There is no denying that the pace of the average feature film today is faster than ever before. It’s become quite common for the first act of a movie to be jam packed with enough plot points to sustain an entire movie, and while in some cases having a fast paced film may work (particularly if it falls into the action/thriller genre), more often than not it can disengage the audience from the story and actually work against the narrative.
I often take a “less is more” approach when it comes to filmmaking, and also usually prefer watching films that are more subtle and minimalistic by nature. The films that really speak to me are told honestly – not only in terms of the characters and themes that they feature, but also in terms of the way the plot points are laid out. So many films today (ranging from no-budget films to Hollywood blockbusters), jam pack so much content into 2 hours that there is little time to absorb any of it, and ultimately each and every plot point becomes less important since there is such an abundance of action and change happening constantly throughout the film. This can happen for many reasons – an overly ambitious screenplay, too much improvised dialogue during production, or a post-process that isn’t ruthless enough. However it may happen, there is no question that many poorly executed films could have been more successful and more well received had the filmmakers focused on quality over quantity.
For the purpose of this article, I really am speaking to the directors and producers out there – even though many of the points that I am making will apply to screenwriters and editors as well. As I stated above, pacing issues in a film can come from anywhere (from the script to the editing room), but the reason why this is particularly important for directors and producers to recognize, is because these issues can be remedied to a certain degree at nearly any stage of the filmmaking process. With that said though, the sooner the issues are nipped in the bud, the better.
The Slow Burn
The way that you choose to structure your film is a direct reflection of how you see your audience, and if you see your audience as intellegent you are far less likely to fall into the trap of creating an over abundance of unnecessary plot points in your film. Conversely, if you believe your audience isn’t going to “get it”, you are more likely to spoon feed them plot points, character details, and unnecessary backstory information that can leave them feeling bored and disinterested. When I watch a really great film, I feel like I am working to pick up every last bit of information that I need – it never feels like it’s being handed to me. I look for clues in the actors performances, or subtle hints in other aspects of the execution that help me to gradually understand the constantly unravelling plot-line. On the other hand though, when I watch a film that is on the nose (as so many films today are), I become disinterested almost immediately. And this isn’t simply true because I’m a filmmaker, as I’ve heard across the board (from friends, acquaintances, and audiences at testing groups), that they largely react to these types of characteristics in films the same way.
To give this whole argument a little bit of context, I’ll use an example of a great story that was told at a very slow pace – The Sopranos. Yes, this is an example from a TV show (not a feature), but the same principles apply.
One of the greatest things about The Sopranos was that every single moment and every single scene felt important. Even when very little was happening in terms of plot progression, so much was happening under the surface… You just had to look for it. A scene that might be as simple (and seemingly meaningless) as Tony eating leftover pasta by himself in the kitchen, could in fact be bursting with meaning and might foreshadow an event to come – it simply required the audience to read between the lines. So much could be understood from such unassuming moments about the characters, the story, and the theme of the show. If these texturizing moments were replaced by obvious, on the nose plot points, it just wouldn’t be the same. It’s no coincidence that as the seasons went on and the pacing became faster (season 5 and 6 in particular), the reaction from the audience wasn’t quite the same as it was in the earlier seasons. By the last couple of seasons it felt like so much was happening in each episode. And while many of us (myself included) still thoroughly enjoyed the ride, there was a noticeable shift in the direction that the story and pacing took.
The Sopranos is a fairly extreme example, and I am by no means suggesting that every film and television show needs to be directed and produced at that slow of a pace, however I am suggesting that taking the “slow burn” approach to telling a story can be helpful for nearly any project. It may seem on the surface that this approach would primarily apply to dramatic films, but it can be just as applicable to films in many other genres as well. Take horror for instance. The vast majority of audience members will be more affected by a long drawn out build up in a horror sequence, when compared to a fast sequence that relies on predicatable techniques (sound design, fx, etc.) as a feeble attempt to generate a cheap scare. Even action films (which there is no denying, call for a much faster pace) can sometimes benefit from slowing things down. I’m not suggesting the entire pacing of an action film should crawl (after all, then it wouldn’t be an action film anymore!), but I am saying that if there is a break in the action that allows for tension to build, then when a faster paced/high energy sequence comes back in, it will feel even more powerful in context.
Finding The Right Pace
Recognizing the importance of pacing is one thing, but actually executing it will call for some tough decisions to be made.
Ideally, if you are directing or producing a film, you want to be aware of any potential problem areas during the script development phase so that you can save yourself some headaches down the road. I personally like to map out all of my plot points on cue cards and throw them up on a cork-board in sequential order as a starting point. Once the cards are all laid out, any potential pacing problems using start to show themselves pretty easily. There may be too many plot points in the first act, but the second act is a little thin. Or the entire film may just have too many plot points in general, and calls for some of them to be removed. Whatever the problem may be, by looking at things on a board, it helps to expose issues that could be hidden in the screenplay itself. For an extreme example, imagine a single page in a screenplay that has five or six plot points crammed into it (montage style). While on the page this might look fine, once you break those plot points out into five or six cue cards, you can visually understand how much information you are giving away.
During production, the best thing that you can do is to ensure that you have enough master coverage to allow for smooth and slow edits. You aren’t always going to want to cut a scene slowly – that goes without saying, but if you do want a scene to linger a bit, and you don’t have the footage to back that up in the editing room, you’re not going to be happy and ultimately the film will suffer. Probably the best way to ensure that you are covered is to always shoot a clean master shot that could be used from front to back. These days, it’s more common than not to break down your shot list to the bare necessities in order to get as much coverage as possible (alternate angles) while spending the least amount of time shooting it. In reality though, when it comes time to edit your movie you are likely going to throw away a lot of that coverage, so don’t sacrifice your master shot at the expense of an extra angle or two. Having that clean master will allow you to slow things down when you need to, and will provide a great anchor point for your scene.
And finally, during the edit and post-process you need to remain highly focused on pacing throughout every last scene. A perfectly paced screenplay and production can be destroyed in the editing room, and a poorly paced story can be saved in the edit. One of the best ways to know whether or not your edit has any issues is simply to avoid editing your own material. So many independent film directors (me being one of them) like to edit their own films, but when you’re dealing with a feature, this can be a really bad idea. You will be tempted to use all sorts of shots, scenes and takes that might be unnecessary, and you will become so close to the project that you won’t be able to see it objectively. If at all possible, bring in another editor to at the very least create a basic assembly cut for you, and you will definitely be able to look at things more objectively once that first cut is done.
Great filmmakers treat their audiences with respect and make the wise decision of releasing plot information slowly. The simplest plot point can feel monumental if it is the context of a well paced story, yet at the same time what should be an extremely powerful plot point can become meaningless when it is sandwiched in-between irrelevant or extraneous plot information. The best films create a dynamic world that is layered and textured, and where every moment is interesting and engaging to watch. Nearly all filmmakers recognize this, but few filmmakers understand that audience engagement is at it’s peak when the viewer is challenged to pick up on important details and nuances along the way, ultimately keeping them on the edge of their seat. Always remember to think of your plot points as your most valuable assets as a story teller, and never give them away too easily.
For those of you that like to shoot your own films (in addition to directing or producing), be sure to check out my recent article on the 7 Bad Habits That Are Holding You Back As A Cinematographer.