How has society shaped the craft of filmmaking? What are the secrets for how filmmakers evoke a response from the audience? While these questions are very broad, I’ll be taking this curiosity and engaging the historical path of how certain things ended up as they are today. David Bordwell suggests that “By trial and error they (filmmakers) have learned how to shape our minds and feelings, but usually aren’t interested in explaining why they succeed”. In his blog, Bordwell discusses various origins and psychological explanations for filmmakers creative choices, from there I’ll be focusing on one particular time and place that played a great role in shaping cinema today. I’ll be delving into the historical foundations of cinema to understand the crucial revelation of the power in the edit.
Cinema was perhaps at its most global as a medium during the early stages of its evolution. Considering the lack of film sound, which as a technology would take until 1927 where films such as ‘The Jazz Singer’ began to introduce synchronous sound into film edits. Orchestras or solo pianists would have been hired to play in cinemas alongside the film, however sound-on-film had yet to be introduced. Filmmakers would have to portray their narratives through a visual fashion. The tools they used included framing, the sizes of shots and the editing itself. Spoken dialogue was not recorded at this stage, and due to the lack of verbal language, films could be understood globally. Language was not a barrier, therefore films had no obstruction with the understanding of narrative, regardless of language or culture. For example a mother crying will evoke sadness regardless is you speak English or Korean.
Today world cinema has changed, naturally adopting early revelations in filmmaking techniques through time and adapting to local audience. For example there are stylistic differences between Hollywood and Bollywood that are distinct, but the fabric of the edit of the films had originated from certain beginnings, sharing the evolution of editing to most effectively propel narrative.
One of the most powerful discoveries within editing took place in Russia, discoveries sparked from a series of events ranging through two revolutions from the year 1917. Theories known as the ‘Kuleshov effect’ and ‘creative geography’ were born through an interesting tale. How did these discoveries affect the evolution of the edit?
During the early stages of cinema beginning from the 1890s, films were a relatively new entertainment medium, and given the lack of dedicated film technology at that time, filmmakers had a broad blank canvas to experiment on and work on avant-garde techniques. The concept of moving the camera to produce different perspectives had to be trialed and tested. Shot sizes and cuts were also experimented with. Cinema was in the long process of evolution, many whose emerging techniques and characteristics would originate from various places around the world. Cinema grew up through challenging times throughout history, being shaped and influenced by politics, war and the states of local societies.
Right up until the start of the The Great War in 1914, Europe’s film culture was dynamic and thriving. The impacts of the war upon the film industry etched cinematic techniques still used today. Filmmaking facilities and studios were destroyed in many European countries as a result of bombing during the war. That, along with the enlistment of fighting age men including the filmmakers themselves and their filming equipment brought feature film production practically to a halt. In its place, footage of the war effort, including battles and their effects was shown to theatre audiences. Two of the greatest national film industries affected by World War 1 were Russia and Germany.
In Russia, a second violent revolt against the established Russian government was led by Vladimir Lenin in 1917. Lenin overthrew Tsar Nicholas II due to the extreme class divide in society, and brought the Bolsheviks to power, Bolsheviks meaning the ‘majority’. This great political movement emanated from the lower working classes, who created such a powerful movement through persuasion and force. The result of this revolt brought about the Communist Party, which was organised around the principles of workers rights. The government took control of industry and the suppression of dissent came about, which led to the state developing a great interest in film, as it was seen to be a strong tool for political and social influence. The government had to first work on some areas, it needed to centralise the Russian film industry.
There were numerous production companies before the revolution, which were mostly pro Tsarist. But by 1918, the new Bolshevik government decided to follow the German approach, which was to nationalise the film industry.
In Germany, the government had realised that its film industry was not at the same level as that of France, Italy, the US or the UK. German society was also struggling with pre-war depression and anti-government propaganda. This led the supreme command of the German military to take control over all the major film studios and production companies in 1917. These were all consolidated under one vast state-sponsored entity called ‘UFA’. The plan was to centralise all film facilities, equipment and talent in the country and to shift focus onto nationalist films. This would lead to a more pro-German and pro-government cinema, which in their eyes would help them win the war.
