The Passage of Time in Films

Ever notice how editors and directors express the passage of time in films? Creating continuity between the switching of temporal planes is like stitching a smooth seam and both are difficult to master. Time passing is an opportune way to enhance the film’s wow factor and showcase the creativity of the director or the editor during post-production.

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For example, remember the scene in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, when the young brothers are on the train stealing food and they fall off? They roll away in the dust and dirt, head over heels, and when they sit up, they are teenagers. What a clever way to pass time and age the characters.

There are traditional ways to pass time.

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Orson Welles used sound, seasons, and symbols simultaneously in his masterpiece, Citizen Kane. To show the seasonal changes of a man’s life, he filmed boyhood symbols and changed the season. He used sounds of the piano playing to signify young love and applause at rallies to signify his adult life. The editing is one of many reasons why the film is highly regarded.

You could zoom into an eye and zoom out and the audience knows time has passed such as in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to signify that Mr. Ryan is having a flashback or in Cameron’s Titanic when geriatric Rose remembers how it all really happened on April 15, 1912.

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How about a White Flash? How about two? I thought it a perfect choice to signify the crossroads event in a character’s life. For example, in Elizabeth, her sister Mary died and she is given the royal ring and pronounced Queen of England. The next scene cuts to the breathtaking coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Upon reflection, your narrative time-line is marked with those pivotal moments when life pitched a shocking event at you. Sometimes two or three in quick succession. Chop-chop. What better way to show that sensation than with a white flash in film?

Makeup is an obvious way to show the passage of time. George Stevens’s Giant (1956) or

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in David Fincher’s reversal of time adaptation in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). The success of make-up/digital manipulation in a film creates the passage of time effectively.

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Clocks are obvious ways to show the passing of time. In High Noon (1952), the pendulum swings, the clocks advance while Gary Cooper waits for big showdown at noon. The illusion that the film is shot in “real time” is what makes the film memorable. Alfred Hitchcock tried this technique in 1948 with Rope. 

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Color is used to express the passing of time. In The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy wakes up in the colorful world of OZ, it enhances the foreign local–it certainly isn’t black and white Kansas anymore, but the color change also suggests time has passed while she was up in that tornado traveling from one dreary place to a fantastical one.

The Starship Enterprise pops into warp speed.

Traveling through time via wormholes. Contact (1997). One of my favorite scenes. Ever.

The sun sets and rises. The fog clears. Music begins, changes, or ends.

What are your favorite scenes which feature the passing of time?

51 thoughts on “The Passage of Time in Films

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  1. excellent subject, cindy. in the early thirties, before the dissolve became such an essential element of film grammar, simple shots like the crossing of a river were interminable. once the dissolve was established as a way to effectively compress time, movies started to move a lot faster. since then, so many methods have been devised to make time more pliable, and you mention several of them here. one of the more extreme examples i have seen recently is alain resnais’s 1968 experiment, “je taime, je taime,” which restricts each time filp to one-minute, resulting in a chaotic and anarchic tumble through time. at that time, audiences were pretty confused by the picture, because time manipulation wasnt common in the sixties. in recent films, i like the groundhog day effect as used in source code and edge of tomorrow. film-makers today are fortunate that audiences are sophisticated enough to follow the logic of their timescapes to the degree that almost anything goes.

    1. Ta, Bill! Interesting comment. I agree audiences are more sophisticated in this respect (so why do they like so many crappy films 😉 ? ) I like it when directors take chances and try new techniques for passing time. Obviously, Boyhood is an example. I enjoy Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day for that reason. Time travel in general is fascinating. I liked Looper and 12 Monkeys tons because of this topic.

      1. i dont think people like crappy movies, but they do like movies, and their tastes are somewhat confined to what is available in the cinemas, so they watch a lot of crappy movies because they want to go to the cinema, and most of what is being shown there is crap. i find it a full time job to find enough quality stuff to feed my addiction. Of the 20 movies i have seen this week, only two have been new – Effie Gray and Vice – and both were crap. Have you seen enemy? The movie jumbled up the time sequence so randomly that it was impossible to understand the relationship between the two main characters (both played by jake gyllenhaal) until spending several hours sorting it all out and reconstructing the events into a coherent timeline. so I guess i was not quite correct when I said everything goes. there is still a limit to what we can immediately comprehend. Take memento, for example. It didnt take long to catch on what that wasat once y all about. the problem with that picture was that once you got the gist of it, it quickly became boring – because the story wasnt nearly as interesting as the manner of its telling.

