Ellipse (cinema)

A figure of literary style, the ellipse has an equivalent of the same name in the writing of film scripts . It consists in suggesting an action by simply showing what happens before and what is observed afterwards. The vast majority of movies use ellipses to avoid exposing actions that bring nothing to narration. This is why we do not see a character going to the toilet or brushing their teeth, unless this completes the characterization of this character. Beyond these ellipses of convenience, linked to moral periods and fashions, others are used to advance the story, to pace it, even to complicate it.


In the primitive cinema of the 1890s , the majority of films are composed of a single shot , which will later be called a shot . William Kennedy Laurie Dickson , the first director of films viewed on an individual machine, Louis Lumièrethat of the two famous brothers who made the first photographic films projected on big screen, Alice Guy, all have designed their films in one shot. All action is seen in its entirety and lasts for the passage in the camera of a reel of virgin film (10 to 20 meters, from thirty seconds to one minute). There is no question of any kind of ellipse, but some exceptions exist. Thus, in Barque en mer (1896), a Société Lumière operator films a boat approaching the coast. The surf delays the operation, and the operator, understanding that his reel less than a minute will not be enough to impress the scene until the docking of the boat, stops to crank his crank. When the skiff is nearby, it continues shooting. The negative has two planes, with distinct framing, connected by a “splice” ( acetone weld ) after development, and Barque en mer, as well as other “animated photographic views” (as the Lumière brothers named the films) is presented to the public in the form of two consecutive shots 1 . Nevertheless, these early ellipses were not perceived as such by contemporaries.

It was the British directors of the Brighton School , notably George Albert Smith , who broke new ground by bringing to the cinema what they already knew about glass plate drawings, projected by magic lanterns , a “lanternist” activity that they practiced in parallel with photography . “If the shadows, remained faithful as the puppets to the theatrical aesthetics, ignored the variations of point of view [change of the axis of shooting, note], some stories in pictures, close to the famous images of Epinal , adopted them from the beginning of the xix th century. These illustrated stories were adapted in a different form only in the magic lanterns 2 . ”

In 1900, George Albert Smith, with What we see in a telescope and especially The Loupe of Grandma , and James Williamson , with Attack of a mission in China in 1900 and The Big Swallow in 1901, discover “that the plan is the creative unity of the film. It is not only “an image”, it is the tool that allows to create the imaginary time and space of the filmic narrative, by means of cuts in space and time each time we create a new plan that is added to the previous 3 . ” Thanks to cutting plans in the filmed space, time may be converted, extended or decreased, and it was later called theEffect Kuleshov allows to keep the meaning of an action by passing on another action that completes this meaning. The ellipse is an application of this possibility filmic narratives, adapted to the cinema at the turn of the xix th and xx th  centuries.

So, James Williamson realizes Fire! in 1901, where he uses the ellipse in two forms. First, after showing a policeman discovering an incipient fire and warning the rescue center, then in a room a man surprised by the fire, he describes the preparations of firefighters who hurriedly pull up their ladders and pumps. James Williamson, believing that the operation is tedious, uses an original process: he cuts inside shots to show only the key moments, creating plans on plans , with multiple time ellipses (in English). : jump cuts). Then, leaving firefighters and their teams galloping in the streets, to go directly into the room to join the man trapped in the flames, “James Williamson creates at the same time a space ellipse and suspense. To make a space ellipse is to choose for example not to show the space traveled by other characters who seek to join the character in danger. James Williamson locks the viewer with the character threatened by a terrible death and gives him no information on what is happening outside, and that could possibly reassure him. This spatial ellipse creates suspense, that is to say, a suspension of time by accumulation of space, which creates anguish, and causes identification with the character, since, if we saw the help leave the barracks, we do not see them arrive before the house on fire, and the viewer, as the man in danger, come to doubt that relief can arrive in time 4 . ”

But the jump-cut , time ellipse, will be banned from movies for about sixty years, presented as a stylistic error of beginner. It is Jean-Luc Godard , in Breathless , who will relaunch this racing process forward. The spatial ellipse, for its part, will be codified in its presentation, first, in the silent cinema , by subtitles, specifying for the spectators the moving part that has been deleted. It is true that a film of today that would be presented to the spectators of the primitive cinema would be difficult for them to understand because of the systematic and abrupt use that the filmmakers currently make temporal and spatial ellipses. Thus, the mere fact of leaving a character who decided to go to a place and see it immediately in his car would plunge them into an abyss of reflection. How did he get so fast from home inside his car? And first of all, where was this car stowed? Contemporary spectators, on the other hand, are accustomed to swings in time and space. It is rather the redundancy of the actions which is unbearable to them.

Using ellipses

  • 2046 of Wong Kar-wai is entirely built on a series of ellipses.
  • Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard  : Sequence on the terrace of the Champs Elysees during the monologue Patricia ( Jean Seberg ).
  • Amadeus  : Salieri lets the singer know that she will not be singing in Mozart’s next opera, which is going on in a brothel . The next scene shows her singing L’Abduction au seraglio .
  • Tontons flinger  : Fernand Naudin ( Lino Ventura ), in response to the sarcasm of a guest, puts his bag. The following picture shows the stunned persifler in his sports car.
  • The Man of Rio  : Adrien Dufourquet ( Belmondo )is askedwhat color he prefers for the car he will be providing. Excited, he answers: “Rose, with green stars! ” The next scene shows the conveyor in such a car.
  • I want some money  : Benoît Lepape ( Jean Yanne ) is elected president of the national council of employers. His predecessor warmly congratulates him, and asks him what new business acquisitions he will now make. The following scene shows him chased out of his electronics company while a new sign is installed: Electronic Benoît Lepape .
  • Jackal  : all action sequences except the last are suggested by ellipses, which highlights the coldly determined character of the killer.
  • 2001, the Space Odyssey  : a jump of several hundreds of thousands of years as a bone is launched in the air by a primate at the “dawn of humanity” to “transform” into satellite in space.
  • The Hours of Stephen Daldry relates the destinies of three women in three different eras. The ellipse is based on the story of one of these women starring one of the other two.

Internal Links

  • Glossary of cinema
  • Scenario (movie)


  1. ↑ Michelle Aubert ( dir. ) And Jean-Claude Seguin ( ed. ), The Film Production Lumière brothers , Paris, Bifi-editions , coll.  “Memories of the cinema”, ( ISBN  2-9509-048-1-5 )
  2. ↑ Georges Sadoul , history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion ,, 719  p. p.  43
  3. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin , film grammar , Paris, New World ,, 588  p. ( ISBN  978-2-84736-458-3 ) , p.  67
  4. ↑ Idem, page 82

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