Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition

Karen Pearlman, John MacKay and John Sutton
Elizaveta Svilova; Dziga Vertov; Soviet Union; montage; editing; feminist film history; collaboration; creative process; distributed cognition; embodied cognition; expertise; kinesthetic imagination


Person with a Movie Camera, People with a Montage Board

Epistemic Actions in Svilova’s Editing

Svilova in Particular





Suggested Citation

“the consummate studio professional Svilova – curator of the archive, deeply and creatively involved in all the films and publicly known to have been involved with them – lingers to one side in silence, in a kind of quasi-public reduplication of the ‘private sphere’ behind which women's lives and works have been obscured historically.” (MacKay forthcoming)


Elizaveta Svilova (1900-1975), wife, editor, and lifelong collaborator of the highly-lauded filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), lingers to the side of scholarship on her famous husband’s films, hidden behind the historical neglect both of women and of editors. This article addresses the silence surrounding Svilova by applying research in film history, cognitive philosophy, and creative practice to her montage filmmaking collaboration with Vertov. We aim to recuperate Svilova’s position as creative contributor to what are known as Vertov’s works of genius by showing that their editing processes are the expert work of a distributed cognitive system.

As authors, we are each motivated by problems from within our own disciplines. For the film editor (Pearlman), this cross-disciplinary approach addresses questions about the generation of ideas in editing processes that have been overlooked by film studies. For the Vertov scholar (MacKay), studying the partnership from the perspective of cognitive expertise addresses a problem of a gap in the archives, and knowledge, about the significance of the Svilova-Vertov partnership in the generation of their films. For the cognitive philosopher (Sutton), the onscreen evidence of the work of hands and minds in generating the film offers a practical and specific demonstration of the explanatory utility of the distributed cognition framework.

Our approach to integrating these three research programs is to apply the distributed cognition thesis (outlined in more detail below) to film editing and the collaboration of Svilova and Vertov. We start with analysis of Svilova’s expert editing actions, as seen in the meticulous reconstruction of editing processes documented in Chelovek s kinoapparatom / The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929, USSR). We then identify and describe the cognitive expertise evidenced by her fluent execution of each of these actions. The intended outcome of this approach is a model of creativity1 in film that recognises the work of Svilova’s hands as expert creative cognition.

A few things are at stake here.

At the most immediate level we aim to recuperate Svilova’s creative contributions to what are generally known as ‘Vertov’s’ films. Our claim here is that although Svilova’s thoughts are not documented in written form, applying a distributed cognition framework reveals the creativity at work in her editing. Through this framework, we can see that the edits are thoughts (see also Lambert & Pearlman 2017). They are creative ideas, generated in a distributed cognitive system comprised, at least, of Svilova, Vertov and the filmed material.

A grounded claim for Svilova’s editing as a creative cognitive action also has implications for many women editors of the Soviet Montage Era. Given that this era is known and named for its innovations in editing, there is perhaps a correction required to the assumption that all of the innovations were the sole work of the men who theorised them in writing. The written Soviet Montage theories arise from practice. The actual practice of editing was often done by women, working side by side with these better-known men. If we can demonstrate that editing is thinking in Svilova’s case, perhaps this model can be used by future researchers to reveal some of women editors’ creative contributions to the revolution in montage that characterises this era.

Further, at stake in this case study in distributed collaborative cognition is the utility of studying mind, technology, and culture together across standard disciplinary lines. Some cognitive theorists argue that ‘mind’ is a property of individuals alone and is the province of neuroscience and experimental psychology: from their point of view, distributed cognition unhelpfully tries to focus on processes that cross boundaries between brains, bodies, objects, and culture, identifying only ‘an unscientific motley of capacities’ which cannot be effectively studied (Adams and Aizawa 2001: 62). But we are no enemies of motley, and argue in contrast that by working effectively with independently-motivated materials and problems from film studies, identifying features of the historical and aesthetic processes which might otherwise remain invisible, we can in turn inform, sharpen, and better motivate the distributed cognition framework in philosophy and cognitive theory (see also Sutton 2009).

