Many years ago, before smartphones and tablets, I was living in China and I had the bold idea to launch a business around the online delivery of interactive picture books for the voracious Chinese educational market. I hired some freelancers and we had had so much fun developing a a couple of IPs and a whole bunch of storybooks. Then I took it all along to a web development firm and paid them a chunk of change to develop a website and technology build for delivering all this to my customers.
Great. It went well, good response, very happy. However, because of poor strategic planning I wasn’t able to follow up on the initial success. I sold the platform and content for a small sum and moved on. To put it simply I hadn’t though about where I was going with the business and so I had no direction to follow when it came to moving beyond the first step.
Are you starting a business based on stories and pictures?
This is a diagnosis sheet for focusing ideas. For people putting together a project or business with some sort of illustrated intellectual property content. Maybe it’s a children’s book series, an animation startup, tshirt company, startup toy company a kids licensing brand or something totally new. If you are bringing a business project to the world and it is based around telling stories with pictures, then this worksheet is for you, to help you think through your business idea.
When we bring a project into the world we try to make something great. I hate to think of people with good intentions not achieving their goals. I want you to succeed and I want your project to have an impact.
So I created this project diagnosis sheet for people in a similar position. It aims to help clarify your thinking around audience, positioning and strategy. A secondary goal is to focus your thinking onto something that will help you feel good about what you are doing.
This is the sort of thing I like to work through with my clients. if you’ve had a look at this sheet, and want to go beyond this basic overview and get more strategic about your project, get in touch with Screen and Pencil.
In 1984 a film version of the acclaimed science fiction novel ‘Dune’, directed by avant-noir director David Lynch was released. It was universally derided for its pointless uninflected acting and boring, exposition focused script. I picked up a copy of Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’ from 1980 and I was struck by many similarities in subject matter. I think Lynch was heavily influenced by Kurosawa and Japanese cinema more generally and I’m going to tell you about it.
Could this actually be a defence of ‘Dune’ as directed so atrociously by David Lynch? I think it is. How bizarre! I could never have imagined myself writing this, but what the hey. When you see it, you see it.
‘Dune’ and ‘Kagemusha’ have similar subject matters. They both depict members of powerful, rich, noble families who head up vast armies of servants, soldiers and retainers. Both films try to show us how staid, formalised and restrictive the lives of these characters could be. These characters are on show every waking second of their lives. They have no privacy. They are dressed, fed, work, play and even sleep under the eyes of servants, guards and retainers. True relaxation is non-existent. People who are constantly on display. On their guard 24/7, maintaining a stony wall of aloofness to even their closest confidantes. Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating subjects to write and direct for. Kurosawa, relying on a tradition of formal gesture, a shifting between control and uncontrol, stiffness and looseness in Japanese traditional theatre pulls it off grandly. Unfortunately Lynch, relying on his instincts, makes a horrible botch job of it.
In ‘Dune’ we have a stilted, declarative style of acting. Lots of exposition in lieu of convincing dialogue. Static blocking and staging, almost no movement. I imagine Lynch telling his actors to restrain themselves and keep their emotions and impulses under check. They just speak in a bland, speechy way. Some of them are decent actors, so it’s all on the director for this one. Dialogue wanders off into unnecessary exposition of the philosophy and sociology of the universe. It’s a mess.
In ‘Kagemusha’ Kurosawa embraces this environment. The characters are constantly on show and on guard and this is one of the central themes of the film. The impersonator has to learn this truth: that though he is impersonating a lord with all his privileges, he is actually playing a role for the people around him, to inspire them, to lead them and to hold them together. It is a text about the very nature of being a figurehead. Thus the style is still declarative and mannered. The characters speak as though their words will be written down and pored over for every nuance of meaning. It is stiff and much of the dialogue is expository. However there is a noh like rhythm to the stiffness: stillness is punctuated by emotional outbursts and highly stylised theatrical gestures. Because of this innate rhythm Kurosawa’s highly mannered staging seems naturalistc. It seems right for the characters and their time. It works. Very well.
