How to Use Montages in Your Films

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Photo Source: “Rocky” Courtesy United Artists

Whether it’s the training compilations synonymous with the “Rocky” franchise, or the tear-jerking opener in “Up,” the montage is a way to efficiently pack a storytelling punch.

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What is a montage?

The Breakfast Club montage“The Breakfast Club” Courtesy Universal Pictures

The montage weaves together different clips to condense a large span of time within a story into an easily digestible sequence. The months leading up to the big game can be communicated through a series of shots of an athlete training. A musician’s long, downward spiral is depicted through five or six glimpses into their worst nights. A heist might take characters weeks to orchestrate, but we understand everyone’s role thanks to a one-minute planning montage. 

Filmmakers often use montages to quickly get from one major beat to the next without losing any narrative power or audience attention.

What is the history of the montage?

Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse montage“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” Courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

In the early 20th century, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that viewers’ perceptions can be manipulated through subsequent contextualizing images. By juxtaposing a series of shots, Kuleshov showed, filmmakers can trigger specific emotions in viewers, essentially curating an audience’s reaction. 

Kuleshov’s mentee Sergei Eisenstein used the first known instance of the montage editing technique in film. In the 1949 essay “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” Eisenstein writes that montage is “the nerve of cinema.” This idea evolved into Soviet montage theory, a formalist theoretical approach that promotes the critical significance of editing in film. Eisenstein named five basic methods of montage, each with a different approach to combining images into a cohesive, meaningful narrative. These montage methods and their definitions from “A Dialectic” are:

  • Metric: In this montage style, “pieces are joined together according to their lengths, in a formula-scheme corresponding to a measure of music. Realization is in the repetition of these ‘measures.’ Tension is obtained by the effect of mechanical acceleration by shortening the pieces while preserving the original proportions of the formula.” In metric montages, the meter sets the visual pace, no matter what’s happening onscreen.
  • Rhythmic: For the rhythmic montage, “The actual length does not coincide with the mathematically determined length of the piece according to a metric formula. Here its practical length derives from the specifics of the piece and from its planned length according to the structure of the sequence.” This means that the montage follows the music for visual and auditory pace. 
  • Tonal: “Based on the characteristic emotional sound of the piece—of its dominant,” the tonal montage signifies the “general tone of the piece.” Thematic elements tie together the different visuals in a tonal montage. 
  • Intellectual: Heavily symbolic, the intellectual montage “is montage not of generally physiological overtonal sounds, but of sounds and overtones of an intellectual sort: i.e., conflict-juxtaposition of accompanying intellectual effects.” The way that shots are juxtaposed creates new meaning with every watch.
  • Overtonal: The overtonal montage takes elements from metric, rhythmic, and tonal montages and thus “is organically the furthest development along the line… it is distinguishable from tonal montage by the collective calculation of all the piece’s appeals.” 

This video further explains these five methods:

How to create a montage

filming a montageponsulak/Shutterstock

Creating a montage is easier than ever, thanks to ubiquitous availability of video editing software and even montage-specific programs like Biteable, Clipchamp, or Kapwing

To compile video clips into a montage, use these ordered steps:

  1. Isolate the videos you want to include by saving them as a new project or in a new folder.
  2. Identify your first and last scene. Since these two clips will bookend the montage, it’s helpful to think of them as the introduction and conclusion. 
  3. Your middle scenes should be visually interesting and communicate some sense of progression or development. However, forward momentum is less critical when your montage’s intent is comedic. In that case, you might include scenes that contribute less to the narrative but are particularly humorous, especially in concert with each other.
  4. Decide the montage length. Because of their function as a summarization device, effective montages usually run between 90 seconds and two minutes long, but it’s okay to allow yourself some flexibility with that guideline.
  5. Cut the videos down into distinct scenes. Each scene should be long enough to add forward motion to the narrative, but short enough to maintain viewer interest even without dialogue. 
  6. Layer in music (look for a music icon in your video editing software of choice). Remember that the music should tonally match what’s happening in the montage, unless you’re using it to intentionally create ironic contrast.
  7. Move and play with the elements until you’re satisfied with the finished product, then save and export it. Voila! Montage mischief managed.

How to use montages effectively

Better Call Saul montage television“Better Call Saul” Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Adding montages can next-level a film project—but only if done effectively. Best practices in montaging include:

Condensed time: Montage editing can take audiences from one moment in time to another far in the future in the span of a minute or two. Little is as successful at communicating a curtailed yet comprehensive story like the montage. If you want to move from one timeline segment to another but need to communicate context and progression between the two, consider using a montage. Keep in mind that chronology is especially important if you’re including a montage for this purpose. 

In the film “Shaun of the Dead,” a plan-of-action montage conveys Shaun’s strategy to deal with the zombie apocalypse in an amusingly expedient way. The humor of the montage likely would have been lost in heavy exposition

Aesthetic appeal: A montage with visuals that are evocative, powerful, or seductive will encourage viewer engagement. Strong imagery can even provide variety to spice up a montage with a repetitive theme. 

For example, the live/die/repeat montage in “Edge of Tomorrow” depicts Major William Cage as he goes through different training scenarios that all lead to different versions of his death. The montage sequence avoids monotony by incorporating engrossing VFX and escalating the intensity each time Cage reaches another unfortunate demise.

The full picture: An effective montage can employ related, non-chronological images like puzzle pieces, guiding viewers toward making sense of a larger artistic picture. This Soviet montage style invites viewers to create meaning in the space between contextualized images. 

The opening sequence to “500 Days of Summer” gives viewers insight into what Summer and Tom were like as children compared to who they are today. Viewing these images sequentially provides a comprehensive history of complex personhood behind the events of the film itself.  

Creating a full picture can also mean tying together multiple storylines. This can signify thematic unity across storylines, or it can demonstrate contrast. 

This montage from “The Godfather” uses contrast to great effect by cutting between scenes of purity and family (the baptism of Michael’s niece) and ones of vicious violence (the murders Michael arranged to take place that same day):

In “Rocky IV,” the training montage uses both unity and divergence to tie together Drago's and Rocky’s journeys. As they both engage in vigorous fight preparation, their methodologies contrast: Everyman Rocky trains outside (in jeans!), while Drago’s regiment includes steroids, coaches, and a high-tech facility.

Meaningful music: Use the score to emphasize the emotions of your montage. This might be motivational, like the triumphant swells in “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky”:

Or the soaring, sentimental instrumental piece accompanying the marriage montage in “Up”: 

You can also sync music to onscreen action, generating a powerful connection between audio and visual elements. The dance instruction montage in “Footloose” is a good example, matching musical beats to Willard’s accelerated journey from rhythm-averse average Joe to dancer extraordinaire: