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Principles of Pacing

Remember the four key elements of pacing: pattern, symmetry, flow, and timing. All four elements don’t need to be present—or be a focal point of the timing of your cuts—all the time. However, at least one of the four elements must be present in pacing. By the time you finish this chapter, if you watch any movie, trailer, television show, music video, commercial, or even a news story, you should be able to identify one or more of these principles at play in the cutting efforts.

Are all editors working today good? No. Does everything you see on television and the movies work? No. But for the most part, you will see these principles present—and the better the film, the more you’ll be able to spot. Depending on the type of film, you’ll probably find one element more present than the others. For example, movies rely heavily on timing and flow, whereas music videos are very much a product of pattern and timing. Symmetry is found in movies, but it’s a lot harder to spot than timing. Symmetry can take place over a grand scale in a film, while timing happens constantly. Symmetry is very prominent in great commercials. Can something be properly paced and be missing one of these principles? Yes. But when it comes to these principles, the more the merrier.

Now, let’s explore these principles one by one.

Pattern

Pattern is a recurring editing style in a film that mirrors itself in key moments that require close viewer attention. A very basic example of this is the film Any Given Sunday. To me, it’s one of the best edited films of all time and that is largely because of its pattern. The film is about football and the politics that go with the game. The editor throws the pattern in your face by cutting to a shot of the crowd each time a player forgets about politics and focuses only on the game. The editor then takes that shot of the crowd and crossfades it into a similar shot of the crowd from a long time ago—a time where only football mattered, and politics in the game did not. (A crossfade consists of slowly fading two images together; it is discussed in Chapter 5.) It’s a love of the game moment that draws you in. The editor uses this pattern in key moments in the film, when big plays happen that change the course of the story. That’s an extreme example of pattern—a recurring editing style that has its own meaning.

Generally, the use of pattern is rare and hard to recognize, but it can be extremely valuable. Most editors don’t consider pattern to be an element of editing. They think it’s just a crafty way to make the viewer pay more attention to a particular element of the story. But to me, pattern always exists in editing. The real questions are: “Are you aware of the pattern? and “Are you in control of it?” Or are you merely a creature of habit who can’t help but repeat similar editing tendencies throughout the story?

Example: Breaking Bad

I discussed Breaking Bad’s use of the teaser in its nonlinear story approach in Chapter 3. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, the show began every episode with a teaser. Six successful years of storytelling and captivating an audience, and the teaser was the pattern. The power of this pattern became very evident with the ending of episode 8, which capped the first half of Season 5, Part 1. (Eight episodes aired, and then one year later the next eight aired.) The ending of episode 8 was a flash-forward to the series finale of Season 5, Part 2, which would not air for another year. Well, during that year speculation swirled about the show and how it would end. Just Google Breaking Bad ending predictions to see the thousands of blog posts written predicting how it would end (as far as I know, not one of them was right). This was a flash-forward pattern on a grand scale.

Example: Quentin Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds

Another example of pattern on a slightly smaller—but still grand—scale is the masterful slow-paced scene in the basement pub in Inglourious Basterds. (The director, Quentin Tarantino, has his own patterns as a filmmaker. It doesn’t take long to determine you’re watching a Tarantino film.) The reason he can get away with this, or any of the long, drawn-out dialogue scenes in his movies, is that we know someone is going to die at the end of the scene. Inglourious Basterds’ opening scene runs just shy of 20 minutes—the slowest opening scene I’ve ever experienced. Not many people can get away with showing a guy chopping wood, washing his face, walking inside, waiting for the Germans to show up, and then having a conversation in real time, and keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Tarantino conditioned us from his first film all the way to this film to know something amazing would happen to conclude this insanely slow-paced introduction. He didn’t let us down either. It was a slaughter.

If you’ve seen any of Tarantino’s films, you know this as you know the sky is blue. On a grand scale, pattern is storytelling in and of itself.

Example: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is another pattern-oriented filmmaker. His films have the classic look of long takes (long, drawn-out shots that never cut). In every Scorsese movie there’s at least one elaborate take that seems borderline unachievable by anyone else. It’s his signature. He is old school in that his films aren’t overedited (too many cuts) as a lot of films are in today’s digital world. Whenever I see a long Steadicam shot of someone walking through a room with a few hundred extras, I know Scorsese is the brain is behind it.

Example: David Fincher and Fight Club

Now, there’s one filmmaker who has no signature, and that is David Fincher. I think Fincher is the best filmmaker alive, and arguably to ever live. This is because you can’t always tell you’re watching a Fincher film. Instead, he puts the story above everything and everyone. You can’t help but respect that. For everyone else, it seems, the story is secondary to the style. They make the movie, their way, in their vision, and in their style. This is not a knock on everyone else, myself included, but praise for David Fincher for the simple fact that he doesn’t repeat himself. If Fincher does have a pattern or style, it’s that he focuses heavily on the pattern of the story and film he’s making—and not on any overall style or preference. He creates different patterns in each of his films.

Let’s talk about Fincher’s movie Fight Club. I believe it is the greatest movie ever made. The layers go very deep, and so does the pattern. There are so many hidden patterns edited into this film that it took double-digit viewings for me to catch them all. Unless you know the story, you don’t know that Edward Norton’s character is talking and interacting with himself the entire film. But once you find that out and go back and watch the movie again, that fact is right in your face over and over again. The first and loudest example of that is when Edward Norton is narrating the line “If you woke up in a different time, at a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” Then a shot of Brad Pitt on an electric walkway appears. I’m not sure I noticed this shot at all the first time I watched the film because the walkway is so crowded. But now, that’s the answer to the ending.

Pattern is one of the things that make this film what it is. For starters, Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, flashes onscreen in a single frame several times before he appears in the film. This is not in the book Fight Club, which the film is adapted from. No, this is an editing decision made to reference Durden’s night job as a screen projectionist, where he splices frames of inappropriate images into family films. Showing Durden himself spliced in similarly is nothing short of genius. As Edward Norton’s character says, “No one knows they saw it, but they did.” Pattern links those two things in the story.

Now, rewinding a bit in that scene, the film explains how Durden does this. At this point, it mentions that movies don’t come all on one reel, they come on a few. And Durden’s job is to change the reels in the middle of the movie. Edward Norton says, “It’s called a changeover, the movie keeps on going, and no one in the audience has any idea.” This is interesting because when the reveal happens during the climax of the film, he repeats the line again, and the pattern occurs. What pattern? Well, the pattern of the way he says the line, and the pacing of the scenes and shot selection are identical. It brings home a visual familiarity that gives the viewer a subtle sense of déjà vu, thus enhancing the climax. The same dropout of music happens, and you see the cigarette burns referred to in the original scene. The patterns in this film are endless.

Another thing Fight Club has a lot of, related to pattern, is symmetry.

Symmetry

Remember Chekhov’s gun from Chapter 1? “If you show a gun in chapter 1, it had better fire a shot by chapter 3.” That’s symmetry. Editing should mirror the story’s symmetry and also create its own. In the story arc, the downslope is kind of a mirror image of the upslope. It goes up to the climax, then comes down. That kind of symmetry should go as deep as you can take it into the finest detail in your film.

Remember, each scene is its own arc, too. This means each and every moment in your film is symmetrical, just like the overall story. Another word for symmetry in the context of storytelling is balance. You can’t have light without darkness. You can’t have happiness without sadness. You need to travel from one extreme to the other. The day starts dark, the sun rises in the east, and then sets in the west. What shape does that make? An arc. And during that day the arc can take us on a wild rollercoaster ride. It could rain. It could snow, sleet, or hail. It could be beautiful or gloomy. The options are endless, but balance is inevitable. There is a psychological need for balance in life and in film.

The visual serendipity of having an even balance of wide shots and close-ups has an astounding effect on viewers. This symmetry ensures you achieve the maximum amount of emotional opportunity in each viewer’s mind. The wide shots balance the close-ups, and the medium shots are neutral. The more even the scale of that balance, the clearer the emotional goal becomes. Understanding this is controlling it. If you choose to tip the scales in favor of one or the other, you need to be conscious of it and know what you’re accomplishing by doing so. Using more close-up shots than wide shots means you’re heavily focusing on characters and their emotions. In this case, you’re trying to achieve your emotional goals through expression as opposed to action. It’s intense. When you favor wide shots, you’re making a conscious effort to make the viewers feel as if they’re a part of the scene or in the room.

If it seems like I’m explaining shot selection again, I’m not. The point here is what you’re accomplishing with specific combinations of shots. First you learn one punch, and then you learn a combo. Everything in editing is intertwined. Concepts bleed onto each other. Shot selection is really about selecting the right shot at the right time; pacing is about the timing of cuts and balancing the types of shots. Symmetry, one of the four principles of pacing, is the bridge between the concepts of shot selection and pacing. (Keep in mind that we haven’t even explored the timing of cuts, which is the implementation of pacing. We’re still talking about the principles.)

Let’s take symmetry even deeper, remaining aware of the arc and starting with the exposition (the beginning). Let’s say that when you establish your conditions in the exposition, you use a specific shot combination to introduce a concept. Jenny walks into a bar and tells the bartender about her money problems. To establish this, you approach it in a standard way: You establish the bar with a wide shot, single Jenny out with a medium, and then use the close-up when she delivers the line, “I’m broke.” Then Jenny slides a twenty-dollar bill across the bar and asks for a refill. For this shot, you choose an overhead, shooting straight down on the bar, featuring the top of the two characters’ heads and the money. Then you punch in close on the twenty-dollar bill. You end with a close-up of Jenny, smiling and saying, “I would spend my last dollar on this drink, I need it so bad.” Jenny winks.

Your shot combination and order is crucial here. Later in the story, Jenny starts a business, makes millions, and gets married. Then she gets divorced, loses most of her money, and the movie ends with her depressed at the bar. Guess what happens next? Jenny slides a twenty-dollar bill across the bar and says, “I would spend my last dollar on this drink, I need it so bad.” This is where symmetry plays a role in editing. You’ve conditioned the viewer to see this moment a certain way, so if you present it the same way, it will have a much bigger impact. You want the same shot order and the same shot selection. I will go as far as to say that each shot should be the same duration. Films do this all the time, and you don’t even realize it.

Symmetry can happen in all kinds of ways. Repeating music, using color grades on key moments, and adding sound effects are all ways to cue the viewers to think “I’ve been here before.” When the viewers feel something familiar, you should be accounting for that in the pacing. Sometimes a cue can come from other sources, and you may need to use the pace to cue the viewers, which means approaching pacing for the scene that it is in and not with the goal of symmetry in mind. These concepts are explored in later chapters.

Flow

Ask a random filmmaker for the definition of pacing. The answer is likely to involve some sort of action. The most common response I hear is, “It just moves,” while the person snaps his or her fingers. While that is a basic understanding of pacing, what the person is really describing is a small but very important element of pacing called flow. It’s easier to understand flow when it’s faster, but the films that flow the best are slower. And with the slower ones, it’s harder to achieve flow.

A great way to learn flow is by editing music videos. If you are just starting out as a filmmaker and haven’t done much editing, start editing music videos. This is not because they’re the be-all and end-all of film editing, but because editing music videos can teach you some really good habits. It shows you how to cut to the music and integrate that into the editing of a film. It also can teach bad habits. Relying on cutting to the music is a crutch that can cripple your pacing, so be careful when you try to take the music video approach to any other type of narrative. (The exception is a montage, a collection of short shots edited together to condense space, time, and information, discussed in Chapter 5.)

These days, most videos don’t have much of a story. It’s sad but true. I don’t do many of them anymore. When I first started out as an editor, I did a lot of rap videos. They were basic with people rapping to the camera in five or six cool locations. I didn’t know any better, and it forced me to be a good editor. In some situations, editing is all you have to make something remotely acceptable. I believe every editor should work on at least three music videos. You can only take them so far, but it’s an exercise in flow. Because there’s no story, you usually have one speed: fast. So it flows like a river from start to finish with fast cuts all the way through. This can teach you the value of a single frame.

With a story, however, you need to take your flow and move it into storytelling. You also need to understand that a story has many different speeds. Some parts are fast and some parts are slow. Understanding the flow of the river is what helps you determine what cutting speed to use. The speed of the actual narrative is a good indicator of cutting speed. Whatever the speed of the story or the arc is, you want to match it. Flow means making hard choices. You may end up cutting redundant lines. You may shorten or lengthen pauses. You may take a facial expression from one part of the scene and move it to a different scene because you want to alter the speed of the cutting. You don’t edit a film exactly how it’s shot—you trim the fat and beef up the meat.

I compare the ending of scenes or moments to texting. If you’re texting a friend back and forth, it could look a little something like this:

  • You: Hey what r u doing tonight?
  • Friend: Nothing, u want to get together?
  • You: Yeah I get off work at 6, happy hour doesn’t end until 9, want to go?
  • Friend: Yeah let’s do it, u r buying the first round.
  • You: OK cool. I’ll have the cold beer waiting for u.
  • Friend: OK

That’s a standard conversation. The part that drives me insane is the response “OK.” Really? You wasted a whole message on that? That’s how you need to treat film flow. If it doesn’t move the story forward, cut it. The “OK” contributes nothing to the story. You can make the argument that it’s closure to the scene. When it comes to the beginning and ending, try thinking of each scene as a piece of the bigger story. You don’t need closure in every scene. A scene can just end before we, as an audience, see it end.

When you enter in the middle of the moment, viewers are already playing catch-up. That gives their minds something to do. They’re establishing a backstory in their minds with information you’re giving them. The same thing works for the ending. Leave before it’s over, and the audience gets to infer the ending with the information you gave them. This feeds the idea that the film is a collaboration between filmmaker and viewer.

