The Ins and Outs and Ins and Outs of Creating a Time Loop Film
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From Groundhog Day to Looper to Palm Springs – how do you actually film a film that repeats itself every day? Let's take a look.

From Groundhog Day to Looper to Palm Springs – how do you actually film a film that repeats itself every day? Let's take a look. 🥁

Okay, but seriously – how do you actually film a film that repeats itself every day? And how do you do it so that the concept takes a new direction? At the Sundance eruption in Palm Springs, the filmmakers meta answer to this question. Yes, there is a magical cave and a bit of quantum physics, but ultimately, as Andy Samberg tells Cristin Milioti, "It's one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard of."

At this point, the time warp is less of a trope or device and more of a subgenre. Let's look at some notable examples of time loop storytelling and discuss some tips and tricks for filming similar scenes multiple times while recreating precise set details.

What is a time loop movie?

The subject of the time loop has its origins in literary science fiction. Image via andrey_l.

According to its basic definition, a time warp (also known as a time warp) is a fictional plot instrument that induces characters in a story to “relive a period of time that sometimes repeats itself more than once in the hope of breaking out of the cycle of Repetition. "

In film there are time loops in almost every genre. Some notable examples include Groundhog Day – a movie so synonymous with time warps that its title is used in everyday conversation to describe the feeling of being in a rut – as well as Doctor Strange, Happy Death Day, and Edge of Tomorrow and the 1987 Soviet science fiction drama Mirror for a Hero.

Of course, time warps aren't limited to movies. The concept actually has roots in literary science fiction fiction; One of the earliest known uses is found in the 1941 short story "Doubled and Doubled" by Malcolm Jameson. The device has also proven popular in Japanese anime and manga films, and appeared in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1965 ), Kimagure Orange Road (1984-1988) and YU-NO (1996).

Understand science fiction

David Sullivan and Shane Carruth in Primer

Sci-fi was an important genre, simply instead of people's fascination with the unknown. Image from Primer via ThinkFilm.

While time warps have been used in comedy, drama, and horror, they are most commonly associated with the science fiction (or science fiction) genre, as the concept essentially depends on the fictional instrument of time travel, be it scientific or supernatural in the nature.

Since the earliest days of cinema, sci-fi has been the genre for filmmakers seeking to explore the impossible and implausible, not only because the sci-fi audience is geared towards an easy suspension of disbelief, but also because filmmakers and audiences share You the fascination with the unknown and the openness to the lessons that can be drawn from new and abnormal concepts, ideas and beliefs.

As a filmmaker, it is your responsibility to understand the science fiction of your world and decide how much understanding you should pass on to your audience, whether you're starting from scratch with a script or working with familiar stories and characters.

One way that filmmakers understand and define science fiction in their projects is related to how their story intersects with other genres. Because of this, many science fiction films are cross-genre, their stories depending on and being framed by their unscientific elements.

While science fiction is certainly crucial to the story, the story itself is better described as a romantic comedy, thriller, fantasy adventure, etc. These cross-genre hybrids determine the seriousness of a film – and the seriousness of a film often tells how the filmmaker explains (or does not explain) the inexplicable.

Define the rules for your time warp

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

Time loop films range from carefree rom-coms to die-hard thrillers. Image from Looper via Sony.

In terms of explaining the inexplicable, you have a few options. You can take a "hardcore" path where you spend a lot of time explaining and defining the rules of the Time Loop Diagram Device, as well as getting insights into the introduction of the Time Loop and the possible implications of trying to break out of it.

Examples of this approach are Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, and Primer (which, when thinking across genres, are best classified as Drama, Action, and Straight Sci-Fi, respectively).

Then there is the light-hearted path that allows the time warp to be explained much more loosely (if at all) and whose definition can change as the narrative dictates. Here the rules are more open and allow other elements to provide information about how the time warp came about and how it could possibly end.

Examples of this approach include Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day, and Palm Springs (which, in turn, if thinking cross-genre, are best classified as comedy, horror, and romantic comedy, respectively).

Film the same thing several times

Bill Murray on Groundhog Day

It's important to pay attention to every tiny detail in order to make the time warp story come true. Image from Groundhog Day via Columbia Pictures.

As for the practical elements of a time loop film project, your biggest challenges will have to do with repetitive filmmaking – that is, filming the same scenes multiple times and in exactly the same way. Of course, as your story progresses, characters and aspects of the scenes will change, but it's important to have a strong base so your audience can truly believe they are seeing the same day again.

And this is actually an important lesson in terms of the importance of on-set planning and monitoring that will ultimately help you with both time-warping projects and your daily video productions.

Some elements to watch out for:

  • Storyboarding: With detailed outlines of how each shot should look, with characters and objects exactly in the frame.
  • Script monitoring: A dedicated person who is responsible for the continuity of script and screen ensures that every line of dialogue and action is exactly where and when it needs to be.
  • Photography on set: Not every shoot requires this, but having photos of your original setup on the set helps to recreate scenes exactly. Capture multiple angles to check your pictures from your main camera too.
  • Backup props and costumes: In many cases of time warp movies, when the loops stack up, things change. This includes changes to characters, costumes, and props which – of course – must magically be restored to their original forms for the next day.
  • Practice choreography and timing: Not only does everything have to look the same, but everything around you – from the actors to the stunts – has to be performed exactly the same, which requires a lot of practice and preparation as well as a well-choreographed movement, easily copied and repeated.

Bring in other elements and VFX

While many of the more notable examples of time warp movies have largely eschewed CGI and other digital effects, there are actually plenty out there if you're shooting higher-concept projects or just want to save time on set in favor of the VFX solid digital tools available to you.

Whether you're working in Premiere Pro, After Effects, or Final Cut Pro, there are some solid tools for working with masking and even object removal and replacement applications that can help you out in an emergency. Here are some great resources:

If you want to learn more about hardcore sci-fi genre elements of this time warp subgenre, there is tons of fun on VFX for you to play around with to enhance your story and complexity of your time warps. Here are some cool tutorials to get you started:

For more advice, tips, and resources on genre filmmaking, check out these inspirational articles:

Cover image from Palm Springs via NEON.


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