Video Editing 101 – Using Found Footage and telling a story.

Making a movie (video or film) is about much more than a script, casting, acquiring film or video and assembling them all together. Film or Video Editing (originally called montage), the art and craft of not only assembling or inserting shots into a film, but the collision of one image against another to create a juxtaposition of two images to invoke emotion and tell a story, is the most important part of film-making. Some directors (like Kubrick) said that everything they did was solely for the purpose to sit down and edit, since that is where the actual film (or video) is made. The theory of Film montage has been a major influence on me and I still find it frightening to collide one shot into another at times. However, it works! This is a habit that must be created in order to be a good film/video editor and filmmaker.

One example of helping to tell the story using juxtaposition should be titled, “How I saved the scene because of bad direction.” I will not name the “guilty movie or director.” It was not me (LOL). The director of this feature film did a terrible job of understanding what was needed to make a movie. Instead he shot it in a naive way using hyper-realism (unintentionally). He conducted everything as if it was a live performance and shot with two cameras thinking he would always have something to cut to. However, since he did not block the scenes, or direct the actors to pause within the scenes, it was often like a F%#!ing soap opera (not what they intended), instead of a drama. In one major scene of the movie, a pivotal scene, their was no emotion curve or arc what-so-ever. However, in one of the outtakes, I found the lead male actor had flubbed his lines and he turned his head and looked off at the director, he paused for a second and said something apologetic to him. When I cross cut this turning of the head and looking away (which also created a 1 second pause in the dialogue) suddenly it looked like the male lead was reacting to what the female lead said. When the director saw this in the rough cut he was confused because he did not direct this bit of action. However, after he saw the scene again he realized that the editor (ME) made the scene 10 times better, and gave it depth and new meaning, by using this shot that did not belong there. This is the theory of montage. Inexperienced (novice) Directors, and Producers make these mistakes all the time. The need knowledge and experience to take two different images and create a third meaning. A meaning that is not 1 plus 1 equals 2 – but 1 + 1 = 5. This is what we create, layers of meaning.

You need knowledge and experience to take two different images, collide them together and create a third larger meaning.

Early on in my career I was deeply influenced by Sergei Eisenstein and the Russian’s he worked with in the early 1900s (Kuleshov in particular and Pudovkin). They found the juxtaposition of one clip against another changed the emotional tone and mood for the audience.

Eisenstein (and his Russian contemporaries) believed that editing (montage) could be used to greater effect, it was not merely to expound a scene or moment through the assembling of related images. He felt the “collision” (juxtaposition) of one image against the other should be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and thus create film language as we know it today. He developed the theory of montage (editing) and added a sense of collage into film (previously all editing was assemble editing), he believed that an idea should be derived from the juxtaposition of two independent shots that was greater than the individual meaning of each. His “methods of montage”, included Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and Intellectual, which we will cover in later posts.

In one of the published papers on the theory of montage (based on a short film by Kuleshov) they used one close up of a popular Tsarist actor, in the void (black background), with a blank expression, and then cut this against a close up of a plate of soup, a shot of a young girl in a coffin and a woman sitting on a divan. The audience spoke about the great acting ability of the actor and the range of emotions he displayed, although it was the exact same shot of the actor cut in between every time. The audience believed the actor portrayed feelings of hunger, sorrow and lust. Pudovkin wrote in 1929 that although the audience “raved about the acting… we knew the face of the actor was exactly the same in all three scenes.” The audience believed that the facial expression of the actor was different each time he appeared, based on the next shot, which gave the impression he was “looking at” a plate of soup, a young girl in a coffin, or the attractive woman sitting on the divan. The audience believed the actor showed an expression of hunger, grief and desire, respectively.

This theory of Montage developed by the Russians and used heavily in propaganda films of the early 1900s in Russia is still an unbelievable and difficult concept to grasp. However, the theory is sound and works every time. We (as filmmakers and editors) have been participating in the ongoing experiment with audiences for over 120 years. The average person would not dare cut from a close of an actor to a shot of a girl in a coffin, and yet it is these nuances that tell a story. To see Eisenstien’s mastery of montage theory you can watch a clip from “Potemkin,” and see the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence below (I have only included the last 5 minutes of the sequence, you are missing the first 8 minutes of the ending of a one hour movie, released in Russia in 1925).

In my own experiments of montage theory and to teach other editors (and myself) to be a better visual story teller, I often suggest creating and telling a story with only found footage. It is a collage, and you must find the pieces you use from a limited area. Otherwise you will not be forced to find creative solutions to tell a story. If you where allowed to get footage from anywhere you would just tell the story in your head, instead of weaving a story with what you have. Clearly remembering that the juxtaposition of one piece of film to another is what evokes emotion.

Many students have failed at this exercise miserably. But all failure is success of some sort. The true purpose is to create something that was not intended. This is a difficult task and very time consuming. Below I have weaved a story about violence, sacrifice, and torture that we endure as a society, sometimes self inflicted and sometimes stupid. I spent at least 50 hours editing, re editing, and finalizing the film, which played in film festivals in NY and Florida in 1998. I used the University of South Florida now defunct film departments educational 16 mm film collection (damaged and donated), as my resource. But you need a way to limit what footage you are going to use (an online example may be to only use two or three full length films from My 1998 version is offered below, to illustrate film editing 101 and the theory of montage. Please be informed that many of the images are shocking and horrifying when juxtaposed together.

Editing 101 sample: Found Footage 1998

a film by Edward Isin. Title: Found Footage 1998 (16 MM). AMP Film Studios specializes in editing and post production services. Contact us for post production services nationwide including getting in touch with one of our writer, producer and directors. Call today for a 100% money back video production guarantee at 1-877-267-4111. Option 1.