The formal, cinematic language specific to immersive motion pictures is an area of cinema theory that has been neglected up until now. This paper investigates a new language of cinematic montage specific to immersive cinema, somatic montage, while it examines historical precedents in the sciences, arts, and cinema of the twentieth century. We propose somatic montage as a model for developing new poetic structures in time-based works that inhabit a three-dimensional, architectonic space – a space of embodiment, motion, perception, and participation in the reception of a work of art. In this paper, we consider cinema as a four-dimensional artwork conceptually engendered by the principles of hyper-dimensions, the outgrowth of scientific discoveries made at the turn of the twentieth century. The expanded cinema mediums of fulldome cinema, immersive video and film installation, virtual reality, and extended reality, when approached as four-dimensional cinema space, allow for a spatialized, non-linear juxtaposition of the cinematic elements. Somatic montage is presented here as an extended, supra-dimensional notion of what Sergei Eisenstein called the ‘disjunctive method of narration’.
- Immersive cinema
- Somatic montage
- 20th-century avant-garde
- Relativity theory
- N-dimensional geometry
- Sergei Eisenstein
The development of a formal, cinematic language for immersive motion pictures is currently in its early stage, a stage comparable to the invention of rhythmic montage pioneered by filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, by the early Soviet cinema movement, and by the avant-garde cinema of the 1920s. Immersive cinema affords a proprioceptive interaction of form and content, allowing the signification structure of a film to extend outwards from its internal narrative structure into the architectonic geometry of its projection space. Somatic montage The nomenclature ‘somatic montage’ was first introduced by this author in ‘The Cine-poetics of Fulldome Cinema’ (Chamier-Waite, 2013). Portions of this paper are reproduced from the unpublished dissertation
The nomenclature ‘somatic montage’ was first introduced by this author in ‘The Cine-poetics of Fulldome Cinema’ (Chamier-Waite, 2013). Portions of this paper are reproduced from the unpublished dissertation
Art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson has written a comprehensive treatise See
In this paper, we examine the theoretical underpinnings and artistic experiments beginning with Sergei Eisenstein’s theoretical approaches to film montage, leading up to the contemporary moving-image as a supra-dimensional medium. ‘Supra-dimensional’, from the Latin ‘Supra-’ as defined in (New Oxford American Dictionary 2011).
‘Supra-’ as defined in (New Oxford American Dictionary 2011).
New concepts of space in the arts grew out of the discovery of new geometries and physical laws at the turn of the last century. These discoveries fundamentally altered contemporary culture’s relationship to space and time by ushering in the validity of notions such as the curvature of space, hyper-dimensions, indeterminacy, and subjectivity as rational principles. These new notions of reality, engendered by the discoveries of non-Euclidean geometry, the Theories of Relativity, and quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century – the ‘new science’, affected the development of Modernist concepts in the arts from the traditional avant-garde of the early century to Minimalism in the 1960s and ’70s.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a great deal of cultural interest sprang up around the concept of
The dawn of twentieth-century science brought with it, in addition to the invisible dimensions of four-space and beyond, a curved universe in which the familiar rules of Euclidean geometry no longer apply, contradicting the notion of single-point perspective. A relativistic, space-time continuum that undermines the notion of objective truth was also introduced, put forth by physicist Albert Einstein and mathematician Hermann Minkowski. Further developments in physics added the concept of multiple, simultaneous realities, exemplified by quantum-mechanics and physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. These ‘advanced’ notions imply an ambiguity to reality far removed from our everyday experience of the world – one that we are still learning to comprehend more than a hundred years later.
These profound new discoveries have resonated with creative artists and intellectuals since their inception at the turn of the last century. The cultural impact of these ideas instigated a Modernist series of artistic and philosophical movements encompassing painting, sculpture, music, literature, cinema, and architecture. Starting with Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and avant-garde cinema, we can follow these influences in the Modernist literature of Joyce, the twelve-tone music of Schoenberg, and the Minimalism of the 1960s. These avant-garde movements share a formal engagement with breaking the singular point-of-view through the disruption of linear narrative, single-point perspective, and spatio-temporal continuity. Motion, fragmentation, simultaneity, ambiguity, and participation with the work of art are constructs that are indicative of Modernism.
The contemporary immersive, expanded, and post-cinematic moving images that developed out of this new space-time concept occupy a critical space among film and media theory, art history, and the history of science. Immersive cinema integrates traits informed by the new science: notions of spatial and temporal ambiguity; poly-perspectival spaces; the interaction of cinema with substance and architecture; the abandonment of determinism, the introduction of relativistic, subjective correspondences; and the participatory role of the spectator in an unfolding narrative.
