Pacing is a quite important aspect of film, but why is that so?
To explain that, let’s first dive into the meaning of the word “pacing”. What does it mean? Pacing is, as the word suggests about the pace of the film will be. Fast-paced movies will have quick rapid and fast cuts in a short amount of time, whereas a slow-paced film is more likely to have longer scenes, with not a lot of cuts. There are multiple reasons why you’d want to have a fast-paced scene or why you’d want to have a slow-paced scene, but that mainly depends on the subject material that can be seen in that scene. You are more likely to find slower scenes when they are trying to set up a character and fast cuts, accompanied with a shaking camera in an action sequence to create tension. Not to say that a slow-paced film can’t create tension, they can create tension on a long-term, whilst a fast-paced movie has short bursts of tension. The slow scenes can sometimes go on for quite some time, but during that time you’re starting to feel less at ease until you’ve come to a satisfying end of the scene.
A movie is bound to combine slow and fast scenes together in a movie, but they have to do it well. Don’t just go from slow to fast and continuously keep on switching between slow and fast, without any real transactions, because then your pacing will be all over the place and that’s something you don’t want to happen.
As an example of a well, slowly paced film I’ve chosen the brilliant film out of 2016 called Hell or High Water, which is also a movie that I’ve previously discussed in my article Why characters are important to film. The whole film is fairly slow-paced as usual with westerns, but by doing so, it slowly cranks up the tension as each minute passes, which ultimately ends with a satisfying climax. But why was it done so well in this film? Well, this is because the film’s interesting throughout. With slow-paced movies you have to watch out with the subject material, because if your story is uninteresting and the characters are flat, there’s not much to look out for and the movie becomes boring, which wasn’t the case with Hell or High Water. In Hell or High Water the characters are written very well and it has an intriguing story. The slow pace is an important aspect of the film, but it’s also the icing on the cake. On paper Hell or High Water looks good, but with the slow pace it’s practically perfect, as it fits the theme very well. Most westerns support on a slow tempo, because it can create stretched out, long talking sequences in which characters are developed, or in which there are just moments of silence. Think of classic gun shootouts where the two cowboys are standing back to back and walk away a certain amount of steps, to then turn around and fire the metal bullet out of their revolver. Scenes like that define a classic western and are a prime example when to use slow pacing, followed by fast. The bit where they’re walking away is slow, building up the tense moment where the spark ignites and the bullet leaves the barrel, where after the cuts are faster, mimicking how fast everything has gone by, showing the damage done by the bullets. A slow score in the background usually fits scenes like that perfectly. In Hell or High Water you won’t find this overused scene, but there is however a shootout in the ending of the film, where they use the same formula, just in a different moment: start of slow, end fast.
But of course I also have to have an example of a mostly fast paced film, and what film does it worse than Taken 3? Probably a lot, but the scene that really stood out to me is just the prime example of how not to use fast follow-up cuts. And Taken 3 is overall horribly edited, but this really scratches the bottom of the barrel. The scene that I’m talking about has gotten itself a status, not a good one and is the one where Liam Neeson’s character has to jump over a fence. In the scene there’s a lot of cuts to create tension, while they also shake the camera for the same effect. I understand that, but having a cut every second, well sometimes they even have more cuts in a second than one, is not good and only creates a hard to follow scene instead of an edge of your seat nail-biting sequence The scene doesn’t even need so many cuts. It’s just him jumping over a fence, nothing more. They could’ve done it with only one or even with three or four if they’d liked and the wanted effect would’ve come over better. Plus the editing department would’ve been a lot happier. What also could’ve helped is an upbeat, not generic score playing over the scene. In this scene it’s obviously done because Liam Neeson wasn’t able to climb the fence well, so to cover up the fact, they just edited it a bunch.
But to follow the motto that I’ve applied to more articles: there’s always something to learn out of a bad film. So what can we learn out of this one? Just don’t cut to a different shot every second in scenes where it’s not needed, like jumping a fence for example. It makes the scene hard to follow and just makes it more obvious that the actor has trouble doing the action scene. That’s why a lot of fight scenes these days are practically just edits and a camera held by a monkey gone mad. You can still create a fast-paced scene with not that many cuts, a fast soundtrack also can make the scene feel fast.
In the examples that I’ve chosen pacing is used as a tool to generate tension, which is not always necessary. It can also be used to create characters or something similar. It depends on the subject matter. Horror films are often fast-paced, but that doesn’t mean comedies, which are completely different can’t be fast paced as well. In comedies, the fast pace can work hand in hand with the quirky jokes for example. So don’t think the pacing is solely good to create tension.