When you’re trying to condense space, time, or information by editing a bunch of small scenes into a bigger picture, you’re making a montage. This can be one of the most fun and interesting parts of your project — in many movies and television shows, the montages are more memorable than the full narrative. (The Rocky series is downright famous for them.) Sometimes even an entire video is a montage. However, all good and/or memorable montages have a few characteristics that make them stick out, which you can use to get the most out of your own projects.
1. Tell a (Highly Compressed) Story
Since short pieces of information are being edited together to become a bigger picture in a montage, it wouldn’t make sense to pointlessly juxtapose unrelated imagery (unless you’re trying to evoke a feeling through disparate imagery, which is a different type of montage). By starting in one spot and ending in another, you’re letting the viewer follow the journey from start to finish.
A character can evolve for the better (or the worse) and a plan can be described and/or shown in detail, just by visuals showing the change over time. Events are still happening in order — they’re just on a much more truncated timeline, allowing scenes that would take the entire running time to happen in mere minutes.
2. Use Interesting Visuals
Just because you’re taking small pieces and creating a bigger piece doesn’t mean your footage can lack substance. Powerful visuals are still powerful, even if they’re shortened in a montage, and using less interesting clips only lessens the impact. Try to get as much information and impact out of every shot as you can, because when you don’t, it’s noticeable. The opening to City of God is about as good as it gets for featuring interesting information in every shot:
3. Work With the Movement in the Frame
This can be as simple as matching the camera movement between shots, but it can also be more symbolic by matching an object’s movement through the frame with the next shot. Be conscious of how the subjects move throughout each clip and their relative positions within the composition, because if you can use any of this visual information to push the montage forward, it makes for a more memorable viewing experience. Rocky IV has arguably (I say arguably, but come on, is there an argument?) the greatest montage of all time and does a lot of match cutting.
4. Add Some Basic Visual Effects
Along with using what’s in the frame to enhance your montage’s impact, you can use basic effects to take it a step further. You can keyframe your footage’s scale, position, or rotation to give some movement to nature montages. You can create masks and “fly through” the hole the mask creates to transition between clips. A mask can also be used on an object that passes by in the frame for invisible cuts, creating a swift and efficient way of moving between clips in the montage. And when it comes to employing invisible cuts in montages, there aren’t many better at it than Edgar Wright:
Another technique you can try is using the dissolve and opacity controls to overlap visuals, a la Apocalypse Now. Overlaying the visuals creates parallels between their significance and gives a visual representation of what’s going on in a character’s head. Overlaying visuals also works in credit sequences with a double-exposure effect.
5. Use the Music Effectively
Most montages utilize music, and the best of them a) use the best song in relation to the content, and b) use the beats and notes within the song to give it more energy. The lyrics of the song can match the on-screen action, the swell of the instruments may match the dramatic tension of the scene, and the cutting can take place on the beat if it fits. In Footloose, the guy is bad at dancing (he can’t even snap his fingers on the beat!), but with the power of this one song and an excellent montage, he’s now a good dancer:
6. Add Narration When Needed
Narration can be added instead of or in addition to music. The voice drives the action forward and fills in any details the visuals can’t show. A great narrated montage has a balance between what is being said and what is being seen, and it allows enough time for both to have as much impact as possible. Martin Scorcese does this plenty in Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, but the explainer montage in the opening of The Big Short is great, too:
7. Cross-Cut Between Multiple Stories
The brilliance in this type of montage is that, as a storyteller, you can take a scene or story that isn’t as exciting or dramatic on its own and juxtapose it with footage that tells a much bigger, more dramatic story that’s going on around it. The most famous and well-executed example of this type of montage is from the baptism scene in The Godfather. Another good example is from The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King. These examples are showing calm and restrained emotions in one scene and chaos in another, but the two sections don’t have to be contrasting for it to work. Chaos can be cut with chaos and calm can be cut with calm. It all depends on the relationship you want to show between them.
8. Repeat the Same Thing Over and Over Again
This is a somewhat specific trait to some well-known montages, but essentially this kind of montage derives its power from showing the same thing over and over and over again. Groundhog Day features the prime example of this, when Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is ending his life over and over again. Edge of Tomorrow, the “Groundhog Day of action movies,” has a similar scene with Tom Cruise’s character being killed over and over again. The monotony of seeing the same thing repeated many, many times creates a sense of existential dread and drama for both the audience seeing the repetition, and the character or subject experiencing it. Of course, this type of montage doesn’t have to be only for these types of movies, as we saw in Game of Thrones, with Sam’s (disgusting) daily routine at the Citadel getting the repeating montage treatment.
9. Make a Ton of Jokes
Filmmakers like Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, the Farrelly Brothers, David Wain, and Trey Parker/Matt Stone sit atop the thrones of the comedy montage genre, and their various montages vary from slapstick and sight gags to meta and nonsensical. The South Park guys even wrote a ridiculous montage song to take the jokes further:
These filmmakers create hilarious and memorable montages because they use every square inch of the frame for visual information that helps jokes land; they use a rapid-fire approach and add as many jokes as they can during the montage; and they know what is expected is a montage, but always seem to throw in a few non-sequiturs that make viewers think, “Wait, what was that?” Case in point: this random shot of a support group in one of the all-time great comedy montages, from Wet Hot American Summer.
Who are all those other people? Why is there a support group at this summer camp? What is the support group? We don’t know, and that’s why it works.
10. Subvert Everything and Make Something Different
Another trait of a memorable montage can be that it subverts what a montage actually is, and what it’s used for. This happens most often in comedy films, since many montages are easy to mock, spoof, and riff upon. This is when the familiar beats and tones of a montage are turned on their head. A character within the montage can ask why they weren’t featured in the montage, a la The Muppet Movie. A montage can even break the fourth wall to work its characters out of a jam, like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And a montage can even be made up of events that weren’t actually parts of the narrative:
The key to subverting a montage is knowing what a makes up a “regular” montage in order to turn it on its head, so start watching as many as you can!
11. Make It the Appropriate Length
The duration of a montage is typically what makes it so powerful. They’re short and sweet (or not-so-sweet, like in Groundhog Day or The Dark Knight), and they usually last about as long as the song that’s playing. Often, the songs are edited to be shorter because even a full three-minute montage can be too much. It all depends on the content that’s being shown, but the goal of a montage is to reveal short bits of information quickly to tell a greater story, so it should typically be short enough to deliver the most information as fast as possible. The montage song from Team America is only around a minute long, while the emotion-fueled “There’s No Easy Way Out” montage in Rocky IV is around four minutes long.
Constructing a montage, whether it’s just a piece of a project or its entirety, can be one of the most memorable experiences during the making of your film or video. And chances are, if you have fun making it, the audience will have fun watching it.
Do you have other favorite montages or montage techniques we didn’t cover here? Tell us in the comments below!
Top image: Sylvester Stallone on the set of Rocky IV, courtesy of MGM/UA