By understanding some of the more common time related story telling techniques, you’ll have a sense of what methods you can use to tell your stories.
Real Time, Compressed Time, Extended Time
It’s rare that a film is shot completely in real time like the classic western High Noon. In the film, a clock is repeatedly shown to help illustrate the passage of time as well as to build tension up to the film’s climax. In the TV series 24, on screen graphics are used to show that the entire series takes place over a singular 24 hour time span with each episode representing one hour. These examples are definitely the exception and not the norm.
Typically in film, the events portrayed on screen take place over a longer amount of time than the run time of the film. In a case like this, time must be compressed so a story that takes place over several days or years can be told in less than two hours. Conversely, time must occasionally be extended so events that take place over a short amount of time can be fully explored.
There’s a saying in screenwriting that you should enter a scene after it begins and leave before it ends.
While it’s rare for an entire film to be told in extended time, it’s commonly used for individual scenes or sequences. Extended time is used to highlight an action and often times increases tension in a scene. The countdown of timer on a bomb often moves slower than real time when our action hero is struggling to diffuse it. Similarly, fight moves are often slowed down in action films so the movement can be seen and the impact of the blow emphasized.
What to Cut and What to Keep
The use of time in storytelling is important in every aspect of production, from the outlining stage to the writing of the script to the production stage and through editing. There’s a saying in screenwriting that you should enter a scene after it begins and leave before it ends. You only want to show the audience what it needs to see in order to help keep them engaged in the story. While you always hope the screenwriter has done their job, it’s up to the director to ensure that scenes are tight and flow smoothly; this includes keying the audience into the passage of time.
If you’re going to be utilizing time compression or expansion, most of the decisions of what you’ll show the audience should be made before you shoot. Often times, writers will just note in the slug line “EXT. HOUSE – NIGHT” or “INT. CHARLIE’S BEDROOM – 5 YEARS LATER” without indicating to the director a way to show that on the screen. It’s important to review the script before you shoot, notating how you’ll show the passage of time. That way you’ll minimize your workload and have more time to get the shots you need.
The Visual Language of Film
For more than a hundred years, filmmakers have worked to establish a complex visual language that is utilized in telling their stories. Many of these techniques are so subtle that you may not even realize they’re there, but once you recognize them, you can use them yourself. By using time passage techniques that the audience is accustomed to seeing, they can easily follow your story.
Text on the screen showing the date or time can be used to establish when the action of a scene or sequence is taking place; audiences can gage time passage based on the last graphic that appeared. The text is often in the center of the screen or in the lower thirds position. Newspapers, diary or journal entries are another common graphic approach. It may be the simplest way to convey the passage of time, but some filmmakers feel that graphics can detract from the visual style of a film. It’s also important to remember that some viewers will ignore graphics in the beginning of a film, thinking they are just credits.
While time is an abstract concept, objects associated with time are very concrete. From clocks and calendars to sunrises and sunsets to seasonal changes, the passage of time can be easily inferred from this symbolism. There are multiple techniques that utilize symbolism effectively. Let’s examine them briefly.
The Aging Process
When you’re looking for ways to compress time, you can show a character has aged years by altering their hair, makeup and wardrobe. When you are using babies or child actors that are then replaced by adult actors, you may have to incorporate the character’s name into the dialogue if the resemblance is not uncanny. Many films will use makeup and hair color to age an actor, but as a director, it’s important to remember that age can be defined by so much more. A stooped walk, a limp, or a gravelly voice can also indicate aging. Encourage your actors to bring creativity to the table and use their dramatic skills.
Props and locations can show age, too. A shiny, new car is now old and worn. A crisp, new document is now yellowed and faded. When objectifying time, it’s often helpful to use extremes to illustrate its passage.
Richard Linklater’s award winning film “Boyhood” is a great example illustrating the aging process practically. Linklater shot during a 12-year time period with the same actors so the aging process is very evident. While this type of time commitment from talent would be difficult to reproduce, it’s interesting as well as educational to view.
These shots are used not only to show where the action is taking place, but also when it is taking place. If a scene opens with a shot of the exterior of a house in the bright sunshine and the next scene opens with a full moon over a lake, the audience will get the idea that time in the story has transitioned from day to night even if no other cues are given. Likewise, if the viewers see people in 1950s style clothes walking down the sidewalk past a row of bright houses with 50s era cars parked out front, the audience will assume that this part of the story is taking place in the 1950s, even if the last scene took place in the Middle Ages.
Time-lapse uses still shots of a fixed location over time; the stills are edited together to create this effect. The most common uses of time-lapse are sunset to sunrise, moon phases and seasonal changes; however, crowds assembling and dispersing to traffic patterns on the interstate to a storm rolling in are other good examples.
A montage is a sequence of rapid shots used to quickly show the passage of time. If you wanted to show that a character had spent a long time searching for treasure, you might show a sequence of airplanes taking off and landing in various exotic locales; likewise, if you wanted to show how a couple’s relationship evolved, you might show a first date, a proposal, a wedding and the birth of a baby. Montages are one of the most common techniques used to show the passage of time. Usually set to music, they are often used in the beginning of a movie to establish characters, relationships, or story. One needs to be careful as to not overuse montages. While one or two can work really well, if you have more than that, audiences may feel your film lacks substance.
