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Five Minute Film School: PACING

by Craig Tollis

Pacing is one of the most pervasive, but obscure elements of film making. It exists on every level from the adjustment of an edit, through the flow of a scene, to the final form of a feature. Like musical beats or poetic rhythm, there are no hard and fast rules - but there are some 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 do we feel about it? The energy in a scene may shift between characters, or one may dominate it. It might build up. It might ramp down. The changes might be slow or sudden. Maybe it establishes and holds. Whatever happens, it needs to suit the mood and purpose of the scene within the story, or it goes nowhere.

Actors need to sense the beats. The camera needs to be there to catch them, or stand back and watch them fall. The edit needs to find the 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 how much you like each one separately? Should something fast be first? Is it too fast? Do you need a different style here? Does something feel too long? Too short? Too much like something else? Or too different?

All this is particularly critical in features, where you want to hold the audience's attention for a long time. No matter what you feel about each scene separately, here they have to work together, play off each 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 get slow. It might distract the audience with too many details that aren't contributing to the central story. Be vicious with your cutting. Trying 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 about communicating a message, but it's always about communicating an experience.

Craig Tollis is an Atlanta-based freelance editor and filmmaker. His freelance editor web site is: He is also working on feature development with Joe Binford's Chicken Filters at