Montage // is a technique in film editing in which a series of short shots are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information. The term has been used in various contexts. It was introduced to cinema primarily by Eisenstein, and early Soviet directors used it as a synonym for creative editing. In France the word "montage" simply denotes cutting. The term "montage sequence" has been used primarily by British and American studios, which refers to the common technique as outlined in this article.
The montage sequence is usually used to suggest the passage of time, rather than to create symbolic meaning as it does in Soviet montage theory.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, montage sequences often combined numerous short shots with special optical effects (fades, dissolves, split screens, double and triple exposures) dance and music. They were usually assembled by someone other than the director or the editor of the movie.
The word montage came to identify . . . specifically the rapid, shock cutting that Eisenstein employed in his films. Its use survives to this day in the specially created 'montage sequences' inserted into Hollywood films to suggest, in a blur of double exposures, the rise to fame of an opera singer or, in brief model shots, the destruction of an airplane, a city or a planet.
Two common montage sequence devices of the period are a newspaper one and a railroad one. In the newspaper one, there are multiple shots of newspapers being printed (multiple layered shots of papers moving between rollers, papers coming off the end of the press, a pressman looking at a paper) and headlines zooming on to the screen telling whatever needs to be told. There are two montages like this in It Happened One Night. In a typical railroad montage, the shots include engines racing toward the camera, giant engine wheels moving across the screen, and long trains racing past the camera as destination signs zoom into the screen.
He devised vivid montages for numerous pictures, mainly to get a point across economically or to bridge a time lapse. In a matter of moments, with images cascading across the screen, he was able to show Jeanette MacDonald's rise to fame as an opera star in Maytime (1937), the outbreak of the revolution in Viva Villa (1934), the famine and exodus in The Good Earth (1937), and the plague in Romeo and Juliet (1936).
From 1933 to 1942, Don Siegel, later a noted feature film director, was the head of the montage department at Warner Brothers. He did montage sequences for hundreds of features, including Confessions of a Nazi Spy; Knute Rockne, All American; Blues in the Night; Yankee Doodle Dandy; Casablanca; Action in the North Atlantic; Gentleman Jim; and They Drive By Night.
Siegel told Peter Bogdanovich how his montages differed from the usual ones:
Montages were done then as they're done now, oddly enough—very sloppily. The director casually shoots a few shots that he presumes will be used in the montage and the cutter grabs a few stock shots and walks down with them to the man who's operating the optical printer and tells him to make some sort of mishmash out of it. He does, and that's what's labeled montage.
In contrast, Siegel would read the motion picture's script to find out the story and action, then take the script's one line description of the montage and write his own five page script. The directors and the studio bosses left him alone because no one could figure out what he was doing. Left alone with his own crew, he constantly experimented to find out what he could do. He also tried to make the montage match the director's style, dull for a dull director, exciting for an exciting director.
Of course, it was a most marvelous way to learn about films, because I made endless mistakes just experimenting with no supervision. The result was that a great many of the montages were enormously effective.
Siegel selected the montages he did for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), and Confessions of a Nazi Spy, as especially good ones. "I thought the montages were absolutely extraordinary in 'The Adventures of Mark Twain'—not a particularly good picture, by the way."
Analysis of two typical examples
The two montage sequences in Holiday Inn (1942) show the two basic montage styles. The focus of the movie is an inn that presents elaborate nightclub shows only on the holidays. The film was in production when the United States entered World War II.
The first montage occurs during the Independence Day show, as Bing Crosby sings "Song of Freedom". The 50 second montage combines several single screen sequences of workers in an aircraft factory and various military units in motion (troops marching, planes flying, tanks driving) with multiple split screens, with up to six images in one shot. The penultimate shot shows a center screen head shot of General Douglas MacArthur in a large star with military images in the four corners.
The second montage occurs near the end of the film, showing the passage of time. Unlike the clarity of the "Song of Freedom" montage, this one layers multiple images in an indistinct and dream-like fashion. In the film, the character played by Fred Astaire has taken Crosby's partner, Marjorie Reynolds, to star in a motion picture based on the idea of the inn. The 60 second montage covers the time from Independence Day to Thanksgiving. It opens with a split screen showing three shots of Hollywood buildings and a zoom title, Hollywood. Then comes a zoom into a camera lens where Astaire and Reynolds are seen dancing to a medley of tunes already introduced in the film. The rest of the sequence continues to show them dancing, with multiple images of motion picture cameras, cameramen, a director, musical instruments, single musical notes, sheet music and dancers' legs circle around them. Several times six images of themselves also circle the dancers. Only the opening shot uses a clearly defined split screen and only the second shot is a single shot.
Both of these styles of montage have fallen out of favor in the last 50 years. Today's montages avoid the use of multiple images in one shot, either through splits screens as in the first example or layering multiple images as in the second. Most recent examples use a simpler sequence of individual short, rapidly paced shots combined with a specially created background song to enhance the mood or reinforce the message being conveyed.
Sports training use
The sports training montage is a standard explanatory montage. It originated in American cinema but has since spread to modern martial arts films from East Asia. Originally depicting a character engaging in physical or sports training, the form has been extended to other activities or themes.
Conventions and clichés
The standard elements of a sports training montage include a build-up where the potential sports hero confronts his failure to train adequately. The solution is a serious, individual training regimen. The individual is shown engaging in physical training through a series of short, cut sequences. An inspirational song (often fast-paced rock music) typically provides the only sound. At the end of the montage several weeks have elapsed in the course of just a few minutes and the hero is now prepared for the big competition. One of the best-known examples is the training sequence in the 1976 movie Rocky, which culminates in Rocky's run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The simplicity of the technique and its over-use in American film vocabulary has led to its status as a film cliché. A notable parody of the sports training montage appears in the South Park episode, "Asspen", noted above. When Stan Marsh must become an expert skier quickly, he begins training in a montage where the inspirational song explicitly spells out the techniques and requirements of a successful sports training montage sequence as they occur on screen. The same song is used in Team America: World Police in a similar sequence.
In "Once More, with Feeling", an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers does an extended workout while Rupert Giles sings one song; this distortion of time is one of numerous musical conventions made literal by a spell affecting Sunnydale. Prior to this sequence, Buffy Summers voices her concern that "this whole session is going to turn into some training montage from an '80s movie" to which Rupert Giles replies "Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords we'll just lie down until they go away".
- Bordwell, David (2005). The Cinema of Eisenstein. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0415973651.
- Reisz, Karel (2010). The Technique of Film Editing. Burlington, MA: Focal Press. ISBN 978-0-240-52185-5.
- Knight, Arthur. The Liveliest Art, Mentor Books, New American Library, 1957, p. 80.
- Goodman, Ezra. Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, Macfadden Books, 1962, p. 293.
- "Don Siegel," Who the Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 766. Interview made in 1968.
- "Don Siegel," pp. 724-725.
- "Don Siegel", pp. 725-726.
- "Don Siegel", p. 726.