Film Editing: Activity 4
Learning from the Best
Film editing can have its own unique logic as well, functioning in much the same manner as the brain with seemingly jumbled thoughts and images creating their own individual meaning. The groundwork for many of these techniques, later used by Alfred Hitchcock and others, was laid by a group of Soviet filmmakers—most notably Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin—who, in the early 1920s, began to experiment with film style and technique and especially with montage. Montage, or collision editing, is done by splicing together a rapid sequence of carefully selected shots to evoke a specific emotional or intellectual response. The Russians' premise was that each shot derived meaning from the context in which it was placed. If the context changed, the meaning of the shot and the sequence also changed. For example, Eisenstein once combined shots of a poor woman and her undernourished child seated at an empty table with shots of an affluent, overweight man seated at a table filled with food. His intent in combining those shots was to evoke images of the oppression of the poor by the wealthy. Had Eisenstein shown one series of shots without the other, the meaning would have been quite different. Montage, in the modern sense of the word, often refers to sequences where several shots have been edited together to compress a series of events that happen over time (e.g., sequences of young couples falling in love, scenes with flying calendar pages, etc.).
Part A. The Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, available on home video, is the classic example of montage. If possible, show this to your students. In this sequence, the Czar's army is quashing an uprising. Eisenstein uses editing to show the fear of the people, their escalating panic, the tragedy of innocent bystanders as a baby in a carriage careens helplessly down the steps, and the intensifying threat of the soldiers, their guns and artillery. You may want to contrast this sequence with the steps sequence from The Untouchables (1987).
In Psycho, also available on home video, Alfred Hitchcock's famous shower scene uses a rapid series of extreme close-ups to build suspense and heighten the sense of panic. Many viewers believe they have seen a very brutal stabbing, even though the knife is never shown piercing the body of the victim.
Have your students look for examples of montage, or collision editing, in the films they view. Ask them to make notes about the images, the ways in which they were combined, and the effects they created. Can they identify examples of jump cuts, reaction shots, places where time has been compressed through editing, or places where space has been manipulated through editing?
Part B. Each year, the film industry produces an array of outstanding new releases. Some are especially appropriate for families, some are appealing to teens, and some are geared toward adult audiences. If you or the parents of your students feel that some, or even all of this year's nominated films might be inappropriate for viewing by young people, you can modify this activity in several ways.
Students can view Academy Award-nominated and winning films from past years to complete the exercises. A list of films that won Academy Awards for editing appears at the beginning of this teacher's guide.