Why a Montage is Important to Film

A montage is a sequence of related events in a film, made by putting together separate motion pictures or stills. It is a fundamental aspect of the trade and tells a story through the rearrangement of images.

It is almost like flipping through a photo album of a past life event. 

A film montage is a collection of images with the intent of expressing a message. That message could be to further the plot, develop a character or make a metaphorical point.

The montage is a compelling filmmaking tool that furthers a plot scene or concept in a captivating way. It can help with character development.

It is a post production technique done in editing, often accompanied by tone-setting music.

An example of a montage would be a succession of images taking the audience through a character’s wedding day.

Maybe we see photos of the bride and groom arriving, eating cake, exchanging rings, and then leaving in a honeymoon car. 

All that in a series of consecutive images, with the entirety of the scene typically lasting a handful of minutes or seconds. 

Why Use Montage in Film

Speeds up time

A montage can be thought of like a highlight reel, showing the audience important bits in quick succession. For an event that would have lasted an entire day, weeks, or even years, viewers can live through it in a matter of moments. 

A montage condenses the fictional time in a way that stays true to the story without proving distracting to it. Sometimes in film, it’s not possible to capture an entire life event because there would be no time for the actual plot.

Excellent use of montage is evident in the 2009-hit animation, Up. 

Here is the montage sequence from Up:

Here is a portion of the script and how the montage looks on paper:

The movie is about an old widower who goes on an adventure in a flying house to find his wife’s dream destination.

Before he embarks on his quest, the opening sequence takes us through the couple’s love life in about 5 minutes. 

We first see Carl and his girlfriend on their wedding day posing for a photo. They seem happy and in love, and settle in from the wedding into an idyllic everyday life as partners.

The audience is taken through their strong love story as there share picnics under a beautiful sky, etc.

Their daily routine is compounded into a montage, that pauses with an elderly Carl leaving for work. Eventually, Carl has to watch his wife get old, sick and pass on, bringing the curtains down on the emotional montage. 

The couple spent their entire adult life together. If the script had uncovered every detail in that life, then it would probably be a movie about their romantic love life. We wouldn’t have an adventure. 

Carl wouldn’t take off in a floating house with a happy-go-lucky kid for company. None of it would have happened. That emphasizes the importance of a montage in condensing time and exposition.

A screenwriting legend said it best (quoted in this blog):

You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment. Get on. The camera is relentless. Makes you keep running.

William Goldman

In other words, enter late, exit early.

Cinema audiences get bored very quickly. They don’t have the time or patience to watch a couple grow old and die. And no one wants to watch a 6 hour movie.

So to advance the story and push the plot forward, a movie will require a montage to keep the narrative flowing. And get to the good stuff.

Good for character development

The storytelling effectiveness and conciseness of a montage can also be harnessed for character development. Many filmmakers use montage as a tool to set up a new character and what he’s all about. 

We can be introduced to a character suiting up for a new job, being rude to someone on his way there, cutting in line for a taxi, etc. The audience quickly learns the new guy may be bad news. From these back-to-back shots, we learn what to expect from the character. 

Additionally, a montage can show us how much an initial character has grown within a short time. How he has changed in response to an impending antagonist force.

Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky offers a nice example of using montage to blitz through character development. The series all feature a training montage where Rocky prepares for a showdown with the opposition. 

Here is the famous montage from the original Rocky movie:

In the 1976 installment, we see our hero jog through the streets, working a speed bag, doing pushups and bursting through sit-ups, all on repeat. His determination and hard work are palpable. 

From the unbelieving underdog he was at the start, to the relentless warrior motivated to win, the change is drastic. The montage speeds through his mental and physical progress without leaving behind the audience.

The psychological thriller Pi also shows how montages can be leveraged as an effective character development tool. 

A montage is used to show how the protagonist is all about math. His life revolves around it, nothing else matters, and it’s an obsession that consumes him. We can learn all this from a montage of him repeatedly working with numbers.

Conveys a ton of expositional info

There are plenty of ways to deliver exposition in a screenplay. Narration and dialogue are among the most common but verbal techniques of exposition aren’t as captivating as visual alternatives.

A montage is among the best of those strategies, tapping into the “Show, Don’t tell” mantra of exposition. 

A great example of an expositional montage can be found in Snatch:

In this sequence, the audience learns of Mickey’s true plans. Mickey was supposed to take the fall in the boxing fight, as per Turkish’s orders. However, he bet on himself, won big, and killed Turkish and his men.

It was a stunning turn of events that flipped the narrative of the movie.

The 2007 action/comedy Hot Fuzz offers some more great expositional montage examples. 

Viewers met a big-time city cop who is transferred to a small rural town where nothing eventful ever happens.

The audience is quickly introduced to his background, as a voiceover CV is complemented with quick action shots of his career highlights. 

Like the tone of the montage, we learn the protagonist is no-nonsense, quick, and efficient. We understand why he isn’t enthusiastic about his new job.

We are shown how he adapts to the boring life of the town through another montage of his mundane routine.

Montages are more important than ever

According to research, the average human attention span is now 8 seconds. So as a filmmaker or screenwriter, you can’t dilly dally with your story.

📣 Get to the good stuff or lose your audience!

This is when a good montage can help keep your movie flowing. 

Take all that expositional stuff. Condense it into a 1-2 minute montage so you can get on with the story.

Montages have the power to tell a powerful narrative in a few minutes, and this is why they are important in modern cinema.

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