In hyperspace, the simultaneity of space is conjoined with the succession of time. Architect and designer Claude Fayette Bragdon played a key role in popularizing the fourth dimension at the turn of the twentieth century. Bragdon was intrigued by the notion of a supra-dimensional object that is perceivable only in time and then only partially, that is, an object which contains time within its own volume – the four-dimensional hypercube or tesseract. As Bragdon writes: ‘Now the characteristic of time is succession; in time alone one thing follows another in endless sequence. The unique characteristic of space is simultaneity, for in space alone everything exists at once’ (Bragdon, 1915: 66). When one does perceive the tesseract, time and space, as well as inside and outside, become interchangeable.
The Cubists aspired to portraying a perceived representation over an observed one. The historian of architecture Sigfried Giedion, in
The Cubist rejection of Renaissance perspective in favour of a multi-point, -faceted perspective embraced a notion of spatial unfolding, compressing multiple dimensions of space-time onto the two-dimensional image plane. In conventional cinema, this notion of unfolding can be realized as spatial montage, first characterized by media theorist Lev Manovich, as the presentation of multiple, simultaneous, two-dimensional time-based cells distributed across a plane to form a three-dimensional, space-time network of associations. A Cubistic, immersive cinema space is formed that extends beyond the image plane.
The twentieth-century avant-garde movements can be seen as the forebearers of somatic montage in contemporary cinema. Somatic montage explores the concept of montage in the visual arts, poetry, and literature, but especially in cine-installation and immersive cinema as a formal construct rooted in the notions of juxtaposition, cells, and collision developed by Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviet cinema. In immersive cinema space, the supra-dimensional tesseract model allows this spatial montage to unfold from the fourth dimension into the third so that the space-time cells are faceted within a three-dimensional space. In a somatic montage, the film is physically distributed throughout an architectural or virtual theatre. The scenes occupy different spatial as well as temporal locations as an added dimension of montage. Immersive cinema affords expanding the signification structure of a film from its internal narrative out into a navigable projection space.
Immersive cinema is a spatially and sensorily enveloping cinematic experience. In an immersive cinematic experience, the third dimension of real space is enfolded into the scenographic In a 2012 interview, Trumbull described hypercinemas as ‘high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot-Lamberts – more than a full stop above the current standard of 14 foot-Lamberts for standard 2D projection, and several stops above the typical brightness at multiplexes for 3D’ (Cohen, 2012, para. 4).
In a 2012 interview, Trumbull described hypercinemas as ‘high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot-Lamberts – more than a full stop above the current standard of 14 foot-Lamberts for standard 2D projection, and several stops above the typical brightness at multiplexes for 3D’ (Cohen, 2012, para. 4).
The earliest example of a cinematic multi-projection installation is the ten-projector, 360-degree panoramic screen of the
Abel Gance’s film
The first immersive film which used moving, photographic imagery seamlessly covering an entire hemispherical space was shown in 1973 in a specially built theatre, the new OmniMAX format. Omn-iMAX films were shot using a fisheye lens and an exceptionally large film format Images retrieved from Albanese, 2016, and Finkelstein | S/TUDIO, 2017
Images retrieved from Albanese, 2016, and Finkelstein | S/TUDIO, 2017
Figure 2 shows a still image from the experimental immersive film
During the silent film era at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the techniques of cinematic montage developed, films were composed of long, static takes. Earliest cinematography mimicked the conventions of theatre and vaudeville, relying on a stationary camera that was placed in the role of the spectator with a view of a complete stage in the original wide shot. Only the actors moved. Silent, these films at the beginning of the twentieth century were often accompanied by a storyteller who narrated alongside them, particularly in Russia where large percentages of the audience were illiterate and so unable to read the intertitles, and in Japan where the narrator was a critical, performative element of the film experience. In Japan, the narrator, known as the See Jess-Cooke, 2012, 28 and 50 n. 44.
See Jess-Cooke, 2012, 28 and 50 n. 44.
The accomplished stage magician turned film pioneer Georges Méliès invented film editing to facilitate his optical tricks in films such as Film historians maintain an open debate as to who first used the close-up in film, but especially Eisenstein acknowledges Griffiths as the first director to develop it into an element of modern cinematic language. See ‘Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today’ (Eisenstein, 1949a).
Film historians maintain an open debate as to who first used the close-up in film, but especially Eisenstein acknowledges Griffiths as the first director to develop it into an element of modern cinematic language. See ‘Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today’ (Eisenstein, 1949a).