Don’t finalize things. Now, take this with a minor grain of salt. What I mean is every conversation in your story doesn’t need to come to a complete close. Watch any movie at random and count the number of scenes that end with some sort of finalizing line (such as OK, goodbye, see you later) or a character walking out of the scene. You won’t find many—or any. That’s because of flow. The editor made the choice to trim the fat.

Timing

Timing refers to deciding when to make a cut. Timing is the sixth sense of an editor. Knowing exactly at which frame to cut from one clip to the other is learned by experience. Experience is the key to good timing. Being able to say, “I’ve been here before” is the true measure of greatness. The main problem with that is that you’ve actually never been there before. You may have been in similar situations, but not the same.

Before becoming a filmmaker, I was a professional poker player. You might be thinking, “Wow, those careers seem vastly different.” Yes, they certainly offer different lifestyles, but the mental focus, attention to detail, and importance of past experiences are quite similar. In poker, they say you’ll never be in the same situation two times. It’s true. The room, the cards, the money at stake, the people in the hand, the time of day, the build-up to that hand—all of those details come into play during any given hand. It’s a true ripple effect. It may seem like you’ve been in this situation before, but it’s not the same.

That’s true of film as well. You’ll never actually be in the same situation twice. All you can do is take each situation for what it’s worth and log it into your mental library as to how such situations play out. You’ll call upon your mental library in each and every decision you make. Some call that instinct, and sure, instinct plays a role. But history also plays an important role in the decision of when to cut. Being good at pacing doesn’t mean being able to sit down with raw footage and make a beautifully paced film on the first try. Pacing is about trial and error. It’s about looking at a film and saying, “No, we need to start over.” For quick turnarounds, same-day edits, and the like, just know that a rushed film will never reach its true potential. Edited films almost always require a period of mental processing. You shouldn’t spend 12 hours editing a film and then immediately judge your work. You need some distance. You need to take time to process.

Pacing is being able to look at a film and know that it’s improperly paced. Being a disciplined editor means having the patience to re-edit a film until it feels right. (You’ll explore the timing of cuts later in this chapter.)

Spotting Cues to Timing

When the word “timing” is used in the context of pacing, it’s referring to using the cues as a means to cut. Cues can come from anywhere, but usually they come from your characters. If a character looks at something, chances are your next shot will be what he sees. It seems like the same idea as the narrative perspective, but the lag time between when the character looks at something and when you show what he sees is timing. How long you delay what the character sees will determine its emotional impact. The cue comes from the moment as well. If she looks into her wallet to see how much money is inside, holding on her face for three seconds before you show the wallet is probably not a good idea because she’s just checking. However, if we as the audience know how much money she has, and she’s checking her wallet to find out money has been stolen, then you would hold on her face to capture her reaction.

This ties back to the narrative perspective discussed in Chapter 3. When I talked about showing what characters see, I never specifically covered when or if they should see things.

Example: Timing in Action

Let’s say Mary and Sally are sitting in the dining room eating dinner. The story is told from Mary’s perspective. Sally asks Mary, “What time is it?” As the editor, you should show Sally asking the question. Then you show Mary looking at her watch. Do you show the actual watch? No. The only reason to show the watch is if the time of day is important to the story. In this case, Mary simply replies, “5:30.” Showing the watch would be bad timing.

If several shots of the watch were filmed with the intent of using them, you may feel like you need to show the watch. But don’t be distracted by what you have. Why is this a case of timing and not shot selection? Well, it’s always a case of shot selection, just as it’s always a case of narrative perspective. The pacing will be destroyed if you show the shot of the watch because the viewer doesn’t need a visual reference to something that doesn’t matter. In short, no matter where you time the shot of the watch, it won’t be timed properly. It’s a shot set for failure.

Sometimes, editors get lost in the shots they have and feel like they need to use everything. Let’s continue the scene. After the time is established, Mary and Sally hear a loud bang in the kitchen. Sally gets up and runs to the kitchen. She looks in the kitchen and says, “Oh no, you’re not going to believe this.” Mary, walking slowly behind, enters the doorway and sees broken plates on the floor.

The shot sequence and timing would be as follows: You show a shot of the two women reacting to the bang. In the same shot, Sally gets up. You show Sally reacting to what she’s seeing in the kitchen, and then her line to Mary. You do not show what’s in the kitchen at this point. That’s bad timing. There are three reason not to do that here:

  • You’ve created a moment of anticipation. The viewers are asking themselves, “What is it?”
  • The story is told from Mary’s perspective; if she hasn’t seen it yet, neither have you.
  • Once you’ve seen what made the bang, the story is over. Everything after that doesn’t matter.

Now Mary enters the doorway and reacts to what’s in the kitchen. Focus on her reaction as long as possible. Then, in the frame before you feel it becomes redundant, cut to what Mary sees. That, in a nutshell, is timing.

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