Montage (/mɒnˈtɑːʒ/) is a film editing technique in which a series of short shots are sequenced to condense space, time, and information. … Later, the term “montage sequence” used primarily by British and American studios, became the common technique to suggest the passage of time.
“Always fade out in a montage …”
The montage. It calls up visions of Rocky Balboa stomping through the snow, racing along the beach in a crop-top, chasing chickens, doing one-armed push-ups. It brings to mind the A-Team turning a golf-cart and a length of piping into a tank in a matter of minutes. It conjures up images of smirking, spread-collared Tony Montana, shaking hands with some morally dubious official as his lackeys move bags of cash outside. Where would we be without it?
It’s perhaps unsurprising that, nowadays, the montage examples we most easily call to mind seem to involve such affectedly dramatic Eighties pop music that, in our altogether less hammy modern cinematic era, they seem almost laughable. In fact Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the irreverent architects of South Park and The Book of Mormon, have trained their satirical eyes on the technique on more than one occasion for exactly this reason, with predictably amusing results.
But the montage is not the preserve of exuberant Eighties cinema directors or those impudent creative types who lampoon them. At the turn of the 20th century, the British filmmaker Robert W. Paul showed the possibilities of editing when he cut his film Come Along, Do!, one of the first films to be composed of more than one shot. This was “continuity editing”, a technique pioneer D. W. Griffith innovated further with “parallel editing”, which he used to build dramatic tension in the film Birth of a Nation—a film more notable, despite its place in cinematic history, for its extreme racism.
The Latvian-born theorist, filmmaker, and iconoclast Sergei Eisenstein became known as the “Father of Montage” following the release of the 1925 feature film, Strike, in which shots of a slaughtered cow are cut with those of the violent suppression of a strike. His montage creates an association between cattle and workers. It’s art as propaganda. Long before South Park’s Stan Marsh had to learn how to ski, Soviet filmmakers were provoking an intellectual response and reinforcing dogma through clever editing.
Arguably, the originator of those flamboyant Eighties scenes is the unlikely figure of Slavko Vorkapich, a Serbian born in 1894 in a tiny village in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Vorkapich was a theorist and lecturer who mastered the visual montage sequence in Golden Age Hollywood. In fact so synonymous did this cinematic poet become with the technique that on Hollywood screenplays in the 1930s and 1940s, the montage was noted simply as the “Vorkapich”. For Vorkapich, the camera had until then been used only “as a passive sort of instrument”. In an interview in 1939 he said that “there is such an infinite variety of motion around us which, if properly explored with the camera in a creative manner and put together will, I think, create a new art.” Next time you watch Rocky Balboa running up the steps, or Patrick Swayze gyrating to the dulcet tones of Eric Carmen, think of Slavko Vorkapich.
And the montage has happily made its way out of the world of mainstream cinema to become a staple technique for the corporate video production company and the filmmaking agency. The applications of the showreel technique, for instance—a stylish, rapid-fire compilation, often of a brand’s best work or the best scenes from a feature film—run the gamut from fashion videography to event videography to video game trailers. Just as, in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola juxtaposes Michael Corleone’s homespun “Night of the Long Knives” with shots of his son’s baptism, a corporate video production company or indeed any video production agency can evoke powerful emotion through the medium of montage.
The Coppola example points to the multiplicity of ways in which the montage can be deployed in film. Though always condensing space, time and information, the intention that lies behind the montage varies dramatically, and there will always be new approaches. No list of montage techniques can be exhaustive. But regardless, you can separate them roughly into three main categories: narrative, intellectual and artistic.
By far the most common use of the montage relates to the immediate telling of the story itself—to giving an account of the events.
In films like Up, the montage is contextual: the opening sequence serves to get the viewer up to speed. Casablanca is one of the best examples of this. Rather than assume the viewer has the proper context to make sense of the story, it gives some historical background, specifically by discussing in brief the journey of war refugees from Paris to North Africa. The opening of A Bridge Too Far sets the scene in a similar way, by describing the events leading up to the doomed Operation Market Garden—the subject of Richard Attenborough’s multi-award-winning 1977 film.
From Karate Kid to Dirty Dancing to the iconic sequences in the Rocky franchise, training scenes are some of the most obvious sequences to which the montage may lend itself. In real life, training for almost anything is monotonous and time-consuming, and progress is incremental; needless to say this would not make for the most entertaining viewer experience. Accelerated by the montage however, variety and rapid progression replace what would be monotony and subtle improvement. Throw in a good piece of music et voilà, you have something highly watchable. Wax on, wax off.
