Flashbacks Draft Chapter 1

Paragraph 1 Flashbacks

Definition, the history and conventions of the flashback in Cinema

This chapter offers definitions of what a flashback in film is, the function of the flashback and considers the historical timeline of the use of the flashback in cinema, from its earliest origins in classical literature. Geoff Boucher the editor of the online magazine, Hollywood Deadline in an interview with the director of The Limey Wilson in car sceneThe Limey (1999), The film’s Director, Soderbergh is reported to have stated “[w]e created or tried to create, meaning and emotion through repetition and juxtaposition, which again, is something that’s unique to movies. The ability to mould something and then change the meaning or alter the meaning just by reordering and repeating things, that’s unique in film.” (Boucher, 2019). The Flashback, a definition of the flashback by Maureen Turim the film theorist defines flashback as “[t]he flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history.” A privileged moment that Turim refers to is where the filmmaker shares with the spectator a revelation and typically important character information in the flashback, as in photography the photograph is a shared experience between the viewer and the photographer, a privileged moment. Turim then goes on to state “Studying the flashback is not only a way of studying the development of filmic form, it is a way of seeing how filmic forms engage concepts and represent ideas. (Turim, 2013: 1-20). While Bordwell, a film theorist defines the flashback simply as “Flashback …”any shot or scene that breaks into present-time action to show us something that happened in the past” (Bordwell, 2009) and then goes on to define the historical use of the flashback “Although the term flashback can be found as early as 1916, for some years it had multiple meanings. Some 1920s writers used it to refer to any interruption of one strand of action by another. At a horse race, after a shot of the horses, the film might “flash back” to the crowd watching. (See “Jargon of the Studio,” New York Times for 21 October 1923, X5.) In this sense, the term took on the same meaning as then-current terms like “cut-back” and “switch-back.” There was also the connotation of speed, as “flash” was commonly used to denote any short shot.” (Bordwell, 2009). To put the use of the flashback into greater historical context, Bordwell states that “Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917 – 60, screenwriters’ manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manual put it, ‘Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progression”. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002: 42). Flashbacks were used sparingly in classical cinema when compared with its current use in contemporary cinema and the ready acceptance by the spectator and filmmaker of the flashback as a tool in the filmmakers toolkit, as I previously quoted, until the 1960s screenwriters were dissuaded from using flashbacks. Barry Salt, film historian, argues that there are two types of flashback “[t]here are two principal classes of flashbacks: those that show scenes in the past that someone is remembering in their own mind, and those that show past scenes that are being narrated by someone to an audience within the framing scene.”(Salt, 1992: 109) he also states that “[t]he earliest known example of a narrated flashback occurs in the Italian Cines film company’s (Società Italiana Cines) film La fiabe della nonne, made in the middle of 1908”. (Salt, 1992: 109). Later examples of films that use flashbacks date from 1910, states Bordwell, quoting from Turim’s research into flashbacks, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History (Routledge, 1989). Bordwell goes on to state that Turim’s research indicates that “[f]lashbacks have been a mainstay of filmic storytelling since the 1910s”. (Bordwell, 2009). Early examples of classical Hollywood films utilising flashbacks include; Behind the Door (1919), An Old Sweetheart of Mine (1923), His Master’s Voice (1925)’ Silence (1926), Forever After (1926), The Woman on Trial (1927), The Last Command (1928), Last Moment (1928), Mammy (1930), Such is Life (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Two Seconds (1932). While not an exhaustive list the prevalence of the flashbacks in the early films of the 20th century was relatively uncommon, however flashbacks in films become more common from 1930. The use of flashbacks became more widespread and popular as Turim argues “[a]fter cinema makes the flashback a common and distinctive narrative trait, audiences and critics were more likely to recognize flashbacks as crucial elements of narrative structure in other narrative forms. (Turim, 2014: 20). While Bordwell appears to agree and states “that there is a veritable cascade of titles using the flashback in the 1930s, with conventions already widely in circulation”. (Bordwell, 2009). As the use of the flashback gained greater acceptance, the flashbacks become more common and begin to make appearances across all genres in classical Hollywood films, including such iconic films as Casablanca (1942). Casablanca BTSAs Bordwell states “[d]uring the 1940s, however, flashback plotting was more than a fashion. Its proliferation in all genres encouraged filmmakers to probe a range of creative possibilities. A flashback, it became evident, could yield a complex experience for the viewer”. (Bordwell, 2017: 72).


Alexander Pope – The British Library (no date). Available at: https://www.bl.uk/people/alexander-pope (Accessed: 21 June 2020).
Ansell-Pearson, K. (1994) An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker, An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker. Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/cbo9780511606144.
Bordwell, D. (1979) ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.’, Film Criticism, 4(1), pp. 56–64. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44018650?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents (Accessed: 8 May 2020).
Bordwell, D. (2009) Observations on film art : Grandmaster flashback. Available at: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/01/27/grandmaster-flashback/ (Accessed: 12 March 2020).
Bordwell, D. (2017) Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.
Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. and Smith, J. (2016) Film Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business, Film Art: An Introduction.
Boucher, G. (2019) ‘The Limey’ At 20: Steven Soderbergh Revisits His “Vortex Of Terror” – Deadline. Available at: https://deadline.com/2019/12/steven-soderbergh-looks-back-the-limey-his-personal-vortex-of-terror-1202792732/ (Accessed: 10 February 2020).
Colman, F. (2012) Film, theory and philosophy: The key thinkers, Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers. doi: 10.5860/choice.48-0157.
Fear, D. (2019) Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of ‘The Limey’ – Rolling Stone. Available at: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/steven-soderbergh-interview-20th-anniversary-limey-921006/ (Accessed: 5 February 2020).
Geiger, J. and Rutsky, R. . (2005) Film Analysis. A Norton Reader. First. Edited by J. Geiger and R. . Rutsky. W. W. Norton & Company: Inc.
King, G. (2013) What Else Is Lost with Memory Loss? Memory and Identity in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Bright Lights Film Journal. Available at: https://brightlightsfilm.com/what-else-is-lost-with-memory-loss-memory-and-identity-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/#.XiA2t-LANp9 (Accessed: 16 January 2020).
Pramaggiore, M. (2008) Film : a critical introduction. 2nd ed. Edited by T. Wallis. London: Laurence King.
Radstone, S. (2007) ‘Trauma theory: Contexts, politics, ethics’, Paragraph. Edinburgh University Press, 30(1), pp. 9–29. doi: 10.3366/prg.2007.0015.
Radstone, S. (2010) ‘Cinema and memory’, in Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press, pp. 325–342.
Rodriguez, E. (2016) Flashback | cinematography and literature | Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/flashback (Accessed: 3 June 2020).
Salt, B. (1992) Film style and technology : history and analysis. 2nd ed. London: Starword.
Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.
Turim, M. C. (2014) Flashbacks in film : Memory & history. Routledge.

Flashbacks in Film: The Lives of Others (2006)

Hyperlapse and slo motion Empty Spaces Project

Hyperlapse dji osmo mobile

Hyperlapse Project

While lockdown continues my filming opportunities have been severely limited, I am really grateful to my flatmates for their interest and willingness to get involved with my projects.

What is Hyperlapse?

