III. TYPES INSTEAD OF ACTORS (52)
(address delivered to the film society)
First of all allow me, in the name of Russian film-workers, to greet in your person that organisation [the Film Society] which was the first to undertake the task of acquainting the English public with our films.
I ask you to forgive my bad English. Unfortunately my knowledge of it is so limited that I cannot speak, but must read my notes, and even then not very well. I shall endeavour to acquaint you in this short speech with some of the principles which form the basis of our work. When I say “our” I mean, in fact, the directors of the so-called left wing. [See note to section: Translator’s Preface.]
I began my work in the films quite accidentally. Up to 1920 I was a chemical engineer, and, to tell you the truth, looked at films with contempt, though I was very fond of art in other forms. I, like many others, could not agree that films were an art. I looked upon them as an inferior substitute for the stage, that is all.
Such an attitude is not to be wondered at, considering how rubbishy the films shown at the time were. There are many such films even now; in Germany nowadays they are called Kitsch. Primitive subjects calculated to appeal to the average bad taste—a cheap showman’s booth entertainment that at first gives a good return to the owner, but in the long run demoralises the public.
The methods applied to the preparation of such films have nothing in common with art. The producers of such films have only one thing in mind, and that is to photograph as many lovely girls’ faces from as many angles as possible, and to provide the hero with as many victories in fights as possible, and to wind up with an effective kiss as finale. There was nothing extraordinary in the fact that such films could not attract any serious attention.
But a chance meeting with a young painter and theoretician of the film—Kuleshov—gave an opportunity to learn his ideas, making me change my views completely. It was from him that I first learned of the meaning of the word”montage”a word which played such an important part in the development of our film-art.
From our contemporary point of view, Kuleshov’s ideas were extremely simple. All he said was this: “In every art there must be firstly a material, and secondly a method of composing this material specially adapted to this art.” The musician has sounds as material and composes them in time. The painter’s materials are colour, and he combines them in space on the surface of the canvas. What then, is the material which the film director possesses, and what are the methods of composition of his material?
Kuleshov maintained that the material in filmwork consists of pieces of film, and that the composition method is their joining together in a particular, creatively discovered order. He maintained that film-art does not begin when the artists act and the various scenes are shot—this is only the preparation of the material. Film-art begins from the moment when the director begins to combine and join together the various pieces of film. By joining them in various combinations, in different orders, he obtains differing results.
Suppose, for example, we have three such pieces: on one is somebody’s smiling face, on another is a frightened face, and on the third is a revolver pointing at somebody.
Let us combine these pieces in two different orders. Let us suppose that in the first instance we show, first the smiling face, then the revolver, then the frightened face; and that the second time we show the frightened face first, then the revolver, then the smiling face. In the first instance the impression we get is that the owner of the face is a coward; in the second that he is brave. This is certainly a crude example, but from contemporary films we can see more subtly that it is only by an able and inspired combination of pieces of the shot film that the strongest impression can be effected in the audience.
Kuleshov and I made an interesting experiment. We took from some film or other several close-ups of the well-known Russian actor Mosjukhin. We chose close-ups which were static and which did not express any feeling at all—quiet close-ups. We joined these close-ups, which were all similar, with other bits of film in three different combinations. In the first combination the close-up of Mosjukhin was immediately followed by a shot of a plate of soup standing on a table. It was obvious and certain that Mosjukhin was looking at this soup. In the second combination the face of Mosjukhin was joined to shots showing a coffin in which lay a dead woman. In the third the close-up was followed by a shot of a little girl playing with a funny toy bear. When we showed the three combinations to an audience which had not been let into the secret the result was terrific. The public raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.
But the combination of various pieces in one or another order is not sufficient. It is necessary to be able to control and manipulate the length of these pieces, because the combination of pieces of varying length is effective in the same way as the combination of sounds of various length in music, by creating the rhythm of the film and by means of their varying effect on the audience. Quick, short pieces rouse excitement, while long pieces have a soothing effect.
To be able to find the requisite order of shots or pieces, and the rhythm necessary for their combination— that is the chief task of the director’s art. This art we call montage—or constructive editing. It is only with the help of montage that I am able to solve problems of such complexity as the work on the artists’ acting.
The thing is, that I consider that the main danger for an actor who is working on the films is so-called “stagey acting.” I want to work only with real material—this is my principle. I maintain that to show, alongside real water and real trees and grass, a property beard pasted on the actor’s face, wrinkles traced by means of paint, or stagey acting is impossible. It is opposed to the most elementary ideas of style.
