Repetition – Time compression and dilation (Part 1)

Repetition can hugely impact our perception of time. A long sequence can be radically shrunk to bring out its repetitive nature, while fast motion can be stretched out to emphasize its importance in the narrative. So let’s explore time compression and dilation as effects of repetition.


Time compression

Repetitive actions lend themselves very well to time compression in order to bring out their repetitive nature. The following excerpt from Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981) is a great example of a repetitive action edited at a very fast pace to emphasize a character’s outburst of violence.

Reducing repetitive actions to the essentials always has a strange side effect on the audience. Because we are prevented from focusing on each single move, we instinctively consider repetition as a whole, which gives a more general meaning to the scene. This is what I call the ‘generalization effect’ of time compression on repetition. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (S. Kubrick, 1968), this ‘generalization effect’ is what subtly conveys how the idea of using weapons might have infiltrated the mind of a caveman. In The Scent of Green Papaya (T. Anh Hùng, 1993), the ‘generalization effect’ of time compression on repetitive actions brings out how relieved the character feels after the man she secretly loves almost broke up with his fiancée because of her. Not straightforward, I agree.


Time dilation

At the other end of the spectrum, a non-repetitive action can be made repetitive to increase its emotional impact on the audience. For example, the second time the boy turns around in the following excerpt from Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), at least two thirds of his move gets repeated in the reverse shot in order to extend its duration — which is already extended by a slow motion effect. This simple trick emphasizes the character’s burst of emotion.

Note: This partial repetition of the action is different from the slight overlapping of movement at the cut that is common practice in editing — which gives some time to our brains to digest shifts in camera position.

Here is what editor Vashi Nedomansky says about it:

Overlap any action by 4 or 5 frames. Someone turns their head in a medium shot, on the next shot start the head turn 4 or 5 frames earlier (then the previous shot) and for some ridiculous reason it looks and feels right.

Although motion gets slightly stretched that way, it doesn’t appear as such to the audience. In our case, the overlapping of movement is highly exaggerated to force the time dilation effect.

To make it even more conspicuous, you could partially repeat a move in more than two shots, as in The Graduate (M. Nichols, 1967). The more characters, the easier it is to make it look natural, as in Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1993). Keep in mind that in both examples, repetition is not part of the actual action. It is merely edited so that the same move gets partially repeated in three consecutive shots.

Any kind of move can benefit from the time dilation effect, especially when shot in slow motion. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), Max’s long jump is highly exaggerated by partially repeating it in two consecutive shots. As odd as it may seem, the audience will buy the whole thing without questioning, provided they are sufficiently involved in the ongoing action.

Likewise, subjective shots very frequently resort to action repetition. See how the character’s move gets almost entirely repeated in the following subjective shot both in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993) and Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999). The action is performed entirely in the objective shot, then simply redone in the subjective shot. It just works!


What’s up?

The ‘generalization effect’ of time compression on repetitive actions is an efficient tool to bring out its true meaning. Conversely, non-repetitive actions can me made repetitive by way of overlapping at the cut. Quick moves can be stretched out by partially repeating them in successive shots. This simple trick becomes especially useful when alternating objective and subjective shots.

We are now done with time compression and dilation through repetition, but there is an important extension to those concepts that we definitely need to know about: Time suspension. We will see that amazing effect in part 2.


Recommended reading


Recommended watching