The logical first step for the Bolshevik government would have been to acquire, or nationalise, the film industry, just as the Germans did. The Bolsheviks were however not powerful enough for this step yet. To solve this, a new regulatory body, the People’s Commissariat of Education (also known as ‘Narkompros’) was assigned to oversee the cinema.
The Bolshevik Revolution created great disruption in Russian life. As communism favoured state ownership of all companies, the existing film firms were anxious of their fate. Various companies collapsed or fled from this movement. Evgenii Bauer, the pre-revolutionary director of the film ‘The Revolutionary’ which supported Russia’s continued participation in World War 1, died in 1917, and the illness of his producer, Alexander Khanzhonkov, ended that company’s existence. Another pre-revolutionary producer, called Alexander Drankov left the Soviet Union in 1918 to try and reestablish his business abroad. The Yermoliev troupe also left the union, fleeing to Paris in 1919 after attempting to produce propaganda films commissioned by the new government.
These production companies took everything they could with them, equipment and raw stock. The problem was that the new revolutionary government had constrained imports, and Russia didn’t have the ability to manufacture its own film stock. These were major blows for Soviet film production in 1918.
This shortage of film stock led to a decree stating that all raw stock held by private firms be registered with the government. The remaining producers and sellers decided to hide what little raw film remained, and as a consequence a severe shortage developed.
Considering the Yermoliev and Drankov corporations had departed, and the Khanzhonkov company had dissolved, a large portion of the Russian film community had disappeared. Bear in mind the Bolshevik government valued the concept of film propaganda, therefore the filmmakers needed to be replaced. The Russian film community had two set backs; the blank canvas of raw film stock was not available to pursue filmmaking, and the filmmaking community itself was dwindling. But in spite of the hardships of war communism, Narkompros established a state film school in 1919 called ‘VGIK’ or the ‘State Institute of Cinematography’. By 1920, a director called Lev Kuleshov had joined the faculty, and created a small workshop that would eventually produce some of the era’s most important directors and actors.
Kuleshov’s small group explored this new art over the coming years, working in conditions of deprivation and frequently without raw film stock for their experiments. These experiments included reediting old films, working with various film scenes. Finally in 1921, the group obtained a limited amount of film stock from the government, and created what are now known as the ‘Kuleshov experiments’. Throughout all of the experiments, Kuleshov explored a breakthrough editing concept which is now known as the ‘Kuleshov effect’.
As described in the book ‘Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’ “The Kuleshov effect is based on leaving out a scene’s establishing shot and leading the spectator to infer spatial or temporal continuity from the shots of separate elements.”
One of the most famous experiments the group had worked on involved recutting old footage of the actor Ivan Mozhukin. The first shot that was arranged depicted a close up view of Mozhukhin, with a neutral facial expression. The exact same shot was repeatedly edited together, however intercut with various other shots. These other shots included a bowl of soup, a dead body and a baby. Supposedly, the average viewer found the actors performance to be most effective, suggesting that his face had reflected the appropriate emotions; hunger, sorrow or delight, even though the actor’s facial expression remained the same every time they had seen it.
This experiment revealed that an audience would develop greater meaning from two shots edited together, than either isolated shot on its own. This was a discovery that enforced cinema as a unique art form, that no other could even attempt. The concept of juxtaposing live images to suggest new meaning, perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, is a breakthrough.
Kuleshov and his group worked on another concept called ‘creative geography’, also known as artificial landscape. This innovation lies within the scenario of bringing together two segments of a film shot in different locations, but are cut together to give the impression of being one continuous space. An example of this is when Harry Potter enters the magical tent in the film ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.
The word ‘montage’ is from the French language and literally means editing, or assembling. So the theory of montage suggests that how the shots of a film are assembled, ie order, length of time of the shot, their repetition and rhythm give a film its meaning and power. However the Soviet montage filmmakers considered that it was necessary that those cuts must be visible to the audience. The viewers had to be aware of the process and it should not be hidden. They had to see that this process of constructing the edits was a deliberate act. They named this effect ‘discontinuity editing’ and it fitted conveniently well with the political thinking of those Soviet filmmakers; that the filmmaker rather than being an artist, was just another engineer, a worker who slots or joins things together thus assembling a product such as a factory worker or construction worker would. It could be said that the way the film was made was as much a political statement as the film itself.