But what should one do? It is very difficult to work with stage actors. People so exceptionally talented that they can live, and not act, are very seldom met with, while if you ask an ordinary actor merely to sit quietly and not to act, he will act for your benefit the type of a non-acting actor.
I have tried to work with people who had never seen either a play or a film, and I succeeded, with the help of montage, in achieving some result. It is true that in this method one must be very cunning; it is necessary to invent thousands of tricks to create the mood required in the person and to catch the right moment to photograph him.
For example, in the film The Heir to Jenghiz Khan, I wanted to have a crowd of Mongols looking with rapture on a precious fox-fur. I engaged a Chinese conjuror and photographed the faces of the Mongols watching him. When I joined this piece to a piece of the shot of fur held in the hands of the seller I got the result required. Once I spent endless time and effort trying to obtain from an actor a good-natured smile—it did not succeed because the actor kept on “acting.” When I did catch a moment, and photographed his face smiling at a joke I made, he had been firmly convinced that the shooting was over.
I am continuously working on the perfection of this method, and I believe in its future. Of course, one can photograph in this way only short bits of separate actors, and it is the art of the director, with the help of montage, to make out of the short bits a whole, a living figure.
Not for a moment do I regret that I took this line. I more and more often work with casual actors, and I am satisfied by the results. In my last film I met the Mongols, absolutely uncultured people who did not even understand my language, and, despite this, the Mongols in that film can easily compete, as far as acting honours are concerned, with the best actors.
In conclusion I would like to tell you of my views on a very tricky question which I have met recently. I mean sound films.
I think that their future is enormous, but when I use the expression “sound film” I do not in any way mean dialogue films, in which the speech and various sound effects are perfectly synchronised with their corresponding visual images on the screen. Such films are nothing but a photographic variety of stage plays. They are, of course, new and interesting, and will undoubtedly at first attract the curiosity of the public, but not for long.
The real future belongs to sound films of another kind. I visualise a film in which sounds and human speech are wedded to the visual images on the screen in the same way as that in which two or more melodies can be combined by an orchestra. The sound will correspond to the film in the same way as the orchestra corresponds to the film to-day.
The only difference from the method of to-day is that the director will have the control of the sound in his own hands, and not in the hands of the conductor of the orchestra, and that the wealth of those sounds will be overwhelming. All the sounds of the whole world, beginning with the whisper of a man or the cry of a child and rising to the roar of an explosion. The expressionism of a film can reach unthought-of heights.
It can combine the fury of a man with the roar of a lion. The language of the cinema will achieve the power of the language of literature.
But one must never show on the screen a man and reproduce his word exactly synchronised with the movements of his lips. This is cheap imitation, an ingenious trick that is useless to anyone.
One of the Berlin Pressmen asked me: “Do you not think that it would be good to hear, for instance, in the film Mother, the weeping mother when she watches over the body of her dead husband?” I answered: “If this were possible I would do it thus: The mother is sitting near the body and the audience hears clearly the sound of the water dripping in the wash-basin; then comes the shot of the silent head of the dead man with the burning candle; and here one hears a subdued weeping.”
That is how I imagine to myself a film that sounds, and I must point out that such a film will remain international. Words and sounds heard, but not seen on the screen, could be rendered in any language, and changed with the film for every country.
Allow me to conclude this note by thanking you for the patience and attention with which you have listened through my address.
(Delivered, in the present translation by I. M. and S. S. N., to the Film Society, in Stewart’s Cafe, Regent Street, February 3, 1929. Published, slightly amended, by the Cinema, February 6, 1929)
IV. CLOSE-UPS IN TIME (53)
(address for the workers’ film federation)
During the summer of the year 1930 I attended a meeting in the Palace of Labour at Moscow. Work was ended. Outside in the street it was raining hard, and we had to wait for it to stop. The globules of water rebounded slightly from the sill; now they were large, now smaller until they vanished in the air. They moved, rising and falling in curves of various form, in a complex yet definite rhythm. Sometimes several streams, probably influenced by the wind, united into one. The water would strike upon the stone, scattering into a transparent, shivering fan, then fall, and anew the round and glistening globules would leap over the edge, mingling with the tiny raindrops descending through the air.
What a rain! I was but watching it, yet I felt to the full its freshness, its moisture, its generous plenty. I felt drenched in it. It poured down on my head and over my shoulders. Most certainly the earth, soaked brimful, must long have ceased to drink it up. The shower, as commonly occurs in summer, ended almost abruptly, scattering its last drops beneath the already brightening sun.
