Editing – Montage (Part 2)

Let’s now get into the heart of the topic: montage for condensing time and space. After introducing montage as a way to display methodical actions, we will now review how this storytelling technique can help depicting trips and territorial expansions, the passing of time, its effects on characters and their relationships, and so on.



Montages are especially effective at shrinking long journeys down to short sequences. Ironically, paring down a trip to a variety of stages conveys a sense of length and duration — for example in Spartacus (S. Kubrick, 1960). Alternating between scenery shots and character shots yields a more subjective approach, as we experience the trip through the characters’ eyes — e.g. in Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982).

These kinds of montages are commonly used as opening titles. Most often, the film begins in medias res and the credits montage starts right after the introductory action scene, as in Willow (R. Howard, 1988) and Silverado (L. Kasdan, 1985). Note how music binds completely unrelated shots into a consistent sequence, which is key to conveying the right feeling.

More elaborate montages frequently resort to maps as guiding threads, from trip to territorial expansion sequences. A map is usually superimposed to the action, combined with all kinds of effects like place names popping up — as in Robin Hood (R. Scott, 2010) — or a projected track line following through — as in Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981). Again, music is almost ubiquitous in this kind of montages.


Passing of time

Likewise, speeding up time with a montage of selected moments effectively conveys a sense of duration. In Conan the Barbarian (J. Milius, 1982), the passing of time is suggested by alternating character shots and time-context shots in a montage sequence. In Rumble Fish (F. F. Coppola, 1983), the passing of time is suggested by a montage of stretching-shadow shots in quick motion.

Instead of conspicuously resorting to symbolic time-context shots, montages often emphasize the evolution of a situation over time with short ‘slice-of-life’ sequences. For instance, in Four Minutes (C. Kraus, 2006), such montage is used to bring out the evolution of Jenny as she gets more serious about practicing piano in prison. In The Blue Lagoon (R. Kleiser, 1980), an amazing ‘slice-of-life’ montage follows Richard and Emmeline as they transition from childhood to adolescence.

When focusing specifically on the evolution of a relationship, the ‘slice-of-life’ montage can be derived to display repeatedly the same character configuration in different contexts. This technique has been used in Marnie (A. Hitchcock, 1964) to show the lack of evolution of Mark’s and Marnie’s relationship during their fake honeymoon, and in Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987) to show the positive effects of Pyle’s instruction by Joker over time (Note: this movie clip is a trimmed down version of the original sequence). Note how dialogs makes music unnecessary in those cases.


Lead-ups and aftermaths

In fact, the repetitiveness of an event over time can be emphasized by a montage — which doesn’t mean that the sequences have to look the same. For example, in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (T. Tykwer, 2006), Grenouille’s killing spree is depicted by a montage of short crime sequences, all staged differently, focusing less and less on abductions, more and more on consequences (read more about repetitive actions).

More generally, montages are second to none for transitioning from causes to effects. For instance, photomontages can effectively picture the consequences of an action — as in Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998) when Lola bumps into a woman whose future gets depicted in a series of snapshots — or an entire movie, as in Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978) when Billy reunites with his family after spending five years in prison.

Probably one of the most classic depictions of the aftermaths of an event over time is the ‘news-headline’ montage, in which the consequences of that event are displayed in a series of newspaper headlines, as in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971) and The Godfather (F. F. Coppola, 1972).


What’s up?

Long journeys, the passage of time and its effects on characters and their relationships, the aftermaths of one or more repetitive events, they all benefit from montage for its amazing ability to condense time and space. Moreover, sound continuity (e.g. music, voice over, dialog) will always bind the most jarring shots into the most exciting montage sequence.


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