Subjective time, as opposed to clock time, is fundamental to our experience of moving pictures.

Narrative rearranges time, with cuts, camera movement, close-ups, flashbacks and flash-forwards in order to manipulate audience attention, memory and anticipation in the service of dramatic storytelling. Montage destroys time by juxtaposing and fusing disparate images together to create new insights into the deep connectivity of reality.

The evolution of film technique is the story of endless experimentation with how movies can be edited to create new effects with time. George Lucas set the tempo for modern mainstream moviemaking with the fast-cut action of Star Wars. A generation earlier, Alfred Hitchcock pushed the envelope in the other direction by putting together the full- length feature film, Rope, with a seamless series of ten minute camera shots. The movie Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio employed time lapse photography at various speeds to create the cinema equivalent of a symphony.

An altered sense of time is also a characteristic of effective television commercials.

To investigate the relationship between a viewer’s internal sense of time and commercial performance we conducted an experiment with 28 television commercials. To study the perception of time we had consumers rate the ads on “The commercial went by fast.”

The relationship between perceptions of “fast” and standard commercial performance scores was statistically significant. Commercials that went by fast were more attention getting and more motivating. Perceptions of fast were also related to how consumers remembered different parts of the commercial.

Interestingly, there was no correlation with the visual complexity or number of shots in the commercials.  There was also no correlation with the average level of recall of different images from the ads.

It is the number of moments of peak memories in the commercial that matters the most to our subjective sense of time. Commercials that generate more than four peaks are “twice as likely to be rated fast” than do commercials that generate fewer peaks.

Emotion also has a strong relationship to perceived time. Importantly, positive emotions speed up the audience’s perception of time. (Good times fly by!) As anyone who has watched a good horror movie knows, negative emotions slow down the audience’s perception of time. (My heart stopped!)

Overall, when we watch commercials it looks like our internal sense of time is directly tied to the rate at which meaningful brand memories are created.