Finally, collaboration is at stake. While it is beyond the scope of this article to consider all aspects of filmmaking collaboration, the process we are modelling of close analysis of execution of craft as a form of cognitive expertise could be applied in future to other areas of filmmaking where collaborators work expertly with their tools and with each other to generate and realise ideas. Application of this model more broadly could cumulatively give rise to a more nuanced understanding of filmmaking as a collaborative art. It may disrupt the individualistic and generally male-centric notion of ‘director as author’ by proposing that creative ideas in films are actually generated not just in one brain, but by a distributed network of cognising across the brains, bodies, and tools of collaborative teams.

Person with a Movie Camera, People with a Montage Board

Writing about Svilova and her massive contribution to what we generally think of as ‘Vertov's films’ can be deeply frustrating. With the apparent exception of some of the early Kino-Pravdas, Vertov did not make (to our knowledge) a single significant film during his long maturity - that is, between 1922 and his death in 1954 - in which Svilova was not involved as editor (and often in numerous other ways as well); and yet we cannot identify even one sequence that we can attribute solely to her hand, or any draft notes that clearly reveal the ideas that she brought to the films. Although Vertov and Svilova certainly conversed about their films at home and at work, the scant evidence we have of these discussions reveals little to nothing about who contributed what to the films, even if it does illuminate aspects of their working methods more generally. (MacKay forthcoming)

Thus, the problem arises, as it would in most director/editor collaborations, of how to see the editor’s expert work. In order to unravel this knot of invisibility, a few shifts in understanding are required.

The first shift is to understand that an editor’s creativity is responsive – to directors and to the material. This responsiveness consists of a suite of cognitive activities that cumulatively transform the film from strips of images into significant form. We dissect these cognitive actions in more detail below, to build the argument that responding to images with an editing process is not a distinct or less significant form of creativity than the generation of images – it is part of the generation of ideas.

Secondly, to recognise an editor’s expert work we need a richer understanding of process. We need what Wright (2009: 10) has identified as a “paradigm shift away from authorship and textual analysis and a move toward analysing industry practices and cultures of film and media production”.

One obstruction to analysing industry practices of editing is that editors rarely make notes in advance about their ideas, and rarely even talk about their ideas before doing them or after (see editors’ interviews in Oldham 2012, 1992). “Editors generally refer to their expertise as ‘intuitive’” (Pearlman 2017: 69), which can mistakenly be understood to mean only or merely embodied, not involving thinking. Our approach to shifting the paradigm away from textual analysis and towards process then, must begin with recognition of the cognitive complexity of editor’s actions as unique forms of expertise, involving what Sutton (2007: 778) refers to as: “flexible, real-time engagements with the shifting, tricksy physical and social environment”. Professional editors, of which Svilova was certainly one, ‘think’ in dynamic, fleet, context-sensitive, ways, often so quickly that they can give the misleading impression that they weren’t thinking at the time of the creative working. They generate ideas in response to material, with the material, and through their actions in relation to the material. By shifting away from analysing the film to analysing the process we will develop an understanding of editing as enactive, embodied, and shared cognitive expertise, functioning at a number of levels of complexity. This “paradigm shift” (Wright 2009: 10) allows us to understand that editing is thinking, and that Svilova, Vertov and the filmed material are thinking creatively together.

Finally, the notion of ‘credit’ could shift away from the understanding that ideas arise solely in the mind of a single person, the director, and towards a model of ideas as generated in ‘distributed cognitive systems’ (see Hutchins 1995; Clark 1997; Clark and Chalmers 1998).

The distributed cognition framework postulates that the work of mind is not exclusively taking place inside individual brains. Rather, complex cognitive processes are distributed across “material, symbolic, technological, and cultural artifacts and objects as well as other people” (Sutton 2008: 227). In other words, what we call ‘thinking’ takes place across and by way of reliable and complementary couplings of brains, bodies, and world. One of the framework’s architects, Andy Clark, sees “human cognition as essentially and multiply hybrid: as involving a complex interplay between internal biological resources and external non-biological resources” (Clark 2006: 291). In our case, the biological resources are Svilova and Vertov’s own bodies and brains, engaged together in thinking, feeling, communicating, and creating. The non-biological resources are the images and sounds that have been captured, the ways they are sorted and catalogued, and the editing gear itself, with its affordances for particular actions within particular aesthetic and institutional settings. The emergent outcomes of film editing, we argue, could not be produced by any of the elements – by single individuals or technologies – on their own. Expert editors deploy diverse neural, emotional, material, and cultural resources. The heterogeneous components of such distributed cognitive systems include the brains, the skilful movements, the film, and the machines. These all operate in their unique cultural contexts and at a range of timescales. They combine or complement each other to give rise to novel visual and aesthetic products.

