Expressing Passage of Time In Movies – I

In the temporal art of the film depicting life perpetually in motion, passage of time is one of the most commonly seen filmic phenomena, and along the evolutionary passage of this art form, techniques of visually expressing the unspeakably silent phenomena of time passage have evolved into several of them, some of which being stock and universal while some fewer others are aesthetically innovative and film specific.

It is not always a good idea, though sometimes particular situations demand, to get characters to verbally indicate the passage of time for the viewer to understand the temporal course of the events in movie time. A good time passage editing lends a seamlessly smooth continuity between two scenes from different temporal planes enabling the viewer to process the information smoothly, while a poor indicator of time passage messes filmic events up into a disproportionate, temporally distorted bundle of incidents abnormal like some cancerous growth in the cinematic tissue of the film.

In filmmaking, time passage is dealt with in the editing room during the post production period. While there are traditional and more or less universal tools, each filmmaker has his own handy tools to do a particular job, which is an auteureal signature lending a characteristic pattern to his oeuvre. It is worthwhile to study how filmmakers manage to best indicate time passage in their works.

Transition from black and white to color

Passage of time while a regular or repetitive activity is ongoing can be indicated without breakage of the course of action within a single shot by a smooth transition from black and white to color. The opening scene of Alfonso Arau’s A Walk In The Clouds (1995) is an ideal example of expressing time passage within a single shot using smooth transition from black and white to color.

Paul (Keanu Reeves) is aboard a warship coming back home from a victorious battle. When the ship has anchored safely he walks gaily with other soldiers towards the gangway for disembarkation. Four years back he also, coming back home from army duty, disembarked from the same ship on the same shore.

This passage of time is shown linearly in the movie within a single shot. The opening shot sequence of the movie following its opening credit shows, all in black and white, a homecoming war ship (first to fourth shots), anxious relatives ashore awaiting (sixth shot) the war heroes aboard (fifth shot) who are happily walking towards the gangway for disembarkation. Black and white continues through the first few frames of the seventh shot when Paul and other soldiers are stepping down the gangway; then, somewhere about the 4073th frame a seamlessly smooth transition to color permeates the screen with the color saturation continuing to intensify through the 4089th frame and the screen ultimately turning multicolor at about 4163th frame, all only in the seventh shot linearly expressing a passage of four years.

1. clip_image0023945th frame: Completely black and white 2. clip_image0044073th frame: Black and white to color transition begins
clip_image0063. 4089th frame: Color saturation intensifies clip_image0084. 4163th frame: It is now color

Environmental Color Transition

The color of the environment, atmosphere of a season is different from that of another, and thus change of, for example, one foliage color (in)to another within a single shot indicates seasonal passage, one beautiful instance of this technique’s effective employment being a shot in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001) in which Thomas Nash (Russell Crowe) remains day in, day out curled up in his hostel room over his study table, working his way through writing an original mathematical paper, until this first masterpiece of his is successfully over and done with after a long time, after the wintry snow has thawed in the early summer sun, and when the grim, leafless branches of winter have been replaced with vernal foliage.

A Beautiful Mind cinematically makes the viewer sense this passage of time with a deftly edited shots:

Color Transition for Passage of Time in A Beautiful Mind from Thoithoi O'Cottage on Vimeo.

Zoom In Zoom Out

Zooming in onto a subject at present time and holding it in close up for some time, and then zooming out from the same into the past (or future) or vice versa is also a common technique used to express time passage in movies. In James Cameron’s 11 Oscars winning blockbuster ‘The Titanic’ (1997) passages of time from present back into past and vice versa are expressed with excellent artistic finesse using this technique. The following sequence of still frames manages to show the movie’s excellent time passage editing.

(a) From present back to past
(b) From past to present
(c) From present to future (normal time passage)

Besides expressing time passage, Zoom In and Out, used for the purpose, has another significance: it emphasizes the great change the subject has gone through between the two points of time.

Zoom In (or Push In) can also be used together with dissolve as found in Zwartboek (Black Book, 2006). [Example]

clip_image010 clip_image012
clip_image014 clip_image016
clip_image018 clip_image020
clip_image022 clip_image024

Title Card Insertion

Insertion of title cards indicating how much time has passed or how much time back it is has been a common way of indicating time passage since early days of the movie.

While expressing time passage by title card insertion has one advantage of being able to indicate the exact amount of time back in the past or into the future, it has also one disadvantage of its inherent external authorial or narratorial intervention’s at best subtly disturbing the viewer’s own cognitive process.

Fade Out Fade In


Choice of Fade Out Fade In in indicating time passage is also driven by purpose. This technique is most appropriately used in jumping from a climax of an incident to its aftermath or a situation clearly affected by the incident. The following frames from Andrew LAU’s Daisy (2006) explicate

White Flash

A flash of an undying memory sparking momentarily but vividly in a character’s mind in a very crucial juncture of the movie is most appropriately articulated by the use of white flash. White flash is one or two white frames inserted each at the beginning and end of usually a sequence of short memory shots which when projected flash like a flash of lightning hitting the viewer’s retina triggering some sensation of fear, anger or excitement in his limbic system. Kabhi Khusi Kabhi Gham (Karan Johar, 2001) can draw tears from the viewer’s eye by using white flash at a crucial juncture of the film.

White flash has other variations such as red-flash, black flash etc, and they are used according to the emotional tone of the movie. Red flash is used in violent movies such as Transporter 3 (Olivier Megaton, 2008).

                                                                                                                                                                     To be continued.


One thought on “Expressing Passage of Time In Movies – I

  1. Pingback: Time, Cinema and The World | CTS at LCC

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