While some editors may think that transition styles are a personal preference and that it doesn’t matter what transition you choose to use from one scene to the next, it can greatly affect how your audience reacts. Many types of transitions are commonly used to illustrate certain types of changes in a story. By following these common usages, your story will be easier for your audience to follow.
The cut is the simplest and most widely used transition. You could say that it’s the absence of a transition since it’s the last frame of a Clip A followed by the first frame of Clip B with no alterations. Many productions use cuts exclusively between shots in their edits. Cuts are so common they often go unnoticed by the audience. If the audience sees a man getting out of bed, then the film cuts to him taking a shower, then cuts to him driving a car, they understand that time has passed and will usually not question what wasn’t shown because they assume the missing parts were unimportant to the story.
A jump cut occurs when a subject is in motion in the initial frames of the shot and the movement jumps forward to later in the same shot. By removing a section of the movement, this shortens the time shown on screen. In classical Hollywood films, these kinds of cuts would be considered an error, but Jean Luc Goddard helped pioneer their use in his 1960 masterpiece, “Breathless,” and they have since become a more common stylistic choice.
Jump cuts are often used for the jarring effect they have on the audience when they notice a section of time being skipped. For example: a woman is seen in a large room on the far left hand side of the screen. She takes a step towards the right hand side of the screen; cut to the same camera framing and we see the woman as she reaches the far right hand side of the screen and the other side of the room. This is an obvious jump cut because the woman could not cross the room with a single step and the audience can tell a portion of time has been skipped over.
Here’s another example: A man’s face is seen as the camera zooms out to reveal him getting out of a car, pictured head to waist. A jump cut is inserted and the zoom out picks up showing him, head to toe, walking towards the back of the car. This jump cut would be less noticeable because the second clip would appear to be from a different camera, even though it’s not, and the audience will be interested as to why the man is walking to the back of the car. Most important though, the time it took the man to get completely out of the car and start walking is skipped, which helps the scene move at a faster pace.
Fades are much less commonly used transitions when compared with the cut. They are often only used to place emphasis on a dramatic shift in the story that coincides with the passage of time. Fades are a shift to or from a solid color to a footage clip. The most dominant colors used in fades are black and white. Fades often illustrate a longer passage of time as compared to passage of time illustrated by cuts. They are sometimes also used as a transition to and from a segment of expanded time.
Fade to Black
A fade to black is often used for a transition between two clips where a large amount of time passes in the story, anywhere from overnight to years later. A fade to black can be used to transition the story out of one point of time and can followed by a fade from black to transition the story into another point in time.
Fade to White
The use of a fade to white is often reserved for transitioning to a character’s vision, thought or idea. In many cases, the transition is used before an expansion in time because what the character sees in their mind takes longer to show than the time that elapses during the story. Fades from white are usually used after the action in the character’s mind is finished to show that we are back to the reality and real time of the story.
Dissolves are often used to highlight a character’s emotions in a transition or used to enhance the visual appeal of a montage. While montages often use multiple dissolves one after another as transitions, in regular scenes the use of multiple dissolves can be distracting.
The Final Edit
When considering how you want to convey the passage of time in your film, it’s important to think about the pacing of your edit. Even with extensive pre-production and script notes, you may still find that once edited, your film drags. Don’t be afraid to cut and trim your scenes and condense time.
Shoot pro-actively. Be sure you have establishing shots of every scene, even if the script doesn’t call for it. Remember to try and include an element that indicates time in your establishing shot. Pick up shots of time on a clock or a calendar are cheap and easy and don’t require actors. While the time-lapse process can take longer, it also usually doesn’t include actors. You can also find great time-lapse footage on royalty-free stock footage sites.
Audiences are smarter than you think. They really do understand the visual language of film. It’s better to make them think than to make them bored. Cinema has a rich history. By watching movies that effectively show the passage of time such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “Shutter Island,” you can find inspiration for your next project.
SIDEBAR: The Use of Time in Non-Fiction
From music videos to commercials to weddings, there are instances when you’ll need to show action outside of real time. Remember, you can use the same time compression or expansion techniques that are common and effective in fictional narratives.
The bride will spends hours preparing for her walk down the aisle, yet the footage you shoot will probably be assembled into a quick montage. Try to include time references in the shots so the viewers can appreciate all the time she spent preparing. You also want to remember to shoot establishing shots that include a time element.
A typical time expansion you may want to include is when the couples kiss in the ceremony. You’ll need to plan accordingly and shoot at a high frame rate, if possible, so you can slow it down to highlight that special moment.
If you’re featuring the manufacturing of a product, you may need to slow down time to highlight a complex or important step in the process. Conversely, you may want to demonstrate the durability of a product by showing it age.
It’s a common format in music videos to show the artist performing their song in a single location inter-cut with a narrative story told visually. In this format, the musical artist acts like a symbolic narrator who’s telling the story that unfolds in the cutaways, much like the format of “The Princess Bride” where the grandfather is shown reading a story to his grandson inter-cut with Buttercup’s story being show on screen.
One of the advantages to this format is that you only need to shoot the band or musical artist performing. The narrative story can be shot with actors. Another advantage to producing this type of music video is that it gives you the opportunity to tell a story with little to no dialogue, which will help build your visual, storytelling skills for future projects.
Odin Lindblom is an award-winning filmmaker who also produces commercial and corporate video.