Dziga Vertov’s Modern Film Techniques
I have been interested in film production and editing ever since I took two years of video classes in high school. After learning to digitally record and edit video, I developed a new hobby and passion. Seeing Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera in my modernism LCC course absolutely blew my mind. I thought setting up a digital camera, recording the right shots, and digitally editing on a computer was hard, but it is nothing compared to the true talent seen in Vertov’s modern film. The hour-long masterpiece was full of such innovative creativity that I absolutely had to analyze it for my semester project. The rest of this blog will briefly explain the purpose of his film and the recording and editing equipment used. Then it will examine five of the major film techniques he relied on to make his work a masterpiece of the time period. I will also compare the process of achieving these effects on 35mm film to today’s digital processes, which use non-linear editing software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Also, most of the information in this blog comes from my own knowledge of filming techniques and the modern period gathered from classes I’ve taken, which is why not many references are used other than the film itself. That makes this blog more of an analysis rather than a full-blown research paper
After watching Vertov’s film one will realize that it is a film about, well about nothing actually. There is not much importance surrounding what is being recorded to be honest. Without a story, the film is simply a montage of the everyday lives of Russians. It includes daily events like work and play. Of course certain modern themes can be pulled from the film such as the emphasis on machinery and production, but this blog is mostly focused on the actual techniques of filming and how they are achieved rather than the subject being recorded. One key component of Vertov’s film that makes it unique is how he gives a new way to perceive the world. He puts himself at risk to give the viewer a new point of view of life that they would otherwise not experience. A few examples are seen below.
The fragmented nature of the film also gives the viewer a chance to make his own assumptions about the reality being displayed. This disruption of space and time is different from the typical narrative story found in a standard film. Probably the real point of Man with a Movie Camera is to showcase film as a distinct art form. The amount of new and innovative filming tricks packed into this work is astonishing. Vertov is trying to prove his point that film is completely different from simply replaying reality the same way as it is viewed from a human’s typical perspective. Also, about half of the film involves him being recorded while he shoots different scenes. This gives the viewer a perspective into how he actually made the film. It is a reminder to how reality can come from mechanical machines.
Using scenes from Vertov’s film and my general knowledge of film equipment gathered from classes I’ve taken, I have been able to understand how his film effects were achieved. Vertov filmed Man with a Movie Camera with a hand-cranked 35mm film camera. This situation made filming at a consistent rate a difficult task that required skill from practice. The hand crank creates a direct connection between the cameraman and the camera, giving him more control over how the scene is recorded. The fact that film is used instead of today’s digital media completely changes the process used to create this movie. Most of the effects originated from the camera rather than the editing room. Today, most of our film effects come from post processing after using a simple point and shoot camera. The equipment Vertov used builds a strong emphasis on planning the shot before recording. Also, it is interesting how Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, did most of the film editing. This film editing can be seen in the actual movie. The process involves actually cutting the filmstrips and reattaching them using a film splicer. The two main ways to bond the strips are with cement and tape. Vertov’s film used the cement method. Below are images showing the process used to put the movie together. Keep in mind that each and every scene change involves cutting a strip and attaching it to another strip, so this process becomes very time consuming, especially with considering how many scene changes Vertov uses in his movie.
This technique is used often in Man with a Movie Camera, and it is sometimes combined with other effects. Double exposure is the process of exposing a roll of film to a scene to capture it after the film has already been exposed to another subject. The resulting effect is both scenes overlaid on top of each other. This is a method that is very popular with photography as well. Special considerations need to be taken into account, however. Too much light will overexpose film and render it white or too bright, washing out the rest of the image. To overcome this, one must use exposure compensation with the lens of a camera to stop so much light from entering the camera. This is done by adjusting the iris, the black piece in a lens that changes diameter of a circle depending on its setting. Two underexposed images on the same filmstrip can result in a perfectly exposed combination of the two images. Vertov uses this technique multiple times to give the viewer a completely new view of the subject. These perceptions cannot be experienced with a human’s eyes by themselves, but can be seen by the help of a camera machine. By means of this effect he can achieve strange images like the woman’s face placed over a typewriter. More interesting illusions can be created like the cameraman in the coffee/tea cup seen below as well.
