Introduction to Film Editing: What Does Pacing and Timing Mean?

Learning to edit: What does timing and pacing mean?
Learning to edit: What does timing and pacing mean? | © Photo: ZHdK

According to Hitchcock, the duration of a feature film is defined by the capacity of the human bladder. But also the film editing as well as the rhythm determined by pacing and timing have a say in the perceived and effective length of the film.

Film editing is the process of limiting the length of a film or video. If “a piece of film” is cut off at the front and back by the editor, this is called timing. When the settings trimmed in this way are put together, the pacing is created. Films are not nailed together with a hammer, but intelligently assembled and ideally screwed together in an extremely artistic way. The foundation, the power and the potential of the film lies in the assembling of endless individual parts into more than their sum.

It is not without reason that many professional filmmakers deliberately do not speak of cutting films, but of editing them.

You have to know that

  • Film editing goes far beyond the pure, so-called “cutting”. Understood as a montage, it also encompasses essential aspects of image design such as timing and pacing.
  • Pacing is the term used to describe the rhythm created within a shot by the camera work and direction.
  • Timing is the length of a shot chosen for film editing. This is rarely identical with the turning length. This also makes it clear that a shot made with a certain rhythm can be sabotaged, not to say destroyed, by a misunderstood cut.
  • Timing and pacing create the rhythm of the film. This in turn follows the director’s and editor’s interpretation of the plot lines.

Film editing goes beyond editing

In a narrower sense, editing refers to the physical handling of raw material: films are shortened and/or reassembled. Whether by hand and with a glue press as in the past, or whether digitally today, whether for cinema or YouTube, a sequential series of individual images is always extended or shortened.

With analogue film, “cutting” to the correct length of a shot was always done step by step for technical reasons. Once cut away, it was tedious and even impossible to undo the process in the case of the single image.

That’s why they felt their way to the right length after choosing the best take. Only then was the fine cut made on the basis of this so-called rough assembly.

Interestingly, in the analog age, people talked about cutting rooms and film editing. In the digital world, spaces with the same purpose are called edit or, more nobly, editing suites.

Still, in many of these technologically advanced spaces, people are cutting instead of editing. At least if you stick to the narrow definition of film editing.

In addition to the aspect of montage, film editing encompasses two other important dimensions:

  • Pacing, and
  • Timing

Both factors play a major role in determining perception.

A concrete example of what rhythm and length mean for a feature film can be experienced online in the editing of the feature film Effigie – The Poison and the City.

Pacing

The rhythm within a shot, whether created consciously or unconsciously, is called pacing. It’s the American equivalent of rhythm. Each video has its own beat. Consciously chosen or unconsciously created: the rhythm is the heartbeat of a film. It must always be in sync with the story.

The film pioneer James Williamson discovered as early as 1901 : film time and real time are usually identical only at the level of the shot. This means that the film time can be manipulated and its rhythm deliberately designed differently from the way it was shot.

Pacing can also be translated into German as Takt or Tempo. It is always a matter of controlling the pace of a film in a targeted manner.

Pacing creates rhythmic structures for the viewer. This is done through the timing of the respective film sequence. Time lapse, aperture or slow motion can help to shape or change pacing in film editing.

Pacing can occur within a setting or across a sequence of settings. Pacing can occur not only through visual triggers (movements), but also through impulses on the sound level. Image and sound can even work together.

The combination of the speed of a single camera shot with the speed of a sequence of several shots alone makes it clear why cult directors such as Stanley Kubrick were emphatic in their conviction that film editing was more important than filming, but without filming to generate material for the editing room, film editing was unfortunately not possible.

Timing

Essential for the rhythm of a film is also, as already explained, the length of a scene, which in turn is determined by the length of the shot. The difference between timing and pacing can be seen in the fact that the timing of a shot can make or break pacing in film editing.

Timing refers to the length and thus the entry and exit point of a setting. If cut too early or too late, the effect changes.

If shots (also called takes) are cut, shortened or later extended again, the timing changes. As a result, the pacing changes as well.

If the timing of the start and exit is chosen shortly after each other, this has consequences for the pacing. The faster rhythm makes the “pace” is too high. Choosing the right entry and exit time is similarly challenging as scriptwriting. There, too, the true master can be recognized by how and where he enters and exits a scene.

For more on this topic, see the post .

Prerequisite for successful film editing: order

The digital sky, driven by software, is blue and (mostly) cloudless. And the amount of available memory on the high-powered computer in the edit makes the director’s heart laugh. All the greater is the temptation, after a successful shoot, to load all the material into the computer overnight in a jiffy.

If this happens without a technical workflow that has been defined with all involved parties (editor, color grading, animation, graphics, etc.), the blue sky can quickly turn into the blue wonder.

Then individual pieces have to be searched for, found and possibly re-read in a different resolution and correctly labelled for hours and days. Deadline goals go down the drain, creativity takes a dive. Not to mention later difficulties for the often contractually owed archiving or for adaptations.

But that is not the only reason why order is important.

Editing a film means assembling a work with the potential to become art from hundreds of individual pieces, information and emotion. If an editor or director needs his energy to find the right pieces for his work of art, because the individual parts do not follow any structure and lie wildly jumbled on a video server or a hard disk, he is focusing his energy and concentration in the wrong place.

Note on the term editing

The term editing is often colloquially equated with digital film editing.

In addition to the technical process of lengthening or shortening, editing includes the task of telling the story in the best possible way by stitching together camera angles.

The term thus goes beyond the old-fashioned understanding of film editing and encompasses all processes in the editing room.

When a professional film editor speaks of cutting or editing today, he means this process. In accordance with the principle of equivalence, this step is also of the utmost importance in terms of impact and quality.

Just as the principle of chance in guiding the camera cannot ensure the overriding message, film editing must never follow the principle of arbitrariness. That is why films are not cut, but edited and assembled.

In its deliberately chosen sequential order of images, the film resembles comics. The checklist in the second part of this article series on editing shows why this is essential for quality and impact.

More info on timing and pacing in film editing

For more on film editing, pacing and timing, see the article Good Film Books. Filmpuls will be devoting a separate article in the near future to the phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video.

Further reading (selection):

  • A Dialectical Approach to Film Form, Sergei Eisenstein, 1929
  • Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno, 1973

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

About Pavel Sokolov 35 Articles
Pavel studies film editing. He likes François Truffaut, Terrence Malick, Dr Pepper, his Thermaltake View 71 TG, music by Seeed and all things related to the color red but not causing pain to any living creature.

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