Film Pacing: 5 Secrets to Keep Your Projects from Getting Stale
Inception Pacing.jpg

Learn about the pace of your story at each stage of production and how you can use it to keep film and video projects at the right pace.

The tempo is something that is difficult to put a finger on. What makes one movie fast and fun and another slow and tedious? It's more than just the number of cuts or the time between them. The pace is both practical and intangible and tells how the audience is watching a movie and keeping up with the on-screen story.

And not just for films. Any video – from a TV commercial to a YouTube product review to a TikTok – should really be concerned with its pace. The question is: How do you define the stimulation and control it in your projects? While the answer may be a little complicated, once you combine all of the elements of filmmaking together – from scriptwriting to filming to editing – it makes sense.

So let's examine the five secrets of tempo and how to keep your projects from becoming obsolete.

1. Script and storyboard

The pace starts off really and really well before you start putting your edit together. The pace of a project is set in the earliest stages of your outline and script. You have the ability to set your pace in preproduction while you plan your recording and editing workflow. Different projects should have different steps.

A project or scene that is meant to convey intensity or confusion is planned and constructed to include lots of shots, lots of cuts and lots of movement. While a project or scene that is meant to be more thoughtful and emotional may be suitable for long takes, slow movements, and few cuts. It is important that you ask yourself about your pace and then focus on it early and often as you sketch your projects.

Once you've gotten into your script, you can set the pace in your own writing style as well as in your scene notes (i.e., "the action is increasing", "the pace is accelerating"). You can also start by creating pace in your storyboards, which is vital in defining the input and completion of each scene. This also allows you to define what camera moves and movements you need to achieve pace and speed.

2. Shoot on purpose

In addition to storyboarding your script with a pace in mind, it's important that you approach your actual production in such a way that the pace is at the forefront of your thoughts. Good filmmaking isn't just about skill or composition. It's really about intentionality. How much thought and focus can you put into each scene and shot? The pace is created by an intricate balance of all the elements of filmmaking being combined together.

A single recording is a building block for the overall pace of your project. How does it fit into the shot before and into the shot after? Are the actors or subjects moving with the same speed and intent? Does your camera move with you or does it stay stationary? How does this setting affect the characters' emotions and the overall narrative? If you ask yourself these questions, and each one has strong answers, you can control the pace on purpose.

3. Create momentum through movement

Once you feel like you have a thorough understanding of how the tempo works from shot to shot in your project, using all of the tools in your filmmaking arsenal can really immerse you in developing that tempo. One of the best tools for defining the overall pace of a project is motion. Movements – either with your characters, subjects or the camera itself – can create momentum from shot to shot and from scene to scene.

It's hard to believe that there was a time when simply panning a camera from left to right was considered revolutionary. But since The Great Train Robbery, filmmakers and filmmakers have found new and creative ways to create momentum by moving the camera. Read more about the importance of camera movement along with the YouTube video above.

4. Don't just edit sequence by sequence

A common problem with stimulation in most film projects is scene-to-scene and sequence-to-sequence inconsistency. Just because you have a fast-paced action sequence that is visually stunning and satisfying doesn't mean it always goes well with the emotional relationship sequence in the next scene. Tempo is about consistency and about finding the right balance between different styles and speeds.

A great example of the right pace can be seen in the Christopher Nolan films above. Known for his mega blockbusters and franchises, Nolan is a master at pacing up and down and finding the balance between fast and slow. Additionally, you can see some great examples of how Nolan uses various recording techniques, compositional frames, and the soundtrack to develop the tempo. The bottom line, however, is that while he uses many different styles and speeds, he always finds a way to bring each sequence and scene together with the next so you don't feel like you're seeing multiple little vignettes. Instead, everything is seamlessly part of a fully realized whole.

5. Add graphics, effects, and motion

As a final step, you can improve and adjust the pace of your project in the final stages of your editing as you add graphics, effects, and digital movement. Many of Christopher Nolan's films mentioned above feature some great examples of elements like camera shake. While a lot of these are in-camera and in real life, adding some dynamic shake afterwards can be helpful. Shocks create tension and discomfort and accelerate the pace for scenes that may drag on when shooting with a static camera.

We thought about how to keep up with movement. You can also create this movement afterwards if necessary. Adding different transitions, graphics, or effects can make your scenes livelier and livelier, especially when the information you're adding is badly needed for your project – like titles or lower thirds. Check out this roundup of tutorials to learn more about how to create titles, text, and motions.

For more tips, tricks, and resources on filmmaking, see the articles below.

Cover photo by Inception (via Warner Bros.).

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