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I am planning a scene where the lead character sees a mother and child, it triggers a memory from his childhood. Instead of flashing back showing him as a child with his mum, we thought just have the audio over the top would work with an echo or other effect etc. Does anyone know of any examples of this in other movies, as our DOP is struggling to visualise how the final would work? I am sure I have seen it in other movies.

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I can't think of specific examples, but what I can "see and hear in my mind" is:

  • a single shot of the character who's having the flashback
  • the actor's face is reacting to the audio in the flashback
  • the camera slowly zooms or trucks in on the actor's face
  • sounds in the present-time scene have become quieter and/or muffled
  • the audio flashback may have an echo or reverb added to it
  • there may be visual flashbacks subtly transposed over the present-time shot
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I guess that this all depends on the nature of the flashback.

If it's something sort of happy or sinister that we're going to dwell on (as a viewer), then (as Brett said) slow is the way to go (really play on those reactions - dolly zoom if you want to play the Spielberg card).

If you're going for maximum impact and a shocking/scary reaction from the character, I'd play this out quicker - smash cut from the character's face to a CU/XCU of the parent & child then back again (throw some Dutch in there for memes), perhaps some flashes of light and the character visibly moves their head/flinches when they hear the sound, as though it's disorienting. Make the memory noises nice and loud or cutting - again, as Brett said, you'll need to keep them higher in the mix, probably by lowering other noises or having them combine.

I think Sherlock does stuff like this when he's in the throes of cogitation, perhaps some scenes from Hannibal... I'll try and think of some more examples.

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@Jamie & @Brett have very insightful answers. From the perspective of script writing and production notes, I have nothing to add.
It seems to me that your question is more about "what it would look like to the audience" instead of on a script.

Have a look at this youtube video. Interview: Catatonic Schizophrenic


this is a WA shot up to about 2:07. Notice how his body is very still, but his eyes move during the pauses.
After 2:07, it's a CU of his head. Notice his face & eyes during his pauses before answering a question.

What I see:
Your character, during the "auditory flash back" would be, effectively catatonic. As (s)he remembers the past experiences, this is the kind of behavior the body would naturally do. Eyes darting about & focused on infinity, slight head movements & facial expressions. It is even possible that (s)he would mimic the posture of the Mother and then mimic the child. Perhaps even mouthing the words.

As you can see, though, it could be a bit boring for the audience if the flashback lasted for more than several seconds, so something needs to happen visually. $0.02

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