Rhythm and Pacing

Understanding how movement, energy, and time affects the edit.

Misha Tenenbaum avatar
Written by Misha Tenenbaum
Updated over a week ago

Rhythm and Pacing sounds like concepts we might associate with music, but similar principles can apply to editing. You'll often hear filmmakers use the same lexicon when evaluating the edit, but what constitutes for Rhythm and Pacing in film?


At its base description we can say Rhythm is a pattern of movement or sound, but does that truly capture our understanding of it as we perceive it? When we encounter it through touch, sight, or hearing there is almost something instinctual to our responses to it and our gut knows when it feels right or wrong. Perhaps, the inherent nature of it derives from our own living experiences as there are many types of rhythms we observe in the universe from the movement and patterns of the celestial skies, the changing of the seasons, and to the rise and fall of the ocean tides.

Rhythm in film editing can often be summarized to two distinct areas: Internal Rhythm from movements contained within a shot and the External Rhythm resulting from the individual edits.

Internal Rhythm

Movement of objects, actors, lighting, lenses, or camera movement contributes to the Internal Rhythm of a shot. When any of those variables move, it creates a type of rhythmic beat. The other key elements to observe are how many instances of movement are contained within a shot and at what energy or speed do those rhythmic beats occur over time? You almost perceive a type of ratio of movement and energy amongst all the individual beats within a shot creating a sense of contrast or affinity.

External Rhythm

This type of Rhythm is manufactured by the edit and is achieved by the frequency at which cuts occur in conjunction with the individual duration of each shot. It's established by the Timing and Pacing of all the elements together. Lengthening or shortening the duration of the shots establishes a rhythmic pattern that can be complimented or contrast with the Internal Rhythm content of a scene or sequence.


This attribute of Rhythm occurs as the filmmaker decides when cuts and shots occur. It's comprise of three elements:

  • Choosing the frame to cut on

  • Choosing a duration for the shot

  • Deciding on a placement of where that shot occurs in the edit

Timing does not just serve a metric function as the filmmaker may choose to manipulate the expansion or compression of time for various narrative purposes. Expansion of time may be needed to allow the audience to process new information, to create a sense of Suspense, or emphasize the key moment of a scene On the other hand, they may choose to compress time for the purpose of representing large amounts information in a easier to consume amount of screen time through the use of a Montage, or perhaps time is shortened to heighten a Surprise that catches the viewer off-guard. Motivating the timing of the edits to serve the story can ensure the audience appropriately responds and connects emotionally to the narrative's natural ebbs and flow.


Now that you're analyzing movement, energy, and timing of shots, you need to think of how those pieces fit into a series of edited shots as this creates a visual tempo. How does the energy of those individual shots compare? Is there an affinity or contrast? Does it distract and take you out of the moment or does it feel narratively supported by emotion and story?

Three elements often come into play that ultimately affects pacing

  • Rate of cutting

  • Rate of movement or change within a shot

  • Rate of overall change

When looking at the pacing of film, you need to analyze both on a Micro and Macro level.

Micro vs Macro Pacing

Micro pacing is when you're looking at rhythm and timing of shots within an individual scene so the points of comparison falls between shots. Macro, as the word suggests, asks you to look a little further back and instead compare the overall rhythm and timing of each scene and how those scene compare to each other in the structure of the overall film.

If your gut senses something is off, the issue may derive from the pacing within a scene that is causing it to not land for the audience or it may be from another scene relative to that one that created a rippling effect that muddles the story or emotional arc. Sometimes it takes investigative energies to analyze on both levels to pinpoint what may need to be addressed in the edit to fix perceived issues.

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