In today’s film world, double exposure does not require precise planning before taking the shots like needed with a film camera. One can simply record two separate videos and lay the tracks over top one another as seen in the screen shot below. The opacity of the top video needs to be lowered enough to allow the bottom image to show through (in this case it took 70%). This is obviously much easier, but it has nowhere near the true value of the double exposure art that Vertov meticulously planned out. Below is a screen shot of a double exposure from a popular digital nonlinear video editing program from Apple called Final Cut Pro.
While I watched Vertov’s film, meticulously recording each special film technique, I noticed that his most commonly used effect was the split screen effect. I found at least 13 separate split screen shots. The making of this effect is quite simple, but it mimics the double exposure in that the work must be done while actually recording the scene, rather than editing in postproduction like we do today. To achieve a double exposure effect, one simply needs to cover a section of the lens while recording. The part of the frame that was covered will be black or unexposed on the film because no light reached it. To get the other half of the split screen, cover the opposite half and record onto the same film again. This method will cause the second scene to only record onto the black space of the film, leaving the first recorded scene untouched. One of the most famous scenes from Man with a Movie Camera showing a cameraman on top of a camera comes from using a horizontal split screen shown below in the first image. The second image is just a bizarre example of the effect this technique can give. The third image below shows how Vertov can add more than just one scene to a shot. In fact, he actually gets up to four different scenes in one frame by dividing the frame into quadrants.
Today’s film techniques once again mimic the double exposure routine. Virtually all of the work can be done in postproduction. One simply lays the two shots on top of each other in separate tracks like before. This time one video is cropped from the left, and the other is cropped from the right. The end result will be one video clip showing its left half, and the other video clip showing its right half. This process gives a split screen effect. If the surroundings stay the same, but the subject changes, it can seem as though there are two of the same subjects in one shot as seen below. The screen shot below demonstrates how I can combine three different videos with vertical split screens. Note how there are distinct lines between each split screen. This is due to the camera settings changing between each shot, causing one background to look different from the background next to it. The split screen effect obviously adds some level of confusion to any work it is used in.
The Dutch angle is a very simple technique that Vertov is know for being one of the first film makers to use. There is no editing or trick involved with the technique; it only involves tilting the angle of the camera to one side to record a shot. Some examples of this shot are shown below. This style of recording gives a sense of uneasiness to the shot. The effect is almost subliminal unless one looks at the difference between a Dutch angle and a normal square shot. Take one of the example pictures below and turn your head to make the subject appear upright. You should be saying “Ah…that looks better.” That view is more normal to us. Vertov is all about altering perception of the real world, and this is a small trick he uses to achieve that goal. When he combines the Dutch angle with other effects like split screens, double exposures, fast cutting, and fast motion, the result is mind-boggling. These scenes that will be explored at the end of the blog usually evoke confusion and chaos while the viewer is trying to understand the reality being portrayed. A comparison to today’s methods with our digital cameras and editing is not needed because the angle is shot the same way. This effect could be achieved in postproduction by rotating the video frame and zooming in to get a rectangular frame, however this method is almost never done.
Fast cutting is a technique only possible in postproduction in both old film and today’s digit videos. The process involves switching between different scenes at a rapid pace. Rapid means that each scene is only shown for a few seconds. Fast cutting adds some drama and chaos to the film along with breaking continuity of any action that is going on. An example would be switching between two people’s dialogue very quickly to add a dramatic effect to the conversation. In the 1920’s the concept of editing film was still fairly new, but Vertov took the fast cutting technique and really went overboard with it. Some of the scenes switch so fast that our eyes and brain cannot even process it fast enough. The scenes blur together and almost look like a double exposure. To achieve this effect, the film is literally cut and spliced back together as described at the start of this blog. Try to imagine all of the cuts needed to create the video sample of Vertov’s fastest fast cutting shown below this paragraph. Also note the interesting camera movement while recording the machinery at the beginning. The video segment is from 41:21-41:44, and it will start at the correct time automatically, but it will not end automatically.
