Let’s look at how the” race with lightning” is structured. Back to the Future is smartly structured in that it gives the audience the necessary information about how the race with lightning will work well before the climax of the movie. The Doc explains how it will work to Marty (and the audience) in his lab with a scale model of the scene. This is wonderfully demonstrates visually how the plan is supposed to work and additionally, because of the mishap during the simulation, we get to see what’s at stake- the whole thing could go up in flames!
By the time we arrive at the climax of the movie, we already know that Marty has to accelerate the DeLorean to 88 mph and arrive at the wire where the lightning will strike at 10:04 generating the necessary gigawatts to send Marty back to the future. With the audience having this information, the filmmakers could dive right into the action.
There are ticking clocks in the scene, one in the car and another on the clock tower. This made it interesting to analyze because I could compare how the chronological time was different from the emotional time.
The overarching question in the narrative question hierarchy is will the plan work and Marty get back to the future. Within the larger question are a series of smaller ones that delay the answering of the larger one.
The sequence opens with a night shot of the clock tower, Doc walks up the camera, looks at this watch and asks the first narrative question for us, “Where is that kid?” A police officer asks the Doc what’s he’s doing. Will the officer stop the plan? Marty shows up and tries to warn the Doc about the future. As they argue over the letter, time is ticking away. Marty has to leave or risk losing being stuck in the past.
Now to build maximum excitement, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The DeLorean won’t start and the cable plug pulls out. Now as the clock ticks we want to know will Marty be able to start the DeLorean and will the Doc connect the cable? Marty starts the car and begins the race against time intercut with Doc struggling with the cable.
The story time, as related by the Doc, tells us that the lightning will strike in seven minutes and twenty-two seconds. From the start of the engine to the lightning bolt hit it takes eight minutes and nine seconds of chronological time measured with a stopwatch. This is a difference of 57 seconds longer than it should have taken! Does it feel like it? No, the story races along. If fact, it races along so fast that most people don’t notice that there’s one shot of the car supposedly going almost 88 miles per hour where it’s not moving! The narrated emotional time was longer than clock time, yet feel like it’s shorter.
In analyzing Back to the Future, I discovered that a takes over a DeLorean 90 seconds to accelerate to 88 miles per hour. What was really amazing was that it took almost 30 seconds to travel one block going 88 miles per hour. This was a great example of understanding the enemies of design. They cut out boring parts and slowed down time in the moment of greatest excitement so you could drink it all in and enjoy the moment- story-delaying at it’s finest.
How is time manipulated?
The filmmakers have added extra little delays in the presenting of the narrative that suspend time. Remember the narrative has us speaking each of these ideas one at a time in an effort to find the answers to the expectations and questions that it sets up. This keeps us very busy. The secret to this magical transformation of time is that time changes occur in-between the cuts. That's why it’s not obvious that it’s happening. This is also why it can be so powerful. Cuts must match on actions so as to appear as one flowing action.
This section is from my book, Directing the Story; Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation published by Focal Press.
Directing the Story