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5 different ways in which time plays a role in film

This article explores the 5 different ways in which time plays a role in film: the relationships between film time and our 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).

The time of the thing being told

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 the 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 storytime 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 ‘life’ in a single take, between 5 am and 7.30 am early one morning in Berlin.

2. Stretch

Where storytime 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 – a 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 the story hasn’t started yet.

If you’d like to learn more about short films, check out the full online course from The British Film Institute, below.

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Short Film in Language Teaching

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