Set the Pace With This Guide to Film Rhythm Editing

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From the high-tempo intensity of “Whiplash” to the dreamy slowness of “The Tree of Life,” editors make the audience feel by controlling a movie’s rhythm. Here’s everything you need to know about the post-production editing process.

What is rhythm in film editing?

Rhythm refers to the timing and pacing of cuts and transitions, shots and their durations, and other visual sequences within a film. “There is a rhythm that’s created when constructing a scene that helps to keep the viewer’s attention on the story and the performances and away from the editing,” explained Leo Trombetta (“The Outsider,” “True Detective”)

For example, “Mad Max: Fury Road” employs a high-octane, fast-paced rhythm to match the frenetic energy of its postapocalyptic world and action-packed storyline. On the other hand, coming-of-age story “Lady Bird” uses slower, more reflective editing to mirror the emotional journey of the protagonist.  

Audiences engage with a film in a way that can be likened to waves of tension and anticipation followed by waves of release. As these waves unfold within a story, audiences are guided through the plot at a pace dictated by the editorial rhythm. While collaboration with the director and cinematographer will influence these decisions, it’s ultimately the editor’s interpretation of the story that shapes the film’s rhythm.

How do editors control the rhythm of a film?

The rhythm of a film is largely in the hands of its editor, who helps create a cohesive flow and find the perfect balance between fast-paced action and slower emotional moments, suspense and reflection, and laughter and tears. Editors control the rhythm of a film by manipulating these elements:

Pace: This refers to the speed at which a scene or sequence moves. Editors determine how long each shot will linger onscreen, when to cut to the next one, and what transitions will be used between shots. Changing these elements can speed up or slow down a film to build tension, add ambience, and create emotional impact. 

Slower cuts can create a sense of reflection, as seen in contemplative films like “Lost in Translation” and “Nomadland.” Quicker cuts build a frenetic energy that sets the pace of dark dramas like “Requiem for a Dream” or action movies like “John Wick.” This fight scene from the latter’s third installment demonstrates how fast cuts increase intensity. 

Shot duration: Editors often adapt their style to fit a film’s genre, employing shorter shots for fast-paced action sequences or opting for longer, more drawn-out takes for dramatic or romantic scenes. This helps create a rhythm that resonates with the film’s thematic elements.

For example, “The Revenant” uses multiple long takes in story order to imbue the audience in a sense of narrative continuity. The six-minute bear attack scene was weaved together from several takes to appear as though it was one long shot—just watch it and try not to shiver as though you’re actually right there being mauled with Hugh Glass. 

Pauses: In addition to pace and shot duration, pauses or “breaths”—intentional moments of silence or stillness—can add impact and depth to a scene. These allow the audience time to digest what has happened onscreen before moving onto the next moment. This creates an ebb and flow that keeps audiences engaged and invested in the story.

An example of this can be seen in “The Silence of the Lambs” during Clarice’s first meeting with Hannibal Lecter. The film pauses on close-up shots of each character, creating a sense of tension and unease as their eyes lock. 

Subversive moments: Occasionally, an editor might choose to go against audience expectations by including a discordant or jarring moment. “In editing, it’s all about rhythm,” noted Kelley Dixon (“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” “Breaking Bad”) on the Team Deakins podcast, “and we can throw people’s equilibrium off by just doing things that are off rhythm.”

For example, while much of “There Will Be Blood” is slow and steady, building a sense of dread, the scene when an oil well catches on fire ramps up the rhythm—and the anxiety. 

The actor’s role in a film’s rhythm

Believe it or not, actors, you’re part of the rhythm section too. No, you’re not banging on drums—unless we’re still talking about “Whiplash”—but your performance does contribute to the film’s tempo. For example, editors can’t always cut to establish a rhythm, but they can choose takes that have the rhythm they desire. Here are a few beats you might want to hit:

Dialogue pacing: Ever notice how Aaron Sorkin’s characters seem like they’ve all downed four espressos before their scenes? That's pacing. Be aware of how your line delivery might affect the scene’s rhythm and work with the director to create the perfect pacing. 

Movement and blocking: Your movements onscreen also contribute to the film's pacing in the editing room. Are you moving quickly? Slowly? Creating dramatic tension through stillness? Waiting for a specific moment? To get an idea of how movement impacts rhythm, watch this clip in which Jeremy Allen White, Zac Efron, and Harris Dickinson discuss blocking in “The Iron Claw.” 

Reaction times: A pause before reacting can be as telling as the reaction itself. This can also give an editor a bit of room to breathe and space to use if the rhythm calls for it.

Understanding the scene's emotional beat: A heart-wrenching scene requires a different rhythm than a high-octane chase, so be sure to tune in to the emotional frequency of your scene. 

By thinking rhythmically, you’re not just delivering lines or moving through a scene; you're adding depth to the story. Every glance, silence, and explosion of feeling plays into the beat of the narrative.