The montage is an ever present part of modern screenwriting. Filmmakers and screenwriters frequently use this technique, regardless of genre. But what are the best montage examples and what do they teach about the very essence of montage?
The montage is essentially an editing technique. It emphasises the relationships between shots and the juxtaposition of images to create ideas not present in the shot itself. Montages are useful for a number of reasons including:
- The summary of a single topic – exposition or introduction to the characters, story, or world.
- The condensing of time, information or space into a short, usually fast-paced sequence.
A number of modern film and TV shows use montages for these purposes. This article will collect various types of montage methods, analyse their purpose and discuss their effect, from both a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.
The Five Methods of Montage
The term, montage, was coined for cinema in the 1920s by Sergei Eisenstein. He explained 5 methods of montage:
- Metric – cutting shots together based on exact measure or length of time, disregarding the length and content of the shot.
- Rhythmic (aka Continuity Editing) – cutting based on the content of the shots. Therefore edits differ in length depending on what happens within the sequence.
- Tonal – cutting based on tones within the shots. The highlighting of emotional themes or meanings in the shots themselves. Shots are linked based on aural or visual similarities.
- Overtonal – cutting according to overtones and themes within different shots, while incorporating wider themes of the film and creating an emotional response from the audience.
- Intellectual – very different shots cut together as a visual metaphor. The shots are linked through a similar intellectual meaning.
These methods of montage are still in use today. Though, as we will see below, the lines between them are not always clear and they are often used in combination.
Montage Example #1 – Requiem For A Dream
This montage in Requiem For A Dream shows the organised yet chaotic impact of the metric/intellectual montage. Each shot is given nine frames and a distinct sound effect. The montage demonstrates drug taking’s disorientating effect.
The shot timing is frantic yet regimented. Consequently, it gives the sequence a psychedelic style. It is effective in progressing the story and portraying the descent into addiction for each of the characters.
Within the script of Requiem for a Dream, the montage is very simply described. Darren Aronofsky co-wrote the script as well as directed the film. It’s clear that the kinetic energy of the montage was intended right from the start.
The style of this montage demonstrates how the technique can be used to intimately suggest characters’ state of mind.
Montage Example #2 – The Breakfast Club
This iconic montage from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club is an example of a rhythmic montage. The Breakfast Club all dance to We Are Not Alone by Karla Devito.
This montage displays the teenage angst of each member of the group. As a result, we see that they have become friends and are now comfortable in each others company, despite their differences.
It’s an example of a montage suggesting unity. Not only are the characters united, but the audience is too, with them. It’s a moment where the audience and characters can unite over a shared moment of joy.
The characters lose themselves so much they forget about their individual differences. In doing so, the montage reminds us how losing oneself can help a group come closer together.
Montage Example #3 – City of God
In this scene from City of God, a tonal montage tells the history of an apartment. Voiceover narration and montage quickly explain everything that has happened in the apartment. It catches the audience up to speed on how local dealer, Blacky, got control of this turf.
This scene uses the same static shot for the entire history of the apartment and uses changing furniture and decor to show the apartment’s degradation.
We see the journey of this apartment. Whilst it starts full of furniture and life, by the end it has been stripped of its preceding personality. It’s a clever use of a static shot, one apartment witnessing the many different characters that make up the story.
It’s a montage that moves the plot along but also contains a lot within it. Its existence as a static shot allows this scope, containing a whole journey and world within a small frame.
Montage Example #4 – Hot Fuzz
Edgar Wright is a master of intelligent editing and this list could have included 12 montages solely from his films (Baby Driver is a film made up almost entirely of creative rhythmic montage). This montage in Hot Fuzz, however, is a particularly good example of an expositional montage.
The rhythmic montage serves the purpose of quick and effective exposition. Wright uses the montage to introduce us to the main character rapidly. The montage shows Nicholas Angel’s CV through voiceover over scenes showing him in the activity described.
This is important in a fish out of water comedy as it quickly introduces the character so that we can then see him adapt to his new environment. The montage establishes Angel as a successful, no nonsense cop. And the montage’s tone reflects this – it’s also quick, efficient and no nonsense.
In ‘the plan’ scene, Edgar Wright creates a blueprint for the rest of the film and sets up the goals and wants of the protagonists through this rhythmic montage.
- Establish Shaun’s undying feelings for Liz.
