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What Is a Film Montage?
A montage is a film editing technique that combines a series of short shots into one sequence, often set to music. The word “montage” is French for “assembly” or “editing.”
Montage sequences imply the passage of time and are a vehicle to present the audience with a lot of information at once. They can be used to evoke a range of emotions—for example, a montage in a romantic comedy can show a sense of growing love or attraction between two love interests getting to know one another; a montage in a sports movie can show an athlete training for a big game, and heighten suspense or tension about the outcome; a montage in a drama can underscore grief and sadness by showing a widow struggling with the loss of her husband.
6 Things Successful Montages Accomplish
A montage can accomplish a lot in a motion picture, including:
- Speeds up time: Whether it’s a day, a week, a month, a year, or a decade, a montage can accelerate time in a way that makes sense to the audience and stays true to the story. It can be like a highlight reel for the action passing.
- Conveys a lot of information at once: Sometimes, a story has crucial details to communicate, but a director doesn’t want to devote a great deal of time to explaining them. A montage can speed up that process and catch the audience up in a matter of seconds.
- Heightens energy: You may have noticed that many montages happen about two-thirds of the way through a movie, often right after the climax of the story. A montage can renew and reinvigorate an audience’s interest in a character or a storyline as the film builds to a conclusion.
- Compares and contrasts: Alternatively, sometimes montages happen at the very beginning of a movie. A montage that compares and contrasts the daily lives or routines of two characters can establish their statuses, and thus their levels of power, in relation to one another.
- Reveals character: A montage can be a vehicle to reveal the ways a character is changing. From quick cuts of a drug hallucination one night to the effects of illness over the course of six months, a montage can help the audience quickly understand a dramatic shift in a character’s physical and/or mental state.
- Combines multiple storylines: There isn’t always time to feature every single storyline from start to finish. A montage is an effective way to combine storylines and ensure every character gets their due.
Common Filmic Techniques for Constructing Montages
A montage can use a variety of techniques, including but not limited to:
- Quick cuts: Typically, movie montages feature numerous shots cut together in quick succession. This allows time to pass and the story to advance, but without leaving the audience behind.
- No dialogue: This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but many montages adopt the “show, don’t tell” philosophy. Characters talking about how they feel in a scene is generally not something that works, so showing it in a montage instead can be highly effective. Less is often more, especially in film.
- Voiceover narration: A skillful voiceover can clearly and artfully convey important information to the audience. A disembodied voice may narrate what’s happening during a montage, providing more context.
- Music: Montages use music to underscore the action that is unfolding quickly and the emotions the characters are experiencing.
- Supers: Sometimes, montages superimpose text on the screen to quickly relay information and updates about characters and the story. This often happens at the end as an epilogue to the film.
What Is Soviet Montage Theory?
Soviet montage theory is a more creative approach to constructing montages. It was popularized by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein, who started making films in the early 1920s, demonstrated the individual frame’s significance in his trademark montage editing. Rather than simply cutting together a series of independent shots, he took a more layered approach to the art form.
Eisenstein didn’t invent the film montage, but he did elevate and change the way directors use the technique. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, filmmakers began experimenting with different creative editing techniques. Eisenstein played with shot length, movement, and cuts to emotionally affect audiences. Throughout his career, he developed five unique methods of montage:
- Metric: Editing shots after a specific number of frames, regardless of the action.
- Rhythmic: Cutting in order to preserve continuity.
- Tonal: Editing shots to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.
- Overtonal: An abstract combination of metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage.
- Intellectual: Mixing in shots that are unrelated to the film to make a statement.
5 Famous Montages Throughout Film History
There are many well-known examples of montage in film, including:
- La Jetée (1962), directed by Chris Marker, is a montage of still photographs that reflect the protagonist’s memories as he travels through time.
- Rocky (1976), directed by John G. Avildsen, features one of the most memorable training montages of all time. Rocky’s run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum is so famous, they’re now known as “the Rocky Steps.”
- Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee, includes a racially charged montage that aims to capture the feeling of an entire city.
- Pretty Woman (1990), directed by Garry Marshall, uses the montage technique to show the transformation of Julia Roberts’ character as she goes shopping and tries on new clothes.
- Up (2009), directed by Pete Docter, opens with an emotional montage that looks back on Carl’s loving relationship with his late wife, Ellie.
Now that you know more about montages, you might be surprised to see just how often you notice them. The next time a movie cuts to one, challenge yourself to identify the director’s motivation for using this technique.