This is where Lynch falls down. He has not built his invented style on a performance tradition: he has skimmed off Kurosawa’s depiction of stiff, formal nobles, but the themes of ‘Dune’ don’t support and explain that. Unsurprisingly, audience’s don’t get it. He hasn’t built a rhythmic approach to motion and stillness based on a theatrical tradition of staging bu t simply imitated what Kurosawa has done without really understanding the meta language of how Kurosawa directed actors
This is fun, so let’s go a little further and look at the dialogue The dialogue of ‘Kagemusha’ is, like that in ‘Dune’ strangely stiff, formal and expository. But this is in the context of Japanese script writing, where it is common for characters to drop out of naturalistic styles and to declare the philosophical and emotional themes of the piece in soliloquy. This is very forced, but it is also very characteristic of Japanese writing. I find it extremely appealing. Kurosawa also has almost all of the dialogue being about the story, usually a no no, but this formal world seems to cry out for it. It reinforces the restrictive emotional life of the characters.
I see what Lynch saw in this style. If you’re a director trying to find a staging and dialogue style to depict a universe as foreign and exotic as the world of Dune. If you’re out to depict smart, powerful but self contained people responding to events greater than themselves, Kurosawa’s style and that of Japanese cinema more generally is a great place to look for stylistic inspiration.
It just seems that Lynch hadn’t the knack for punctuating the dialogue with the right rhythm and timing. His expository dialogue just falls embarrassingly flat. Where Kurosawa’s dialogue exposits the themes and events and touches only tangentially on the sociology, Lynch is preoccupied with making sure viewers are hammered (repeatedly) with every tedious detail of the fictional universe. He fails to direct his dialogue onto theme in any meaningful way. And that just will not do.
‘Kagemusha’ is a wonderful, compelling film. ‘Dune’ is painful to watch. It is a marvellous, visually stunning and inventive piece which crumbles under the weight of experimentation. It is a failure. A wonderful failure. For having produced a film of such breathtaking audacity and messed it up? I applaud. I get it. I love it. Let’s have more.
I am pleased to unveil this awesome new toy packaging project. A classic style cardback illustration and design for a frankenstein themed slime/putty toy.
This package design will really pop off the pegs and catch the eye. My assessment was that this packaging illustration should have friendly comic appeal while still paying homage to the source material. It’s Frankenstein’s monster. It has to be a teeny bit creepy, at least. The vibe wasn’t quite right until I made his eyeballs bloodshot, then it just jumped right out. Simple solutions to complex problems are always the way to go. I never get over how satisfying simple little projects like this can be. Get in, execute and get out. Brilliant.
Fun was had. Vintage monsters and toy packaging, does it get any better? And while I was typing this the 60s Batman theme came on and I had to crank it up and air bass guitar all over the studio. I love my life.
In this post:
Overview of the history of montage and Soviet montage theory. In part two of this post I will detail a system of categorisation that can be used by modern storytellers for practical applications.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a filmmaker because montage studies falls under the aegis of film making studies and since I used to teach that, it is just catalogued this way I my brain. This applies to animators, comic artists, childrens book illustrators, packaging designers and visual storytellers of all kinds
Montage and the understanding of it are fundamental to how we tell stories with pictures. No matter what kind of story we are telling or what media, the relation of one image to another when presented in sequence is key. It is the very essence of our ability to sequence events and concepts and to craft them into a compelling story.
Montage: The magical effect of putting two images together in sequence such that they combine to create a greater whole.
All great storytellers have a sense of how to put images together. We develop a highly sophisticated instincts from a lifetime of absorbing story. But if you’re like me, you need more than a vague gestalt. For me, a detailed understanding of montage, that most esoteric of storytelling arts is the basis of all decisions.
It has been said that every edited scene is a montage. However, most storytellers make a distinction between a cut that changes our angle on an action in a continuous sequence and a cut that presents two different, separate elements of mise en scene that combine to create something that can’t be depicted visually.
This idea derives from the school of thought known as Soviet montage. After the revolution in Russia, film making was seen as a desirable outlet for state propaganda. It was the machine age, and the age of modernism and so a conceptualisation of film as an engineered construct appealed strongly to Soviet era film thinkers. Most famously this notion of the constructed nature of film was elaborated by Lev Kuleshov, an early experimenter in montage . By combining shots of a man with a neutral expression with, variously, a bowl of soup, a funeral and a woman, Kuleshov’s audience were made to feel that the character was hungry, sad, and desirous. Voila! The birth of montage. Two shots in sequence are combined in the mind of the viewer to create a depiction of something that isn’t depicted on screen. This bedrock of film gestalt is known as the Kuleshov effect to this day.