The Cinderella style of montage is almost a sub-genre of the training montage, in that it entails a character’s slow transformation through work. But it’s less about learning a sport or preparing for a sporting competition in the case of the Cinderella, and often has to do with personal or intellectual development—or simply an elaborate makeover. In the Princess Diaries, Mia is a mostly passive participant in her own makeover, while in Legally Blonde, Elle Woods teaches herself law—to Joanna Pacitti’s “Watch Me Shine”, naturally.
Parodies of the montage straddle the narrative and the intellectual, since they might, as in Team America: World Police, serve a narrative purpose while also functioning as a pastiche of the technique. The training montage is the one most frequently parodied, and often specific training montages—those from Rocky being the best examples—might be directly satirised. But it’s also true that a montage parody can exist entirely outside the narrative, and exist solely for the purpose of making the audience smile.
Eisenstein did intend to tell a story by cross-cutting the slaughter of cattle with the murder of striking workers en masse in Strike, but it was a story that existed outside the story of the film. His narrative, and his aim, was ideological. He wanted to create a relationship in the mind of those watching between the savage but routine treatment of animals and the routine but unjustified behaviour of the authorities towards striking workers. In doing so, he hoped to show that workers in pre-revolutionary Russia were dehumanised by the ruling class and reduced to the status of cattle, thus confirming the party view. There is a sense in which the filmmaker is speaking directly to the audience or, indeed, trying to persuade the audience. As far away from Soviet filmmaking as it may seem, a video production agency making a perfume advert, for instance, might use montage in a similar way. Through association, with glamour or beauty in the case of perfume ads and similar product videos, for instance, it can persuade the viewer to purchase a product.
In Todd Phillips’ Joker, the psychological state of the eponymous Arthur Fleck is reflected, through montage, in the collapse of Gotham City into anarchy and chaos. Though the montage is part of the passage of events, it is also a kind of standing-back from the narrative and a commentary on its main character. To put it another way, Todd Phillips is saving the film critics and theorists some time by meeting them half-way with his own brief psychological commentary on the man who gives his film its name.
The intellectual montage entails a consideration of ideas, and few are more memorable and more effective than the baptism and assassination scene from The Godfather. Coppola uses 67 shots in five minutes in a compare/contrast montage which combines religious ritual and a series of brutal slayings. Through baptism, in view of Michael Corleone, the newest member of the family receives divine protection. At the same time Corleone is energetically taking life away. We are confronted by the hypocrisy of which human beings are capable.
Montage sequences that involve memories, reminiscences or flashbacks contextualise the current state in which a character finds themselves by showing what has gone on in their life before. Annie Hall’s ending is an iconic example of this. It tells the story through a flashback montage of a romance which begins, progresses, and ends. The main character reaches the conclusion that love is irrational, which he explains by telling a classic joke: “A man goes to the doctor and says, ‘Doc, my brother thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Well, tell him he isn’t a chicken.’ ‘I can’t,’ says the man ‘I need the eggs.’”
In A Phantom Thread, we see how montage can be used to create a certain aesthetic. The entire film is a kind of love letter to beauty, and the fashion show montage, with its elegant music, gorgeous outfits and rich palette of colours that vary from shot to shot, is designed more to be felt than to be thought about. Scenes like this will be especially interesting to those in fashion videography, though any corporate video production company can glean something from this typically Paul Thomas Anderson scene.
The German Dadaists made montage into a modern art-form, though unquestionably there are forms of cinematic montage which, even isolated from context, rise to the same giddy artistic heights, if from a different direction. The 2011 Japanese film Kiseki (I Wish) includes a montage of still-life images taken from earlier on in the film that together work almost like a collage to produce a single impression and a powerful feeling in the viewer. Even stripped from its frame of reference the montage works.
So from the flamboyance of the Eighties, complete with synth pop and questionable attire, to the stuff of fashion videography. The broad montage “genre” contains techniques that would come in handy to any video production company or filmmaking agency—indeed for anyone looking to put together a product video or marketing video that catches the eye.
A final thought: for Eisenstein, editing was the essence of cinema. For his fellow film theorist Lev Kuleshov, montage was the essence of cinema technique. So perhaps to understand montage is really just to understand cinema. Fade out.
NextShoot is a video production company in London.
We love montages so much we’ve made a few ourselves.
Our timelapse reel.
Our fashion reel.
Our construction reel.
And here is the undisputed heavyweight montage of the world. All the montages from all the Rocky movies spliced into one uber-montage.