Simply, it is similar to a time lapse, where a series of still shots are taken over a period of time for example, one photo every second and edited together to make a video. The camera is usually fixed and mounted on a tripod so that the scenes framing shot remains the same but the time recorded changes (of course anything that happens in the scene is recorded so it a changing scene but the framing stays the same). Now with Hyperlapse the camera position isn’t fixed this moves as well. This can be a short distance using a small motorised dolly or gimbal but it can also be over a much longer distance giving the feel of rapid travel between two or more points.

dji OSMO mobile ready for hyperlapse

dji osmo mobile
Hyperlapse. setting up my dji osmo mobile to film hyperlapse

The setup for filming a hyperlapse using a dji osmo gimbal is relatively straight forward but hard to explain so I’ve added in the dji osmo tutorial video below for you to follow if you want to follow and duplicate my project yourself. But basically you go through the setup and calibration for normal filming (don’t forget to setup the horizon feature) and when it comes time to shoot pick horizontal or vertical mode make sure you select time lapse mode and away you go. A cautionary note it’s not that simple because you still need to practice your movements to keep the footage smooth and steady, the gimbal can only smooth the footage so much. Also in my test shoots I had to master the technique of walking while filming backwards. Another cautionary note the frame rate in hyperlapse is not fixed so your editing software needs to be able to cope with variable frame rates otherwise you will see juddering or not so obvious dropped frames. I use Premiere Pro and that seems to have no difficulty coping with vfr.

The Hyperlapse project.

The aim of this project is to explore space and time. What I am trying to show is empty space and movement through it. During lockdown public space emptied of people particularly on campus. My aim is to not just show empty space but the memory of people using this space. I plan to overlay images of people fading from view revealing the empty spaces. I’ve already filmed some of the spaces on campus in real time and using hyperlapse and now I am experimenting with filming people in slo motion and using hyperlapse to see which of the filming techniques work best with my empty spaces footage.

Experimental test 2

Why 2 first? well the first few shoots didn’t go as planned but with practice the results got better. Production notes. The film was shot entirely on my iPhone 8 Plus, which, realistically is too big for the gimbal but even though it struggles with the size and weight it does work well enough. I filmed in both landscape and vertical mode but because of the filming location (again restricted by lockdown) was very narrow and so vertical mode seemed the most appropriate. In keeping with the mobile theme I also edited the footage on my iPad Pro, fortunately the hyperlapse is taken care of in the iPhone so its just a case of trimming the footage and adding music and a simple effect. For example, I added a mirror effect at the end.

Experimental 1 – no speed reduction landscape mode.

dji Tutorial



Flat 3 The Hoarder (flashback micro-short film)

Flat 3 The Hoarder, another film in the Lockdown Film series exploring flashback in films.


Lockdown continues, food was getting low and sanity was in short supply. Food deliveries arrive and the mood is lifted but there’s no toilet roll. The flatmates sit at the table discussing alternatives; newspapers, magazines even a first draft thesis are suggested as alternatives. But one of them has a secret, a cupboard full of carefully hoarded toilet roll.

Scene 1

The flatmates are at the table there’s a pile of newspapers, magazines and a stack of paper. The discussion is toilet roll alternatives “has no one got any toilet roll”?

Scene 2 (Flashback to the day before)

The Hoarder Lockdown Films FlashbackThe flatmates come into the kitchen loaded down with bags full of food which they are excited about as they unpack the bags onto the table. “there’s no toilet roll, did no one order any”? But there is Spam says Spam Guy.

Scene 3

The table is still piled with toilet roll alternatives as the flatmates sit around the table with a cup of tea in front of them. “Anyone got any sugar substitute”? asks Ja. “In my cupboard says David. Ja goes to the wrong cupboard “Not that one, shouts David it’s the bottom cupboard” too late as Ja opens the top cupboard a deluge of toilet roll falls to the floor and over Ja.

Scene 4 (Flashback to another day)

The Hoarder Flashback to the previous day
I shall name this toilet roll Kevin

David is on his own in the kitchen adding to his hoard of toilet roll carefully piling them in one at a time. Each one caressed and named as they go in (David’s mental health is not great at this time)

Scene 5

The Hoarder revenge is sweet (Flashback)The table is piled high with toilet roll the camera lifts up to reveal David is tied and gagged (with toilet roll). Sophie and Ja sit at the table opposite each other, as Sophie hands a toilet roll to Ja “one for you” and takes one for herself “and one for me”. David makes a growling sound and Ja leans over and stuffs more toilet roll into David’s mouth, “shut up you” says Ja.

Shot list

  1. Scene 4 Flashback sequence. David adds to his hoard. Close up of David looking through half open door.
  2. Scene 4 Cupboard door. Mid-shot over shoulder as David opens kitchen door to reveal pile of toilet rolls.
  3. Scene 4 Adding each of the toilet rolls to the pile. Mid-shot/close up profile view – camera tracks in slightly.
  4. Scene 1 Alternatives to toilet rolls. Wide-shot of the 3 seated around the table.
  5. Scene 1 David only, catch facial expression. (I only use a few sheets a day). Mid-shot/close up of David reading ‘Inside Wuhan’ magazine.
  6. Scene 2 Flashback sequence. Food delivery arrives (Put box on table to save time). Wide-shot include all 3 in shot and the contents of the box.
  7. Scene 2 Spam Guy. Close up of David holding the tin of spam.
  8. Scene 3 The table is filled with toilet roll alternatives (Sophie reading ‘Make a Will’. Wide shot of all 3 seated at the table, cut off Ja so that she moves out of shot when she stands up.
  9. Scene 3 Ja opens the wrong cupboard. Mid-shot profile view, possible follow shot as the contents are released, as Ja opens cupboard which is set to release the pile of toilet rolls.
  10. Scene 3 Slo-motion shot. Camera set to 120 fps. Over-shoulder shot as Ja opens cupboard, possible follow as the toilet rolls fall to the floor.
  11. Scene 5 The table is piled high with toilet rolls. Sophie is dealing them out. Track up over toilet rolls to reveal all 3 seated around the table.
  12. Scene 5 David only. Close up of David tied and gagged.

The Hoarder toilet roll is running low (Flashback)Flashback Filming and script decisions.

The overall concept was to continue to explore the concept of the use of flashbacks in the narrative and filming processes.

This film is a sequel to the previous film, ‘Flat 3 does Isolation’ (2020) and so some of the technical decisions were already in place, for example filming using my iPhone 8 Plus using a DJI Osmo mobile stabiliser.

While it appears that it is generally the case that you tend not to film in sequence it does seem to be almost a requirement when shooting flashback sequences, as the time of shooting may be different as will in most cases the location. Although in this case the location is restricted because of lockdown. For example, the sequence of Spam Guy restocking his hoard was actually shot the evening before to save time and costume changes on the main day of filming. I felt it was important to include a slo-motion sequence of the toilet rolls falling onto Jaihui, which unfortunately for Jaihui needed several takes, 2 for the profile shot (she jumped out of the way) and 3 for the slo-motion sequence.

I edited the entire film aiming for a runtime of 90 seconds but due to narrative decisions the final edit had a 1 minute 45 seconds runtime but importantly kept below the 2-minute limit for most of the important micro short film festivals. I also edited a 30 second trailer for sharing on social media.


I had already sourced the music for the previous film and decided to reuse this as it helps to tie both films together, in anticipation of them being used in a web series.


