Film cutting is dead. Long live assembly! (Part 2)

The roots of assembly

Checklist for the Perfect Film and Video Briefing
Checklist for the Perfect Film and Video Briefing: Template for Sponsored Films

Film cutting is dead? The remarkably quick artistic development of film can be traced back to the 19th century, and not just for the aspect of storytelling. Assembly itself also obtained its early constitutive capacity from this period:  The literary realism of Flaubert, who used his words to force metaphorical significance out of insignificant detail, can also be referenced to film assembly. The same applies to the musical work of Beethoven, who created new emotional ranges by energetically extending, shortening and transforming rhythmic and orchestral structures.

Assembly still profits from this today, not only for fictitious formats in cinema and TV, but wherever communication must follow specifically under time and cost pressure: in commissioned films, image films, product films and last but not least, in adverts.

What is assembly (montage) in film?

Assembling a film initially means condensing the content, the success of which makes following a plan and a principle advisable. Its basis is formed by the story, or, in commissioned film, the required expression.

Assembly is not an aspect of a film. It is the aspect of a film. Orson Welles

The actual purpose of assembly, which clarifies why assembly should be the conceptual parent of cutting, consists of “presenting the topic, the subject matter, the actions, the deeds, the dynamics (…) within a film coherently and consequentially” (Sergei Eisenstein). In 1888, Eastman brought the first roll film onto the market. Perception psychology calls the resulting motional impression of a large number of individual images the phi phenomenon: the primal form of assembly. Individual images in continuous sequence fuse to form more than the sum of its components.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein, 1898–1948

The aforementioned Eisenstein memorialised this phenomenon in combination with the so-called vision persistence effect in his legendary film Battleship Potemkin (1925, original Russian title Броненосец Потёмкин/Bronenossez Potjomkin).

With regard to assembly, one can orientate oneself to the check-list of the Oscar winner (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, which he refined over fifty years. Murch explicitly understands his check-list (simplified under Section 4 below) as a list of priorities: Those faced with the decision between emotion or rhythm should always focus on emotion as a superimposed criterion. Those deciding between storytelling or rhythm should always focus on storytelling, etc.

Film cutting is dead. Long live assembly!

In a perfect world for an ideal film, assembly can measure and consider all of the following points in the listed sequence:

1. Emotions

In assembly, the question is always whether the intended change in the length of the takes intensifies or weakens the viewer’s emotions. Why? If emotions are intensified, cutting aids assembly. If the contrary applies, cutting weakens assembly. The viewer does not care about incidents during the filming process, or about what happened during editing or behind the scenes. The viewer is only touched by the emotions he or she experiences while watching the film.

2. Storytelling

What applies for script writers also applies for editors: Kill Your Darlings! Whatever does not drive, or worse, confuses the story in the film will decelerate the viewer experience and poses the risk of boring the audience. This is where assembly comes in to help.

3. Rhythm

Like a piece of music, every film has its own beat and rhythm. If the rhythm does not match the emotions or the storytelling line, the film will fall apart. Rhythm, emotions and the story are therefore closely interlinked and the three top priorities in assembly. A boring, sloppy cut is usually based on the incorrect, misunderstood coordination of these three elements in assembly.

4. Perspective

Like in real life, our eyes focus on highlights in order to be able to capture and process the volume of visual information in a film in the first place.  While we in the western world read images and writing from left to right and from top to bottom, we react more strongly to movement than, for example, to stationary objects.

Assembly serves to guide and set our perspectives in a film. It determines what our eyes should see in a scene and when, therefore determining our perception. Setting the perspective is not only relevant when it comes to working with symbols and metaphors, but also always in connection with transitional scenes. If perspectives do not coincide at this point, we will perceive this scenic transition as strange.

Spatial perception

Assembly is also responsible for the film or video viewer’s spatial perception. It enables our three-dimensional orientation in space. It decides whether this perception permits our localisation of an action or intentionally not. Handling of space in assembly also includes the prevention of the so-called 180-degree rule (in the 180-degree rule, the camera jumps across the imaginary line, so that two people no longer face one another on the right or left of the image but suddenly on the left and right).

Film cutting is dead but very alive.

Further reading (selection):

  • Die Kunst des Filmschnitts, Michael Ondaatje,  1996
  • Filmmontage, Hans Beller, 2005
Über Kristian Widmer 27 Artikel

Kristian Widmer (49) is Executive Producer and CEO of Condor Films Ltd. He has been advising customers on film and video for 23 years.

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