How to Approach Pacing in Film

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Pacing in film: it sounds like a simple concept, but it’s actually created by a collection of complex choices.

And as a filmmaker, you get to make all the decisions about what you want your film’s pacing to be.

Are you directing an intense action sequence that’s meant to get your audience’s hearts pounding? You might opt for quick cuts and camera movements.

But if your scene is a quiet, emotional character moment, then quick cuts might make things feel awkward or choppy.

Studying pacing in film

To be deliberate with your pacing choices, first study the pacing in good films. You may want to start with a film that has the kind of pacing you’re going for.

But it can also be useful to study something in a totally different genre or mood so that you can compare and contrast.

Here are some pacing elements you can make note of as you watch:

  • How many scenes are in the film?
  • How many shots or cuts are in each scene?
  • How long does the camera linger on something or someone before cutting?
  • What kinds of transitions are in the film?
  • What kinds of establishing shots are in the film?
  • Which scenes had the most emotional impact on you? What was the pacing like in those scenes?
  • Did any areas feel too slow or too fast to you?
  • Did you ever get bored with or confused about what was going on?
  • Did the film ever feel like it wasn’t moving forward?
  • What would you have added or removed?

There are even psychological reasons behind why many filmmakers recommend that scenes be 3 minutes or shorter:

Experimenting with film pacing

Keep in mind that pacing is film is something that can change and evolve throughout the editing process. If a scene is feeling slow, you can make cuts. If it’s feeling too fast, you can use additional shots or try different transitions. You can also play with music, effects and graphics.

Choosing what to include and what to leave out can also help you with pacing, subtext and emotional impact.

Editing is everything

Take a look at how you can use the same footage in different ways through editing:

Start with the script

Pacing in film doesn’t just happen in the editing bay, though. It begins with your script.

You’re the master of your story. Be deliberate with your choices. You get to pick what is included or excluded. You get to decide if we spend 30 minutes or 3 seconds learning about a character’s childhood.

Brian Duffield, writer/director of Spontaneous, says the film has “two sections that are specifically designed to be a little too long for character reasons (without being spoilery), so it was important that Mara’s personal journey be compelling enough to sustain a movie, and in post we refined that as much as we could.”

“Be interesting” might indirectly be the most important lesson of screenwriting pacing.

It’s also important to listen to where the story takes you. Maybe you’re trying to force something to be a fast action movie when something totally different is emerging.

Take a look at what M. Night Shyamalan has to say about this part of screenwriting:

Lessons and Tips