Pacing is one of the most pervasive, but obscure elements of film
making. It exists on every level from the adjustment of an edit,
the flow of a scene, to the final form of a feature. Like musical
or poetic rhythm, there are no hard and fast rules - but there are
general principles to consider.
In the cutting of a shot or a sequence, pacing is visceral thing;
a sense of how the audience feels and experiences the images and
action. This is sometimes obvious - a violent sequence will be fast
and furious, an emotional one might be slow and enticing.
There's also subtlety -- like the punctuation in a sentence that
drives you forward or gives you time to stop and breathe. It's the
cues and clues that tell the audience what's important -- that makes
one thing stick in your mind, while something else goes by unconsidered.
The broad mistakes, on an edit level, are to try to do something
that has nothing to do with the images and story, or not to do anything
at all. Being literal gives you a home movie where nothing is important.
Being too clever, when it doesn't serve the story, gives you a mess
that nobody will understand. The audience needs to feel what you're
saying, but they need to hear it and understand it, too.
For the scene, pacing is about energy, and typically how that energy
changes. Where do you start? Where do you go? What happens and how
feel about it? The energy in a scene may shift between characters,
one may dominate it. It might build up. It might ramp down. The
might be slow or sudden. Maybe it establishes and holds. Whatever
happens, it needs to suit the mood and purpose of the scene within
story, or it goes nowhere.
Actors need to sense the beats. The camera needs to be there to
them, or stand back and watch them fall. The edit needs to find
moments and amplify or isolate them.
The basic mistake here is to have each scene start slow, ramp up,
peak and ramp down. Actors sometimes have a tendency to do this
because it feels natural. The scene, however, is only a slice of
the story that belongs in a broader context. Although not obvious
during shooting, when cut together with other scenes, this will
feel predictable, repetitive, slow and extremely unnatural.
Putting it all together on the large scale is like assembling tracks
on a play list but with scenes instead of songs. The pace is how
things transition; how they complement or contrast with each other;
how they feel in their relationships and over time.
Do you really want to hear two slow tracks back to back, no matter
much you like each one separately? Should something fast be first?
too fast? Do you need a different style here? Does something feel
long? Too short? Too much like something else? Or too different?
All this is particularly critical in features, where you want to
the audience's attention for a long time. No matter what you feel
each scene separately, here they have to work together, play off
other, and make something whole.
The temptation is to try to preserve each scene as you saw it
individually. That doesn't always work. It might get long. It might
slow. It might distract the audience with too many details that
contributing to the central story. Be vicious with your cutting.
taking something out and see if you really miss it. A well paced
90-minutes is better than a slow 110.
In the end, it's all about feel and variety. A film is sometimes
communicating a message, but it's always about communicating an
Craig Tollis is an Atlanta-based freelance editor and filmmaker.
His freelance editor web site is: Level2Media.com.
He is also working on feature development with Joe Binford's Chicken
Filters at ChickenFilters.com.