Flat 3 does isolation

Official Selection for the Berlin Flash Film Festival

Berlin Flash Film Festival

Isolation Script

Scene 1

3 weeks into isolation everyone is seated at the table in a sombre mood, the table is sparsely set with a single item in front of each of them and a cup or mug of something. Sophie is wearing a hat, no one is happy. (Props. Food item and cup each)

Scene 2 (Flashback sequence 1)

Isolation: The beginning a time of plenty

Wide shot of Jaihui, Sophie and David seated at the kitchen table, which is set as if for a party. Everyone appears to be having a good time with Sophie waving/holding an unopened bottle of Prosecco and with each of the others with a glass full of something in front of them. (Props – Bottle of Prosecco, piles of unopened food and tins)

Scene 3

The table is bare of food and drink except. A slightly bedraggled Sophie has an open and empty tin of beans with a spoon in it standing upright in front of her. David is holding his head and Jaihui’s hair is a mess and there is a bump on her forehead.

Scene 4 (Flashback sequence 2)

Isolation: the battle for the last tin of beans

The last tin of baked beans. All are seated around the table looking at an unopened tin of beans and a spoon. Suddenly they all reach out for the tin simultaneously as they struggle to grab the tin for themselves, Sophie out of nowhere produces a frying pan with which she hits David and with the backswing takes out Jaihui. (Props frying pan) Shoot normal speed and repeat in slo-motion)

Scene 5

All are seated around the table, it is bare except for the empty tin of beans, Sophie’s makeup is slightly wrong, the lips uneven and eye shadow messed. Sophie’s hands are unsteady clawing the table-top, her expression one of near madness. The others look hungry and wary of their flatmate Sophie. (Everyone is wearing PJ’s)

Scene 6

We cannot see Sophie, she’s wearing a large hat and is leaning forward, the others seem to be afraid. Sophie begins to look up and as the hat lifts up and we see the face of the crazy CLOWN as the hat is removed and tossed away. (Close up of the crazy clown) There is a snorting crazy laugh as we cut to black. (Sophie is well/over-dressed, but the others are in their PJ’s and looking desperate, their hands tied in front of them)


Shot List

Shot 1 (Scene 2)

Wide shot – start left and follow action to the centre, then follow right as dialogue continues – then pan left to centre and track in to Sophie mid-shot to close up.

Shot 2 (Scene 1)

Close up of Sophie (match shot to previous scene) track out to a wide shot, panning left while continuing with track out. Pan left to right following the dialogue end with wide shot of the entire scene.

Shot 3 (Scene 4)

Open with a close up of the unopened tin of beans and start tracking out to a wide shot as they struggle for control of the tin of beans.

Shot 4 (Scene 4)

Follow shot of Sophie hitting David with the frying pan and continue to follow as Davids head hits the table, close up of David’s eyes.

Shot 5 (Scene 4)

Close up of frying pan hitting David from behind

Shot 6 (Scene 4)

Repeat shot 5 using slo-motion camera setting 120fps

Shot 7 (Scene 4)

Follow shot of Sophie hitting Jiahui with frying pan (face on)

Shot 8 (Scene 4)

Repeat Shot 7 using slo-motion camera setting 120fps

Shot 9 (Scene 3)

Close up of opened and now empty tin of beans, track out to a wide shot

Shot 10 (Scene 5)

Wide shot, track in to reveal Sophies badly applied makeup to a close up

Shot 11 (Scene 6)

Match shot, Close up of Sophie wearing a hat – track out as Sophie raises head to reveal the CLOWN face continue to track out to a wide shot showing others seated at the table with their hands tied in front of them.

NOTE: Jiahui’s toilet roll hoard gradually gets smaller in each chronological scene (9 Roll Pack, to single roll, half roll and finally a single sheet)

Filming decisions

Isolation: Food and supplies are running low

After writing the script and putting together a shot list I decided to shoot the film using my iPhone 8 Plus. One of the deciding factors was that as the script progressed it seemed that the best option would be to film handheld. As most of the shots would be either following the action or tracking in and out. While this would be possible using my main camera the Canon C300 I didn’t have access to a slider (for tracking in/out) or a stabiliser for steadying the camera in the hand-held shots. Fortunately, I did have my dji OSMO with me for stabilising the iPhone 8’s footage. Another deciding factor was the option to submit the film to Film Festivals specifically looking for short films shot entirely on a mobile device. Finally, the iPhone’s slo-motion option would be perfect for filming the frying pan scenes.


Isolation: It’s SPAM

To tie in my research into flashbacks I wrote the script and the shot list to include two flashback sequences the first in Scene 2, which I shot first, the scene a time of plenty set in the beginning of the isolation to which we cut to from Scene 1. The opening scene where we see our protagonists coming to terms with the food and supplies running low and how soon they will run out. The second flashback Scene 4, the last tin of unopened beans and the struggle to own it, which we cut to from Scene 3, where the tin is empty and there seems to have been a fight.


While relatively straight forward, time was short as I really wanted to edit the film down to just 60 seconds to be within the rules of the micro short Film Festivals. This proved to be extremely difficult and still be able to include the entire narrative. Having decided the story was more important than the 60 second runtime I settled on a 90 second limit. For the flashbacks I tested several ways to initiate going into and out of them including; fade to white, blurring a combination of these, cross-dissolves and intertitles but in the end I went with cuts and text overlays as titles showing the audience where in the timeline the scene is set. My decisions were made due to the time constraints as each of the other options used up valuable seconds.


The music was sourced from YouTubes growing licence free catalogue. The selection of the music took as long to make as it took to film. This is always a problem when sourcing music for films that have minimal budget.

Flashback Links

Flashbacks in Film: The Lives of Others (2006)

Flashbacks in films: The Lives of Others (2006)

Contains spoilers

The only permissible manipulation of story order is the flashback.(Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002)

Flashback …”any shot or scene that breaks into present-time action to show us something that happened in the past”.(Bordwell, 2009)

The Lives of Others (2006) Movie Poster

The Lives of Others (2006) a film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The opening sequence is a flashback to 1984 and to the interrogation of prisoner 227 who is suspected of being complicit in the escape of his neighbour from East Berlin to the West. As the film opens with this sequence the spectator is not initially aware that they are watching an event from the past, a memory of Heuptmann Gerd Wiesler, (HGW) played by Ulrich Mühe. As Bordwell says “You can begin the film at a climactic moment; once the viewers are hooked, they will wait for you to move back to set things up. You can create mystery about an event that the plot has skipped over, then answer the question through a flashback.” (Bordwell, 2009) In the flashback we see the interrogation of prisoner 227 from the start, meeting HGW for the first time.

Tape Recorder – starts and ends flashbacks

The flashback ends with a jump cut to a close up of a period design, reel to reel tape recorder, as the pause button is depressed the camera tilts up to reveal a classroom and HGW is teaching a class the process and methods of conducting an interview to a classroom of students. As HGW presses the play button on the tape recorder and the timeline jump cuts back into the flashback of the continuing interrogation of prisoner 227, it is much later in the interrogation process , prisoner 227 is tired and struggling to remain awake and the interrogator is actively preventing the prisoner from sleeping. Exiting the flashback to the visual of the tape recorder again with the camera zooming out to reveal the classroom once more.

The Lives of Others classroom

HGW asks the students a question regarding what they have heard on the tape, the prisoner is word perfect according to HGW this means the prisoner is lying having rehearsed his statement and his demeanour is wrong for an innocent man, he is docile also an indication that he has something to hide, a subject that was innocent would have been confused and angry at being interrogated. The camera follows HGW as he restarts the tape.

