Editing – Montage (Part 1)

A ‘montage sequence‘ (or simply ‘montage‘) is a series of shots edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information (wikipedia). Beyond its technical aspects, a montage is also an important storytelling technique — one of the most powerful tools in the editor’s arsenal, actually — that can find its place in numerous situations. Let’s start off with ‘methodical’ kinds of actions.



Scenes where characters prepare for an event lend themselves very well to montages. For instance, in 127 Hours (D. Boyle, 2010), Ralston prepares himself for a trip to Canyonlands National Park. Not only does the montage tells us about the kind of activity the character is prepping for, it also insidiously tells us about some of the character’s traits (e.g. impatience, carelessness), which is key to understanding the story (e.g. he doesn’t bother replying to a message on his answering machine, he fails to take his Swiss army knife with him).

The two following montage sequences use the same approach to show radically different kinds of preps. In Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), a montage conveys the pressure the character undergoes as he straps hashish pads to his body. In Commando (M. L. Lester, 1985), the dramatic effect of montage turns to second degree humor as Matrix prepares to fight alone an army of mercenaries. Both montages emphasize the characters’ determination and sense of organization precisely by compressing time and keeping the audience focused on the different aspects of the prep itself.


Sequences of steps

Similarly, paring down the action to essential bits is an effective way to depict sequences of steps or chains of events, as in Angel Heart (A. Parker, 1987), when Angel erases all traces of his presence upon discovering a killing. In Jackie Brown (Q. Tarantino, 1997), the audience is deliberately kept focused on sequential details to better reveal the character’s reaction in the end. Again, such montages aren’t just about shrinking space, time and information, they also tell us about the character.

These kinds of sequences can be very short, in particular action-decomposition montages. In fact, three or four Close Shots are all it takes to convey the feeling of a montage, as demonstrated by those very similar excerpts from Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990) and Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991).



Likewise, scenes where characters are seen building or repairing something are especially well suited for montages, as showcased by the following excerpts from Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975) and Sorcerer (W. Friedkin, 1977).

‘Construction’ montages can also be used in a more subtle way, for instance as a metaphor for a broader idea of accomplishment. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), shots of the construction of a dovecote become the backbone of a montage sequence supporting a more subtle idea (more difficult to picture): the characters are realizing their ambition of training homing pigeons. The construction of a shack makes it easier to read.



Another ‘montagesque‘ kind of action is when characters commit themselves to searching something. For instance, in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (T. Tykwer, 2006), a montage shows an ageing perfumer unsuccessfully trying to analyze the components of a competitor’s product. The montage makes the audience focus on the ‘scientific’ approach the character strives to follow, and by contrast, demonstrates his incompetence.

A ‘search’ montage can describe more physical kinds of searches and make heavy use of cross dissolves and superimpositions to emphasize the time it takes for the characters to carry out their tasks, as in The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Avaricious Actuary (I. J. Moore, 1968) or Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985).

It could emphasize the searchers’ methodology and split them into separate groups as in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (S. Peckinpah, 1974)

…or bring out the brutality of an investigation, as in Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978) or District 9 (N. Blomkamp, 2009). Good montages are never purely mechanical, they always reveal something about the characters — which is why they are so effective at telling a story.


What’s up?

For their ability to condense space, time, and information, montages are frequently used to bring out the methodical aspect of typical actions like preparation, series of steps, construction and search sequences. Moreover, this technique can be taken advantage of to depict both the action and the protagonists’ traits or mindsets.

So far so good, but we have only scratched the surface of montages here. In part 2, we will be acquainted to completely different kinds of montage sequences.


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