The concept of film montage is essential to modern cinematic language. The
The general emphasis in conventional, temporal montage is on producing the impression of a continuous space and time, an unbroken narrative, known as continuity, which reinforces spatial orientation through a non-disruptive, ‘invisible’ style of edits. The montage strives to provide an organic flow of attention through space and time for the viewer and eschews drawing attention to itself. Parallel to the stylistic developments by Porter and Griffith in early American cinema is the alternative, avant-garde concept of montage that uses a deeply structural and disjunctive structure developed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. This new development was known as Constructivism or Soviet montage, and film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein was this movement’s most prolific theoretician. Eisenstein declared ‘montage … the chief means of effect’ (Eisenstein, 1949b) for the creation of cinema, ‘a principally new qualitative fusion, flowing out of the process of juxtaposition’ (Eisenstein, 1949b: 238). He argued in favour of a ‘disjunctive method of narration’, the joining of two shots to yield a new effect or meaning not evident in either shot alone and thereby suggesting an interaction between characters and objects while never including all in the same frame. Eisenstein’s core concept for montage rests in this notion of juxtaposition, of placing two disparate shots next to each other in sequence to build new meaning in the mind of the viewer through associations, signified in a conceptual evolution from the individual signifiers of the two shots.
The constructivists’ theory of film montage centres on the notion of juxtaposition that occurs between non-continuous elements, what Eisenstein refers to as ‘cells’, single shots of a film sequence. Eisenstein borrows the notion from biology, explaining his concept of the film cell as an organic building block of the film’s totality. ‘The shot is a montage cell. Just as cells in their division form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or embryo, so, on the other side of the dialectical leap from the shot, there is montage’ (Eisenstein, 1949b: 236).
The cell is a core theme in Eisenstein’s theory, and it is central to the conceptual foundation of a somatic montage. The cell represents a graphical (or acoustic or textual) unit that functions within the film less owing to its internal development in time than to the associations that arise when one cell progresses to the next. The juxtaposition that abruptly displaces the viewer in the space-time continuum of the film demands a conceptual leap. Meaning is not gleaned from the contents of a single shot or cell but from the interaction of adjoining cells in time. The mind builds implications from the juxtaposition of divergent image-cells, constructing a message that depends on the interaction of both components. The sequencing of cells is central to constructing the message for Eisenstein: ‘In themselves, the pictures, the phases, the elements of the whole are … indecipherable. The blow is struck only when the elements are juxtaposed into a sequential image’ (Eisenstein, 1989: 115).
Film theorist David Bordwell denotes this associative approach through juxtaposition as ‘constructivist montage’, one that suggests interactions and emotions among characters, objects, and/ or places while never including all the associated elements in the same frame, where ‘the joining of two shots yielded an effect or meaning not evident in either shot alone’ (Bordwell, 1998: 17). Jean-Luc Godard, the French
Eisenstein was interested in an energized notion of montage using ‘collision’ and ‘conflict’ as his theoretical vocabulary. In Eisenstein’s framework, the desired concept to be communicated is constructed in the mind of the viewer, arising from the collision of two different factors. The viewer is a participant engaged with the content to form meaning. Conflict and collision in Eisenstein’s sense serve to direct the audience’s perception of the narrative through association. These concepts played a role in the notion of disruptive narrative, non-linearity, simultaneity, and ambiguity that were themes arising in the arts – in the cinema, literature, painting, sculpture, and music of the European avant-garde of the same period.
Film critic and theorist André Bazin developed a counter-notion to Soviet montage in the 1940s, advocating for a more objective reality by defending the long, continuous take and emphasizing composition and action within the deep focus of the image, ‘total cinema’. Bazin, like Eisenstein, stressed the importance of interpretation by the spectator, but, in his notion, this occurred by representing a total and complete representation of reality in the
The ensuing generation’s Soviet filmmaker and theorist Andrei Tarkovski took an approach to cinema that also owes more to Bazin than to Eisenstein. Tarkovski’s style is exemplified by the long takes and slow-moving camera in
Spherical cinema as a medium emphasizes an inherent spatiality over temporality in an immersive cinema experience. Contemporary, mainstream immersive cinema typically adheres stylistically to Bazin’s concepts of the
In contrast, the genre of experimental cinema, regardless of format, often explores disjunctive space, visual fragmentation, and narrative ambiguity like the avant-garde cinema of the 1920s. Whereas conventional narratives, rooted in literature, tend towards narrative closure, experimental cinema and video art tend towards open-endedness. Media theorist Holly Willis writes of experimental cinema structures: ‘Overall, the narratives displayed in video art are often about space, fragments, and the abundance of meaning. Where Hollywood narratives tend to close things down, video art opens things up, dispersing meaning outward, both figuratively and literally, through the multiplication and dispersal of screens’ (Willis, 2005: 84). Somatic montage for immersive cinema addresses the evocative, associative, constructivist montage missing in conventional immersive genres where the poetics of a lyrical, avant-garde narrative can emerge from the associations created by spatialized juxtapositions. Eisenstein’s notion of juxtaposition is extended in this approach from a temporal montage into a space-time montage.
