What is a Montage? Definition & Examples

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

You'll know a montage when you see one since they're ubiquitous in Hollywood and indie movies, TV shows, and short films—but what is a motion picture montage exactly? This film editing technique puts images or short shots together in a sequence, which then often becomes larger than the sum of its parts.

Filmmakers use montage for exposition, juxtaposition, or the passage of time, but they can also be a collection of emotional vignettes and tell a condensed story in a short time. Let’s define montage in filmmaking and look at examples, so we can then discuss the use of montage as a technique.

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Montage definition in filmmaking

A film montage stands out from other scenes and the rest of the film. A montage sequence comprises short shots or even still images in the case of a photomontage that have a continuity to them and follow a certain rhythm. Together, the different shots function as a whole and tell a short story, or advance the plot.

Through vignettes, a montage can show the passage of time, go into the past with a flashback, or otherwise rapidly develop the story. Filmmakers cut back and forth between parallel storylines to show simultaneous events in a montage, or they juxtapose two main characters to highlight their similarities or differences.

Because the succession of quick shots can contain a lot of information, the editing technique is popular for exposition, for example in an opening sequence with voiceover narration. A musical montage is an effective way to set the mood, pick up a theme, and play to the emotions of the audience. The rhythm, energy, or style of the images can follow the soundtrack, but even without music, no dialog, and just sound effects, a montage sequence can show without telling and build tension.

Cutting and editing film as a physical medium has degenerative effects if the original material is manipulated. Non-linear or offline editing, therefore, uses hardware and software for video editing and playback of the edits without altering the originals. The Montage Picture Processor is a machine from the 1980s for that purpose, notably used by Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather III and Stanley Kubrick for Full Metal Jacket. Digitalization has transitioned film editing to a software-based process.

What are movie montages? The montage filmmaking technique assembles a series of short images or quick shots to tell a story or advance the plot. Filmmakers use montage to advance time, give a retrospective in flashback, juxtapose two characters, narrate simultaneous events, or elicit an emotional response from the audience. A musical montage can use the soundtrack to enhance the scenes, a narrated montage can give an exposition, or a montage with no dialog can heighten the tension. The word itself originates from the French monter for “assembly” or “editing.”

What is Soviet Montage Theory?

The idea behind this montage theory goes back to Russian filmmakers in the early 1920s. It was Lev Kuleshov in particular who posited that the connection and interaction of two sequential shots creates more meaning for the audience than a single shot. Through editing, the sequence becomes more than the sum of its parts. This cognitive effect for viewers is known as the Kuleshov Effect.

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made that editing technique his signature and developed five usages of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and dialectical. We’ll explain these in greater detail below when we talk about how to use montage techniques. Though the Kuleshov Effect and Soviet Montage sound eclectic, the concept is not reserved for art-house cinema alone. Juxtaposition is the simple idea behind it which stimulates viewers to derive more meaning from the short shots in the montage sequence than from one shot without cuts.

Are there other types of montage?

Movies and short films also use still images instead of quick shots to tell a story. The 1962 film La Jetée by Chris Marker, which was one inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, employs photomontage and voiceover narration to tell the protagonist’s story of time travel.

Similar to montage, collage is a visual art technique which assembles one image out of separate elements, which can be the same or different media. A film montage could mix found footage such as old newsreels with original shots in a collage montage. A vignette is a scene, image, or story of its own. Especially in a passage of time montage, the individual shots could be vignettes. In literature, a series of images or vignettes can create a montage in prose or poetry.

Examples of montage from movies

It’s best to see filmmaking techniques in action, so here are various types of montages from ten great movies.

Rocky: The training montage

A training montage shows a character preparing for an upcoming big event. It typically consists of a sequence of vignettes which show the character or main characters getting better (or sometimes failing) at what they’re doing until they’re presumably ready. A signature example is the 1976 drama Rocky with Sylvester Stallone. The end of the montage sequence shows him racing up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has made these 72 stone steps famous as the “Rocky Steps.” All subsequent films in the franchise feature a training montage and it is a common movie trope. A variation is the preparation montage, for example in a heist movie, during which the mastermind assembles a crew.

Up: An exposition as a short film in itself

The animated film Up by Pixar has a montage sequence also known as "Married Life" after the accompanying instrumental piece. The emotional exposition tells the story of Carl and Ellie in bitter and sweet memories, from the moment they meet to Ellie's death. It serves to win viewers over by moving them deeply. The audience sympathizes with Carl despite his later grumpiness, and the montage sets up the premise of the whole movie and explains why Carl would want to float away in his home.