The Lives of Others, Prisoner 227 breaks down

The flashback continues in the interrogation room as prisoner 227 breaks down and confesses, giving up the name of the person who facilitated his neighbours escape. Exiting the flashback with a jump without the visual of the tape recorder but straight to the classroom, HGW asks the students what else did they hear? jump cut back to the interrogation room where HGW is observed to be dismantling the seat of the prisoner’s chair, removing the seat cover and placing it into a sealed jar. Jump cut back to the classroom the visual of the tape recorder appears to have been abandoned. HGW tells the class that it is the sound of the scent sample being removed and stored for the tracker dogs to be able to follow the scent should the prisoner escape. The scene closes with the sound of applause coming from HGW’s boss standing in the doorway, which is soon joined by the clapping from the students as the lesson ends.

The Lives of Others, HGW is listening

The convention established in the early scenes of the flashbacks being initiated and ended with the visual of the tape machine being played and paused was abandoned in the later scenes. This can be explained on the basis that as the spectator becomes aware of the convention for the flashbacks the jumps between the classroom and the interrogation room have become established by the change in the location and subject and the visual clues of the tape machine, the pressing of play to go into the memory of the interrogation and the operation of the pause button to stop playback and to re-enter the current timeline in the classroom becomes unnecessary. Bordwell says “Once flashbacks had become solid conventions, Sturges could risk pushing them in fresh directions.” (Bordwell, 2009) in reference to Preston Sturges script for the film The Power and the Glory (1933) an early example of a film that utilises flashbacks.


  • Bordwell, D. (2009) Observations on film art : Grandmaster flashback. Available at: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/01/27/grandmaster-flashback/ (Accessed: 12 March 2020).
  • Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.

Technical Specs (IMDB)

Runtime 2 hr 17 min (137 min)
Sound Mix Dolby Digital
Color Color
Aspect Ratio 2.35 : 1
Camera Arriflex 535B, Hawk C- and V-Series Lenses
Laboratory CinePostproduction Geyer Berlin, Germany
Film Length 3,759 m (Sweden)
3,800 m (Portugal, 35 mm)
Negative Format 35 mm (Kodak Vision2 250D 5205, Vision2 500T 5218)
Cinematographic Process Hawk Scope (anamorphic)
Printed Film Format 35 mm

Journal Links

Case study (Part 3) Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar Mann's Planet

Interstellar (2014)

Contains Spoilers

The flashback concerns a representation of the past that intervenes within the present flow of film narrative. (Turim, 2013)

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar (2014) a film by Christopher Nolan. Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey is coerced into piloting a space mission to save the human race from a dying Earth. Earth is experiencing a blight, its crops are failing, the soil blown across the land in an endless cloud of dust, much like the 1930’s American Dust Bowl. The mission is a lie there is no workable plan to save the Earth, the true mission is to locate a habitable planet and populate it with the human embryos carried aboard the spacecraft, the Earth and its people to be abandoned to their fate.


Interstellar Exploring Mann’s planet of ice

Flashbacks are used to link Cooper back to his past and to his daughter when she was a child on the family farm. On Mann’s ice planet Cooper, his faceplate cracked in the attempt on his life by Dr. Mann, Cooper struggles to breathe on the ice planet, flashback with a jump cut to the scene where Cooper presents his daughter with a watch. The watch a duplicate of his own, his intention that they can compare times when he arrives home from his mission in space. The flashback ends as Murphy flings the watch away from her and we cut back to the scene of Cooper on the planet still struggling to breathe. The reason for the flashback is not clear at this time, but later in the course of the film we will understand the importance of the watch, there’s usually always a reason for introducing something new into a film.

Interstellar Sending Binary code using the second hand of the watch

This watch is how Cooper communicates the essential data back to an older Murphy using binary code through the second hand of this watch. Murphy then uses this data so that she can complete the work on the gravity calculations and save the people of the Earth from the blight. In this case it could be argued to appear to be exactly as Bordwell says “The flashback is not presented as an overt explanation on the narration’s part; the narration simply presents what the character is recalling.” There does not seem to be a reason for Cooper to remember this memory from his past in this the moment of his imminent death from asphyxiation. However the flashback sequence does appear to fill a gap in the narration and presents a reminder to the spectator of the importance of the two watches as the film progresses.

Interstellar Inside the Tesseract BTS

In another flashback near to the end of the film, Cooper enters the Black Holes event horizon. He sees Murph and himself repeated ad infinitum, throughout the three-dimensional space created by the fifth-dimensional beings (we later suspect from Tars to be humans from the future). Each version a flashback in itself, back to memories of Coopers and Murphy’s past, these memories of receiving what we now know are messages that appear within her bedroom. The books fallen from the bookshelves attributed by Murphy’s to the poltergeist, also the altered gravity revealed by the tracks in the dust. The answer to Murphy’s poltergeist and the manipulation of objects and gravity is her own father in a future three-dimensional space where while in the Tesseract he pushes against the books from a relative position in space but seemingly behind the bookcase. Strumming the strings of gravity to create the gravity lines in the dust on Murphy’s bedroom floor.
Jump cut to the memory of Cooper slamming shut Murphy’s bedroom window as the dust storm rages around the house revealing the gravity tracks in the dusty floor, we see Cooper of the future as he sees himself close the window while looking through the back of the bookcase.
In a final flashback after Cooper has delivered his message the data from Tars that is needed to complete the gravity calculations using the second hand of the watch to count out binary data to an older version of Murphy.

Interstellar Cooper reaches out to Brand from within the Tesseract

Cooper reaches out to Brand in the past as the Endurance space-ship travels through the wormhole. It is Cooper hand that reached through the ship to Brand as the Endurance entered the Black Hole the first time.
Interstellar can be a confusing film as it involves time and space, theoretical physics and astronomy. The majority of the flashbacks are centred around Coopers memories of his daughter Murphy and her, as its turned-out well-founded belief that someone was trying to send her a message. But some of the older versions of Murphy that Cooper viewed from within the Tesseract were from a time after Cooper had left the Earth and therefore Cooper could not have been present at these points in time and therefore this flashback could not be derived from his own personal memory, so it could be argued that this is an example of a prosthetic memory. As Landsberg says “ …prosthetic memories are those not strictly de-rived from a person’s lived experience… (Landsberg, 2004) p2. This flashback, takes the spectator back to the moment when in the spaceship Endurance and when Brand is explaining to Cooper that time can only go forward not backward. The only proviso to this statement being that a race, so far in the future, that had found a way to manipulate time itself, which of course they interact with through the time manipulation evident in the Tesseract scenes. The Tesseract created by five-dimensional beings and constructed for them inside the Black Hole presumably so that Cooper could look back in time and communicate with Murphy, a Murphy from his past. Cooper could see into the past but Cooper himself could not return to the past physically and as the Tesseract closes, he is left to drift somewhere in the region of space near Saturn.

Interstellar Cooper walks towards the recreation of his farmhouse on Cooper’s Space station

Cooper wakes in a Hospital bed but not a hospital on Earth revealed by Cooper leaving his hospital bed and seeing a totally enclosed World, a cylinder of a World where gravity has been mastered, where there is no true up or down. Cooper is finally reunited with the centenarian Murphy in the same space station orbiting Saturn, where Murphy encourages Cooper to seek out Brand who intends to colonise Edmunds World and follow plan B.

More case studies of flashbacks


  • Landsberg, A. (2004) Prosthetic Memory : The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=107227&site=ehost-live&authtype=ip,shib&user=s1523151.
  • Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.

