Pictured above: David K. Irving directing a scene for feature film, “Night of the Cyclone.”
By David K. Irving
Pace is an important property particular to film. It has two meanings: the rhythms of the film as dictated by the screenplay, and the tempo of a day’s work as set by the director. The success or failure of a project in many ways is dependent on this intangible quality. The pace of the film is built into the script, into each beat, each scene, and only when strung together is the rhythm of the whole appreciated. Therefore, the director, as the principal audience on set, determines, shapes and approves the pace of the scenes. To accomplish this, the director must know the script intimately and be able to approximate pace prior to production. This is particularly important as most films are shot out of sequence. To shoot Scene 95 on Day 3, and to have it build naturally upon Scene 94, which may be shot weeks later, requires a director to orchestrate the action to fit into a grand scheme. As William Shakespeare once said, “To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first.” Even a roller coaster ride begins with the clickety-clack of the cars being pulled up to the highest point of the ride to make the first of many stomach-wrenching plunges.
The other definition of pace is that of the director’s own inner mechanism. As the true audience of one on set, the director’s inner clock is linked to that of the production and the screenplay. On a 50-Day shoot, the director should be at the same level of energy (to guarantee a consistent result) on Day 50 as he or she was on Day 1. Many first-time directors burn themselves out by Day 10 of a difficult shoot. This results in either their being replaced or producing less energetic and focused dailies in the latter part of the shoot.
Directors not only need to maintain their health during a shoot but their energy level as well. As the leader of the company, the director needs to inspire the cast and crew. Most of this inspiration comes from the director’s energy. When it flags, so too does that of the company. Do whatever is necessary to maintain. Take naps. Eat wisely. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Drink plenty of water. Laugh. Remember the Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady wins the race. Or as John Ford used to say, making a film is like a trip out west in the old days. The director looks forward to the journey, but after the thirst, bumpy wagons and desperados, you just want to get to your destination alive.
David K. Irving is currently an Associate Professor and former Chair of the Film and Television program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. David has directed six feature films and dozens of documentaries. David is the co-author of the award-winning textbook, “Producing and Directing the Short Film and Video.”