shot of a janitor using a vacuum at Skylar’s office. In addition to creating a smooth transition between two shots, audio match cuts can also signify there is a relationship between two scenes.
Visual match cut
Although a visual match cut doesn’t necessarily help you to structure time, it’s a great way to create a connection between two different shots. One of the most famous examples of a visual match cut is the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when there is a transition from prehistoric man throwing a bone in the air, to a shot of a space station. In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock uses a visual match cut, dissolving form a shot of Marion Crane’s eye to a shot of water draining down a plughole. In an early shot from Aliens, James Cameron uses a visual match cut, dissolving from a shot of Ripley’s face, to a shot of a planet from orbit.
Thematic match cut
A thematic match cut involves cutting between two shots that are related in some way. This short video by Radiolab is filled with such cuts.