The word montage is derived from the French verb which means “to assemble or put together.” The process of montage involves a series of edits that shows an event or events that happen over time. This editing technique helps condense the narrative into a brief episode of screen time. It is usually edited to music. Thus, the new sequence that is created generates a new meaning for the viewers. Over the years of filmmaking, montage has been broken down by filmmakers in various creative ways. They have utilized this technique to make their film more eclectic, energetic and exhibiting a mixture of classical continuity and more abrupt collage-like editing styles.
In the opening of The Tree of Life (2011), the montage artistically introduces us to the Brian family in the 1960s by weaving visual metaphors.
History of montage
In the former Soviet Union in the 1920s, various filmmakers and theorists came forward with various forms of editing techniques to express certain social and political ideas. This is known as the Soviet Montage Movement. According to them a montage is an arrangement of a series of shots that creates a sense and meaning derived exclusively from their juxtaposition. The three key figures who pioneered this concept are:
He was a Russian and Soviet filmmaker and film theorist. Through the following experiment he formulated how editing helps to create nonliteral meaning. In the experiment here, Kuleshov demonstrated how an identical shot of an actor appeared after each of these shots: a dead woman, a child, and a dish of soup. However, the expression in the face of the man remained the same in all the shots. He derived the following conclusion:
Shot of the man’s face + the dead woman = Expresses Sorrow
Shot of the man’s face + the young child = Expresses Tenderness
Shot of the man’s face + food = Expresses Hunger.
This is known as the Kuleshov effect. Alfred Hitchcock explains this process in detail here.
He was also a Russian and Soviet film director, screenwriter and actor who developed influential theories of montage. According to him shots are connected like the links in a chain. He believed that the way shots are organized and placed can help to develop a new means of expression. He called this process a linkage. In the following example from the ending of Mother (1926) he inter-cuts between the shots of a prison riot with shots of ice breaking up on a river to create a psychological interpretation. The shot appears at 3:00 mins.
Considered as a major theorist and filmmaker, Eisenstein regarded film editing as a creative process where two different shots are juxtaposed to create a new meaning. In this example from Strike (1925), when the shot of people being killed by the administration is inter-cut with the shot of a cow being slaughtered, the purpose is to show the similarity between the two events. This creates a visceral response in the viewers which according to Eisenstein is ‘montage’.
Different types of montages
In metric montage, one shot is joined together with the other on exact measure or length of time. If the length of the time in either of the shots is shortened, the audience will find less time to absorb the information in each shot. In this clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the shot of the flocking of the sheep is joined with city dwellers in their wild goose chase. The juxtaposition makes a similar comparison between the two activities.
In rhythmic montage the shots are edited together according to the content of the shots to create a rhythm. Hence, each of the shots is joined together depending upon the pace of the scene. The continuity in such montage is created by matching action and screen direction. In this scene from The French Connection (1971), the shots are edited in a way to create a thrilling effect from the case. The screening of the cars through the traffic accelerates the pace. This puts the audiences in a state of excitement and creates tension.
The shots here are edited together to create a visual metaphor. The shots thus linked together create an intellectual meaning. In this clip from Apocalypse Now (1979), the killing of the antagonist Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) by the protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is juxtaposed with the killing of the buffalo. The manner in which the shots are joined together gives us a feel of the brutality of both the acts on a visceral level. At the same time both the scenes intellectually symbolize the process of purification from evil.
The shots are edited together to establish the emotional graph of a character through the scene. The shots are joined based on aural or visual similarities. The process of such montage is based on highlighting the tone and mood of the scene. In this clip from The Birds (1963) spilled gasoline ignites causing an explosion. As the fire escalates, the shot of Melanie Daniels’ (Tippi Hedren) face elicits fright and shock.
