Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Sergei Eisenstein.
Along with the likes of D. W. Griffith and Yasujirō Ozu, Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most influential directors of cinema’s formative years. Often deemed the “Father of Montage,” Eisenstein’s filmography includes such influential works as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), and Alexander Nevsky (1938).
His writings on filmmaking, which have been collected into several volumes including Film Sense and Film Form, remain seminal works in film theory. A film school professor as well as an accomplished director, Eisenstein shared plenty of filmmaking advice over the course of his life, including the six tips below.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Sergei Eisenstein
1. Listen to the set
This first tip comes from Eisenstein’s Notes of a Film Director, the entirety of which can be accessed online via the wonderful Media History Digital Library. In this chapter of the book, Eisenstein goes through a number of sequences in his films and discusses the production process. About perhaps the most famous of all, the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin that has been homaged in films ranging from Brazil to The Untouchables, Eisenstein has the following to say:
“The Odessa steps were [an] inspiration of the moment. It is my opinion that at the moment of shooting the scenery, sets and props are often wiser than the director. One must be really gifted and greatly skilled to be able to hear and understand what the scenes suggest, to be able to listen as one edits the film to the whispering of the shots which, on the screen, live a life of their own, frequently extending beyond the limits of the imagination that has conceived them. But to be able to do this, the director must have an exceptionally clear idea of ever scene or phase of the film. At the same time, he must be versatile in choosing the means for expressing his ideas. He must be sufficiently pedantic to know how to achieve the desired effect and at the same time liberal enough to accept unforeseen objects and means that are capable of producing this effect.”
2. Trust your instincts
As mentioned before, Eisenstein not only made films but taught filmmaking. According to a student by the name of Herbert Marshall, one of the director’s final pieces of advice to graduating students, as quoted in the biography Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, was as follows:
“When you make your first film, forget all about montage and about me! Here you have learned, but there you must do. And the doing should reveal the learning.”
3. Great cinematography is about cohesion
In Film Form, a book of essays on film theory first published in 1949, Eisenstein addressed what he saw as being key to the art of cinematography, writing as follows:
“It is true that in practice a film is broken up into seperate episodes. But these episodes all hang from the rod of a single ideological, compositional and stylistic whole. The art of cinematography is not in selecting a fanciful framing, or in taking something from a surprising camera-angle. The art is in every fragment of a film being an organic part of an organically conceived whole.”
4. Don’t fear new techniques
In Notes of a Film Director, Eisenstein discusses dealing with innovation in a changing industry. Of course, Eisenstein was writing in 1948, so the game-changing developments of the time included color and stereoscopic film. However, his advice regarding how to handle a changing film industry still rings true to today:
“We should not be afraid of the coming era. […] We should prepare our consciousness for the coming of new themes, which, multiplied by the potentialities of new techniques, will demand a new aesthetics for skillfully realizing these new themes in the new, breathtaking works of the future.”
5. When inspiration strikes, take notes
Appendix B of Film Form, one of Eisenstein’s books of essays on film theory, features “Notes from a Director’s Laboratory,” written while the filmmaker was working on Ivan the Terrible, a proposed three-part epic (the second part was banned by Joseph Stalin, and the filming of the third was stopped due to Eisenstein’s death in 1948). In these notes, he elaborates on his creative process and starts by stressing the incomparable importance of that first bit of inspiration:
“The most important thing is to have the vision. The next to grasp and hold it. In this there is no difference whether you are writing a film-script, pondering the plan of the production as a whole, or thinking out a solution for some particular detail. You must see and feel what you are thinking about. You must see and grasp it. You must hold and fix it in your memory and senses. And you must [write them down] at once. […] Sometimes the hint fixed on paper will be developed and transferred to the screen. Sometimes it will be scrapped. Some times the contribution of an actor, or some unforeseen possibility (or more frequently, impossibility) of lighting, or any kind of production circumstance will alter or revise your first vision. But even here, by other means and methods, you will strive to convey in the finished work that invaluable seed that was present in your first vision of what you hoped to see on the screen.”
6. Without emotion, you can create nothing
Biographer Marie Seton shadowed some of Eisenstein’s lectures at the State Institute of Cinematography in Russia (now known as the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in the fall of 1934. As she recorded in Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography, available online through the Media History Digital Library, he shared the following advice with his students on the use of emotion in creative work:
“You must be infatuated by the ideas and emotions contained within your subject. Without emotion, you can create nothing. Your infatuation is the powder to produce a creative explosion. But an explosion of emotion is not enough. Feelings must be given a definite direction. Then you must try to find the form which will express the first vivid impressions which moved your whole being. This form must satisfy your consciousness.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Eisenstein’s incredibly intellectual breakdown of filmmaking often wobbles between confounding and profound. That said, Eisenstein’s incredibly thorough theories with regards to filmmaking, and particularly film editing, continue to inspire filmmakers to this day, and for good reason. While his writings might be old, the spirit of his dedication to innovation and experimentation is exactly the thing that will keep cinema new and exciting for many years to come.