Beginning in the 1960s, the expanded, experimental cinema movement and video art achieved immersion by using formal constructs such as architectonic space with multiple projections. An early example is the expanded cinema dome installation
The philosophy of phenomenology examines the perception of volumetric forms as the sum of limited views from different perspectives using motion – a time-based phenomenon – around the object to assemble a consciousness of the shape in the mind. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described this process of perception as bound up with embodied motion: ‘In order to be able to conceive the cube, we take up a position in space, now on its surface, now in it, now outside it, and from that moment we see it in perspective. The cube with six equal sides is not only invisible, but inconceivable …’ (Merleau-Ponty & Landes, 1962: 204). The same principle applies when animating a three-dimensional cube as a two-dimensional projection onto a motion-picture screen, rendering views over time to overcome the limitations of two-dimensional perspective. In such a rotation, succession subsumes space, revealing hidden faces in a sequence of two-dimensional views to build up a representation of the cube’s three-dimensionality in the mind of the viewer.
Somatic montage builds upon a structural foundation rooted in notions of twentieth-century geometric principles. Geometry serves as a formal, objective counterpoint to poetic content constructed through associative collisions. In a somatic montage, form and content, geometry and motion, are inextricably interdependent. This notion of cinema as a poetics of space expands upon Eisenstein’s interpretation of architecture as a choreographed narrative of composed views. See ‘Montage and Architecture’ (Eisenstein, 1989).
See ‘Montage and Architecture’ (Eisenstein, 1989).
The distinct gesture of cinema is the ability to connote the instantaneous collapse of space and time between images. Immersive cinema distinguishes itself from conventional cinema viewing practices by fostering a montage of peripatetic, embodied navigation. The tesseract, with its consolidation of three-space and time, provides a model metaphor for constructing a spatio-temporal flow structure in an immersive cinema. The immersive architecture that the film projection occupies serves as a factor in its narrative flow. Cinematic elements, cells, are distributed in space as on the facets of a cube. Movement in time by the viewer, through the fourth dimension, provides the connections among these cells which are then assembled in memory to create meaning, like Merleau-Ponty’s cube. The observer must navigate through the cinema space using the motion of their body in time to experience all the facets of the tesseract space. In doing so, they experience the information contained within the space as simultaneous media cells occupying its individual faces – faces that can never be seen all at once. They assemble these cells into a unique narrative by engaging their memory to fill in the voids between the spatialized elements as they make their own peripatetic juxtapositions of this physical and conceptual space.
This formal compositional syntax of somatic montage derives from the deconstruction of linear narrative and the hyper-expansion of the two-dimensional image space, allowing for a multidimensional, oneiric re-composition of the parts that actively engages the viewer through movement and memory. Assembling these elements, somatic montage is the formal language motivating the viewer’s focus, affording the formation of relationships between signifiers in which it is the viewer’s attention that composes the flow of information.
Montage creates a rhythm using the relationship between the beats of the edits in unison with the composition and movement within the image. Visual rhyming arises from juxtaposed correspondences of forms, proportions, planes, colours, expressions of emotion, or directions and speeds of movement around the edit point. Montage is the composition of rhythm and rhyming ‘heard’ by the eyes. For Eisenstein and Constructivism, cinematic poetry manifests in the collisions of shots based on conflicts of scale, volume, direction, motion, and concepts. For the Soviet filmmakers, the radical innovations of Constructivist montage and other experiments occurred as a historical necessity within the linearity of the film’s timeline and the flat plane of the film’s image. With somatic montage, the same revolutionary approach to montage can be achieved in a 360-degree film by conceiving of the visible space of the scene – both the diegetic
Just as the conjectures of the early avant-garde cinema of the 1920s have become an integral aspect of contemporary film language, we can look to the contemporary avant-garde working in the genre of video art for bold approaches to organizing cinematic narrative in space. Successful examples of immersive, multi-screen video installations in video art that create a new relationship to cinematic space-time for the viewer are found in configurations ranging from a minimum of two up to thirteen screens and more.
