Friday, August 26, 2011

Editing Theory

Editing has a theory and history that dates back to Russia and the silent era. It is called “montage”. “Montage” is a French term that means “edit” or “put together”. Soviet filmmakers felt that, above all else, it was a film’s ability to change images that made it an art form. In editing, a shot can go from one person’s point-of-view to another’s – we can be a killer in one shot and the victim in the next. We can also instantly move from one location to another or through time (see how cleverly the Winona Ryder film “Girl, Interrupted”, shifts back and forth in time).

Soviet filmmakers believed that montage gave cinema its art and power – that shots in isolation were meaningless, but intention emerged when shots were combined and juxtaposed together.


In the 1920s, a soviet teacher by the name of Lev Kuleshow experimented with montage by shooting an actor looking at something off screen using a neutral expression. In sequence one, he cut from the actor to a bowl of soup and back to the actor’s reaction. In a second sequence, he cut from the actor, to a girl injured, then back to the actor’s reaction. Audiences shown the scenes believed that the actor’s face was able to express hunger in one scene and pity in the other. In fact, the actor was expressionless in both scenes – the effect was created only through the art of editing.

Sergei Eisenstein

No discussion of editing theory is complete without mention of the Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. It was Eisenstein who claimed that film space and time was constructed by editing and by the space photographed by the shot. For example, an actor looks off screen. We cut to a fire, followed by the actor’s reaction shot. The audience assumes the hero is looking at the explosion, but, in reality, the explosion could have occurred somewhere else in the world and at another time.

In the 1925 silent classic, “Battleship Potemkin”, Eisenstein further demonstrated that although an event might only take a few seconds in real time, its importance might be significant enough that it could – and should – be lengthened through editing. (Real time, of course, could also be condensed.)

In films made today, the viewer is rarely aware that an edit has occurred. Movie action, for the most part, is presented in a progressive and continuous manner. Editing theory, however, is useful in understanding the power and effect editing has on moviemaking. Many of Eisenstein’s theories are used in commercials which routinely juxtapose beautiful, happy people with soft drinks, cars, beer, and other consumer products.

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