Editing is my biggest passion in filmmaking. I love directing, and ultimately that’s where I want to go in my long term career, but as I explained in last week’s video, for me, the editing room is where the magic of film really happens.
In this series, I’m going to introduce you to the theory that inspired me to become an editor as my day job: Soviet Montage Theory. It’s taught in most film course programs (good ones, at least) and has become a foundation for further visual storytelling theories throughout the years.
So What is Soviet Montage Theory?
Well, “Montage Theory” (or “Soviet Montage Theory”), at its core, is a concept surrounding how the juxtaposition of shots, rather than the script or a shot alone, is what creates the meaning and story behind the film. The theory was developed in the 1920s, and built upon editing techniques which had already been established in early cinema, such as:
Continuity Editing: a logical progression of shots that are strung together to make a story intelligible to the audience. This is probably how most films are edited, and it’s the most straightforward way to tell a visual story.
Cross-cutting: in which two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously but in different locations. One of the earliest films known for using this style is E. S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, in 1903.
Cross-cutting in particular was innovative for that time and proved that audiences could understand multiple storylines happening parallel to each other. Viewers are smarter than they’re sometimes given credit for…
From techniques like these, filmmakers and theorists like Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov experimented with the idea that the meaning of a scene could be radically changed depending on the order of the shots.
In fact, Kuleshov made a name for himself with this experiment. He took a few random, simple, images – a man with a blank expression, a bowl of soup, a young corpse in a coffin, and a pretty girl – then edited them together in a few different ways. After viewing it, audiences praised the male actor for his subtle performance… but there was no performance. The connection between his image and the ones that were cut in after were made entirely within the heads of the viewers, and that phenomenon became known as the Kuleshov Effect.
The idea of montage theory has since become what we know as modern editing for story. I’ll let Alfred Hitchcock elaborate:
But, Montage Theory is about more than just ideas. It’s also about the pacing (or timing) of the images in a sequence, and how the viewer’s eye travels across the screen. How these concepts are implemented in a film can not only influence the viewer’s understanding of the story and continuity, but also generate emotional responses. Sergei Eisenstein, a director and theorist most well known for his film Battleship Potemkin in 1925, compiled all these techniques and theories into 5 “Methods of Montage” – which I’ll tell you all about in my next video!