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Pacing for Video and Cinema Editors: Timing and Types of Cuts

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Pacing is your single most important editing philosophy and is the hardest to grasp. In this chapter from Out of Order: Storytelling Techniques for Video and Cinema Editors, Ross Hockrow defines pacing and discusses the principles of pacing and the timing and types of cuts.
This chapter is from the book

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. By now, maybe you skipped most of that because you couldn’t imagine the purpose of it or you thought it must be some kind of mistake. Or, maybe you trusted the book enough to read each number, which allowed a rhythmic pattern to enter your head. The repetition forces you to stop reading and start recognizing the shape of the words. It’s similar to speed-reading. Your mind forms a flow, and after a few counts you begin to say the phrase, “one, two, three, four,” the same way each time.

Once the flow is formed, it’s hard to break unless you give it a different flow. I used the word “rhythmic” earlier. Please note there is a major difference between pacing and rhythm of a film, as I use the terms in this book. Pacing is the timing of cuts, the topic of this chapter. Rhythm is the flow and separation of the overall story, which is covered in Chapter 5.

The purpose of the one, two, three, four count is to show you the foundation of what pacing actually is in a film. The four principles of pacing are:

  1. Pattern
  2. Symmetry
  3. Flow
  4. Timing

Pacing is your single most important editing philosophy and is the hardest to grasp. I could sit side by side with you for a year and you still might not master it. The key to pacing is to understand the difference between good pacing and bad pacing. Mastering pacing is something you should strive for, but there will never be a day when it comes to you automatically. At times you may be sharp, and at other times you may be sloppy, but you are generally never going to be perfect.

Defining Pacing

Pacing is an abstract concept that takes practice, practice, and more practice. But don’t get frustrated. I’m working on a music video right now and I had to recut it three times until I felt the pacing was right. That’s the nature of editing. The important thing is that I knew the first two cuts were not paced well and that the third cut was right. I knew when to keep going—and when to stop. That’s what you need to understand about pacing.

The biggest misconception about pacing is that it has anything to do with speed (fast cuts or scenes) or time (length). It’s often assumed that the faster something is edited, the better the pacing is. Wrong, wrong, and more degrees of wrong. Something that is cut fast can be perfectly paced. Something that’s cut extremely slow can be perfectly paced.

Pacing Examples: Slow and Fast

A lot of great editors believe pacing is managing and utilizing the space in a scene—space meaning dead air. Some of the greatest examples of pacing come from Quentin Tarantino. The pacing of the conversations in his films really sets the bar for pacing. An example that sticks out in my head is the basement bar scene in Inglourious Basterds.

For those who have not seen the film and are planning to, watch it right now because a spoiler is to follow. In the scene, British and American soldiers, who are pretending to be German, meet up with their German contact. She is a famous German actress who is playing a card game with a few Nazi officers when they arrive. When a German character recognizes that one of the British men is not German, the mission falls apart and many people die.

That scene is a masterpiece when it comes to pacing—yet the pacing is very slow. That particular scene manages the space very well. There are long pauses between lines of dialogue and it feels just right. The pacing builds intensity instead of diminishing intensity. Yes, the great writing and acting help, but the editing is a crucial element. In fact, the editing may be the key ingredient to making that scene, and all scenes like it, the masterpiece it is. It comes back to what I said in Chapter 1 about the viewer anticipating what will happen. In this scene in particular, the viewer has a pretty clear understanding of what’s going to happen, and the long pauses in the dialogue allow them to relish the anticipation of the predicted outcome.

Pacing ties directly into story arc and conflict. You’ll notice in that scene that the back-and-forth dialogue gets slower as the scene goes on. What’s happening is that the scene gets slower as the outcome becomes clearer. Tarantino uses anticipation as a means to manage the dead air in the scene. The pacing gives you plenty of time to anticipate the many possible outcomes of the scene.

Pacing can—and often does—change. The pacing of a particular scene is for that scene only. Pacing is a situational concept, which is why there are no magic bullet points for getting it right.

A 10-minute dialogue scene in The Social Network also takes place in a bar, but it couldn’t be more different from the Inglourious Basterds scene. In The Social Network, it’s very fast. And it, too, is a masterful example of the art of pacing. This film, by the way, won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Pacing and Effects on the Viewer

The speed of these two example scenes may be very different—one fast, one slow—but both are paced perfectly. Pacing is situational. It’s based on the desired feel, mood, or outcome, and is an ever-changing phenomenon. There is no set rule. It’s not as if drama is paced this way and comedy is paced that way. There certainly are trends (which I discuss later), but no rules. A scene may start out fast paced and yet slow down right in the middle.

