Edit Suite: Make it Snappy

As video editors, we need to know how to choose an editing pace for a project and then how to decide if it’s too hot, too cold or just about right.

Pacing is one of the most vital aspects of video editing and one of the most elusive. In simple terms, pacing is speed:

  • The speed with which the content of a program is presented.

  • The speed of the program’s formal elements: its shots, transitions, titles, graphics and audio.


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But to say that pacing is speed is like saying that surgery is cutting. To quote the Wicked Witch of the West, "The question is, how to do it!"

We’ll try to answer the witch’s question. We’ll see how fast to deliver content, which is the substance and purpose of your program. We’ll look at pacing through editing styles. We’ll see how audio can support and even determine your program’s overall pacing.

Pacing Basics

To begin with, we need to separate entertainment videos from information programs. The best movies, from Star Wars to Disney’s Aladdin, are purposely paced just a skosh too fast, so you can follow the basic story but can’t catch all the goodies that enrich the program–goodies that entice you back to watch it again and again. (Good commercials often work this way too so you’ll want to watch them over and over.)

But to succeed with training videos, promotionals, infomercials and documentaries, you must pace these programs to deliver all their information without losing audience interest. Pacing these informational programs is our topic du jour.

Once again, defining pace is easy: generally speaking, if the show is boring, the pace is too slow; if it’s confusing, the pace is too fast. If it delivers its load of content in a lively and memorable way, it’s perfectly paced.

Okay, but perfectly paced for whom? Different viewer groups respond in different ways. To select an overall speed for your show, you must first identify the target audience and then put yourself in its place. How fast your selected viewers get bored or confused will determine your average miles per hour. To illustrate, here are the openings of two infomercials: Kamikaze Skateboards, and Dingly Dell Retirement Home.

Kamikaze Skateboards

  1. Fade in full shot of middle aged Narrator standing in front of a skateboard park.

    NARRATOR: Hello, there, I’m Rudolf Frimble and I’m here to tell you all about Kamikaze skateboards. (Holds up skateboard.)

  2. Insert: full shot of skateboard.

    NARRATOR: (voice over) This is a skateboard.

  3. Medium shot of narrator.

    NARRATOR: As you can see, it looks like a short, narrow surfboard.

  4. CU: Narrator.

    NARRATOR: But it’s not.

    Music: Fade up elevator music under narration.

Hey, forget it, dude, because your teenage target audience has already blown off poor old Frimble and surfed all the way to MTV.

Dingly Dell Retirement Home

    Music: Heavy-metal music at 120dB.

  1. Ten-second montage of 10-frame shots CUTCUTCUTCUTCUT: fast-motion, ultra wide-angle, worms-eye off-level views of seniors in wheel chairs howling down hallways, ricocheting off walls, slamming down stairs, pulling mid-air reverses as they soar over the camera.

  2. Matching montage of oldies popping wheelies with aluminum walkers.

  3. Deafening music continues.

  4. In half-second bursts, the words Dingly, Dell and Home, tumble into frame, expand like bubble gum bubbles and explode, leaving graphic remnants oozing down the screen as the frenetic live action montage and music continue.

Whoa! Better hit PAUSE, because we just fried the circuits on every pacemaker in the room.

For demonstration purposes, we’ve obviously switched the speed and style of Kamikaze and Dingly Dell. The teenage set needs the wham-bam pace to hold their attention; while the seniors want the comfort of a more measured and gentle presentation.

These examples say it all: predetermine your basic approach to program pace by targeting an audience and then imagining how they will respond. Once you’ve got your target audience firmly in your sights, decisions on pacing come naturally.

Delivering Content

Imagine Julia Child saying, "To make a perfect roast, simply prepare the meat, roast it in a moderate oven, and voila!" Not likely. One of her gifts is the knack for presenting content at a pace fast enough to entertain but slow enough to inform.

Where content is concerned, your first decision is how detailed to make your presentation. In the previous example, Ms. Child included far too little information about preparing a roast. But neither would she say, "To open the oven door, grasp the handle in the hand that is not holding the roasting pan and pull downward until the door stops by itself." To find a happy median, you must decide, point-by-point, what your target audience should be shown and what it can figure out on its own.

With the content points determined, the next question is how fast to present them. Here again, you can only decide by becoming your audience. Remember that too much too fast will frustrate your viewers because they can’t take it in, let alone retain it.

Timing Shots

In pacing the shots in your program, you have four variables to play with (assuming that whoever directed was sharp enough to provide the footage): length, variety, rhythm, and setup.

Short shot lengths deliver a snappy, energetic effect, while longer takes are more deliberate and dignified. Much of pacing depends simply on how long you hold one shot before cutting to the next.

Whether long or short, a string of similar shot lengths becomes tiresome: boring if they’re long ones or irritating if they’re short. That’s why you also need variety. Punctuate a stately flow with brief inserts and cutaways. Provide a respite from machine gun edits with a more leisurely view.

As you orchestrate shorter and longer shots you can develop a rhythm not unlike the rhythm of music. This rhythm is easiest to establish if you’re actually editing to music, as you do in a music video; but you can do it without music, just as you can recite a verse without a tune. A good rhythm is regular enough for the audience to feel subconsciously, but not rigid and mechanical.

Pace is also affected by the variety of angles and the editor’s choices among them. If your raw footage is limited to a master two-shot, his closeup and her closeup, there isn’t much you can do with it. More setups on the performers and numerous inserts and cutaways offer the variety you need to keep the sequence lively.

Choosing Transitions and Titles

After shot rhythms, transitions are the most powerful influencers of program pace, through both their style and their speed.

Classic cuts, dissolves and fades lend a formal air to the proceedings. For a deliberate, almost portentous feeling, try slow, soft-edge horizontal wipes like the ones that gave the film The Sting its quality of measured but unstoppable progress.

Digital Video Effects (DVEs) tend to be snappier. Making transitions flip, bounce and crush their way on-screen supplies an extra jolt of energy to your program.

With both classic and modern transitions, speed is everything. Even a stately fade to black can pack a punch if it’s only half a second long, and a bouncing ball DVE can turn positively eerie if you slow it to three seconds or so. Overall, the speed of your transitions may affect pacing more than the style you choose.

Everything about transitions can be applied to titles, plus one thing more: type face. Though fonts have nothing to do with timing, they have powerful characters that can add to the feeling of pace. Type design can say everything from minuet to headlong gallop.

Supporting with Audio

We’ve already mentioned the rhythms of music. The idea that slow music supports a languid pace and fast music a brisk one is a no-brainer. The subtleties of music editing lie somewhere in between the two.

Even moderate tempos reinforce a sense of forward motion, of progress through the program. And "moderate" covers a wide range of styles, from deliberate energy for an industrial presentation to cheerful good feelings for a travel piece, to perky liveliness for a cooking program. It’s no accident that the titles of library music pieces often express their mood in terms of pace.

If you’re not sure of the subjective feel you want for the pacing of your program, try letting the tail wag the dog: audition background music cuts until you find one that says, yes: this is the prevailing tempo of your program or part of it anyway.

Fact is, good videos longer than just a few minutes will vary the pace from section to section, creating variety by driving energetically forward, then offering a breather, then marching forward again.

Pace and rhythm in longer programs is a topic for another time. For now, target your audience and anticipate how it will respond. Then remember that if it’s boring, the pace is too slow; if it’s confusing, you’re going too fast. But never let it stop completely, fast or slow, pace means forward movement.

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