Technical specs

Runtime 2 hr 49 min (169 min)
Sound Mix Datasat | Dolby Digital | IMAX 6-Track | Dolby Surround 7.1 | Sonics-DDP (IMAX version)
Color Color (FotoKem)
Aspect Ratio 1.43 : 1 (70mm IMAX – some scenes)
1.78 : 1 (IMAX Blu-ray & 4K UHD – some scenes)
1.90 : 1 (Digital IMAX – some scenes)
2.20 : 1 (70mm)
2.39 : 1
2.39 : 1 (35mm & Digital)
Camera Beaumont VistaVision Camera, Leica Lenses
IMAX MSM 9802, Hasselblad and Mamiya Lenses
Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision C-, D-, E-Series and Ultra Speed Golden Lenses
Laboratory FotoKem Laboratory, Burbank (CA), USA (also prints)
Film Length 17,114.9 m (49 reels) (IMAX 70 mm)
4,582 m (Spain)
4,630.65 m (8 reels) (35 mm)
Negative Format 35 mm (also horizontal) (Kodak Vision3 50D 5203, Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
65 mm (horizontal) (Kodak Vision3 50D 5203, Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Cinematographic Process IMAX
Panavision (anamorphic)
VistaVision (some scenes)
Printed Film Format 35 mm (Kodak Vision 2383)
70 mm (also horizontal) (also IMAX DMR blow-up) (Kodak Vision 2383)

Casablanca (1942) Flashback classical Hollywood style

casablanca airport

Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917– 60, screenwriters’ manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manual put it, ‘Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progression’ (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p42

Casablanca (1942) Movie Poster
Casablanca (1942) Movie Poster

For an example of an early use of the flashback in classic Hollywood Cinema, the film Casablanca (1942) has a single use of the flashback, the purpose is to show how Rick and Ilsa first meet in Paris.

Casablanca (1942) To many cinephiles Casablanca is an example of Hollywood filmmaking at its best and as Dana Polan says in his Casablanca essay, “ One of the great films of cult veneration, Casablanca is the perfect example of Hollywood perfection.” (Geiger and Rutsky, 2005) p363

Rick is drinking alone, drinking heavily as he waits in expectation for Ilsa to come and (as she must) to plead with Rick to give them the travel documents for her and her husband Victor, to enable them to escape the Germans and Casablanca and fly to Lisbon and then onto America. Rick is centred in the frame as the camera zooms in and the image of Rick begins to blur and cross dissolve to a scene set in Paris.

We know this because the Arc De Triomphe is framed and back projected behind Rick and Ilsa seated in a car, with the music La Marseillaise, the French National anthem playing in the background. “Here’s looking at you kid” says Rick. The lengthy flashback sequence explores the missing background to Rick and Ilsa relationship, when they meet again in Casablanca, we know that they know each other from the past and that they must have had a loving relationship but where and when is not known until the flashback sequence is introduced. In the flashback we relive Rick and Ilsa’s year of living in Paris as war approaches and the eventual occupation of France and goes some way to explaining the circumstances as to how they meet again in Casablanca a French Protectorate under French/Vichy control rather than under German occupation.

Rick and Ilsa fall in love and as the German occupation of France becomes imminent, they agree to leave together on the last train out of Paris. Rick waits in vain for Ilsa to appear at the station, a letter arrives and Ilsa isn’t coming. As the train begins to depart and with Sam’s urging, they board the train as steam fills the screen and cross dissolves back to Rick still seated in the bar as he lets go of his glass. This is an example of the traditional method and of the use of a flashback in cinema, the position of the protagonist in the frame and the use of blurring as Bordwell notes “ …there are several cues for a flashback in a classical Hollywood film: pensive character attitude, close-up of face, slow dissolve, voice-over narration, sonic ‘flashback,’ music. In any given case, several of these will be used together…” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002)

The flashback limited itself to their meeting in Paris and apart from a rain drenched letter there was no explanation for Ilsa’s no show at the train station. Only later in the film in the current timeline do we learn why Ilsa did not meet Rick at the train station, that she was married to Victor before she met up with Rick in Paris and her reason for doing so, thinking that her husband was dead, she a widow, her husband killed in a Nazi concentration camp then only for him to turn up alive and well just before her planned new life with Rick in Casablanca.

Technical specifications Casablanca (1942) IMDB

Runtime 1 hr 42 min (102 min)
1 hr 22 min (82 min) (cut) (West Germany)
Sound Mix Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color Black and White
Aspect Ratio 1.37 : 1
Camera Mitchell BNC
Film Length 2,811 m
2,815 m (Sweden)
Negative Format 35 mm (Eastman Plus-X 1231)
Cinematographic Process Spherical
Printed Film Format D-Cinema (2012 2K Digital re-release)
35 mm (Eastman 1302)


  1. Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.
  2. Casablanca (1942) – Technical Specifications – IMDb (no date). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/technical?ref_=tt_ql_dt_6 (Accessed: 9 March 2020).
  3. Geiger, J. and Rutsky, R. . (2005) Film Analysis. A Norton Reader. First. Edited by J. Geiger and R. . Rutsky. W. W. Norton & Company: Inc.

Film Flashbacks example Chapter continued

Anna Fashion Shoot

Film Flashbacks (Part 2)

The flashback could be motivated compositionally (giving us essential story information), realistically (proceeding from a character’s memory), and intertextually…(Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p19

Anna Movie Poster Small
Anna (2019) by Luc Besson Movie Poster

Anna (2019) a film by Luc Besson. Anna Poliatova played by Sasha Luss is a highly trained Russian government assassin. Throughout the film the timeline is proliferated with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, each of which is essential to the scene and for the audiences understanding of the film’s progression. Each of the flashbacks revisiting memories from Anna’s past and expanding upon her characters background and with details essential to understanding through past events what is happening in the current timeline. Anna shares many similarities with recent films and television for example the narrative and style of Atomic Blonde (2017 ) and the TV series Killing Eve ( 2018 – ), the female protagonist with a Russian background recruited for espionage and assassination. Set in the near past before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the deconstruction of the Soviet Union and where the KGB is still the agency for espionage in Russia.

Anna Olga played by Helen Mirren
Anna’s handler Olga played by Helen Mirren modelled on Rosa Klebb

Anna is recruited into the KGB to retrieve information by the means of assassination at the direction of her handlers, that is Olga played by Helen Mirren who models this role on Rosa Klebb a character in From Russia with Love (1963) and Alex, who is also Anna’s Russian love interest and her recruiter to the KGB.

Film Flashbacks used to great effect

Luc Besson uses the flashbacks to great effect in the first flashback sequence Anna shoots her target then the scene fades to blackout followed by an inter-title saying 3 years earlier, informing the audience that what follows is a memory from 3 years ago. While in Anna’s memory 3 years earlier we cut to another flashback of a childhood memory where Anna is present at the instant of her parents’ deaths, killed in a head on collision with a lorry with Anna seated in the back of her parent’s car. This flashback sequence ends with a flash to white and the sound of a cameras flash, but we return not to the current timeline but remain within the flashback from 3 years earlier. Alex looks at his notebook and says “it says here that you like to play chess” we enter another flashback with a flash to white and the sound of the camera flash as we enter Anna’s memory of playing chess with her father in the park. Flash to white with the sound of camera flash to another inter-title saying 3 years later, out of the flashback sequences and returning to the current timeline.

Anna the market stall seller
Anna’s assumes the role of a market seller to attract the attention of the fashion agency scout.

This lengthy flashback with flashbacks contained within it provides the origins of the main character and the audience now understands how a market stall seller in Russia finds her way to Paris to a modelling job in the Paris fashion industry and then through that role is then able to assume the role of International assassin and assassinate her target. The use of inter-titles at the beginning and the end of the sequence clearly indicates where in the past the memory and the flashback occur.