I have formulated an equation (discussed later in this chapter) that may help you determine the proper pace at any given time. But first, you need to learn the importance of feeling the right pace. Most of the time it comes down to feeling and instinct. Consider a heart-rate monitor. Slow indicates tension, fast means intensity or action, and normal means, well, normal.

Slow Pacing

A slow heart rate represents things like tension or anticipation. Beep ... beep ... beep. Those long spaces give you time to think. What’s happening? When will the next beep come? Will the next beep come? Relate those beeps to the scene in Inglourious Basterds and the dramatic pauses between lines. You have time to anticipate. You have time to let your mind wonder about the possibilities. You can feel the tension in the room.

The slow heart rate can fall on the totally opposite end of the emotional spectrum as well. You can also relate romance to a slow heart rate and rely on the very nature of being in the moment to create that pace. Picture a couple lying in bed with dim lighting. They’re laughing, giggling, and talking about their future together. The long spaces between their lines can let you project yourself into their moment, or think of a moment that was similar in your life. The slow pacing is a good calling card for romance because it allows the viewer to really feel what’s happening in the scene.

Fast Pacing

A fast heart rate represents action or intensity. Beep beep beep beep beep gives you no time to think; you’re just perceiving the storyline at an alarming rate. A great action scene or otherwise intense scene should actually raise the viewer’s heart rate.

My best friend is a neuroscientist who loves nothing more than a good experiment. We did a little testing of our own and discovered that the way a film is edited has physical effects on the viewer. We found the effects to be most apparent during action sequences. We monitored the heart rate of several subjects in three age groups, all with similar health histories. (Apparently, that matters in a scientific study—which is why I needed my friend or else I would have just used random people.) We had them all watch the same movies in the same environment and noticed a spike in heart rate during the action sequences. The spike was relatively substantial—an average increase in heart rate of 9 percent. It wasn’t on the level of a workout, but there was a common spike among them all at the same point in the film. That may not seem like a lot, but if you consider that the subjects were sitting in chairs and not doing any physical activity, it’s pretty impressive.

Then we showed them all an action sequence from a different film, out of context, and nothing happened. That suggests that context, or the lead-in, matters for emotional investment. And then we did a third test: We showed one test group an action sequence with poor pacing and we showed another test group the action sequence with perfecting pacing. The results were amazing. The viewers who watched the film with proper pacing had the physical response. The ones who watched the film with improper pacing showed no spike in heart rate whatsoever. It was a fascinating test, and one day I hope to do a real study and publish the data. But for now, my point is this: Pacing affects the viewer physically. And note that the lead-in to scenes also has an effect on how successful certain moments will be.

Fast-paced scenes should keep viewers on the edge of their seat. There are different levels of fast. There is fast dialogue cutting, and then there is car-chaselike action. Obviously the action sequence with no dialogue, or limited dialogue, will be much faster, but keep the heart rate monitor in your mind. For the sake of argument, let’s say that a fast cutting dialogue scene would hit 90 on a heart rate monitor, and an action sequence would range from 120 to 150. (Please note that these rates represent our scaled measurement, not a viewer’s actual heart rate. Just know that the viewer’s heart will be beating a little faster than normal.)

Normal Pacing

Normal is the constant in the equation. Normal equals nothing—no drama. Normal is your normal heart rate in everyday life. Normal is you getting dressed. Normal is you eating breakfast. Normal is important because when something not normal occurs, you recognize it. Normal is the gray area between black and white. A good film is normal much of the time. It’s the flat parts of the rollercoaster between the ups and downs.

This is why pacing changes all the time. Let’s say Jenny is outside working in the garden, minding her own business (normal). We hear a child screaming from inside the house, and Jenny pauses to listen. (At this point, the slow heart rate amplifies the anticipation.) Then the scream happens again, and Jenny runs inside and finds a burglar robbing the house. (Fast heart rate.) That one scene could take you through a spectrum of emotions and heart rates, and the pacing (timing of cuts) should match each part of the scene.

Now that you have a general idea of what pacing is, it’s time to break down the principles of pacing.

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