ACTION DESIGN BLOG: Pacing, Timing, and Harmonics

Vic Armstrong - Pacing.jpg
Vic Armstrong - Pacing.jpg

ACTION DESIGN BLOG: Pacing, Timing, and Harmonics


What do Foxcatcher, Furious 6, the Bourne Trilogy, Star Trek, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have in common? They all achieve appropriate pacing despite being completely different genres. As far as I’m concerned, this is the cherry on top, as a good movie should be entertaining and make your time well spent.

 In Vic Armstrong’s “The World’s Greatest Stuntman,” Vic talks about timing the beats when he jumps off a horse. But it doesn’t matter what Vic is jumping off or on…. in his case, timing is a life or death situation. Vic LOVES horses. He was introduced by his father and grew up with them. Riding a horse is a very unique experience — it has a cadence or a gait different from us or any other animal like an elephant or camel. When Vic jumps off, he knows the rhythm of the horse…

Certain fight or stunt coordinators will break down a fight into beats. There’s a tempo. Sometimes the tempo is altered to make up for lack of talent, or in the case of Hong Kong style shooting, they will change the frame rates to simulate speed.

In a recent meeting with Doug Trumbull, VFX legend of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, we discussed cadence in great detail especially with regards to his new technology, but as a filmmaking fundamental, it is key.

Editing is a vital component in the filmmaking process, and without the right timing, the movie can go amiss. Whether it’s Vic jumping off a horse or the editor missing a beat in the fight sequence, it’s editing that connects the dots or is the funnel, so to speak. Editing is where the action gets made

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Rick Pearson about editing. As far as I’m concerned, Rick changed filmmaking with the 2nd Bourne movie, The Bourne Supremacy. The quick edits and shaky-cam made for dynamic and kinetic filmmaking, and with the tandem of Stunt coordinators and 2nd unit Director – Gary Powell and Dan Bradley – it made for some memorable action sequences. On a side note, the car chase you see in The Bourne Supremacy was close to Rick’s first cut. Dan Bradley said to Rick, “It was as if you were in my head.”

In the latest Fast & Furious films, the action sequences were done by action craftsmen, in which Spiro Razatos (the 2nd unit director) brought in his editor and their vision was realized on Spiro’s terms. With action, there’s always a concept in mind, which encompasses the speed and tempo of the action, and they fine-tune it with the editor.

Another word is rhythm, which can’t be ignored and can be confused with timing. Talking to a music person, these concepts are easily distinguishable, but when we’re dealing with a visual medium, it can have a different harmonic. For argument’s sake, rhythm could be understood as how it flows and the edits would be the timing of the cuts. Combine the two properly and you get pacing…

Let’s take this from an artistic point of view. Someone whose work I’ve enjoyed and studied is Fellini. If you are not a fan or have never experienced his work, I would recommend seeing La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2…  you’ll see aesthetics that are just not common anymore. Fellini ties in artistry with timing. Another in this realm, but with different angle, so to speak, is Sergio Leone. His ability to use musical composition to dictate the speed of certain sequences is a sight to be seen and a sound to be heard. However, in these movies, the editing is not the strongest point, but the aesthetics are on another level!

How does tie this into pacing, you ask? It’s in the harmonics…what is a harmonic? Basically, it’s a wavelength.

What does a wavelength do? It has an effect on some things and people. Listen to Pink Floyd, Edith Piaf or look at a Picasso from his Blue period or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey or your favorite action sequence? Any of these artists in their own medium create an affect on you, but pacing is something that drives the aesthetic. For example, areas and locales have a different speed or vibe, if you will. A New Yorker’s pace would not be the same as someone who lives in the desert.

Editing is a vital component in the future of filmmaking but people may look elsewhere like Oculus Rift or such. Or the gaming arena, which has a different harmonic than the movie medium.

I’ve seen not-so-impressive movies where the pacing was able to carry me through. If the pace is right…people are more likely to watch it. In other words, what is a boring movie? If you look closely, it’s usually the pacing — possibly the director fell in love with the shots or the writer is adamant in having a line stay in, or what have you — maybe the studio got involved OR the editor didn’t kill enough of the babies.

Note: Kill the baby is a term where an editor has to cut a shot. The DP/Director/Stunt coordinator, etc. may love a shot or they put a lot of sweat into it. Editors…should edit.

In the case with Rick Pearson, Dan Bradley gave him free reign to edit and it paid off. However, if you are to look at the Bourne movies…there is an ebb and flow, which is a harmonic; and it resembles a wavelength. The DP has to work with similar dynamics but with colors (Spectrometer). The writer has to do it with rhythm. For example, in comedy, timing has to be spot on or you’ll lose the audience. 

In stunts, lack of timing might be dead air…literally. A stunt man/woman could be in mid-air or the timing might be a hair off and the audience will lose interest quickly. The audience can feel or perceive the harmonics. However, nowadays they use insert shots to compensate and give it energy.

Action guys love the stunts in a movie. Some of them would prefer not to even have dialogue… whereas some indie film friends cannot deal with the pace of an action film. This could be due to several things – each viewer’s experience with speed/pacing, their own internal rhythms and physicality, hormonal effects, etc. A gamer, for example, can handle more random visuals and sounds popping up from their experience with the pacing of game.

To put this to bed — the editor of Die Hard, Frank Urioste, had a music background and it showed in the action sequences. That changed the action genre from that point on.

What about The Matrix with the bullet sequences? That pacing was spot on and if you weren’t enthralled…you may want to look for a pulse!

In closing, you’ll find beats, rhythm, timing have a huge role in the filmmaking process, but are not often talked about. But it’s something you always have at your disposal. Basics are basics.

 Lawrence Ribeiro

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