Here the shots are edited according to overtones and themes of the scene. It is achieved by combining metric, rhythmic, and tonal montages. The purpose of this montage is to create pace, ideas, and emotions to trigger desired reactions from the audience. In the opening scene from Arrival (2016), we witness the entire life of linguist Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter Hannah in different stages of her life. Hannah dies a teen from a mysterious illness. We are later informed that these events take place after the events of the film. So, this montage helps to set the brooding and melancholic tone of the film.
Movie Montage Examples
Here are ten creative examples of montage within the narrative scheme of the film:
1. Rocky (1976)
One of the most widely used montages in cinema is the training montage. Through such montages we witness how the protagonist prepares himself for the fight of his life and claims honor in the society. Here Robert “Rocky” Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) goes through the rigorous regime of preparing himself for the bout. The song “Gonna Fly Now”, by Bill Conti playing in the background lends a certain energy to the scene. This montage created one of the most everlasting and inspirational moments in world cinema. It made the protagonist one of the most beloved and iconic characters of all time.
2. Scarface (1983)
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) tells the story of a fictional Cuban Tony (Al Pacino) who becomes a gangster against the backdrop of the 1980s cocaine boom. The film accounts his rise to the echelons of the criminal underworld and his gradual downfall. In this montage sequence, we observe Tony becoming the biggest drug lord in the state and controlling nearly all the cocaine that comes through Miami.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
One of the all time best gangster films of all time, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is set in 1950s New York City. It narrates the tale of a poor Irish-Italian Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and his rise through the ranks of his Brooklyn neighborhood’s crime branch. In this montage we observe Henry and his gang-members viciously murdering anyone who stands in their way. The powerful voice-over accompanied by Eric Clapton’s “Layla” brings a seamless beauty to the edit.
4. Trainspotting (1996)
Danny Boyle’s sophomore is a black comedy drama that narrates the tale of a drug addict Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor). He tries to clean up and get out of the mess. But the enticement of drugs and influence of friends becomes a major deterrent. In this introductory montage we are informed about the lifestyle of the protagonist. It also introduces us to the theme of drug abuse, addiction and nihilism in the film.
5. Run Lola Run (1998)
Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998) presents the different alternatives of a single event in the life of Lola (Franka Potente) and Mani (Moritz Bleibtreu). In this montage we observe that as Lola begins her sprint, she bumps into different people. This brief encounter affects their lives for better or worse. The montage creates an exhilarating pace and multi-layered visual design that heightens the impact of the film.
6. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s psychological drama is based on the titular novel by Hubert Selby Jr. The narrative focuses on the lives of four people trapped by their addictions. This montage gives the viewers an overview to understand the film’s world or characters. The scene foretells how the hopes and dreams of four ambitious people will get shattered as their drug addictions will spiral things out of control. It gives us an insight on how addiction overcomes the mind and body of the characters.
7. Swades (2004)
In the hands of some of the thoughtful Indian filmmakers, songs have played a crucial role in carrying the story of the film forward. Ashutosh Gowariker is one such filmmaker. The title song sequence from his film Swades is created by following the techniques of montage. Protagonist Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan) is tormented by the memories of the time he had spent in Charanpur, a fictional village in India. The song signifies his psychological development as he finally decides to return back to India for good.
8. Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle’s debut is the tale of a promising young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory. But his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential. In this montage Neiman practices to his limits and in the process suffers emotional breakdown. The shots edited on matching visual images and the musical tempo accentuates the mental state of the protagonist.
9. Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher’s psychological crime drama is based on the eponymous novel by Gillian Flynn. Nicholas Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect when his wife Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary. In this montage, we discover that Amy is alive and how she carefully forges her new identity. She purchases supplies for her getaway and starts to set up her cabin. The sequence ends with hitting herself in the face with a hammer.
10. Parasite (2019)
Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winning dark comedy thriller narrates the tale of the members of Kim family living on the edge of poverty. Their life takes a drastic turn when one of the members of the family gets a job in the affluent Park family. There’s a scene where the Kims cunningly scheme a plan to exploit the peach allergy of the long-time housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). As the montage ends they are able to convince Mrs Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) that Moon-gwang has tuberculosis.