Fast cutting is an excellent way Vertov plays with the disruption of time. So much is happening within a few seconds that the viewer fights to comprehend it all. This technique should not be confused with Jump Cuts, however. Jump cuts disrupt time, but it involves the same scene. Imagine watching a video of a person looking away from you, then all of a sudden the camera jumps a bit and the person is looking at you. It is almost like some of the frames were missing, so you missed out on part of the motion. This provides a similar effect of messing with time while distorting reality. The key point of a jump cut is that the camera never moves more than 30 degrees angle away from the subject. If it moves more the 30 degrees, it is a large enough of a movement to be considered a completely different shot or angle.
I use to think that it was a pain to cut up multiple shots on a computer and line them all up to create my own fast cuts, but after learning about the old time film editing process of cutting with scissors and splicing with cement I stopped complaining. The screenshot below shows how easy it is to edit a fast cut in Final Cut on a computer. The shots are shown as a bar, and one only needs to click at certain points to cut it. The start and end points of a clip can also be dragged to adjust the length. The small clips are arranged in the correct order on the timeline, and then with one click of a button they can all be “spliced” together into one video.
Slow and Fast Motion
I noted in the introduction of this blog that Vertov used a 35mm film camera that is operated with a hand crank. This manual operation gives him full control over what frame rate he is recording at. A projector will play the film back at a constant rate, so the speed of the playback is dependent on how many frames you capture per second of filming. Today’s cameras used for movies use 24 frames per second (fps). Most of Vertov’s shots seem to be around this number or a little lower because it looks a little choppier. He takes advantage of his control over his frame rate to implement time rate changes like slow and fast motion. In order to achieve slow motion he must crank the camera very fast to capture as many frames as possible. You may notice the camera shake in the slow motion clip below because he is turning it so fast. If 40 frames are captured in a second, and it is played back at 20 fps, then one second in real life will take two seconds to watch it play back in slow motion. The opposite of this is to crank the camera slowly, capturing fewer frames, resulting in fast motion. Both of these effects are obvious deviations from reality. No one can see life in slow or fast motion without the help of a camera, and Vertov is one of the first to fully demonstrate the power of this technology. There are two sample clips below from Man with a Movie Camera. The first (36:34-37:07) is a fast motion sample that is coupled with the previous technique of fast cutting. The resulting emotion is an accelerated chaos. The second sample clip (45:28-48:00) is full of many fantastic slow motion shots of sports with a few freeze frames.
With today’s digital recording and editing, one does not necessarily have to record at a specific frame rate to achieve slow or fast motion. Once a clip is imported into the timeline in Final Cut, one only needs to change the motion options of the clip. There is a “time remap” option where one can change the speed from 100%. Going higher will increase the playback speed, and going lower will decrease the playback speed as shown in the screenshots below. The 200% is fast motion, and the 50% is slow motion respectively shown below.
This last section is meant to put the icing on the cake. These next two clips will prove why Vertov was a genius of film and how Man with a Movie Camera is indeed a beautiful work of art. The first sample is 58:48-1:00:21 and will start at the right time automatically. It is comprised of many fast cuts coupled with double and triple exposures. The end of the clip involves his camera tripod moving on its own by using a technique called stop motion animation. There is something purely magical about being able to accomplish this on a film camera. The second sample is 29:56-30:25 and will also start at the right time automatically. This sample includes a Dutch angle coupled with fast motion. The clip then moves on to fast cutting between close up shots and erratic camera movement. This is one of the most distorting parts of the film. No part of it is filmed normally. This is a true change in perception of reality.
After learning about some of Vertov’s innovative film techniques, I challenge you to attempt to find these techniques in other movies you watch. I have learned to appreciate films even more after seeing his work of art. I hope you too are now able to see the world from a different perspective thanks to Dziga Vertov and his Man with a Movie Camera.
(1) Vertov, Dziga. “Man with a Movie Camera” 08 January 1929. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 24 April 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iey9YIbra2U>