        1. It’s a paradox, the studios give what they think the people want when what the people want are good films. I watched Enemy because Jake G. starred, but I lost interest half way through. An irony: I appreciate those who attempt to be clever and interesting, at least they gave it a shot, but so often, the simple tale well told often trumps the experiment.

        2. This is random. But I’ve been watching a lot of Shirley MacClaine films lately for a future tribute. Am I the only one who did not like Hitchcock’s ‘The Trouble with Harry’? The scenery is beautiful, and she was sweet as her first appearance in films, and I liked John Forsythe very much, but the plot seemed too ludicrous to sustain my interest. It’s not often I dislike a Hitchcock film.

          1. Shirley MacClaine is my favorite actress, but I too hated The Trouble with Harry. I have always thought wilders some Like it Hot would have been a much better picture with macClaine in the Monroe part. Remember how good she was with jack Lemmon in the Apartment? t is interesting that macClaine did get the leads in both irma la douce and what a way to go, both initially slated for monroe., who i never could stand. i found her a neurotic, talentless charicature of a woman, phoney in a way that was horrifying. it is interesting that she had the lead role in gentlemen prefer blondes, but jane russell received top billing and was paid 150,000 for her performance and marilyn got second billing and $20,000. And I think russell was much more relaxed and comeptent in her performance, even though her old-fashioned style was being eclipsed by Monroe’s more mannered yet cartoonish characterization.

      1. I’ve never given much thought to time transition in movies, and yet it is a constant. Like so many things in life, I am totally oblivious to them until someone says “Hey! Look at this.”

        1. Transitions in stories are so often overlooked. I ‘d guess the most common one is night turning into day. Or storms. Key Largo, for example, set almost in real time, Bogart and Bacall get ready for the hurricane. The hurricane comes. It’s over. Simple time elapse, yet the whole film depends upon it.

          1. in wong kar wei’s “in the mood for love” the passage of time is indicated by the 21 different dresses worn by maggie cheung. fellini takes a more conventional, but equally lovely, approach, with shots establishing the changing of the seasons in Amarcord,” “children of paradise” indicates the passage of time through the theatrical structure of an intermission between part one and part two. “repulsion” lets us know time is passing by showing us the rabbit that was meant for dinner decomposing on the kitchen table.

          2. I hadn’t considered costumes, but it’s an excellent way to pass time especially in the example you give. And adopting the theatrical structure–yes, a no-brainer, right? Thanks for sharing, even the lovely image of the rotting rabbit. Oh, this reminds me of gross ways to show time has passed–I am a fan of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and loved Amour. Now there’s some great usage of time passing. Opening the film with her decomposing body in the apt. bed. What’s that got to do with love? What a hook.

  2. I especially love this post today, Cindy, because I used to work in the film industry–and film being the incredibly complicated and massively involved art that it is, with the shedloads of people involved in creating the final outcome, makes it easy to lose sight of all the many intricate moving pieces that contribute to its success (or failure). I must confess that I’ve not spent nearly enough time paying attention to the ‘passage of time’ in film and how it is a talent presented by deftly skilled filmmakers.
    And in thinking about it, you nailed one that is one of my favorite scenes of all time. Contact. Total brilliance.
    Thanks to this post, I think I’ll pay a little more attention to this detail and see if I can spot some flair for the craft.
    Cheers!

    1. Thank you, Shelley! Your opinion matters to me. I’m so easily distracted, I find when I watch a film there’s ten different ways I’m approaching the film. Gone are the days of just watching for the heck of it. 😉

      1. Hmm…I’d have to say Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION for its use of a non-linear timeline. How past events affect the present for all involved.

        I’d also suggest going back to ENEMY, if you can. I’ll give a spoiler, if you want. Quite a trippy film with another great performance by Jake.

  3. I’ve seen some of the films you mentioned but not all. My favorite film that features passages of time is “Kate And Leopold.” I love the transition from the 1800s to our time. Scenery, period clothing, changes in the meaning of words, modern inventions, formal vs informal language, manners, etc., drew sharp contrasts between Victorian and modern scenes. I especially loved the scene in which “Leopold” helped “Kate’s” brother pick out a bouquet–the old-fashioned way–for a woman he liked. Leopold explained that each flower has a specific meaning. Therefore, if Kate’s brother wanted to impress the woman, he would have to send her flowers that conveyed his true sentiments. Near the end of the film, Kate wore a formal gown. But when she transitioned from our time to the 1800s, a bustle had been added to the formal gown. Hugh Jackson was brilliant as an 18th gentleman. (Ive been smitten with him ever since.)