I left the building and, passing through the garden, paused to watch a man working with a scythe. He was bared to the waist. The muscles of his back contracted and expanded with the even sweep of the scythe. Its damp blade, flying upwards, caught the sunlight and burst for a moment into a sharp, blinding flame. I stepped near. The scythe buried itself in the wet, rank grass, which, as it was cut away beneath, slowly gave down on to the ground in a supple movement impossible to describe. Gleaming in the slanting sunrays, the raindrops trembled on the tips of the pointed, drooping grassblades, tumbled, and fell. The man mowed; I stood and gazed. And once more I found myself gripped by an unaccustomed feeling of excitement at the grandeur of the spectacle. Never had I seen wet grass like this! Never had I seen how the raindrops tumble down the grooves of its narrow blades! For the first time I wa§ seeing how its stalks fall as they yield to the sweep of the scythe!
And, as always, according to my invariable custom (doubtless one familiar to all film directors), I tried to imagine to myself all this represented on the screen. I recalled the reaping scenes recorded and included scores of times in an abundance of pictures, and felt sharply the poverty of these lifeless photographs in comparison with the marvellous and pregnant richness I had seen. One has only to picture to oneself the flat, grey manikin waving a long pole, invariably in slightly speeded tempo, to picture the grass shot from above and looking like dry, tangled matting, for it to be clear in what measure all this is poor and primitive. I recall even Eisenstein’s technically magnificent General Line, where, worked out in a complex editing construction, is shown a reaping competition. Nothing of it remains in my memory, save men rapidly waving poorly distinguishable scythes. The question was how to capture, how to reproduce to others this full and profound sensation of the actual processes that twice this day had made me marvel. I tortured myself on my homeward way> flinging myself in my thoughts from side to side, seizing and rejecting, testing and being disappointed. And suddenly, at last, I had it!
When the director shoots a scene, he changes the position of the camera, now approaching it to the actor, now taking it farther away from him, according to the subject of his concentration of the spectator’s attention—either some general movement or else some particularity, perhaps the features of an individual. This is the way he controls the spacial construction of the scene. Why should he not do precisely the same with the temporal? Why should not a given detail be momentarily emphasised by retarding it on the screen, and rendering it by this means particularly outstanding and unprecedently clear? Was not the rain beating on the stone of the window-sill, the grass falling to the ground, retarded, in relation to me, by my sharpened attention? Was it not thanks to this sharpened attention that I perceived ever so much more than I had ever seen before?
I tried in my mind’s eye to shoot and construct the mowing of the grass approximately as follows:
1. A man stands bared to the waist. In his hands is a scythe. Pause. He swings the scythe. (The whole movement goes in normal speed, i.e., has been recorded at normal speed.)
2. The sweep of the scythe continues. The man’s back and shoulders. Slowly the muscles play and grow tense. (Recorded very fast with a”slow-motion”apparatus, so that the movement on the screen comes out unusually slow.)
3. The blade of the scythe slowly turning at the culmination of its sweep. A gleam of the sun flares up and dies out. (Shot in”slow motion.”)
4. The blade flies downward. (Normal speed.)
5. The whole figure of the man brings back the scythe over the grass at normal speed. A sweep —back. A sweep—back. A sweep. . . . And at the moment when the blade of the scythe touches the grass —
6. —slowly (in”slow motion”) the cut grass sways, topples, bending and scattering glittering drops.
7. Slowly the muscles of the back relax and the shoulders withdraw.
8. Again the grass slowly topples, lies flat.
9. The scythe-blade swiftly lifting from the earth.
10. Similarly swift, the man sweeping with the scythe. He mows, he sweeps.
11. At normal speed, a number of men mowing, sweeping their scythes in unison.
12. Slowly raising his scythe a man moves off through the dusk.
This is a very approximate sketch. After the actual shooting, I edited it differently—more complexly, using shots taken at very various speeds. Within each separate set-up were new, more finely graduated speeds. When I saw the result upon the screen I realised that the idea was sound. The new rhythm, independent of the real, deriving from the combination of shots at a variety of speeds, yielded a deepened, one might say remarkably enriched, sense of the process portrayed upon the screen.