In their 1998 essay on extended mind, Andy Clark and David Chalmers deploy the concept of an ‘epistemic action’, developed by Kirsh and Maglio (1994). Epistemic actions are “actions performed to uncover information that is hidden or hard to compute mentally” (Kirsh and Maglio 1994: 513). Clark and Chalmers (1998: 62) write: “Epistemic action, we suggest, demands spread of epistemic credit”. We argue that editing in general is an epistemic action, and that Svilova’s editing is a visible, recorded case of a creative epistemic contribution. This claim is, we argue, supported by Vertov himself. His foregrounding of the work of Svilova in Man with a Movie Camera is an exuberant and at the same time precise proclamation of Svilova’s epistemic actions in the process of editing a film. We turn now to a close analysis of that sequence to demonstrate that film editing is creative, that editing creativity is responsive to the filmed material, and that the ideas for expressive flow of that material arise in a distributed cognitive system.

Epistemic Actions in Svilova’s Editing

The technical aspect of this kind of montage is best illustrated in Man with the Movie Camera, showing the recurrent images of Svilova (Vertov’s wife and editor of the film) splicing together thousands of shots on her editing table. She does exactly what Vertov described-from miles of film strips, she culls the good pieces, those which will allow her “to organize a good film.” After classifying “the good film material” (arranged on the shelves above her editing table), she measures each shot and matches it with the others in various ways, building up the film’s structure as a mason does by laying stones and bricks to make a house or oven. Throughout the film, Vertov continuously points to the thematic classification of shots into groups and sub-groups (which Svilova separates in many boxes, each related to a topic). By showing this repeatedly, he gives the viewer an insight into the very process of making a film. (Petrić 1978: 34)

When Petrić identifies Svilova’s actions as being “exactly what Vertov described” he reinforces the understanding that Svilova’s actions are necessarily creative, since they are the actions of making significant form from “miles of film strips”. However, although acknowledging her creativity, Petrić also risks creating a misconception about Svilova’s actions by labelling them as “technical”. In editing theory and practice, the word “technical” often implies an action that is physical, but not creative, as in not the yielding of meaning2. For example:

The technical aspect of editing is the physical joining of two disparate pieces of film…The craft of film editing is the joining of two pieces of film to yield a meaning that is not apparent from one or the other shot…The art of editing occurs when a combination of two or more shots takes meaning to the next level – excitement, insight, shock, or the epiphany of discovery. (Dancyger 1997: xiv, see also Reisz 1953)

Dancyger’s (and Reisz’s) account of the physical actions of editing as technical and therefore distinct from the craft and the art is common – as common as saying that the decision making of editing is ‘intuitive’ or ‘instinctive’, and similarly obscuring of the cognitive complexities. Our argument here is that the “technical” operation of the editing gear is functionally integrated with the “craft” of yielding meaning and the “art” of “taking meaning to the next level” (Dancyger 1997: xiv). Not only do these actions require complex procedural memory of precise and fluent execution, but they are themselves integral to the act of creative decision making. The argument is that editors don’t think first and then act, they think through acting (see Pearlman 2018). The editor’s “technical” (Petrić 1978: 34) juxtaposition of two shots will yield a meaning and replacing one of the shots or changing its duration will yield a different meaning. These meanings are not internally conceptualised first at a conscious level and then externally realised, they come into being through the physical processes. In order to substantiate this claim we look, as Petrić did, to Man with a Movie Camera for visible evidence, and identify each of Svilova’s visible, physical actions as creative cognitive operations contributing to the meaning making process.

Before undertaking a close analysis of the visible evidence, it is important to establish that the view of Svilova as a creative decision maker which we will argue is congruent with Vertov’s own view of her work in their process. He wrote, for example: [...] “the ‘scaffolding’ is removed only at the last minute (when) Svilova and I have so familiarized ourselves with the footage, with all its nuances and possibilities, that we make all the essential improvements and changes literally in a few hours” (Vertov, 1984: 211).

