The five types of film time

When studying film, there is an important distinction to be made between two dimensions of ‘story time’: the time we experience as the viewers of the film (the 2 hours we’re in a cinema, or the 10 minutes in front of a laptop, the 30 minute TV programme etc.) and the time the story itself covers (which might cover a character’s lifetime, the history of a people or country, or told in ‘real time’ - how long the story itself takes to happen).

Film theorist Christian Metz called it the difference between ‘the time of the thing being told, and the time of the telling.’ A focus on time in film creates opportunities for rich language learning - time in language translates into ‘tense’ and this is how we can introduce and help students learn about the past, present, and future tenses.

There is a typology of the different kinds of film time, attributed to Sarah Kozloff that finds five different relationships between film time, and our time:

  1. Scene – where story time is the same as real time – e.g. in soap operas, which feel like they’re playing out in real time – or a film like Victoria, which was shot and performed ‘live’ in a single take, between 5am and 7.30am early one morning in Berlin.

  2. Stretch – where story time stretches out real time, like in adventure film sequences of countdowns to a bomb going off – 30 seconds of countdown seems to last 2 minutes, because there’s lots of cross-cutting – to the clock, to the action, to a close-up.

  3. Ellipsis – where the story cuts out real time – woman gets into her car outside a building, there’s one shot of the journey, then cut to her arriving at a house. The actual journey might take 10 minutes in real time, but in the film it lasts 20 seconds.

  4. Summary – where real time is summarised by clock hands winding forward, or newspaper pages spinning, or the example in Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant walks up Portobello Road through winter rain, spring, summer, and autumn.

  5. Pause – which is in some ways the hardest type of film time to spot. Sometimes in a film, time is ‘paused’ while a voice-over updates us on the action; sometimes the opening credits show us the world of the film, but the time of story hasn’t started yet.

Watch the whole of Szalontudo/Tripe and Onions and see if you can spot different examples of the five types of film time. If you can’t find an example from the film, suggest something from another film you’re familiar with.

Please also download the resources pack for Week 3 in both Word and PDF format in the download section. Resources will also be available individually in the download section of each step.

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Short Film in Language Teaching

The British Film Institute (BFI)

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