- Establish The Winchester as the safe haven
This scene is similar to montage scenes you would find in heist movies. Shaun explains the plan. This plants the seeds in the audience’s mind that everything will not go to plan. The very fact that Shaun and Ed make things sound so easy makes us think things won’t be quite so easy.
Furthermore, the montage brilliantly employs repetition to convey comedy. In seeing the elements that change and the elements that don’t in the different versions of their plan, the montage provokes laughter.
For example, the plan might change some elements but some always remain the same – they always kill Phillip and they always end up having a drink and waiting for things to ‘blow over’, hilariously showing their priorities.
Montage Example #6 – Rocky
This rhythmic montage in Rocky is the epitome of a training montage. The montage condenses Rocky’s training into a short musical montage, which briefly summarises his training and progression.
Rocky’s determination to succeed and his relationship with the people of Philadelphia is on display. The rigorous exercise in combination with the score give the audience the belief that he will win.
This montage is about triumph. It’s almost impossible to not feel triumphant when watching it. It shows how a rhythmic montage can viscerally produce the experience it is portraying.
Montage Example #7 – Creed
In Rocky sequel Creed, the above scene functions very similarly to a regular training montage. It shows Adonis Creed’s rigour and determination to succeed.
Within this sequence, Ryan Coogler pays homage to the original iconic Rocky montage. However, Creed‘s tonal montage differs from the training montage in the original.
It combines and juxtaposes Creed’s training with Rocky’s worsening health furthering the stories of both main characters.
While it’s not in the script above, in the film, the sequence also incorporates Creed’s opponent, Ricky Conlan, and his training regime. Conlan looks more vicious and the scene creates a contrast between the two opponents. In doing this, the montage successfully establishes Creed as the underdog.
Montage Example #8 – Whiplash
In this tonal sequence in Whiplash, we quickly progress through a portion of Neiman’s drumming training. We see his pain, demonstrated through the repetition of the image of the blister tape and his bleeding hands.
The purpose of training montages is to show progression in a short sequence. We see Andrew develop as a drummer and a person. It helps establish his determination to improve and the lengths to which he’s willing to go. This helps the audience root for him as an underdog.
The physicality of this montage also helps in getting across one of the film’s themes – the physicality of drumming. It lifts the lid on this aspect of drumming, one perhaps not known by a lot of audiences.
The language of this montage is similar to that of a training montage, like those in Rocky and Creed. In assuming this language it inherently suggests drumming acts as a similar discipline, physically and mental draining.
Montage Example #9 – Edge of Tomorrow
In Edge of Tomorrow, this rhythmic/tonal montage is almost a training montage as we see Tom Cruise’s character training to not die in order to win the war. He repeatedly has to keep dying to learn from his mistakes and improve.
In this montage, the potential dullness of over-repetition is avoided by the rapid succession of Tom Cruise’s characters deaths, similar to Groundhog Day.
The director and screenwriter have realised that the function of this sequence is better when condensed. Watching all these deaths over the course of a long period would be boring.
Quickly compressing them shows how much Cruise’s character goes through in a short space of time. It’s dynamic and in its speed conveys all we need to know. The audience isn’t patronised with over-explanation, they’re kept on their toes.
Montage Example #10 – Up
The “Married Life” montage from the beginning of Up is a montage example that lives long in the memory of many audiences. Within the space of four minutes, a montage shows Carl & Ellie’s married life, from their wedding to Ellie’s death.
This overtonal montage is so effective that it functions almost as its own short film. The film uses a number of repeated images to show the progression of time:
- The repetition of the couple climbing up the hill creates an emotional impact once Ellie collapses.
- The balloons as a motif throughout this sequence. Carl harnesses them – at first they nearly fly off without him – but then he has one by his side at Ellie’s funeral.
- The mirroring of the church. We begin the sequence witnessing their wedding and end it seeing Carl standing alone at Ellie’s funeral.
The sequence is able to serve a number of different purposes:
- It establishes the love that Carl and Ellie have for each other. This justifies Carl’s grumpiness for the rest of the film as it is clear that he has lost his soulmate.
- It establishes Carl’s want in the film – to get to Paradise Falls. The jar of coins and the purchasing of the tickets, just before Ellie’s collapse, suggests this.
- It pre-empts Carl’s relationship with Russell. Carl and Ellie were unable to have kids and Russell eventually becomes a son to Carl.
This montage sequence does a lot for Up. It compresses an entire love story into a short space of time. It establishes the protagonist‘s, wants, needs and his emotional baggage rapidly.
