The First Recollections)
120 years ago, when film was still in its infancy, the first flashback sequence was conceived of, in the french film Histoire d’un Crime. Before the film gets to its flashback, though, it opens on a burglar breaking into a house, killing a man, and robbing the place. He is arrested the next day while enjoying wine with friends at a café, and as he sleeps in his jail cell the painted wall above him pulls away, revealing an inner world of his own memories. The flashback. The audience watches how the man once had a happy, family-centric life, but became enslaved to alcohol, until he finally performed the crimes we saw at the beginning of the film.
To be honest, it’s a very clunky transition, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had already been told this was a flashback, I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow along. Contrast that to the far superior flashback we get at the start of Citizen Kane.
In that film, news reporter Jerry Thompson is trying to dig into the life of Charles Foster Kane, after the business and political magnate has died. Thompson’s research leads him to the memoirs of Walter Thatcher, a banker who established a trust for Kane when he was still a boy. Thompson reads the following line in Thatcher’s memoir:
I first encountered Mr Kane in 1871.
The camera pans across the line very slowly, soft, tinkling music plays, and then the page fades away into a scene of a boy playing with his sled in the snow. Unlike the burglar’s story being acted out on the wall above his cell, I immediately understood that I was being taken back into Kane’s history.
Of course, Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, had the benefit of forty years between these two films, during which time cinema had learned many fundamentals of how to communicate its transitions to the viewer. Soft tinkling music, a blurred frame, fading from the image of an adult to that of a child; these are all cues that cinema learned for how to communicate a transition to the past, some of which Orson Welles used.
Coming Back Again)
Of course, transitioning to the past or a dream or anything else is one thing, but what if you need to come back again? How do we signal when we are back in the regular, current world?
Well, the most obvious choice is to reverse the events that brought you into the alternate scene to begin with. So consider the example of the 2007 animated film Ratatouille, when the famous food critic Anton Ego tastes the titular dish cooked by the star of the movie, Remy. Anton clicks his pen, ready to write out his critiques, then puts the first bite of food into his mouth. Suddenly his face drops all of its tension, his eyes go wide, and the camera zooms out from him, exiting through the similarly-drooping eyes of a young boy in his mother’s kitchen.
We understand that this is the same character, Anton Ego, as a youth. It doesn’t take much to convince us of the fact, because by this point flashback sequences have become so numerous and varied that audiences just know to expect them. Anyway, we see how Anton’s mother makes him a dish of ratatouille to comfort him after he scraped his knee on a bike. The young Anton takes his first bite of the dish, smiles at the camera, which then zooms into his eye and back to the scene of old Anton sitting in the restaurant. The exact process that brought us into the flashback is played in reverse to return to us to the modern day.
So far we’ve been looking at transitions in film, but how about in a written medium? Well, because it is written, it is possible to call the transition out far more explicitly. You can write “seventy years ago” as a header before the flashback starts, you can say “Egon was taken back to a moment as a young boy,” and you can return to the original scene with “back in the present day.” In short, the written medium allows much more explicit transitions which don’t require an audience to be trained to interpret them.
But sometimes a story wants to do things without being so blunt. Visual mediums are so prevalent in our society that often a story wants to emulate their nuances, including their smooth transitions. The story that I am currently working on is going to feature several flashbacks, and I knew it would feel clunky if every few chapters I kept on saying “seven years ago” and “back to the present day.”
If you go to the end of Part Two of The Salt Worms and the start of Part Three, you’ll see that I made an effort to create just such a seamless transition. First, I stopped the dialogue that was going on between Nathan and the leaders of New Denver. Time froze as we went into his inner thoughts about this conversation, and I mentioned that the account of the past he was giving was different from the actual events.
Then dialogue returned, but it was something that Major Hawlings had said. That had said is meant to be a very subtle indicator to the audience that we have now traveled back to the time that Nathan was just thinking of, much like the transition from Thatcher’s memoirs in Citizen Kane.
Then, at the end of Part Three, I come out of the flashback by reversing the sequence that brought us into it, just as with Egon’s memory in Ratatouille. First I let go of the dialogue, shifting seamlessly into exposition. I mention the fact that the worms now lay their eggs on the surface, which was the very last thing that was said before I went into the transition in the first place. Then dialogue resumes in the present day with Nathan continued his account to the council.
All in all I’m pretty pleased with the effect, but I’m going to have several more of these flashbacks, and hope that I’ll be able to keep all of them seamless, yet clear. I guess we’ll see!