Editing – Montage (Part 3)

Alright, we’ve been around montage for condensing time and space, let’s continue our tour with montage for condensing information, from depicting environments, events or characters, to flashbacks, evocations, assumptions and deductions.


Context depiction

Editing together assorted context shots (i.e. kind of documentary-style walkthrough) can go a long way towards introducing a new environment. Due to its inherent slow pace, this sort of montages is usually displayed at the beginning of a movie — as in The Man Who Would Be King (J. Huston, 1975) — or just after a hectic scene — as in Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978) — to let the audience catch their breath.

Alternating context shots with shots of observing characters lets the audience experience the walkthrough along with the characters. Sort of kaleidoscope, or ‘outing to the zoo’ montage sequence, as in Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997). Violating continuity only adds to the bombardment of information, as showcased by the following excerpt from Babel (A. G. Iñárritu, 2006).

If we think about it, these kinds of montage essentially pertain to perception, but there is no reason why they should be limited to visual perception. It could as well be olfactory perception, as in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (T. Tykwer, 2006), or sound perception, as in Goodfellas (M. Scorsese, 1990). OK, it’s still mainly visual, but you catch my drift.


Biased depiction

Walkthrough montages can even be applied to static scenes. Indeed, Close Shots of carefully chosen details can provide a more descriptive, more biased depiction of an event. For instance, The Departed (M. Scorsese, 2006) ridicules the police academy graduation ceremony with a montage of tawdry and flashy details which detract from the seriousness of the event.

Such montages can also tell a lot about a character’s traits, mood or mindset. Angel Heart (A. Parker, 1987) portrays Angel’s persona (private investigator, alcohol and gambling addict) through a series of meaningful details, and all that without violating continuity. In Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003), a montage of Karen’s family pictures bring out the way she feels when she discovers that her husband is cheating on her.


Evocation, memory

So far so good, but condensing information doesn’t imply that the action is to be set in the present/story time. For instance, factual information about the past can be compiled into a ‘flashback’ montage, as in Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981) or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (S. West, 2001). Note the similarities between flashback and walkthrough montages. Same technique, different purpose.

As said before, the process of selecting and compiling information into a montage is always biased. The line between flashback and evocation can be easily blurred simply by displaying facts on an emotional level, as in Taxi Driver (M. Scorsese, 1976).

Evocations of a single subject are frequently edited as a montage of striking pictures showing its various aspects (read more in Repetition – Portrait galleries and evocations). In both Kung Fu Panda (M. Osborne & J. Stevenson, 2008) and Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), the evil personality of a character is portrayed in a speedy montage sequence of very short shots — almost snapshots — showing him in action.

By the way, condensing information doesn’t imply that that information is valid. For example, in JFK (O. Stone, 1991), Oswald fleeing a crime scene is depicted in a random montage sequence (i.e. jumping forwards or backwards in time) to evoke his possible attitude, a kind of Brownian motion that makes the character look as if he didn’t know which way to go (read more in Jump cut).

Finally, deduction is just one step away from assumption, and montage rules when it comes to putting pieces together, as demonstrated by the following excerpts from The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995) and Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010). To bring things full circle, note again the similarities between evocation, deduction and walkthrough montages. Again, same technique, different purpose.


What’s up?

Condensing information in a montage can have many purposes, from depicting a new environment — and not only visually — to depicting an event or a character’s traits, mood or mindset. Because selecting information is always biased, montages prove as relevant for flashback, evocation, assumption and deduction sequences.

In part 4, we will see how montage sequences can be designed to reveal the hidden meaning of an action, or play cat and mouse with the soundtrack.


Recommended reading


Recommended watching