Editing Horror Films: 7 Pacing Tips for Your Next Project
Horror happens in the edit. Let’s explore how pacing can create a feeling of dread that keeps your audience on edge and fully engaged.
Well-made horror films stick with you. The horror classics, they keep you up at night and give you pause at odd times during the day. It’s a lingering feeling. It’s not simple fear. It’s something more existential and heavy, something you can’t easily shake off. It’s a feeling that convinces you, even though you know better, that there’s got to be one more scare to come. Because you’re in its clutches. It’s right behind you. There is no escape.
What is that feeling? And how do you harness it for your own horror film and video projects?
That feeling is dread, creeping or otherwise, and it’s the product of editing. While there are indeed many elements that make horror films what they are, ultimately it’s the pacing created in editing that’s going to keep your audience on edge long after the end credits have rolled. Let’s explore the editing ins and outs that make the horror genre click.
1. Titles and Intro Animations
If you want to put your horror projects in the best (or darkest) light as soon as possible, set the scene early with some horrific/terrific title and intro animations. So, before we wander too far into the woods of editing for horror, download these 100% FREE assets (inspired by the M. Night Shyamalan film Split) for creating suspenseful title sequences in After Effects and a free Premiere Pro motion graphics template for horror trailer titles.
2. Scripting and Understanding the Genre
Nailing a film’s pace actually begins in pre-production. To create a memorable horror film, one must first understand the genre itself. By studying genre theory, and specifically the horror genre, you should be able to turn your rough idea into a fully-realized concept.
From there, it takes a careful scripting and storyboarding process to really unlock what makes the story work, and how you might want to build it visually. Remember, to make good horror, one must study good horror. Watch as many movies as possible to learn from the masters before you even start trying to shoot and edit your own.
3. The Horror Film Story Arc
Building upon the previous point, your pacing will be tighter if you have a firm grasp on the tenets of storytelling. Horror films most often follow the principles of the Hero’s Journey to help outline their plot and structure. At the very least, you should have a basic understanding of storytelling traditions before you try to break the rules of the three-act structure.
One of my favorite examples of how pacing and story can come together to create something terrifying is the sci-fi/horror crossover Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon. The film’s pacing is really what develops the suspense, with each act perfectly placed in sync with each other, all culminating with the infamous chest-burst scene.
4. Creating Tension and Suspense
At every step along a horror film’s production timeline, the ultimate goal is to build tension and create suspense. When it’s time to actually get down to filming, directors and cinematographers will often shoot an array of options for each scene, including variances in shot types, lenses, and other compositional elements.
Then, it’s the editor’s job to make the best choices for when and where those shots are used in order to create pacing that ramps up the tension and suspense. And, while many directors work directly with editors to piece together their films, a good editor should have a strong understanding of these different filmmaking techniques and how they can help build tension and suspense.
5. Don’t Forget Sound Design
Soundtrack and sound design—both of these audio elements are crucial when developing a horror film’s mood, theme, and pace. A perfect example of how sound design can help establish a film’s pace is found in John Krasinski’s 2018 horror film A Quiet Place.
The film is notable for its lack of dialogue, yet renowned for its intense use of sound design and effects to tell a suspenseful horror story. You can read more about how A Quiet Place used (and didn’t use) sound in its edit in this article.
6. Finding the Right Rhythm
You can’t talk about pacing without talking about rhythm. And, while the two terms share similar meanings, they’re quite different when it comes to filmmaking. The editor of Jordan Peele’s horror film Us discusses how he uses rhythm in his editing process:
There are long stretches of nonverbal scenes that really become about the rhythm you’re telling a story through imagery, through physical action, and you’re conveying emotions through a combination of cutting physical action, music, movement. And, in a lot of ways, it felt like composing a piece of visual music.– Nicholas Monsour
You can read our full PremiumBeat interview with Nicholas Monsour to learn more about how he used rhythm to dictate pacing while putting together Peele’s modern horror classic.
7. Horror Assets and Overlays
Innovative post-production techniques and editing tricks have long been a vital part of the horror genre. So, just like how we started our list, we’re going to end it with more free horror assets and overlays to help film editors develop their horrifying pace in post.
And, while it’s important not to rely too heavily on digital effects for your terror and suspense vibes, adding the right mix of fog overlays to obscure characters and action is a tried-and-true technique for conjuring those glorious feelings of dread that linger with audiences.
For more filmmaking advice, techniques, and resources, check out these articles:
- 3 Practical Gore Effects for Your Next Horror Short
- 5 Ways to Avoid the Horrors of Every Student Film Set
- In the Shadows: The Changing Nature of Horror Music
- Fantastic Fest: One Horror Filmmaker’s Advice from Over 30 Features
- What is Mumblecore? A Guide to this Indie Film Genre