Written by David K. Irving
“Each picture has some sort of rhythm which only the director can give it.” ~Fritz Lang
Pace is an important property in a film because the success or failure of a project in many ways is dependent on it. When the credits roll or the lights come up in a theater, you, as an audience member experiencing a well-paced film, can’t believe it’s over. You are satisfied. You are thrilled. You want more. You got your money’s worth.
Going to the water fountain during a film, refilling your popcorn, looking at your watch, glancing around to see who is in the theater, checking out the sticky substances on the floor— all are tell-tale signs of a film’s poor pace. A poorly paced film is a struggle to sit through. Even if the story is interesting, the acting engaging, the photography and the sets captivating, without proper pacing, an audience may become antsy. It is this ephemeral quality of pace that hooks the audience.
What is pace? It is rhythm, volume, negative space, speed and intensity all rolled into one. Comedy illustrates the effect of pace because a comic beat either works or it doesn’t. A joke, or a funny bit of business, depends on the way it is told or performed. The precision of comedy relies on effective tempo. A joke told too slowly is boring and the listener may leap ahead and guess the punch line. A monotone is boring. If the speaker laughs all the way through the story, or tells it too fast, it is ruined. Storytelling is an art in which the manner of telling is as important as the story itself.
The director rehearses a scene until it works. Only then does he or she roll cameras. As the sole audience member on set, the director “knows” when the take is right, when it is instilled with the proper pace. This intuitive knowledge comes from a thorough understanding of the arc of the story, which is important, as most film projects are shot out of continuity. Editing is a boon for the director in that it affords an opportunity to adjust, tweak and/or shape the final pacing of a beat, scene or entire film.
So, how do you teach pace? Examples and practice. Screening a well-paced sequence and reviewing in detail how and why it works demonstrate effective filmmaking. So too can a poorly paced scene define in a glaring fashion what not to do. But noting surpasses the experience of discovering proper pace by directing a sequence with a good text and fine actors.