The multi-channel video installation came of age in the 1990s with improved video projection apparatuses and the digital enhancement of multiple video sources that could be precisely synchronized in an exhibition setting. Artist Shirin Neshat’s two-channel video installation
Two singers, a man and a woman, take turns singing on a stage. The man, dressed in white, sings to an audience of men; the woman, veiled in black, sings to an empty hall. Neshat creates a parallel montage between the two scenes without cutting. The literal, parallel placement of the screens uses the body of the viewer to ‘edit’ the juxtaposition of the two streams. Apart from two short edits at the beginning of the film loop, Neshat creates a purely somatic montage of the two uncut sequences. The viewer is placed in a second-person relationship with the film. They must take sides. The installation simultaneously performs a perfect enactment of Eisenstein’s ‘dialectical montage’: thesis juxtaposed with antithesis to yield synthesis. The interrelationship between the space and the film creates a conflict, both physical and metaphysical, in a perfectly reduced poem that conveys Neshat’s meaning.
In my experimental fulldome film
The concept of somatic montage is not restricted to cinema. Or, cinema has become a contemporary metaphor for most artistic manifestations that involve framing space and moving through time. In 1997, Catherine David curated the exhibition
The historical development of disjunctive montage, faceted perspective, the curvature of space-time,
The notion of somatic montage presented here proposes a broader, multidimensional interpretation of what Eisenstein calls the ‘disjunctive method of narration’ (Eisenstein, 1949a), made applicable to immersive cinema. The external architecture of the projection space is utilized as an ordering element in the compositional flow of the film, providing the viewer with a conceptual and navigable space in which to build their own field of associations and meaning in the construction of a poetic narrative. Using this construct, the body, with its movements, memory, and sensations, participates in the reading of the immersive cine-poem.
Somatic montage addresses a growing theoretical concern as immersive cinema gains in status and expands from the highly specialized environments of the planetarium dome and the OmniMAX theatre into the increasingly widespread domains of video installation and virtual reality. It addresses the basic principles of cinematic montage in relation to a three-dimensional, architectonic screen as a spatio-temporal experience, proposing a formal language for poetic composition in these formats. The early twentieth century was a time of exceptional creative experimentation in cinema and the arts, part of the
Clea von Chamier-Waite eloquently brings together a historical outlook into early twentieth-century film, art and science innovations, creating a case for a cultural paradigm shift with far-reaching consequences, influencing a contemporary approach of theorizing immersive cinema. Her paper ‘Somatic Montage for Immersive Cinema’ centres on the notion of montage, rooted in the ground-breaking work of Eisenstein and his idea of meaning created by the juxtaposition of separate shots. Somatic montage offers a new language of immersive cinema – in Chamier-Waite’s terms, it marries chronological and spatial composition in the creation of narrative.
She situates the emergence of the idea of somatic montage at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the dawn of ground-breaking scientific discoveries such as non-Euclidean geometry, the Theories of Relativity, and quantum mechanics, the flourishing of the avant-garde with its conventions breaking formalism, and the early years of cinema in which editing, as such, found its formal language. The overall cultural paradigm shift that is present in all these areas points at a departure from a monolithic, objective, and central perspective towards a fragmented, ambiguous, and heterogenic worldview. The tesseract becomes the working metaphor to understand the principle of somatic montage as a four-dimensional, spatio-temporal structure that enfolds the viewer in an embodied, relational, and fragmented manner.
The aspiration to approach immersive cinema from the perspective of somatic montage is to acknowledge the poetic and critical potential of cinema as a four-dimensional work and to offer a systematic language with which to understand and create immersive cinema. Instead of looking at the examples of immersive cinema as continuous spaces, Chamier-Waite is rather interested in the poetic capacity that lies in the embodied discontinuity of perceiving these spaces in time and the meaning that arises from the interaction between these immersive spaces and the viewer. The way she uses the term immersive cinema spans a wide historical arc in which mixed reality – being discussed as emerging media – finds its place in a succession of various expanded and immersive forms of media such as early examples of immersive spaces, early split-screen cinema, fulldome cinema, and video installations. This approach allows one to move away from a focus on technological advancement and rather engage in a more holistic and historically interconnected view centring on the notion of embodiment and an expanded participatory understanding of montage.
The idea of somatic montage incorporates a historical perspective while simultaneously offering a praxis for contemporary four-dimensional media both in its physical and virtual forms. Reading Chamier-Waite’s paper offers an intriguing perspective on the embodied and poetic capacities of immersive media for a wide range of fields such as cinema and media studies, art history, cognitive sciences, media art, and architecture.