Scarface and Push it to the Limit: Vignettes and musical montage

Scarface has a rise to power sequence instead of a training montage, set to the song “Push it to the Limit” — also known as a good-times montage. The shots of Tony Montana show the young gangster’s increasing success, with ever larger bags of money, bigger business being opened up, and a lavish wedding at a luxurious new mansion. The montage develops the character to set him up for his later downfall. Because of Scarface, the song has become a movie trope for this kind of montage.

Team America: World Police satirizes the training montage

Team America: World Police by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is a satirical comedy in which Team America has to stop a global terrorist plot by North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il. Poking fun not only at cultural norms but also at movie tropes, the film includes a training montage that satirizes Rocky and the institution of the Hollywood montage itself.

L.A. Confidential: Hush-Hush voiceover narration

In L.A. Confidential, things are not what they seem, and first impressions are misleading. The opening credit montage blends still photography and found footage with other shots into a promotional newsreel. The voiceover narration by Danny DeVito's Sid Hudgens guides viewers, but then starts mocking as the tone and meaning shift and the face of L.A. changes from glamor to organized crime - but not to worry, Hudgens will keep things "Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush."

Battleship Potemkin: Hitting the nerve of cinema

Sergei Eisenstein called montage "the nerve of cinema." His 1925 propaganda film Battleship Potemkin commemorates the revolutionary events of 1905 and employs exemplary montage editing techniques, in particular metric and rhythmic editing. The first is a sequence with a specific number of frames per shot, regardless of the action, and the second uses cuts to set and continues a certain rhythm. The most well-known scene from the film is probably the "Odessa steps" sequence, which shows soldiers massacring civilians, and elicits an emotional response from the audience, in particular with a drawn-out sequence of a mother falling to the ground.

Rushmore: The beginnings of Wes Anderson’s signature exposition

Wes Anderson is known for his obsession with symmetrical compositions and centered shots that come across as artistically constructed images. Though aesthetically pleasing, they're stylized and unnatural. The 1999 Rushmore is a quirky coming-of-age story and has by now become a cult classic. It contains an opening montage with stylized text and scenes from Max's school life, put together like a yearbook. This kind of exposition with background information on the main characters has become a signature trait for subsequent Wes Anderson films.

Citizen Kane: Passage of time in a marriage just like any other

Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane shows how the marriage between Charles and Emily Kane falls apart in a passage of time montage of only a few minutes. A swish pan shows the fast forward between each shot, and the couple sits further and further apart at the table. The light gets darker with each shot, and bouquets on the table obscure their view of each other. From the music to the table growing longer, the facial expressions and the tone in the voices of the characters, every little detail in the montage hints at them growing apart more and more.

The Godfather: Juxtaposition in the baptism montage

Francis Ford Coppola uses the juxtaposition of life and death in the baptism montage of The Godfather. During the baptizing of Michael Corleone’s nephew, we see the assassination of mafia leaders being carried out at his behest. The greater significance of this montage sequence is that Michael himself is now christened the new Don of the family.

Parasite: Dialectical montage and five minutes of closeness

Director Bong Joon-Ho uses sixty short shots over five minutes in his film Parasite to set up the events that will follow. The cunning of the poor family works to dispose of the housekeeper of the rich family and install all of their family members as servants. The exceptional montage places characters together instead of juxtaposing them, just as one family is getting close to another. Classical music creates a false sense of harmony and security, dramatically different from how things will turn out.

How to use montage as a film editing technique

From movies to TV shows to short films, you can make use of montage to convey a lot of information with a short and dense sequence. Let’s recap the different types of montages mentioned above and discuss what you can achieve with these filmmaking techniques.

Hollywood montage techniques

These common filmmaking techniques for montage sequences are not limited to Hollywood blockbusters, of course, but many of the following have become movie tropes in their own right:

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    Passage of time: From training montage, preparation and transformation, to exposition, flashback, and background information, you can speed up or slow down time by assembling quick shots together in a passage of time montage.
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    Character montage: Similar to the passage of time, you can develop a character or the main characters in a montage, for example by showing them in various environments, such as work, family, and private life, in which their personality traits come out. This works well for setting them up for a call to action that will disrupt their status quo, highlighting their flaws or the difference between who they are and who they want to be.
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    Juxtaposition: This editing technique is reliable when you want to create something larger than the sum of the parts, which is also called a gestalt montage. The meaning the audience will derive from this montage relies on your arrangement of the individual shots: you can juxtapose characters, events, timelines and dialog scene.
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    Comedic effect: You can heighten the comedy of individual funny shots in montage, especially when the sequence returns repeatedly to a character’s signature trait or pun, or a general running gag. A good times montage can show the antics of an ensemble cast, for example during a night out, only to set up the following consequences—which makes up the entire premise of The Hangover.
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    Show don't tell montage: The principle of show don’t tell becomes effective when you leave out the dialog entirely and edit a sequence of just actions and their sound effects together. The absence of spoken words to offer explanations and of music to set the mood or theme charges the images with energy and meaning. Alternatively, if there is dialog, you can mismatch the audio and the images and let lines overlap from one shot to the next. This kind of collage creates the effect of a memory flashback or dreamy narration.
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    Voiceover narration montage: A common use of montage with voiceover narration is for an opening sequencing with a lot of information. The images can complement or highlight the narrator’s words and set the theme and expectations of what’s about to come during this kind of exposition. But you can also use this technique to characterize the narrator, especially when they are a character in the story. When the images show a different reality than what the narrator is telling the audience, you can establish them as unreliable.
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    Musical montage: You can cut the audio of the shots and instead set the entire montage sequence to music, which is one of the easiest and most effective ways of setting a theme and influencing the emotions of the audience. You can even match the rhythm of cuts to the music, or juxtapose a cheerful tune with cruel or shocking images, depending on if you want to underscore horror, drama, or romance.
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    Superimposition and split screen montage: Such a montage sequence can highlight simultaneous events, juxtapose characters, or bring them together visually by combining images and shots instead of cutting back and forth. This is a highly stylized montage, since it's hard to follow or requires artificial pauses for dialog and images. When used well, it can have a comedic effect, such as in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

Types of Soviet Montage

Sergei Eisenstein established five types of montage which can appear more “intellectual” because of their theoretical approach to film editing, but they are not reserved for art-house cinema alone. For a more stylized montage sequence, consider the following:

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    Metric: This kind of montage has a fixed meter, like a poem or a piece of music. In a musical montage, the visual pace then follows the score, as in the training montage of Rocky III set to the pace of “Eye of the Tiger.” Without music, you can set a fixed number of frames for each shot.
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    Rhythmic: In a rhythmic montage, the cuts between the shots dictate a pace or a rhythm, for example, staccato, short-short-long, accelerating, or slowing down. The speed of the action within each shot can mimic the pattern, and sounds, gestures, actions or lines within the scene can initiate each cut. A master of this technique is Edgar Wright.
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    Tonal: Such a montage aims to elicit an emotional response from viewers. The tonal sequence achieves this directly with the content and theme of the images, for example showing a serene shot to calm viewers.
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    Overtonal: This complex montage combines metric, rhythmic, and tonal shots for a synthesized effect.
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    Dialectical montage: Sometimes called intellectual montage, this sequence mixes shots which are unrelated to the film or to each other. As Alfred Hitchcock explained: if we first see a man leering or smiling, we will have two different interpretations of the following image, even if it has nothing to do with the man. The dialectical montage lets viewers derive meaning simply from the order in the sequence.

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Montage in screenwriting

Storyboards are a great tool for planning montage sequences because you can arrange and rearrange the visual representation for each shot to experiment with content and order during the pre-visualization of your project.

But what about the script: how do you write a montage as a screenwriter? Of course, you can introduce every single shot like a scene with its own header, preceded by CUT TO—but that will only result in wasting precious space.

Instead, introduce your montage, for example, with MONTAGE or SERIES OF SHOTS, and then list the shots in the sequence one after another. You can number them for clarity if you need to.

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If your sequence of shots spreads over more than one location, you can specify so:

montage-example-2

You can write a montage in your script similarly to an INTERCUT of two scenes and just clearly mark the beginning and end, for example, with BEGIN and END OF SERIES OF SHOTS.

If you’re using an established trope, such as a training montage or a romantic falling in love montage, you could also reduce it to such a description, such as TRAINING MONTAGE, or, MONTAGE IN WHICH THE TWO FALL PROGRESSIVELY IN LOVE. This would leave it up to the director to define the length and contents of the montage. However, for the benefit of the reader, you should at least sketch the theme or outcome of the sequence. There are no absolute rules for scripting a montage in a screenplay, so opt for the way that is easiest to read in your case and conveys your intent as a screenwriter.

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