There are various methods to juxtapose in film. The Kuleshov effect is the prime example of ‘Intellectual montage’, which is the concept of juxtaposing two otherwise unrelated images to suggest a third idea in the viewers mind. This is the purest form of Soviet Montage.
Another technique is called ‘Tonal Montage’, which is the practise of cutting according to the emotional tone of the scene. This will build the emotional or psychological meaning that the film is trying to convey.
Metric Montage is a technique that disregards the content of the scene, instead cutting to have a deliberate jarring effect, where the cuts do not match with the rhythm or flow of the scene.
Rhythmic Montage contrasts Metric Montage, where the cuts can either match the music, sound effects or actions on screen. This is widely used in film trailers, a technique that enhances the dramatic impact within a short space of time. An example of this is the trailer for ‘Suicide Squad’, matching the dropping bullets to the accompanying music from Queen.
Overtonal Montage is the combination of Rhythmic, Metric and Tonal Montage. This will enhance the impact upon the audience by engaging all techniques.
Lev Kuleshov and his students spent a long time studying and developing these theories, which to no surprise the first thing they did after acquiring raw film stock was to make various films. One of the most influential Soviet Montage filmmakers was a former engineering student called Sergei Eisenstein. His second film called ‘Battleship Potemkin’ propelled him into international fame, setting the precedent for how filmmakers could incorporate these montage theories into fiction films.
Battleship Potemkin was made in 1925, and follows the true story of a mutiny aboard a Russian battleship in 1905. The film does not focus on a single protagonist, however it evokes the painful conditions for the deprived sailors working under cruel officers. The scene that is always brought to attention is the Odessa steps sequence, where the sailors are hailed heroes and cheered on by the people of Odessa. The scene makes a turn for the worst as Xarus troops show up and massacre the crowd. The scenes throughout this sequence are frightening and brutal, as children being trampled, bullet wounds, terrified parents and a baby stroller rolling perilously through the middle of the battle. Where this film marks film history, is Eisenstein’s innovative use of montage. It was used in a way that brought the aggression, chaos and madness to life. He wanted the juxtaposition of sometimes unrelated images to jolt the audience out of their complacency. Potemkin was also a powerful piece of propaganda for the Soviets, by making the sailors and civilians so innocent and the officers and Tsarist troops so cruel the film comes down on one side and encourages the viewers outrage against the other.
Eisenstein also implemented this technique in his film ‘Strike’, where shots of the massacring of workers are intercut with the slaughter of a bull. Both sets of imagery suggest a matching negative tone.
In ‘The Godfather’, the baptism scene is intercut with various murders. Although separate locations, the audience draws the connection based on the intellectual montage theme.
Montage has been adopted throughout many high end and successful productions in recent times, the famous Rocky scenes as Balboa trains, in Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne trains. The animation ‘UP’ masterfully adopts the montage sequence as they depict the growing old part of life.
As Stalin began to gain power, films made in the Western world quickly started to be reintroduced into the USSR. At the same time, film stocks started to become easily available and the government somewhat loosened their stranglehold on the Soviet montage filmmakers, whilst their audiences began to demand films that were easily accessible and more emotive. The filmmakers were encouraged to produce a different type of film, one that focussed on more true to life events which also supported Communist values. This became known as Soviet Realism and the Soviet montage process began to die out. Despite this, it’s influence on modern day filmmaking continues even now. It’s effects can be witnessed in many of the latest music videos, movie trailers.
So as you can see, to understand how cinema appears as it does today, requires going back in time towards the origins of film. The pressures of constrained and difficult times during a change of social thinking, a movement against the control of freedoms and the revelations of the growing new art form of cinema created an environment that lead to the innovations of montage. Throughout all of this conflict, grew ideas that still form the foundation of our films today.