Someone once compared watching a film to listening to a piece of music. Thinking about the whole process, it makes sense. Music notes on sheet paper guide musicians to play a piece of music in harmony led by a conductor. And yet music is not just about fitting all those components together like a puzzle. Instead they meld and cohere so invisibly to create a mood and flow of that piece. This is like film. Cinematography, sound design, editing, writing and actors all lift a story onto the big screen but don’t work in and of themselves. Their roles sync to create the right atmospheres for engaging narratives.
Understanding film like music cannot be a better comparison to situate pace in film: because pace is all about establishing mood and flow. Watching a film is about experiencing its patterns, the symmetry of its parts and, very importantly, timing. Pace relates to the progress of the narrative arc; how we are guided through the story. We engage with the scenes in terms of the flow of dialogue and action, in other words, its rhythm.
But understanding what we mean by pace can be very difficult because it is subtle. Let’s just say that bad pacing is when something happens too long on screen or contrarily too short: we’re either twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the next piece of information to reveal itself or are confused because we haven’t had enough time to process what we see. Good pacing constantly mediates that middle ground, adjusting between fast and slow to keep us emotionally engaged through one and a half hours of storytelling.
I’ve chosen to examine how 5 contemporary directors use pace in order to understand how films can be read this way. Although it’s not often explicit, the way these directors have paced their films have been influential in defining their specific directorial style.
1. David Fincher
David Fincher is perhaps most known for his hard-boiled, fast-thinking and emotionally twisted protagonists. Think the insomniac narrator in Fight Club, whiz brain Zuckerberg in The Social Network and the frantic but driven cartoonist Graysmith trying to find a killer in Zodiac. By following the journey of these characters, the pace of Fincher’s films are mostly fast, sharp and succinct. His punchy dialogue is definitely key to this, but also his slick editing and camerawork. Fincher for instance has this camera technique of following the movement of characters, tracking alongside them as they walk; lingering as they pause. It’s as if we’re experiencing the events alongside them, searching for truths the same time they are. Fincher always provides us with a lot of information to grasp in a short space of time, often jumping between different points in time, yet his films’ steady pace helps us process all of that whilst focusing on a clear plotline. As a result, you can pick up new details in his films with every viewing. However, Fincher’s best achievement lies in the way he brings his viewers to the level of his protagonists’ pace of thinking. When we watch the Social Network we can’t help but start think fast like Zuckerberg. This is the crux to the way Fincher builds suspenseful plotlines.
2. Quentin Tarantino
People usually associate violence with fast-paced thrillers. Violence in Tarantino’s films however occurs at a purposefully measured pace, usually at the end of a very long piece of dialogue, to make it all the more unexpected and ruthless. If you think of the opening scene of Inglorious Bastards, SS colonel Hans Landa has a pretty banal conversation with the dairy farmer, but psychologically transforms him into such a nervous wreck that he is led to reveal the Jewish family hiding under his floorboards. This scene draws out the characters’ conversations line by line, dragging out the tension without changing pace for as long as possible to the point of becoming unbearable: then he brings out the guns. Pensive but suspenseful pacing is particular to Tarantino in making viewers wait to jolt at newly erupted action. Additionally, Tarantino often utilizes confining claustrophobic spaces to establish power dynamics between characters. The intrusion of a Nazi officer in the basement bar of Inglorious Bastards for instance is a visual disruption because he walks in from a different camera angle within that space. This change in framing is disarming and considerably changes the flow of the scene, showing how instrumental shot composition is to pace.
3. Damien Chazelle
Music has been the main subject of Oscar-winning Damien Chazelle first two features, Whiplash and La La Land. As a musical, La La Land is obviously filmed and edited according to the film’s soundtrack but I found Chazelle’s other film Whiplash equally fascinating in a rhythmic sense. Chazelle’s debut feature centers on an ambitious student drummer challenged physically and psychologically by a renowned but abusive conservatory teacher, Terrence Fletcher. Whiplash opens on the protagonist, Andrew Neiman, playing on his kit, his drum roll in gradual crescendo as the camera pushes forward to a close up. This audio-visually establishes the increasing emotional frustration Andrew experiences throughout the film on the pulse of a drumbeat, pushed further to the brink of sanity. Sound architects Andrew’s state of anxiety and the film’s spiraling tension. In a finale jazz performance, when Andrew realizes he has been cheated by Fletcher he takes the orchestra into his own hands with an electrifying drum solo. Conductor and drummer lock heads in battle on the basis of whether Andrew will lose his furious beat, at times matching viewers’ racing heartbeat. Chazelle’s method of pacing posits Whiplash’s key point of contention: is Fletcher trying to screw Andrew over, or by challenging him does he help him become famous?
4. Terrence Malick
Whilst for Fincher pace is key to locking viewers into characters’ minds, the films of Terrence Malick remove them from the main narrative focus altogether. Malick’s films have often (controversially) been described as poetic essays, extended philosophical enquiries on the meaning of life. This is because he has a specific form of cinematic storytelling that is based on loosely associated images, using a drifting camera wafting in and out of a scene, placing characters in an out of focus. This is particularly distinctive to the flow of Malick’s work that doesn’t impose a particular way of viewing action according to characters’ perspectives. Malick builds his filmic narratives around moments and gestures, as if we’re guided by characters’ stream of consciousness. In Tree of Life for instance, Malick tries to express how protagonist Jack searches the farthest recesses of his mind to bring back his earliest childhood memories. The dislocated images and snippets of voices embody that indeterminacy of remembering. It’s Jack’s sensorial rather coherent experience that Malick tries to convey in his particular cinematic language. His sense of pace establish that illusion of what is floating, lilting and lyrical; to show how action doesn’t have a purpose or ending but just wafts in front of the camera.
5. Lynne Ramsay
Studying the pace of Lynne Ramsay’s work is intriguing on the basis of her formal background as a photographer. Her aesthetic practice weaves into her cinematographic work because they are as detailed as photography itself. What we see in her films are studies of characters, focusing on details that break free from the confines of the plot and set up a pace to her films both tender and meditative. Ramsay tells stories of ordinary people’s lives, oftentimes harrowing or burdened by grief or pain, and within the worlds they inhabit she unfolds images and sounds that make us immerse in its folds and textures. As opposed to Whiplash’s plot-driven sound and image, to Ramsay they are part of her attention to detail. This is to show the way James in Ratcatcher wraps himself in a curtain, as if shrouded by his friend’s death who drowned in a bog. There’s this memorable close-up shot of ants crawling on a jam sandwich in We Need To Talk About Kevin. This not only reveals the mess left by an ill-mannered boy, but also how his parents, by post-poning the problem, let it grow into a bigger one. Through careful framing and shot choices, both films portray different portraits of childhood and adulthood, revealed in the visual pacing of their day-to-day lives.