There's nothing quite like a montage.
Think about it -- montages are wholly cinematic, born entirely from the womb of editing, and are able to elicit emotions from an audience simply by the way they're constructed. (More on that later.) In this top 10 list from CineFix, you'll see a wide array of different kinds of montages -- ones that compress time, reveal the quirks of a character, and combine storylines -- but you'll also get a meaty lesson on what montages do, as well as how and why you should implement them into your own films. Check out the video below:
In the beginning, films were single-shot pieces -- a woman dancing, a baby eating, a train arriving to a station. It wasn't until D.W. Griffith that the concept of "editing" came to light, and furthermore, it wasn't until filmmakers Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov that we had this idea that editing could have significant emotional and psychological effects on a viewer by condensing space, time, and information in the form of a series of short shots called a montage. This is called the Soviet Montage Theory.
Today, editing has grown and evolved with new words and language being added to our cinematic lexicon. Here are the many different ways filmmakers have used the montage to give information to their audiences according to CineFix's video:
It takes a lot of time to tell a story. Maybe you need to show the downfall of a powerful company -- you could do in a series of scenes where employees frantically shred documents, FBI agents raid their offices, and interrogate its CEOs, but if you want to condense that time, you might want to use a montage in which all these things happen in mere seconds rather than minutes.
A montage can be used to condense time and space, but they can also be used to serve up a nice punchline. This is less of a "genre" of montage -- it's more like a "subgenre", since they serve a larger narrative purpose, like shortening time, etc., but they're packaged inside of a joke. Filmmakers do this all the time and it's a good way to add comedy to an otherwise neutral segment in a film. (Some of my favorites come from Shaun of the Dead.)
Classic. Not much needs to be said about this one, since even if you don't really know what a montage is, you know what a training montage is. Basically, they work to shorten the time it takes a character to "put on their armor": working out to become stronger, practicing to gain a new skill, etc.
Combining multiple storylines
Montages help to cut time down, and one way to do that is to combine storylines in your film. So, instead of giving each storyline its own independent sequence which could be minutes long, you can cut them together to create a sequence that only lasts seconds. This can make each more dynamic too, so if you need to ramp up the energy, this is a good way to do it.
Compare and contrast
This kind of montage switches between images in an attempt to compare and contrast them. Imagine the morning routine of a wealthy heiress and her maid -- extremely different. By editing them together you're able to not only introduce your audience to the worlds they live in, but you're able to compare the two, setting up a possible conflict that you can get into later on in the story.
This is a theory that essentially says that if given small bits and pieces, we will form them into a complete whole. Kind of vague, I know, but think of films that boil an entire relationship down to small snapshots from their time together, like in Annie Hall, or a road trip in which you only see the highlights. Even if you only see several short clips from a character's experience, you will be able to understand the entire thing as a whole based on the tone each one of them carries.
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This is the inverse of gestalt. Instead of zooming into one thing, like a relationship or experience, we're zooming out to see something that's bigger than the sum of its parts. Amélie does this beautifully when it cuts together shots of random Parisians having orgasms, because it reveals the overall state of love and sex in an entire city.
It's easy to marvel at the magnificence of a galaxy, the Grand Canyon, or Buckingham Palace, but this kind of montage is powerful because it focuses on the grandeur of small details: an eyelash, a person looking through a photo album, or dirty dishes in the sink. It's all about nuance, highlighting the subtleties of life in a poetic way to elicit some kind of emotion.
You can cut shots together to create a sequence that speaks to the mental state of a character. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of this kind of montage is the experience of someone under the influence of an illicit substance. We've seen it a million times in films, from Requiem of a Dream to Trainspotting, but they also work well to express paranoia, anxiety, and more.
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This is one of the 7 methods of montage Eisenstein talks about in his montage theory. An intellectual montage combines images that draw an intellectual meaning -- a metaphor. A perfect example comes from Eisenstein's Strike, in which he switches between shots of the slaughter of a bull and the decimation of a group of striking employees. What's the metaphor? Employees are nothing but cattle to their employers.
How have you used montage in your own work? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!