Flashbacks: For instance, there are several cues for a flashback in a classical Hollywood film: pensive character attitude, close-up of face, slow dissolve, voice-over narration, sonic ‘flashback,’ music. In any given case, several of these will be used together. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002)

The flashbacks contained within the main flashback sequence are preceded and terminated by a flash to white with the accompanying sound, similar to that of a cameras flash. I am uncertain as to the value of the childhood memories being inserted into the flashback sequences other than to show that Anna is an orphan and that as a very young child, she showed high levels of intelligence beyond her natural years by playing chess, but then maybe that was the point? Flashbacks seem to provide the details that are missing in the current timelines to keep the flow of the film but are in fact key to explaining/understanding the narrative underlying the current sequence.

Technical Specs Anna (2019) IMDB

Runtime 1 hr 59 min (119 min)
Sound Mix Dolby Digital
Color Color
Aspect Ratio 2.35 : 1
Camera Leitz M 0.8 lenses
Leitz SUMMICRON-C lenses
Printed Film Format Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)


  • Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.
  • Anna (2019) – Technical Specifications – IMDb (2019). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7456310/technical?ref_=tt_ql_dt_6 (Accessed: 9 March 2020).

Links to more articles

Film Flashbacks Example Thesis Chapter


A narrative device used in Film (as in literature) to go back in time to an earlier moment in a character’s life and/or history, and to narrate that moment. Flashbacks, then, are most clearly marked as subjective moments within that narrative. Flashbacks are a cinematic representation of memory and of history and, ultimately, of subjective truth. (Hayward, 1996)

The flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history. (Turim, 2013)

Oldboy 2003 Movie Poster Small
Oldboy 2003 a film by Park Chan-wook

Oldboy (2003) Directed by Park Chan-wook. The film starts immediately into a flashback or in this case a flashforward sequence, this is due to where this sequence is positioned in the timeline of the film, however the audience would not be aware that this is a flashforward, due to there being no preceding historical reference, this is not a memory of an event from Dae-su’s past. We see a dishevelled man dressed in a suit and restraining another man by his tie, this man, also wearing a suit and for an unexplained reason incongruously holding a small white dog. They are on the roof of a tall building, the man with the dog hanging precariously at the buildings edge over a long drop to the street below. The only thing stopping that fall from happening and the man and dog’s imminent death is the other man holding his tie, this is a suicide attempt, interrupted by the man grabbing at the tie. “I just wanted to talk” he says, “who are you” says the other, “my name is” we see a troubled face, a man struggling to remember his name as the camera zooms closer into a face that is hard to see but we see a man struggling to remember his name as we jump cut to a matching shot this time of a business man with a bloody nose, Dae-su he says. Is this the man from the roof, whose face we couldn’t really see and who struggled to remember his own name? What could have happened to this man, that brought him to the top of a tall building and without any memory of who he is? As the scene continues and Dae-su exits the building there is a loud crash and we see the body of the man falling onto a parked car, crushing the roof as the dog falls from the dead man’s hands.

Oldboy 2003 Roof Scene
Roof scene from Oldboy (2003)

The use of a flashback/flashforward in this context I believe was to ether prepare or further disorientate the audience for what is to come, leave them with open questions, for example what did happen to the business man, how did he come to find himself on the roof of a building preventing a suicide attempt, while not knowing who he is and what where the events that led him to be in this situation? The use of a flashforward is relatively unusual and rarely used when compared with the common use of flashbacks to link back to a past event, a memory from a character’s history. This may be very confusing to the audience, because the conventional use of a flashback is to reveal a past memory, a personal memory of this character, that is, in this businessman’s past, the audience is probably thinking, is this something that Dae-su is remembering? After viewing more of the film, we know that this flashback is a link to something that will happen to this businessman’s future self, in 15 years’ time and with hindsight this flashforward makes more sense. This presumably was an editorial choice made by the director, for without this opening sequence the film would have started with the somewhat less dramatic opening and the audience being introduced to the main character, Dae-su waiting to be processed in a Police Station, nursing a bloody nose and still very drunk, rather than the life and death situation at the top of a tall building.

Oldboy (2003) Octopus scene
Oldboy (2003) eating a live Octopus

Some flashbacks directly involve a quest for the answer to an enigma posed in the beginning of a narrative through a return to the past. (Turim, 2013)

Oldboy (2003) Hallucination of a giant Ant
Oldboy (2003) Mi-do hallucinates a giant Ant on the subway train.

In the next flashback scene which involves his daughter Mi-do, Mi-do is reading Dae-su journals and his description of ants crawling all over him, devouring from the inside, while he is held captive, as this develops into a discussion on loneliness the camera starts to zoom in, to a close up of Mi-do’s face, just as a subway train seemingly appears over her left shoulder until it fills the entire frame. We cut to an internal shot of the train; we see a young Mi-do looking towards the back of the carriage. In a reverse shot we look through the appendages of a giant ant. From Mi-do’s viewpoint we see the giant ant seated at the back of the train, the image is blurred like a distant memory is being recalled, which becomes more blurred as we return to a close up of the young Mi-do’s face.

Oldboy (2003) Mi-do Flashback matching shots
Oldboy (2003) Mi-do flashback matching shots

As the young Mi-do wipes her hands across her face there is a jump cut to the current timeline as Mi-do completes the hand movement across her face, we are out of the flashback and back to the present. This flashback appears to be of a memory of a hallucination she had rather than a memory of actual events A shared hallucination with Dae-su and therefore could this be related to the hypnotism we later learn both characters were subjected to? Dae-su in his cell and Mi-do at the restaurant where she works, this is revealed in another flashback where the hypnotist visits her at her work. Ants also have a significance in the South Korean creation mythology, the great flood, and Namu Doryeong, who is saved from the flood by floating on a tree and then proceeds to save first a family of ants, then mosquitos until he saves all the worlds animals. (Anon, 2018)

It seems appropriate at this point to talk about framing decisions made by the director, in each of these flashbacks. The character who is shown to be experiencing the flashback and whose memory this is, is positioned central in the frame and then using a zoom action or scale in to a close up filling the screen until we just see a head shot. When coming out of the flashback and returning to the current timeline the camera zooms out to a matching shot of the character in the current timeline who is also centrally positioned in the frame. To do this successfully requires great attention to detail in the pre-production stage. Matching shots between scenes and matching the framing takes planning, although exact matching can be achieved in the post-production stage using scale function but of course only if the shot has been taken during filming or taken at a later date as a pick-up shot.

Though avant-garde and art cinema and memory films constitute privileged locations for investigating cinema’s relation to memory, those relations extend to almost every genre and every period of film history—shadowing, if not coinciding exactly with the history of the flashback. (Radstone, 2010)

Dae-su clues lead him to the Millstone Hair Saloon to find out more about Lee Soo-ah. As he listens to the woman recalling past memories he is somewhat distracted, repeatedly looking to her knees as if trying to recall a memory, a key event from his past, then as the door opens, and a woman enters the Millstone Hair Saloon to the sound of the ringing of the door entry bell, the camera tracks down to the women’s bare knees and suddenly Dae-su seems to remember. The scene cuts to a flashback of a young Dae-su and his memory of a young women riding a red bicycle, accompanied by the ringing of the cycles bell and the pumping knees of the girl prominent in the framing. All these elements are used to match with the scene set in the present with this memory from Dea-su past. This is the memory of the first meeting between Dae-su and his antagonist, Lee Woo-jin and his sister Lee Soo-ah.

