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The Art of Editing a Montage – Part 2

January 16th, 2016

The last post introduced montage and talked about the purpose montage serves in fiction and non-fiction pieces. Today’s post summarizes the history of montage and goes over the important rules to keep in mind when you’re actually cutting a montage.

A Brief History of Montage
To best understand montage it’s important to know its history which evolved through three distinct definitions and theories in three different countries during three different time periods.

1) Soviet Union – 1920s
To revolutionary Soviet filmmakers, montage was synonymous with editing and meant the
Vsevolod Pudovkin,the filmmaker and film professor who greatly influenced this generation of Soviet filmmakers, saw montage as the linking of ideas through the linking of one shot to another. His student, pioneer filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, viewed montage as the conflict of ideas derived from the opposition of one shot to another. Eisenstein wrote: “The general course of the montage was an uninterrupted interweaving of diverse themes into one unified movement. Each montage-piece had a double responsibility to build the total line as well as to continue the movement within each of the contributory themes.”

2) France – 1950s
The French New Wave filmmakers and theoreticians including Andre Bazin, Agnes Varda, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard rejected Eisenstein’s montage theories for their own theories of “realism” which they implemented in shooting and editing their films. Realism reflected the social and political movements of the day due to its transparent visual, narrative, and editorial approach. It anticipated today’s reality shows with its rapid, documentary style pf shooting, hand held shots, jump cuts, defiance of the 180° rule, improvised dialogue, and breakdown of the fourth wall between actor and audience. Montage in the credits of a French movie means editing and stands for the editor; son montage is the sound editor.

3) United States – today
Montage has come to be defined as a sequence of images used to convey facts, feelings, or thoughts that functions as a transition in time, knowledge, or place. Montage is a way to succinctly deliver or sum up a lot of information and can be used to inform, entice, amuse, and always, to advance the story.

Montage Editing Rules
The rules for editing a montage are the same as for editing anything else: Each cut should be motivated (have a purpose) and advance the story you’re telling. How you cut a montage scene is similar to how you cut an action scene in some ways. In both types of scenes the visuals drive the action, flow, and storytelling. Sound (music, voiceover, and sound effects) underscore the scene’s action.

However cutting a montage differs from cutting action in three major ways. First, action scenes tell a story linearly with shots from the same time and place. Conversely montage scenes can pull footage from any place (cities, countries, planets) or time (prehistoric, modern, future, fictional). Second, action scenes normally use straight cuts to drive the action. The shots in montage scenes are usually separated by dissolves, wipes, or other types of transitional cuts. Third, montage scenes are rarely silent; most are set to music and/or involve wild sound recorded at the scene or deliberate, recurring manufactured sounds. Narration habitually replace dialogue in montage scenes. Often you’ll cut the montage to music. But just as often you’ll create the montage and add the music later.
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Fahrenheit 911

In Fahrenheit 911 Michael Moore rejected music and narration in this montage, employing

only ambient sound to document everyday life in pre-war Baghdad. (Selected cuts)

Putting a Montage Together
Composing a montage is freeing and rewarding as you work to assemble a cohesive whole and stumble across random connections. You may put shots together from a variety of sources (dailies, news reel footage, YouTube, TV shows, archival sources, etc.) as well as variety of locations, eras, and angles. The juxtaposed shots will delight you and lead you down cutting paths you never imagined. Accidentally, you’ll insert a shot at the wrong place and be happily surprised by the result.

Some montages are a blend of images that are marvelous, soothing, gorgeous to behold such as a bevy of images of our national parks. Other montages serve up a collision of images where shots clash, disorient, or disturb viewers, e.g. a montage of exposing the pristine and poisoned lakes of our land. Either way, make sure that the audience will make the desired connections from your scene.

To get off to a good start cutting your montage, clearly organize, label, and describe your shots. This way you can ensure that they fit what you’re trying to say and show – and you can quickly grab them and throw them on your timeline as you’re immersed in the process of creating the montage.
Here are some specific DOs and DON’Ts for constructing a montage:

  • DO pay attention to pacing. Choose shot content, focal length, and duration to maximize information, engagement, and the story you’re telling.
  • DON’T make every cut the same duration. Choose each shot’s length – frames – to seconds – by how much information it needs to convey. Once the shot’s played out (is no longer engaging), cut away to something new. Often you’ll notice that the cuts tend to get shorter as the montage progresses.
  • DO freeze shots, speed them up, or slo mo them to communicate their content the most effectively.
  • DO feel free to use multiple visuals such as split screens, supers, layered shots to increase the information and pace of your montage.
  • DON’T use every type of wipe or dissolve in your digital editing machine’s toolbox. Unless you want to look amateur or are making a parody montage.
  • DO make sure that the sound you use – music, sound effects, and/or words – supports your montage.
  • DON’T cut on every beat of every of the music. Borrrring.
  • DO use color correction to adjust shots from different time periods, places, or sources for readability and aesthetics.

When you finished editing the montage, you’ll find you’ve created a scene that is much bigger than the sum of its cuts.


The long montage which Spike Lee inserted at the beginning of When the Levees Broke:

A Requiem in Four Acts serves as an elegy to the city of New Orleans. (Selected cuts).

Coming Up
In final blog on the art of editing montage, we’ll look at the types of montages and how in some cases they’ve become so clichéd that great spoof montages have been created.

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Technical & process

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