The chance spectators, who were ignorant of the nature of the method employed, confessed to having experienced an almost physical sense of moisture, weight, and force. I tried to shoot and edit the rain in the same way. I took long shots and close-ups at different speeds, using “slow motion.” The slow striking of the first heavy drops against dry dust. They fall, scattering into separate dark globules. The falling of rain on a surface of water: the swift impact, a transparent column leaps up, slowly subsides, and passes away in equally slow circles. An increase of speed proceeds parallel with the strengthening of the rain and the widening of the set-up. The huge, wide expanse ofa steadily pouring network of heavy rain, and then, suddenly, the sharp introduction of a close-up of a single stream smashing against a stone balustrade. As the glittering drops leap up—their movements are exceptionally slow—can be seen all the complex, wondrous play of their intersecting paths through the air. Once more the movement speeds, but already the rain is lessening. Closing, come shots of wet grass beneath the sun. The wind waves it, it slowly sways, the raindrops slide away, and fall. This movement, taken with the highest speed of the “slow-motion” camera, showed me for the first time that it is possible to record and reproduce the movement of grass before the wind. In earlier pictures I had seen nothing but a dry, hysterically trembling tangle. I am deeply convinced both of the need for and the sense of practicability achieved by this new method.
It is of the highest importance to appreciate, in all its profundity, the essence of this work in “slow-motion,”and to exploit it not as a trick, but as a means of consciously, at required points, retarding or accelerating movement to a precise degree. It is necessary to be able to exploit every possible speed of the camera, from the very highest, yielding on the screen exceptional slowness of movement, to the very least, resulting on the screen in an incredible swiftness. Sometimes a very slight retardation just of the plain and simple walk of a human being endows it with a weight and significance that could never be rendered by acting. I tried to render a shell explosion by an editing construction of shots at various speeds: Slow at the beginning; then very rapid flight; slightly retarded development; the ground slowly sinks away, and then suddenly fragments of earth start flying very rapidly straight at the spectator; for a fraction of a second an instantaneous change and they are flying slowly, crushingly and terribly, then an equally sudden change and once more they are flying fast. It came out excellently!
Cinematography with the “slow-motion” camera has long been practised. The disconcerting strangeness of retarded movement on the screen, the possibility of perceiving forms that ordinarily are imperceptible and invisible, yet none the less existent in actuality, exerts so powerful an impression on the spectator that it is already no uncommon thing for directors to insert shots taken in “slow-motion” into their pictures. (It is to the point here to note that the charm of a cleverly “captured” movement in a drawing often depends on the same “slow-motion” effect, only here the role of the “slow-motion”camera is played by the artist’s eye.)
But all the directors who have exploited retardation of movement have failed to do the one thing that, in my view, is the most important. They have failed to incorporate the retarded movement in the editing construction as a whole—in the general rhythmical flow of the film. Suppose they have been using “slow-motion” to shoot a horse jumping, then they have shot it as a whole, and as a whole inserted it in the picture, almost as a separate “dragged in” sequence. I have heard that Jean Epstein shot a whole film in “slow-motion” (I think it was The Fall of the House of Usher, from E. A. Poe’s story), using the effect of retarded motion to give a mystical tinge to every scene.
This is not at all what I mean. I refer to the incorporation of various degrees of retarded speed of movement integrally in the construction of a given editing phrase. A short-length shot in “slow-motion”can be placed between two longer normalspeeded shots, concentrating the attention of the spectator at the desired point for a moment. “Slow-motion” in editing is not a distortion of an actual process. It is a portrayal more profound and precise, a conscious guidance of the attention of the spectator.
This is the eternal characteristic of cinematography. I tried to construct the blow of a fist on a table as follows: The fist rushes swiftly down on to the table, and the moment it touches it the subsequent shots show a glass, stood nearby, slowly jumping, rocking, and falling. By this conjunction of rapid and slow shots was produced an almost audible, exceptionally sharply sensed impression of a violent blow. The full processes shown upon the screen by the editing together of shots recorded at various speeds seem endowed with a rhythm peculiar to themselves, a sort of breath of life of their own. They are alive, for they have received the vital spark of an appraising, selecting, and all-comprehending concept. They do not slip by like landscape past the window of a railway carriage beneath the indifferent glance of a passenger familiar with the route. They unfold and grow, like the narrative of a gifted observer, who has perceived the thing or process more clearly than anyone else has ever done before.
I am convinced that this method can be extended to work in shooting a man—his expression, his gestures. I already know by experience what precious material is afforded by a man’s smile shot in”slow-motion.”I have extracted from such shots some remarkable pauses, wherein the eyes alone are engaged in a smile that the lips have not yet begun to share. A tremendous future stretches before the”close-up of time. 55 Particularly in sound film, where the rhythm is given point and complexity by its conjunction with sound, particularly here is it important.
(Written but not delivered as an address for the Workers’ Film Federation Summer School, 1931, and published, in the present translation by I. M. and H. C. Stevens, in The Observer, Jan. 31, 1932, by courtesy of whose editor it is now reprinted.)