Bordwell says flashbacks can be initiated by any number and indeed types of cues. “For instance, there are several cues for a flashback in a classical Hollywood film: pensive character attitude, close-up of face, slow dissolve, voice-over narration, sonic ‘flashback,’ music. In any given case, several of these will be used together. In another mode of film practice, such as that of the European ‘art cinema’ of the 1960s, the same general paradigm governs a movement into flashback, but the conventional cues are not so redundant (e.g., pensive close-up but with no music or dissolve). The classical paradigm thus often lets the filmmaker choose how to be redundant, but seldom how redundant to be.” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p5

Shop woman’s knees
Girl on cycle knees
Shop Bell rings
Cycle Bell rings





This flashback sequence uses several elements, the ringing of the hair saloons shop bell, the visuals of the customers knees linking to the visuals and audio of the cycles bell and the bare knees of Lee Soo-ah riding the cycle around the school playground. This breaks away from the visual cues apparent in the preceding flashbacks, instead of matching shots of close ups of faces, in this instance matching visuals of the two bells, the bare knees and audio from the shop bell and the cycle bell. Contained within this flashback is the reason for the conflict, the basis for the entire film and the reason for Lee Woo-jin and his his vengeance on Dae-su. This is a good example for one of the key reasons for the use of flashbacks in film and literature as Radstone says “The flashback is a crucial moment in a film narrative, one that captures the cinematic expression of memory, and history.” (Radstone, 2010).

Oldboy (2003) Adult Dae-su and young Dae-su share the memory in a flashback sequence
Oldboy (2003) Adult Dae-su and young Dae-su share the memory in a flashback sequence

The flashback of the younger Dae-su and his first encounter with Lee Soo-ah is also observed by the adult Dae-su in this flashback, Dae-su, a spectator in his own memory of this crucial event. He follows his younger self in the flashback and sees what he sees from a different perspective, while remembering the event as it unfolds its causality, leading to everything that has happened to him, one of the contributing factors for his being incarcerated for 15 years. The flashback ends with the adult Dae-su walking away from the camera to a voice over by Mi-do “ No way, you were locked up for just saying that?”.

The flashback involving Mi-do and the hypnotherapist in the restaurant cannot be a memory of either Dae-su or Woo-jin as they were not present in that scene. This scene set in Woo-jin’s Penthouse Woo-jin describes how both Dae-su and Mi-do have both been hypnotised. As neither were participants in this event there is a change to the visuals in the flashback sequence, this flashback differs from the previous flashbacks, for this time there is a jump cut into the flashback sequence, without any attempt at matching shots as there where in all the others. However, within the flashback, the image of Mi-do being hypnotised cross dissolves into the matching image of Dae-su also being hypnotised in a different location. The flashback continues set in the restaurant and by using a split screen with Woo-jin in one side and the flashback sequence in the other, he continues to narrate the scenario in the flashback as he understands it, rather than as he remembers it, until the flashback sequence ends as Dae-su is revealed later in the flashback to be unconscious from the post hypnotic suggestion and is seated in the back a car driving away in the company of Mi-do presumably to Mi-do’s home. Leaving behind a devasted Dae-su, Woo-jin exits his Penthouse via the elevator, cue music while Woo-Jin appears to reach out to a hand extended from beneath him, from the floor of the elevator, there is a jump cut to a younger Woo-jin standing at the ledge of dam desperately holding his sisters wrist as she attempts suicide, falling to the waters surface, distantly below. She reaches out to the camera hanging around his neck and takes one last photo of herself. In the flashback the scene alternates between images of Woo-jin’s younger and adult self as the scene plays out, with the younger Woo-jin losing his grip on his sisters’ wrist who then falls to her death.

Oldboy (2003) flashback to Lee soo-ah death at the dam
Oldboy (2003) flashback to Lee soo-ah death at the dam

But then the scene switches again, back to the adult Woo-jin standing at the edge of the dam looking at his empty hand, the hand that lost its grip on his sisters’ wrist.

Oldboy (2003) flashback to Woo-jin hand forming the shape of a gun before his suicide in the elevator
Oldboy (2003) flashback to Woo-jin hand forming the shape of a gun before his suicide in the elevator

As he looks at his hand it begins to clench forming the shape of a gun, there is a jump cut back to Woo-jin in the elevator, he has just shot himself in the head, the shots matched between the clenched hand in the flashback and the current timeline where he holds a gun to kill himself. In this flashback Woo-jin was a participant, this was his memory of the event and so the screen visuals matched going into and out of the flashback. His right hand seemingly reaching out and holding his sisters wrist in the elevator which becomes the top of the dam and his empty hand at the end of the flashback forming the shape of the gun, which initiates the end of the memory and of the flashback, as his clenched hand becomes a real gun in the elevator.

If the film depicts a flashback, the jump back in time can be attributed to a character’s memory; the act of remembering thus motivates the flashback. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p30

Technical Notes Oldboy (2003) (IMDB)

Runtime 2 hr (120 min)
1 hr 41 min (101 min) (India)
Sound Mix Dolby Digital
Color Color
Aspect Ratio 2.35 : 1
Camera Arriflex 435, Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses
Arriflex 535B, Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses
Negative Format 35 mm (Kodak)
Cinematographic Process Digital Intermediate (master format)
Super 35 (source format)
Printed Film Format 35 mm (anamorphic)


  • Anon (2018) Korean Folktales – Korea Blog – Inspire Me Korea Blog. Available at: https://blog.inspiremekorea.com/history/korean-folktales/ (Accessed: 21 February 2020).
  • Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.
  • Oldboy (2003) – Technical Specifications – IMDb (2003). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364569/technical (Accessed: 9 March 2020).
  • Hayward, S. (1996) Key concepts in cinema studies. London ; New York: Routledge.
  • Radstone, S. (2010) ‘Cinema and memory’, in Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press, pp. 325–342.
  • Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.

More Flashbacks in film

Films in Flashback

The Limey Wilson in car scene

Films in Flashback.

While many directors and screenplay writers employ the flashback as a tool to enhance a character’s background or provide additional information to a scene, there are those films that are narrated almost in their entirety in flashback. A central character, a protagonist, narrates the unfolding story to another character onscreen and therefore in turn to the audience either as the story unfolds in the book or as their memory of events.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Wes Anderson
  • The Notebook (2004) Nick Cassavetes
  • The Limey (1999) Steven Soderbergh

The Notebook movie poster smallThese films have very little in common other than that they are narrated entirely in flashback. In The Notebook (2004) the character Duke, played by James Garner reads from his notebook to a another resident Mrs Hamilton in a nursing home played by Gena Rowlands about the life of a young couple who met and fell in love in the 1940’s and before America entered the war in Europe. The premise of the film until the very end is that Garners character is reading the story of this young couple, Noah and Allie, in the 3rd person, as Allie’s character played by Rowlands is in late stage Dementia and remembers very little if anything of her past life, including family or friends and doesn’t even remember that Duke played by Garner has read this story to her many times. Later in the film we learn that is Duke is actually Noah and is telling their story as Mrs Hamilton, Rowlands (Allie) is his wife and they are the young couple featured in the story (Cassavetes, 2004)

The Grand Budapest Hotel movie poster smallThe Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Interestingly, the story is told entirely in flashback by the Author (the young writer, played by Jude Law) who is actually retelling the story of another main character in the film Mr Mustafa (Zero), it is Mustafa’s memories of the events involving himself and his association with the other main character, Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes) and the series of misadventures, that befall them when trying to claim the contents of a will, the valuable painting of ‘Boy with apple’. (Anderson, 2014)

