Pacing Your Video (Studying Looney Tunes)

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Want to have faster pacing for your video? My I recommend studying Looney Tunes! Whether you’re making a short film, corporate video, or some goofy holiday video for your family, pacing is important. While your independent web video is technically able to be any length you desire, research shows that the shorter your content is the better. But cramming tons of information into a 1-6 minute video can be a daunting task. I am going to look at an example of powerful and efficient pacing from the master storytellers over a Warner Brothers.

The lesson here will have obvious applications to short narrative films. Toward the end of the post, we will look some ways to apply this technique to any kind of web video. So stay tuned good reader!

Years ago I did a little experiment; I timed how often something happens in a Looney Tunes cartoons (I was very lonely at the time). I was surprised to find an actual pattern, every 30 seconds an event happened. By “event” I mean either a gag or story beat. Some plot points would build over 45 seconds, other times a gag would quickly take place 15 seconds after a main plot point. Averaging out these numbers came to an average of 30 seconds per event.

Now if a cartoon averages about 8 minutes in total length, and story beats happen (roughly) every 30 seconds, you could fit in all of Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats and still have a spare moment for credits. That’s the storytelling of a feature film condensed to about 8 minutes. Not bad!

But how do you still get a full experience in that amount of time? By using every shot to tell your story and not waste ANY time. Lets examine the first 30 seconds of one of my personal favorite shorts: Chuck Jones’ Scaredy Cat.

Oh come on! It’ll be fun!

Case Study: Scaredy Cat

Break down of open 30 seconds of Scaredy Cat
Scaredy Cat shot break down. (Click to enlarge) Copyright Warner Brothers Animation

(1) We open on an establishing shot of a mansion during a thunderstorm. (2) We then dissolve to a Dutch angle of a hand unlocking and opening a door. (3) We cut to the shadow of the door opening on the floor, revealing the shadow of a two-headed figure. (4) The camera then does a quick pan to show our two main characters standing in the doorway. Sylvester’s head popping out from behind Porky, causing the shadow. Porky chats to Sylvester about this being the last place the real estate agent had fort hem. (5) Then we cut to porky entering the house, happy and calm. Followed by Sylvester shivering in fear. (6) Sylvester spots a bat and jumps on Porky, who (7) gets annoyed and scolds Sylvester for being so easily scared.

Ok, fun… but so what? Well, we have gotten a lot of information in this opening 30 seconds. These shots set up the mood of the film, the main characters, and the central conflict between them.

The shot of the mansion on a stormy night gives us the location of the events, and the stormy night lightly sets an eerie mood. The eerie mood is increased with the Dutch angle shot of the door. Finally, the revealing of a two-headed figure tells us that this film will deal with some kind of dark, monster type story… but then we quickly pan to reveal it’s not what we think. It’s two lovable goofballs. This tells the audience that while things will be dark and grim, it’s all in fun. (In true Looney Tunes’ fashion.) Once the tone is set, we move on to characters.

Porky’s blind eye to the obvious grim surroundings is contrasted by Sylvester’s overly skittish behavior. These are the two key traits of these characters in the film. Sylvester annoying Porky by “over reacting” sets up the main conflict between the two characters. For the rest of this film, Sylvester will be freaking out at increasingly dangerous situations and Porky (being oblivious) will get more annoyed at his antics.

That’s a lot of information in 30 seconds! One big key is that all of the information is done visually. Porky’s exposition is really not even necessary; it’s more for clarification. You could cut that dialog and really not miss anything.

Applying this to Your Project:

So that’s all well and good for the narrative story structure of a silly cartoon… but what about internet videos? Here are a few takeaways to try on your next project:

  1. Make it visual! The shorter the video, the more visual you should strive to make it. A picture is worth a thousand words (you can double check the math on that if you want). Use this to your advantage when condensing you story. I would challenge you to try avoiding both dialog and text on screen as long as you can, really perfect the images before adding any words.
  2. Focus on “event moments”. A lot of web videos don’t require a traditional 3-act structure, but try to have specific events that push the video along. After those opening 30 seconds of Scaredy Cat, the film follows a straightforward gag-to-gag structure. Not all the events in a video require detailed story points. Maybe your video doesn’t have a formal plot, but you should have a progression of ideas you are trying to convey. Treat those ideas as the event moments.
  3. Make things happen fast. Try to avoid lingering on a certain piece of information too long. Keep the pace brisk. In the example, events happen every 30 seconds. If you watch the ads that play before your favorite YouTube video, many successful ones cram required information into that 5 second window before you can click SKIP. Find the pace that’s best for your video, but keep in mind that if things aren’t happening… viewers will click SKIP.
  4. Don’t waste a shot. We talked about striving for images over words, but useless images can destroy a video (a bad image is worth a thousand words that has NOTHING to do with your story). Strive to make every shot in your video reveal new information. In the example, every shot in those 30 seconds worked to establish the mood and character in the story. Don’t sit on an image just because it’s cool or pretty; make sure it’s servicing your overall goal.

Back when I played with this little theory, I decided to try it out myself. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a 30 second video I made in college testing out this condensed pacing idea.

Video is a powerful tool for communicating information. I hope these tips help you as you strive to communicate with your audience.