Another seminal figure in the development of montage theory was the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Building on Kuleshov’s experiments, Eisenstein elaborated a classification of montage. He elucidated five different types of montage and with these building blocks one could construct a film scene in a very dry, intellectual and mechanistic fashion. People were in love with sparse abstraction that had little to do with reality in the days of modernism. Despite this overly restrictive formula Eisenstein’s elaborated montage types are still an extremely influential system of categorisation to this day.
Eisenstein’s Montage Types
Rhythmic montage is the practice of editing according to music, SFX or some other action on screen. When an editor lays an action beat on a musical beat, or edits according to the marching of feet, you’re looking at a rhythmical montage. This is the heart of modern music video editing and is used in many modern films to give a pacey inevitable feel to the action. I won’t bother with an example. This technique is so commonplace it hardly bears mentioning.
Tonal montage is achieved when discontinuous images that share a similarity in emotion or theme or psychological meaning are edited together. A powerful tool used to build atmosphere to evoke an emotion or to set up a notional landscape of ideas. In this scene form Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein uses a variety of tonally linked montage shots to create the tension of an impending sea battle.
Metric montage is the practice of cutting according to an exact measurement of time despite the content of the shot. It can be used to create a sense of progress or of inevitability. It is often used to emphasise a feeling of of profound unease. When the metric edit clashes with the the score or sound effects or image rhythms it can be subtly disturbing to the audience.
The most famous example of this is of course the shower scene in Psycho. In this scene Hitchcock edits the to a predefined rhythm, ignoring the score and the action and privileging the artificial over the natural. In dropping from a a naturalistic cutting style to a mechanistic one he shifts gears and the audience feels it as a definite sense of unease. This use of the metric edit as a storytelling device lurks beneath the content, reinforcing and driving home the disquieting and shocking nature of the scene, quite apart from the content.
Overtonal is a case of combining metric, rhythmic and tonal montage to create a scene with a powerful, multi-layered gestalt. This prefigures modern editing styles which combine many types of montage together.
The famous final gunfight from the ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ is a great example There is a wonderful tonal unity in the mise en scene as the morally empty characters meet in a dead wasteland, their parched skins reflecting the dry dusty graveyard around them. There is nothing to suggest respite or solace or hope. Everything in the scene points to one thing: death. The film is cut closely to the score and is also aligned to a very tight metrical scheme that increases the pace and intensity as the scene builds to its climax. Much has been written about this fascinating masterwork of cinema and I recommend examining it in depth.
Intellectual montage is the king of montage types,. It is the one that conforms most closely to Eisenstein’s assertion that montage shots should be depictive, have a single meaning, and be neutral in context. It is the film grammar of abstraction and experimentation where the audience brings the meaning to the text. Intellectual montage is the purest expression of the Kuleshov effect.
A well known example of this is the baptism scene from the Godfather. By cutting together scenes of a the baptism and a series of bloody murders the audience is left to construct and make sense of the two disparate images. We are left with a grim sense of the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of the character Michael and of the the rules and conventions of the film world.
The End of Soviet Montage
With this articulation of a theory of montage in hand, the soviet film makers were able to move forward in the creation of a national cinema based on this rational, intellectualised and constructed film production. They were able to engineer films that could be used to bring people around to politically acceptable ways of thinking.
However by the height of Stalin’s power, more foreign films were entering Russia and the state began to cool towards this type of abstraction and experimentation. Socialist Realism was declared the official artistic style of the revolution and in line with painting, film too became highly naturalistic. Thus Russian film began to mimic world cinema practices. Rather than the Soviet originated discontinuity style of editing where the audience was expected to notice every cut and think about it, filmmakers started to work in what has come to be called the continuity style. In what has come to be called classical continuity editing the goal is to immerse the viewer in the story such that they should not notice the cuts.
In the final analysis, world cinema has moved irrevocably towards the continuity model. However montage techniques based on these early Soviet constructionist models of narrative are still widely used. In fact modern storytelling would not function without a range of montage tools which draw their lineage directly from these early pioneers.
How montage has changed and grown to become the tool set we use today is the subject of part two of this post.
Far out on the edge of the solar system the crew of the mining station Alecto begin to suffer from terrifying hallucinations. As the line between reality and fantasy bends and warps around them the crew tear each other apart in an escalating orgy of violence, betrayal and madness.
A tale of guilt, delusion, hidden secrets and sudden death four billion kilometres from Earth.