In both these films there is no obvious cinematic device used to differentiate between the current timeline and the past timeline, by this I mean a dissolve or blurring of the image but the jump in timeline is differentiated by a change in look and character. in The Notebook (2004) it is the opening of the notebook and as Duke (Garner) begins to read, the timeline switches to the 1940’s and the audience can identify with the change, this transition as the characters also change to their younger selves, they are played by the younger actors, Duke (Noah) played by Ryan Gosling and Mrs Hamilton (Allie) played by Rachel McAdams. However, in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) while there are no obvious uses of the flashback visual tools, that is a cut to a dissolve or blurring to identify the shift from the timeline of the Authors meeting with Mr Mustafa that is, Zero (set in the 1960s) and the recounted timeline (1930’s) however there is a marked change in the production design (Colours) and the choice of cinematic aspect ratio with the 1980’s shot in 1:85.1 format, the 1960’s in 2:35.1 widescreen anamorphic and finally the 1930’s shot in academy ratio 1:375.1. The hotel in the 1960’s is drab, mainly brown or as Wes says “his idea of the communist era, which is olive green and orange” while also appearing run down, meanwhile the 1930’s Hotel is bright, very pink and vibrant like a “wedding cake”. (Wes Anderson on the Colors and Ratios of ’The Grand Budapest Hotel – YouTube, 2015)

The Limey movie poster smallThe Limey (1999) Interesting example of the use of flashbacks, with the creative use of the editing process that seems to make it appear as if the film is always looking backwards or as the Director suggests, representing the fragmentation of Wilsons memory. There are flashbacks within flashbacks and flashbacks looking much further back, into a past with a young Wilson and young Jenny, these flashbacks were dropped into the edit from another film directed by Ken Loach, Poor Cow (1967) this works so well that the audience doesn’t have to imagine a younger Wilson or Jenny they can link directly through to the characters past and Wilsons memories of a young Jenny in the use of footage showing a young Terence Stamp playing the role of a petty criminal in Poor Cow (1967).

Poor Cow 1967

Of course, this somewhat relies on the audience not being aware that this footage is from another film made in 1967, however their use as a flashback make perfect sense. The grainy visuals from an earlier time using old film stock perfectly fitting into the flashback concept of showing memories from an earlier time. The film is designed, according to Soderbergh, to reflect on how human memory functions, we remember past events in fragments triggered by events, objects or any of the sensory inputs. “It’s a graphic depiction of the fragmentary nature of memory, editor Sarah Flack turning the shards of story into fleeting reflections that capture Jenny between shifting planes of recollection”. (Gurd, 2019) The same can be said of Wilson, his memories are fragmented, recollections of Jenny on the beach, her threatening to call the Police on him if he does anything bad, which later becomes important in the final scenes of the film and may have influenced Wilsons decision not to go through with the killing of Valentine. “Soderbergh creates an historical symmetry between past/present and Valentine/Wilson with identical scenes of Jenny as a young girl threatening to expose her father’s criminal activity and the older Jenny in a similar situation with Valentine (holding a telephone in both cases). The closer Wilson gets to the truth the more he comes to realize his own complicity as an absent father in her daughter’s death.” (Totaro, 2002)

Soderbergh says “Given its premise, it seemed there was some possibility to recraft it into a memory piece”. (Fear, 2019) Eduardo shares his experiences of being with Jenny through flashbacks, those of her confrontation with the men at the warehouse for example, the same men that Wilson later shoots dead after his beating at the warehouse.

Flashbacks triggered by a sound, a smell or indeed anything can trigger these memories and while in the film these triggers are not always visible on screen, we can imagine that they are there, experienced by Wilson, triggering these memories of his fragmented past life with his daughter, Jenny, while in and out of prison.


The Limey shooting ValentineWilson also experiences a flashforward, a prolepsis, initiated I suspect by Wilson finding a solitary photograph of his daughter, Jenny, at the top of the stairs, during his wandering around Valentines home, these flashforwards appear as alternative futures and all violent, in the scene when Wilson visualises the alternative options/outcomes of killing Valentine, by shooting him, only to be stopped at the moment of execution by Eduardo.

Soderbergh says “We created or tried to create, meaning and emotion through repetition and juxtaposition, which again, is something that’s unique to movies. The ability to mold something and then change the meaning or alter the meaning just by reordering and repeating things, that’s unique in film.” (Boucher, 2019)

What is the purpose of the Flashback?

The Notebook Duke reading to AllieIn The Notebook (2004) the flashbacks are like many examples of the flashback usage in film, it is used to link to a past, a past in this case forgotten in its entirety by Allie. Duke uses the notebook as a form of misdirection, so as not to be seen as recalling from his own memories, in the retelling of what is their story. Duke appears to read from his book in the hope that Allie will regain her memory of their past life together through his readings. In many respects this misdirection works, as Allie believes the story is of a couple unknown to her, just an interesting story of young love until she has a lucid moment and she remembers that Duke is her husband and the story he has been telling her, is their own. One of the possible reasons for this filmmaking approach is to also keep the audience guessing until the point in the film that it becomes clear that they and the young couple visited in the flashbacks are one and the same and then from this point to keep the audience interest and the suspense, in the hope that at some point Allie will remember their past life together.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Authors StatueThe Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) from the opening scene, of the girl at the statue of the Author, she is carrying a copy of his book and we assume that from this book the whole film is told in a flashback through each of its different times of the past life of the author and the past life through the memories of Mustafa retold from his initial meeting with Mustafa in the spa and then continued at a shared evening meal in the hotels restaurant. In many respects a similar approach to that used in The Notebook (2004). Anderson himself relates that the idea for the film came from a series of books that he was reading by Austrian author Stefan Zweig. “The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself — our “Author” character, played by Tom Wilkinson” (Prochnik, 2014)

Note: It would be interesting to consider films that also use this approach, that is, the concept of reading from a book to tell a story in flashback, for example The Never Ending Story (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987)

The Limey (1999) This film was effectively created in the post-production stage, in the editing processes. We learn from interviews with the director Steven Soderbergh that the first edit of the film was in a typical linear progression and then following a screening he decided with his editor to fragment the footage by creating a non-linear timeline using flashbacks for the film, to better represent the seemingly fragmented memory and to explain the actions of Wilson. We return to the same shot of Wilson seated on the plane several times, these seemingly breaking up the linear sequence or returning the audience through flashbacks to the current timeline and with this also to Wilsons thought processes. So, I feel it is this single shot of Wilson seated on the plane returning to London, which initiates the flashbacks and what can be the confusion of a film that is always looking backwards.

The Limey Wilson on plane screenshot

Confusingly one of these images of Wilson on the plane can also be seen as a flashforward, the first time we see Wilson seated on the plane at the beginning of the film, which seems to be of him travelling from London to the America but is actually the direct opposite. The opening sequence of Wilson shot at the Los Angeles airport, is of his departure back to London, we never see his London departure or his arrival in Los Angeles. The subsequent on plane images seemingly preceding flashbacks to his pursuit of revenge for his daughters killing. Totaro thinks that “To read that first airplane image as a flashforward and the film a flashback makes sense of most of the film, but not all because there are several scenes in which Wilson could not have been present.” (Totaro, 2002) I’m not sure if I am in total agreement with this statement because like all memories they can be derived from actual experience or based on inference and imagination of a situation or event, indeed a collective memory.

The flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history. (Turim, 2013)

Memory loss, erasure and representation in flashback


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