What are montages, and how can you use them in your film and TV episodes?
For me, a "montage" falls under the category of knowing it when I see it. I know they're in Rocky, I know there are lots of montages in Christopher Nolan movies, but when it comes to telling you, "This is a montage," I struggle with it. But no longer!
Continuity editing is so prevalent in film, it's one of the most important ideas to master.
Today we're going to cover all forms of the montage. I want to talk about how you write them, shoot them, edit them, and make sure they work. We'll define the term, look at some of the best examples across media, and have some fun.
Let's get started.
What Is a Montage in Film and Television? (Definition and Examples)
We're going to go into detail about how the montage is a technique of editing often set to music. Let's examine it closer.
What Is Montage?
This is the technique where you take separate scenes from a film or TV show and edit them together to form a rhythm that shows the passing of time and functions together as a continuous whole.
Many montages are set to music to help accentuate the tone and genre.
What Does Montage Mean?
The word comes from the early 20th century. It's French, coming from monter, which means ‘"to mount" or "to assemble."
What Was Soviet Montage Theory?
When filmmakers were first pioneering how to create movies and elicit emotions from the audience, they experimented with lots of different editing styles.
Lev Kuleshov pioneered an idea that would be known as the Kuleshov Effect. It is a cognitive event in which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.
But that was just the beginning. People wanted to build on that idea.
As more and more people experimented with the Kuleshov Effect, we delved into montage theory.
What Does the Montage Theory of Editing Propagate?
What does the montage theory of editing propagate? Well, the strictest answer to that question is that two or three shots joined in a certain order become much more than the sum of their individual parts when put together.
They can tell a story that would not be understandable from just one of the images, and would only be able to be deciphered when put together with multiple shots that form a whole.
How to Make a Montage
First, you need to go off and shoot a bunch of clips. The idea for a montage is that you're building part of the story here.
So first, you need to decide what the montage is trying to accomplish. Is this going to show someone growing? A plan coming together? Are we seeing the years pass? Or days? Weeks? What's going on inside the story?
Make those decisions, and then shoot a number of scenes you want to reflect that. Or maybe grab a bunch of found footage that you want to be evocative of a mood. Maybe it's a bunch of stuff on nuclear testing, or different puppies doing cute things—assemble that footage.
Then it's time to edit it together.
To edit a montage, you need to find the pace and rhythm that makes the most sense for you. Many people use music to help with the cuts inside a montage between different clips. You can cut on the drum strike or verse change.
Montage Editing Techniques
When editing, you want to think about filmmaking techniques like:
- Rapid cuts
- Camera movement
Many times you will use these techniques to accentuate how a character or situation changes over the entire montage.
Think about how Rocky gets better and stronger from his training toward the end of the montage. We see repeated camera movements and mantras that begin to echo in scenes and help us understand the arc this character undergoes while inside the montage.
Juxtaposition and Montage in Film and TV
According to Hollywood Lexicon, "Juxtaposition is the film editing technique of combining of two or more shots to evoke an idea or state of mind. A montage can be a juxtaposition of two shots, but commonly refers to the juxtaposition of multiple shots to depict an event often in stretched or condensed time."
Juxtaposition happens within montages a lot. Often, we see several different things going on at once. We can see two different fighters training, two different sides getting ready for war, or even two teenagers falling in love, as we see in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Juxtaposition is very important in montage. It is not in every montage, but it's something to keep in mind.
You can directly affect the way people feel by showing us one image, and then showing us a different one.
Sergei Eisenstein wrote a note of accord in "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form." In it, he said that montage is "the nerve of cinema," and that "to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema."
Therefore, a dialectical montage refers to cutting together of unrelated images to generate an idea or emotion in the viewer. For instance, we could cut from a man smiling to a coffin, to show he's happy someone is dead.
This is all audience manipulation and emotional strategy.
Dialectical Montage Example
Maybe my favorite video ever shows Alfred Hitchcock explaining Dialectical Montage. We see him dissecting how cutting back and form from him smiling or leering at different images changes our interpretations of them.
Rhythmic Montage Editing
The definition of rhythmic montage editing is that every cut between each shot controls the pace at which the film or TV show accelerates. So this kind of editing can slow things down or speed them up at will.
Characteristics of Rhythmic Montage Editing
In most cases, the length of a shot is tweaked to form a pattern. We're either delivering staccato edits or elongating clips in slow motion to influence the audience's emotions about the scene.
Rhythmic Montage Editing Example
One of the best directors using rhythmic montages is Edgar Wright. He often edits on the beat and uses songs to help build tension and even release comedy from those moments as well.
I love watching movies like Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead, where we see this kind of editing shine.
A metric montage refers to meters of music, because it is the use of a visual pace directly correlated to the musical score accompanied by it.
Metric Montage Example
There are lots of great music montages, but I wanted to pull in the Rocky III "Eye of the Tiger" montages as an example. I think this really brings the song to the forefront and shows someone getting ready with his rival to take on the biggest fight of his career.
An overtonal montage is the combination of different types of techniques.
So you'll see metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage elements all packed together in one. They do this to maximize the effect the montage has on the audience.
Overtonal Montage Example
Maybe the best modern montage I can remember came in Parasite. It uses all the techniques and ideas we have previously covered to tell the story of a family conning someone over a few months. It's enthralling, captivating, and really sets the tone for the rest of the film.
We have a whole article about writing montages in screenplays, but I wanted to cover it briefly here.
How to Write a Montage in a Script
There are a few different ways to write a montage in your script. First, let's look at a popular example on the page.
The Montage in Goodfellas
There are many famous movie montages, so I went with the one my group thread suggested to me first.
The one in Goodfellas set to "Layla."
Holy crap, is this an amazing montage. Basically, its purpose is to show a power shift within the mafia. Told via a voiceover and including a sick Clapton track, we understand that burying the evidence means burying some stiffs.
Want to write one yourself? Check out some tips below.
How to Write a Montage that takes place in one location
The first is to write a heading like MONTAGE: And you'd number the scenes like this...
INT. APARTMENT - DAY
1. Jason writes an article on his laptop
2. Jason bangs his head on the wall
3. Jason drinks whiskey and lies upside down
How to Write a Montage that takes place in many locations
MONTAGE - VARIOUS
1. Jason writes in his apartment. GROANS.
2. Jason at a coffee shop. Still writing. SIGHS.
3. Jason boards a plane.
4. Jason in the Amazonian jungle, writing. SCREAMS when he sees a snake.
Now you know how to put it on the page, so go shoot it, edit it, and put it in your movie or TV show!
Summing Up Montages
We've covered a lot of ground today when it comes to montages, theory, execution, definitions, and writing. I hope this conversation not only will help you describe what montages are, but also enable you to use them in your own work.
I look forward to seeing them in action.
And now, the next time someone asks, I know I'll be able to explain them as well.
Go make something!