Montage Example #11 – Trainspotting
Another example of fantastic world building and character exposition through montage is in Trainspotting. Specifically, the timeless ‘Choose Life’ speech and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life. This overtonal montage introduces us to the main characters as they play football:
- Sick Boy fouls a player and then denies fault.
- Begbie violently fouls a player and smiles about it.
- Spud runs away from the ball and weedily fails to make a save as the goalkeeper
- Tommy, the golden boy, is shown playing well, holding the ball up despite three players tackling him.
The montage serves as a microcosm of the characters.
This montage also introduces us to the main themes of the film: Drug abuse, addiction and nihilism. The wide array of the character’s experiences is shown in this introductory montage.
Montage Example #12 & #13 – The Royal Tenenbaums
The above rhythmic montage in The Royal Tenebaums is a perfect example of stylistically and quickly re-introducing the main characters 22 years on from when we last briefly saw them.
- The montage establishes Royal as broke and isolated from his family.
- Richie’s tennis career is shown to have failed, his isolation clearly a symptom of his love for Margot.
- Eli Cash is established as a successful writer. But it’s clear he still feels insecure and is still in frequent conversation with Margot.
- Margot is established as unhappy and secretive.
- Raleigh St Clair is shown to be loving and intelligent. But Margot and his relationship is clearly unfulfilling for the both of them. Their separation will become a key part of the rest of the film.
The montage is so entertaining and dynamic in part because of the variety in the visuals. We see still images of books published by the characters, for example, when they are introduced as writers. In this and other ways, the visual imagery complements the narration.
Whilst the narration is literal, the visuals add another layer, often acting laterally to build a wide picture of the character at hand in a very short amount of time. For example, Margot’s husband, Raleigh, only has twenty-five seconds of screen time. Yet, the rhythm of the visuals perfectly encapsulate his character and how Margot feels about him. The montage is so careful in what it includes that short moments convey all we need to know.
Needle In The Hay Montage
Additionally, the other montage to discuss in The Royal Tenenbaums is the Needle In The Hay montage. This is an intellectual sequence, during which Luke Wilson’s character Richie cuts his overgrown hair and beard.
Wes Anderson wisely uses montage to avoid showing the act of the cutting wrists. Instead, he juxtaposes shots of the razor blade and flashes of Richie’s life with his adopted sister Margot – who has become the reason that he wants to kill himself.
Using montage in this sequence rushes through a tragic moment. But Anderson’s quirky style does not sacrifice the seriousness of this moment, nor does it allow the viewer to dwell in the sadness of the scene.
Within 3 minutes, the sequence and the song have both finished and we are aware that Richie has survived. It’s a great example of how a montage can use emotion as its guide without sacrificing the tone and style of the rest of the film.
Montage Example #14 – The Godfather
In this montage from the first Godfather film, we watch as Michael Corleone completes his transition into the ‘Godfather’.
The juxtaposing of the baptism of Michael’s godchild with the brutal shooting of the other mob bosses demonstrates how much Michael has changed since the beginning of the film.
The Godfather’s famous montage is the condensing and combining of a number of dramatic moments to create one climax.
This montage is an example of overtonal montage. The links between religion and murder are aspects of the mafia that are explored throughout The Godfather series. Here we see this link overtly made. Whilst Michael renounces sin, others carry out his sinful work.
This hammers home the conclusion of the film’s primary character arc. Michael stands as the head of the family, orders ringing out as he quite literally acts as Godfather to his sister’s baby.
Montage Example #15 – BlacKkKlansman
And finally, Spike Lee’s commentary within Blackkklansman is highlighted in this end montage. He uses montage to link the events of the film to the current society we live in. The historical racism in the film’s main narrative is linked to the present day.
The effect of this montage is very different to the others in this article. Instead of establishing the world of the story, it is used to demonstrate a correlation between the real world and the narrative world of the film.
This intellectual montage is a demonstration of how a point can be made from montage and how the audience can be challenged and confronted by the juxtaposition of two images.
Since the 100 years since Sergei Eisenstein introduced his montage theory, montage has developed to suit the purposes of exposition and compression of time and space. In modern cinema, a combination of the five methods are more common and used to great effect.
These fifteen montage examples demonstrate how to use montages purposefully and effectively. But this is not an extensive list; there are, of course, many films that have brilliant montages, all of which serve a progression of plot, time or establishing of a character or theme.
What other great examples of montages are missing from this list? Do let us know in the comments below!
This article was written by Benjamin Hewitt and edited by IS Staff.