  4. Another very interesting post Cindy. Looking back over our own lives doesn’t our imagination use similar transitions to those used in the movies? If I think of my childhood living at home, I am seeing old cars, smelling my mom’s cooking, and generally experiencing a simpler, less complicated world. Teenage years have girls in them while childhood memories don’t, even though there were plenty of girls about. Think about the texture of our transitions. Some were smooth but some came with a long drawn out sinking experience. Some felt like a long slog up a mountain and some felt like a stone plummeting to earth. Some emotionally difficult transitions are remembered with a heavy weight attached to them, while other more happy and exciting transitions are remember in kaleidoscopic colors.

    1. Yes, yes, and yes! Seems we focus on the events of our lives, and do not notice the transitions. It is a unique way to consider the narrative, whether one’s own life or the narrative in history, and in films. The senses. What triggers!

  5. What an awesome post!! I recently rewatched American History X and I thought it was interesting how Tony Kaye used black and white for the past and colour for the present. I interpreted it as showing how Derek saw things in the past as being totally black and white but in the present his view of the world allowed many more shades.

    1. Great film, great example Abbi. What a powerful film. Yes, a simple yet effective way to keep everything clear in the audiences mind. I like how it shows the depth of change in Tony, too. His logic was black and white. Such narrow mindedness, judgmental people think in black and white, don’t they. They never see the world as gray. That’s a clever way to show time has passed–his personality has changed. That flip-flopping from present to past accentuates that. Thanks, Abbi 🙂

  6. Nicely illustrated and executed critique, Cindy!

    I’ve always like the home played piano solo as the families “go to the mattresses”. Marking the passage of time after Michael takes out Sollozzo and McCluskey and leaves in ‘The Godfather’. Along with its random headlines about corruption the the police departments.

    Very Old School.

    One of the best transitions backwards in time is at the beginning of ’12 o’clock High’. As former Colonel Stovall (Dean Jagger) surveys what is left of Archbury Air Base to the sound and wind of Pratt & Whitneys turning over and spreading prop wash.

    Another dramatic passage in time is from Sam Fuller’s ‘The Big Red One’. And its D-Day landing told by glimpses at a dead G.I.’s watch and ever reddening swirling waves.

    1. Thank you for your input, Kevin. Three fine choices! Music trilling, swells, the ending of one movement and the beginning of another is often used, and I love it. I love it when my senses are manipulated by music.

  7. Awesome topic as always Cindy! Interesting you mentioned Slumdog Millionaire as I just saw Dev Patel in the Second Best Marigold Hotel, he hasn’t changed much. These are tons of great examples of the passing of time, the one of Rose in Titanic is a particularly memorable one. THIS scene in Notting Hill remains my favorite though, in fact I dedicated a post for it: http://wp.me/pxXPC-1co 🙂

  8. This might be one of my favorite posts on here Cindy. The passage of time, I really can’t think of something more profound in life. When it’s handled well in movies, the effect can be intoxicating. I think Forrest Gump, Titanic and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are some highlights for me. I really need to delve deeper into film to bring out possibly better examples. But I too love how editors and directors are able to convey this inevitability in movies.

    1. Hi Tom 🙂 Thanks for your comments! It’s so important, yet often overlooked. I’m glad you like Curious Case of Benjamin Button–it’s one of my favorite films for this very topic.

      1. Yeah, the entire film plays with the concept of time spent on earth in such a fascinating way. I need to watch that one again, I will admit to barely making it through the first time as it was late and that is a pretty long film

  9. It is really difficult to show the passage of time. I have been commissioned to write and direct a project that covers a decade of a character’s life, and I am learning that the transitions are the hardest thing to master (even in the scripting stages). I love these examples. I find that the scenes themselves are quite easy, but almost any transition needs careful planning. …Of course, I might simply make things more difficult than they need to be. lol

    1. Thanks for commenting! I just watched a film last night that had an interesting transition to the future. It was of a mother who dusted the family picture. First a couple. Then there was one baby. Then two. Then three. As she dusted, she grew older and time passed. It is hard! But fun to think about 😉

      1. The film I watched was a biopic of sorts, ‘One Man’s Way’ starring Don Murray as the passionate Dr. Norman Peale. It wasn’t the best film I’ve seen, but I did like the passage of time implemented.

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