Motion Picture Editing pt.1 “Eisenstein’s Methods of Montage”

Motion Picture Editing pt.1 “Eisenstein’s Methods of Montage”

Examining the way in which motion pictures are edited is one way to approach a deeper understanding of the methodologies used to create some of our favorite films.  Film editing is a multi-layered process whereby individual shots within a scene are selected, combined in sequences and connected to other sequences with the purpose of telling a particular story.  That’s it, you ask?  Sounds simple, huh?  Ask any film editor, digital or traditional, and they will tell you film editing is an art form unlike other forms of visual expression, and it is unique to cinema.  The actual process of assembling all the individual shots and sequences into a compelling, entertaining and cohesive story is at the core of editing but it doesn’t stop there.  As you can imagine, there are an enormous number of decisions that must be made regarding the edit – how long to remain on a particular shot, when to cut, which performance conveys exactly the emotional currency of a scene, etc.  A film editor, with the direction and input from the director and/or production team, must work within the layers of the story where images, dialogue, pacing, performance, and music must come together to effectively create the motion picture that we as audiences enjoy.

In the following analysis, lets take a look at two contemporary films, About Schmidt and Girl Interrupted.  Lets explore the concept of montage and the theory developed by Soviet Film Theorist Sergei Eisenstein to help us understand the impact of editing. Montage is an editing technique whereby narrative information is compressed using quick or rapid editing, special effects, transitions, sound and music.  Montage is one of many tools employed in motion picture editing.

It is important to understand Eisenstein’s approach to what he believed to be an essential component to the process of editing – namely that editing could be used for more than just connecting shots in a scene.  By creating a linkage of related images, the editor could manipulate the emotions of the audience toward a specified goal.  The next time you are watching a film pay attention to the music that underscores the scene where the prince rescues the princess, or the troubled youth finally reaches his goal of attending college.  In this way Eisenstein’s principles can begin to make sense to us.  He believed that, “an idea should be derived from the juxtaposition of two independent shots, bringing an element of collage into film”. Eisenstein developed what he called “the five methods of montage” which we will look at in detail below as a component of motion picture editing.

About Schmidt (2002)

Director:  Alexander Payne

Editor: Kevin Tent

Other films Edited by Kevin Tent:

  1. Monster-in-Law (2005)
  2. Sideways (2004)
  3. The Clearing (2004)
    … aka Anatomie einer Entführung (Germany)
  4. About Schmidt (2002)
  5. Blow (2001)
  6. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
    … aka Durchgeknallt (Germany)
    … aka Durchgeknallt – Girl, interrupted (Germany: TV title)
  7. Election (1999)
  8. Since You’ve Been Gone (1998) (TV)
  9. Citizen Ruth (1996)
Other films Directed by Alexander Payne:

  1. Sideways (2004)
  2. About Schmidt (2002)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. Citizen Ruth (1996)
    … aka Meet Ruth Stoops
  5. Inside Out III (1992) (V) (episode “The Houseguest”)
  6. Inside Out (1992) (V) (episode “My Secret Moments”)
    … aka Inside Out: Tales of the Unexpected (USA: soft porn version)
  7. The Passion of Martin (1991)

30-second segment taken from About Schmidt

Beginning at 27min08seconds

1- CU Warren, screen right foreground – begin voice over by mortician

2- DISSOLVE to CU of Warren, screen left, voice continues

3- DISSOLVE to MS of Mortician in background talking to Warren who is sitting with his back to camera, voice over continues (morticians office)

4- DISSOLVE to Warren from behind, selecting coffin in adjoining room.  Tracking shot – following Warren as he navigates the room, voice over continues (dark, gloomy interior)

5- DISSOLVE to MS of Warren walking toward camera amongst coffins, camera tracks backwards as he walks toward us (dark, gloomy)

The sound that is used in this sequence maintains continuity while the images span time and space.  In this case the character of Warren, played by Jack Nicholson, is moving through the tedious process of making the final arrangements for the burial of his wife.  While we move from the mortician’s office to the coffin display room, the mortician’s voice-over leads us through the montage.  I believe the intention was to condense time and space in an interesting way that was more visually interesting and shorter than simply conducting the meeting in one room.  This approach also lends itself to exploring the emotions of the character and the scene visually through various layers.

In the film Girl Interrupted, directed by James Mangold and edited by Kevin Tent, a similar technique is used when Susanna, played by Wynona Rider, drifts between present time and past time while she is speaking to the therapist.  In this example, a dog barking precedes our shift into memory or dream.  The sound overlaps while it also roots the character in time and space, giving us a logical and believable transition between the two.

Through these examples we can begin to process the impact of editing to the overall telling of a story.  Note the use of sound in both films and how it serves as a way of maintaining continuity along with connecting often disparate images contained in memory and montage.

Lets take a brief look at Eisenstein’s five methods of montage:

Metric – follows a specific measure of time where cutting to the next shot occurs without regard for what is happening within the image.

Rhythmic – includes Metric cutting based on time, but adds cutting according to the visual composition and introduces change in speed to reveal more complex meanings than with Metric cuts alone.

Tonal – a tonal montage uses the emotional meaning of the shot to impart a specific emotional response from the audience.  Think of how the image of a smooth, calm stream in pristine mountains might affect you, say in contrast to a burning mountain top with black plumes of smoke billowing into a bruised sky.  Each scene carries with it a particular tone.

Overtonal/Associational – the overtonal montage is the combined effect of metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage on the audience whereby the intent is to convey more information in a less obvious, abstract manner.

Intellectual – uses shots which, combined, elicit an intellectual meaning.  Intellectual montage examples might include the inter-cutting of two different scenes, one directly connected with the story and one that suggests deeper meaning than can not be experienced from the story alone.  This meaning does not exist in the individual shots; it is only made known when they are juxtaposed.

According to Eisenstein’s five methods of montage, About Schmidt can be broken down as follows:


In this 30-second sequence described above, the use of dissolves to abbreviate time and connect otherwise contrasting moments in time and space is a clear example of metric montage.


The character of Warren from About Schmidt is shown in this sequence on opposing sides of the screen, connected by dissolves and a voice over.  Each time we fade from one scene to another the character changes sides of the screen, suggesting an internal conflict that is not otherwise displayed in his interaction with the mortician.


The movement of the character in emotional space is used here to establish a recurring theme in the film.  As the character is sitting with the mortician we take passage on his internal processing of the death of his wife, moving with him through the coffin display room and then finally returning to sum up his visit.  The tone becomes an internal journey that is just beginning and that will be played out in more detail as the film goes on.


There is an obvious interplay of the various metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage techniques to convey the emotional and designed pace of the film.  The dissolves not only bridge time and space but express the emotions of the character as he faces the ordeal ahead of him.  The feeling is one of drifting, a slow steady pace that helps to shape the emotional charge of the scene.


I think there are intellectual qualities at work in this scene that are expressed in the blending of Warren’s physical location with his emotional journey through the coffin display room.  The dissolves might also be thought of as taking us closer inside the character, seeing the dark and gloomy interiors of the coffin room as representative of Warrens’ fears of being alone.

The next time you’re watching a movie you’ll be able to take these principles and apply them to your overall appreciation or criticism of the film.  Understanding the building blocks behind independent or block buster movies can go a long way toward figuring out why some films resonant with you and others do not.  Taking this lesson with you into the theater might not make the film better but it will offer you insight and fodder for the next conversation you have about motion pictures and the multi-layered process of editing.


About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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