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Timing of Cuts: The Pacing Formula

Pacing is the timing of cuts. This section helps you determine the proper timing of cuts. Don’t confuse this with the concept of timing as discussed earlier. Timing is a singular moment while the timing of cuts refers to a plural concept. This means determining an average cut time through the scene. The equation you’re about to learn is not an exact science—it’s a guideline to help you analyze the type of pacing you need and analyze whether the pace you’ve created is correct. Ready? Here it is:

Speed of Conversation + Length of Scene + Number of Characters + Drama + Mood = Pace

Ask yourself, “What’s my goal? What’s the scene trying to accomplish in terms of feelings of the viewer?”

The following sections discuss these elements of the equation in detail. Remember, each one is only one element of the equation. Each part of the equation plays an equal role in determining what the pace should be.

Speed of Conversation in a Scene

When I say the speed of conversation, I’m referring to an actual conversation in a scene. The conversation is the foundation for all of editing, as discussed later. (If a scene doesn’t have a conversation, then substitute scene for conversation, and the scene would center on the unfolding of events.) Even in a music video, the lyrics act as a conversation. The speed of conversation means the natural speed in which characters in the scene communicate back and forth. If the scene is an argument between two characters, it would have a much faster back and forth—faster cutting—than if two characters are talking about the weather. The pacing of the scene reflects the speed of the conversation.

It’s best to look at the natural flow, or intended natural flow, of the conversation and use that as a basis. For example, wedding vows naturally have a slower back and forth. Usually, the vows are used as the climax of a wedding film, so you may want to find ways that the pacing is faster than the organic flow of that conversation. A trick I like to use is moving into an intercutting sequence (see Chapter 3 for more on intercutting). I use footage from other parts of the wedding, making the vows last longer but with faster cuts.

If you didn’t want to interrupt the vows, you could simply use a faster cutting speed during the vows. The key is to include reaction shots from the audience in addition to the bride and groom talking. You don’t always have to show the person who is talking. Once their vows are covered with B-roll, you can actually change the speed in which they talk by elongating or shortening the pauses between words.

The speed of conversation is always the first element of a scene I consider. The original intention is always the constant. You’re either trying to re-create, go faster, or go slower, but the point is the original intention gives you a reference as opposed to working from an abstract idea.

Length of Scene

The length of scene is another indicator of pace. The following is not a rule, but a guideline: The longer the scene is, the faster the pacing should be to help sustain interest and make things feel shorter than they actually are. Unless your name is Quentin Tarantino, you’re not likely to generate interest in a dialogue scene that lasts eight minutes. Generally, the longer the scene, the faster the pace should be.

Consider two guys talking about the weather. How long do you think you can get away with that before your audience turns on you? Forty-five seconds to a minute might be the longest anyone could stand a scene like that. That’s not very long, but it goes hand in hand with the speed of conversation theory. If you have two guys talking about the weather, the speed of the conversation is most likely slower, and a 45-second scene matches with the slower pace. Now you should be seeing how the pieces of the equation start to align. With characters arguing, the scene could easily last two to three minutes, and it would require a faster pace.

Let me throw a monkey wrench into this situation, however. Let’s say you have a two-minute scene of two characters talking about the weather, and you want it to feel properly paced. What do you do? First, hope this never happens. Second, one thing you can count on is that if a story takes two minutes to talk about the weather, then it’s a very important story element. The weather may be affecting the characters’ travel plans or even threatening their lives. These things lead to intensity, which in turn leads to a faster pace. That aligns with the length of your scene.

You may be thinking, “What if I have a scene with two characters talking about the weather that lasts two minutes and it’s not important to the story at all?” Then your solution is easy: Cut the scene. Hard choices need to be made. I’ve yet to make a film where every scripted scene made the final cut of the movie. Talking about meaningless weather sounds like a great scene to cut.

Number of Characters

The number of characters is another important element in the art of pacing. The more characters you have, the more vantage points you have the opportunity to show. It’s a game of numbers. If you have two characters in a room talking about the weather, you’re pretty limited in what you can show. Because talking about the weather doesn’t generally result in an intense, fast conversation, the pacing is going to be slower. But if you have six characters in a room talking about the weather, then all of a sudden the pacing can be amplified.

Think about two people in a room talking about the weather; you’ll likely have three usable shots. A wide shot, a two-shot of both characters, and a medium shot of both characters. It’s unlikely that you would have a close-up of either character because using close-ups would produce a repetitive-looking scene that offers no visual stimulus. If there’s no intensity in what the characters are saying, as a viewer I need the visual stimulus of wide and medium shots because the context of the moment is equal to what they’re saying.

I have a theory I call “3’s company” that says once you add a third person to the scene, you immediately gain an opportunity to show a significant number of shots that you couldn’t have before. Let’s say you add a third person to the weather conversation scene. Now you still have the original three-shot opportunities, but you also have five more to add to that list. You now have a wide three-shot of all the characters. You have a medium shot of the third character. You also have a combination of two shots showing two of the three characters. This third character offers more shots, which leads to more cuts, which leads to faster cuts, which leads to a faster pace. Here’s the best part about the third person: They don’t even have to talk. All they have to do is react. If they react to what’s being said in the scene, then they’re a part of the scene. According to the 3’s company theory, the more characters you have, the more vantage points you have an opportunity to show.

Drama and Mood

Drama is associated with what you want the viewers to feel. Drama is something you can control. Mood, on the other hand, is something the characters feel, and it’s totally out of your hands. (That is up to the story.) These two concepts don’t always line up—sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Think about a comedy, for example. Physical comedy refers to pain. If a character slips and falls in a dramatic way, he’s going to feel pain. The viewers won’t feel pain, though—they’ll just laugh. Drama is between you and the audience; mood is between the characters.

You can have three different characters in a scene who all feel different emotions, while the audience is feeling something different from all the characters. The major thing that comes into play here is the narrative perspective. If you’re telling the story from a particular character’s perspective, your hands are tied.

Back to the weather conversation. Three characters are in a two-minute scene talking about weather. Two of the characters are joking and the third character is scared. The viewers should associate with the funny characters. Three characters (Number of Characters) + a two-minute scene (Length of Scene) + a fast-talking conversation (Speed of Conversation) + wanting the audience to laugh (Drama) + the mixed emotions of the characters, laughter and fear (Mood) = a faster-paced scene. Almost all the elements point to a fast pace, and the point that brings it home is drama.

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