By acknowledging the work of familiarising themselves as work they did together, Vertov acknowledges the reciprocal and iterative flow of information. Here we do not mean ‘information’ in a dry sense, but also include the aesthetic feel of the information that is manipulated across the different elements of the system. The familiarity with “nuances and possibilities” (Vertov 1984: 211) that they share – typically without needing explicit discussion – is an agreement on what the material is and what kinds of responses to it, and with it, they would collectively create. It’s impossible analytically to separate out what Svilova does over here, what Vertov does over here, and what's happening on the table, as the material itself takes on significant form. Rather, one can only understand that complex causal process as an interconnected whole. The compiling of the film, which they do, together, based on their shared memories and expertise “literally in a few hours” (Vertov 1984: 211), occurs only after weeks, months, and years of close collaborative cognising. It is this collaborative cognising that has brought into being their shared understanding of what a film can be and of how this particular film should take shape.

An objection could be raised to the claim that Svilova is doing work that is beyond technical by pointing to the evidence that Vertov may have planned the montage sequences. Some plans for various sequences, like musical scores, exist and the written information in them is generally in his handwriting. However, it is unknown whether these scores were made as part of the planning process before shooting; or as part of notating ideas that he and Svilova may have discussed, before making the actual cuts; or as instructions to the ‘splicers’; or for other purposes. When they were made is important to understanding how they function in the ideas generation process.  Without knowledge of their function they cannot be interpreted as evidence concerning Svilova’s cognitive engagement with the editing process, and so must be left aside for the time being in favour of evidence in the film Man with a Movie Camera, and documents whose provenance and purpose are more certain.

In one such document, Svilova’s memoirs of Vertov, Svilova writes about their films being put together to a considerable extent on the basis of intuition and the trying-out of “1000s of variants,” testing the “meaning, visual quality and rhythm” of the sequences “by ear,” with both of them “bent excitedly over the montage table” all through the night and into the morning (Svilova 1976: 68-69).

So, what exactly were they doing, bent excitedly over the montage table, and how can we understand these actions as creative cognitive processes? The iterative, complex, causal process of turning shots into a film includes, at least, watching, sorting, remembering, selecting, and composing (Pearlman 2018). These editing actions, which are intimately and inextricably connected with the filmed material, are epistemic actions, in that they are making creative connections and producing creative outcomes that can not easily occur any other way. Svilova and Vertov bend over the montage table, together, and handle the filmed material in order to uncover how the pieces might come together as a complete composition. They cannot, or cannot fully, uncover the film’s potentiality without physically “trying out 1000s of variants” (Svilova 1976: 68-69).

The epistemic actions of Svilova are what Petrić refers to when he writes that “she measures each shot and matches it with the others in various ways” (Petrić 1978: 34). This measuring and matching is the epistemic action of altering the lengths and orders of shots to create structures and rhythms of ideas and experiences. The process, the actual measuring and matching, in other words the physical editing, is clearly the work of hands moving pieces around into different durations, sequences, and associations, and is also the collaborative work of minds making connections, structures, rhythms, ideas.

This work is clearly seen in a sequence beginning at about 22 minutes and 50 seconds in to Man with a Movie Camera. The sequence starts with an image of shelves on to which many pieces of film have been sorted, individually labelled, and grouped under category names such as “traffic”, “factory”, “machines” and “magician”. (see Fig.1)


Fig. 1: The shelves onto which Svilova sorts the film. Man with a Movie Camera (frame capture).

The source for all of the following sequence of images is Lobster Film’s digitally scanned and time code stamped file of Man with a Movie Camera,

Svilova, we learn later in the film, is the keeper of these shelves which are organised as part of her sorting process. Their introduction here is an introduction to the process of editing. In the next shot, we see an empty ‘take up reel’ – the reel onto which film will be wound, to be separated and labelled before shelving.


Fig. 2: Empty take up reel Man with a Movie Camera (frame capture).


By showing us the editing process beginning with the shelves rather than beginning with watching the material to be sorted, Vertov and Svilova reveal the circular, continuous and overlapping aspects of editing. Watching, sorting, remembering, selecting and composing do not happen one at a time and in that order, they happen iteratively, in orders that may vary in response to discoveries that can be made in any part of the processes.

The third shot of the sequence is of a film strip laid horizontally across the frame, a shot of a young woman in a headscarf.


Fig. 3: The horizontal film strip with which Svilova is working. Man with a Movie Camera (frame capture).

The film strip is not moving, but the next shot shows us the take up reel starting to spin and take up film.