An often-unsung filmmaking hero is the editor. Molding and shaping the story into something cohesive is a daunting, often-overlooked role in film and video production. Determining the pace of your film and how it moves from scene to scene is tough, especially if you’re a shreditor. Let’s take a look at how some of current masters of filmmaking tell stories with wildly different paces and tones.

Pacing Action Scenes

In the video above, we compare the two Batman chase sequences from Batman v Superman and The Dark Knight — with particular attention to the pacing. In BvS, you’ve got quick cuts, tense music, and tight shots on the actors and the Batmobile. Though this might seem like a standard recipe for an action scene, compared with Christopher Nolan’s work, you see just how much more effective your narrative can be at creating suspense.

In The Dark Knight, you’ve got wide, long, and virtually silent shots that build the scene. The viewer can see where the characters are within the massive scope of the city. The slow buildup of tension and dread leads to the ultimate payoff in the inevitable meeting of the Joker and Batman.

Nolan’s recent Dunkirk, on the other hand, is full of tension, and the payoff is the calm scenes in between. If you’ve seen the film (no spoilers) there are attacks from enemy ships throughout the film. The central characters are trying to survive each sequence/attack only to move on to the next set piece that may or may not be destroyed. But since there are so many intense action sequences, only moments after the explosions cease can the audience (and our characters) breathe. The intense pacing of Dunkirk is also a product of the nerve-racking score that accompanies the film.

Building Tension

Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 masterpiece, Sicario, showcased some of the best editing, cinematography, acting, and directing in recent memory. Much of this acclaim came from the indescribably tense pacing. As you can see in the video above, the border crossing scene is a wondrous display of editing, sound editing, and directing.

The scene we’re discussing involves about thirteen minutes of buildup to one shootout that lasts seconds. Even though most of this structure and organic tension is mostly a product of good writing, the editing and incredible score that accompanies this scene also deserve credit. The promise of impending violence becomes even more tense with long shots of characters looking out the window, waiting for something to happen — just like the audience. As the scene builds, the shots come more quickly and the editing speeds up, building to a violent, emotional climax that leaves the viewer stunned and scared.

Something to consider before you take on your next project: the pace of your sequence or film is not the responsibility of the editor alone. How you frame shots, capture audio, and film performances can have a lasting impact on the final edit and the overall tone and shape of your film.

Slowing Things Down

This example in There Will Be Blood is an essential demonstration of a technique to add to your video editing tool belt. Given the slow, drawn-out nature of the plot, editor Dylan Tichenor’s approach to dialogue involved cutting out audio from characters facing away from other characters, thus building longer pauses between exchanges. This might seem awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what Tichenor wanted. These long moments of silence add feelings of anger and tension to the performances — as well as significantly slowing down the overall pace of the film.

Since there is never really a big payoff, like we see in Sicario or The Dark Knight (even though one could argue the oil derrick explosion is quite the payoff), There Will Be Blood takes the slow approach and drags it out for the remainder of the movie, leaving the audience abandoned and miserable in the end.

Every director and editor has a different editing style that usually lines up with the type of story they’re telling. An Edgar Wright film is going to be quicker than a Sofia Coppola film. It’s all about finding out how to keep your audience engaged while telling a story the most entertaining way you know how.


Who are some of your favorite working editors in the business? Let us know in the comments.

Cover image via Shutterstock.