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The Ins and Outs and Ins and Outs of Creating a Time Loop Film

Jourdan Aldredge

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

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

Okay, but seriously though — how do you actually film a movie that repeats itself every day? And how do you do it in a way that takes the concept in a new direction? In the Sundance breakout Palm Springs, the filmmakers answered that question by going meta. Yeah, there’s 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 about.”

At this point, the time loop is less of a trope or device and more of a sub-genre. Let’s look at a few 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 Film?

Time Loop Origin

The time loop theme found its origin in literary science fiction. Image via andrey_l.

According to its basic definition, a time loop (also called a temporal loop) is a fictional plot device that causes characters in a story to “re-experience a span of time which is repeated, sometimes more than once, with some hope of breaking out of the cycle of repetition.”

In film, you can find time loops in almost every genre. Some notable examples include Groundhog Day — a film now so synonymous with time loops that its title is used in day-to-day conversations to describe the feeling of being in a rut — as well as Doctor Strange, Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and the 1987 Soviet sci-fi drama Mirror for a Hero.

Of course, time loops aren’t limited to movies. The concept actually has roots in sci-fi literary fiction; one of the earliest known uses is found in the 1941 short story “Doubled and Redoubled” by Malcolm Jameson. The device has also proven popular in Japanese anime and manga, popping up in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1965), Kimagure Orange Road (1984–1988), and YU-NO (1996).

Understand the Science Fiction

David Sullivan and Shane Carruth in Primer

Sci-fi has been an important genre, simply in lieu of people’s fascination with the unknown. Image from Primer via ThinkFilm.

While time loops have been used in comedy, drama, and horror, they’re most often associated with the science fiction (or sci-fi) genre, since the concept essentially hinges on the fictitious device of time travel, be it scientific or supernatural in nature.

Since the earliest days of cinema, sci-fi has been the go-to genre for filmmakers driven to explore the impossible and implausible, not just because the sci-fi audience is wired for easy suspension of disbelief, but also because the filmmakers and audiences share a fascination with the unknown and an openness to the lessons that can be learned from new and abnormal concepts, ideas, and beliefs.

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

One way filmmakers understand and define the science fiction in their projects has to do with how their story intersects with other genres. Because of this, a lot of sci-fi films are cross-genre, their stories dependent on and framed by their unscientific elements.

So, while the science fiction is certainly vital to the story, the story itself is better described as a romantic comedy, thriller, fantasy adventure, etc. These cross-genre hybrids run the gamut in terms of seriousness — and a film’s level of seriousness often informs how the filmmaker goes about explaining (or not explaining) the unexplainable.

Define the Rules to Your Time Loop

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

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

Regarding explaining the unexplainable — you’ve got some options. You can take a more “hardcore” path, which involves spending a great deal of time explaining and defining the rules of the time loop plot device, as well as giving insights into how the time loop might have been introduced and any repercussions that might come from trying to break out of it.

Examples of this approach include Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, and Primer (which, when thinking cross-genre, are best classified as drama, action, and straight sci-fi, respectively).

Then there’s the lighthearted path, which allows the time loop to be much more loosely explained (if at all), and it can change in its definition as the narrative dictates. Here, the rules are more open-ended and allow for other elements to inform how the time loop came to be and how it might eventually end.

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

Filming the Same Thing Multiple Times

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

Paying attention to every minute detail is essential to pulling off the time loop storyline. Image from Groundhog Day via Columbia Pictures.

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

And, this is actually an important lesson in the significance of planning and on-set supervision, which will ultimately help you on both time loop projects, as well as your everyday video productions.

Some elements to pay extra attention to:

  • Storyboarding: Having detailed outlines for how you want every shot to look, with characters and items precisely located in frame.
  • Script supervision: Having a dedicated person responsible for continuity of both script and screen, making sure every line of dialogue and action is exactly when and where it needs to be.
  • On-set photography: Not every shoot calls for this, but for exact recreations of scenes, having on-set photos of your original setup will help with recreation. Shoot multiple angles to go along with reviewing your images from your main camera, as well.
  • Backup props and costumes: In many cases of time loop films, things change as the loops stack up. These include changes to characters, costumes, and props that will — of course — need to be magically reverted back to their original forms for the next day.
  • Practice choreography and timing: Not only does everything need to look the same, but everything in your environment — from the actors to the stunts — need to be performed exactly the same, which requires a great deal of practice and preparation, along with well-choreographed motion that can be easily copied and repeated.

Bringing in Other Elements and VFX

While many of the more notable examples of time loop films have largely shunned CGI and other digital effects, if you’re shooting projects more high concept, or are just looking to save time on-set in favor of VFX, there are actually plenty of solid digital tools available to you.

Whether you’re working in Premiere Pro, After Effects, or Final Cut Pro, there are some solid accessible tools for working with masking and even object removal and replacement applications that can help you out in a pinch. Here are some good resources:

Also, if you’re looking to explore further into hardcore sci-fi genre elements of this time loop sub-genre, there are plenty of fun VFX you can play around with to add to your story and complexity of your time loops. Here are some cool tutorials to help you get started:

For more genre-filmmaking advice, tips, and resources, dive into these inspiring articles:

Cover image from Palm Springs via NEON.