A Guide to Montage Editing
Montage is so interesting because it’s the editing style itself that is telling a lot of the meaning of the movie, as much as the actual stuff you shot. It’s what music has been doing for decades, since sampling and hip-hop kicked off. In old-school sampled hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash, et al.) it was the way you assembled sounds together, the way they collide and join up, that makes it fun. The lyrics weren’t always too important.
And another thing that makes hip-hop so similar to montage is the way it uses these collisions. You get completely unlikely sounds and put them together—like a clip from a 1950s air raid information film, over the theme from Sesame Street, followed by a line from a Malcolm X speech. That’s sampling—playfully roaming freely across the world of culture and history, and always unexpected. With this kind of music and this style of movie editing it’s the way you say it that is important, not always what you say.
Adding, Not Taking Away
People say that continuity editing is about taking shots away, while montage is about adding shots in. There’s some truth in this simple idea—we sometimes call montage additive editing, while continuity editing might be called reductive editing. When creating montage, always go for adding shots in rather than taking them out. You might need to make each shot shorter and faster, but that helps to disorientate the viewer.
The aim of montage editing is the opposite of continuity. Now you need to try everything you can to throw us off balance, to disorientate us and unsettle us. We get confused and disturbed. Weirdly, this doesn’t mean we disconnect from the movie; instead we get more involved, like a puzzle you can’t figure out, like Alice following the rabbit down the hole. You keep watching and following the movie because you need to make it add up somehow. The more opposite the images that clash against each other, the more disorientated we’ll be.
In dreams we tend to see a mix of our authentic, real lives with small but crucial bits of weirdness. It gives this weirdness a context and makes it stand out. If your dreams were movies, they’d seem to have no rhythm, and they change suddenly without warning. People change places, change shape, outfits, expressions. The weather alters like you flicked a switch; time speeds up and slows down. In fact, just about everything that we do in continuity editing is turned on its head.
Symbols are a neat way to get across ideas without having to shout them out. Lay the clips on the timeline on your editing app and scan through them to look for connections or threads, such as objects, colors or shapes, anything that can link together two shots. Look for any shot that reminds you of another shot, and start pairing them up. Try Nic Roeg’s opening montage from Don’t Look Now for an example of this—two places become linked by the connections in what happens in the countdown to a girl’s death.
Editing in the Hollywood continuity style means being totally in control all the time. Nothing should creep in that could derail the straight path of the freight train that is the plot. Not so in montage. Montage asks that you lose control and trust your instincts; you don’t need to know why you like a certain shot and you don’t need to explain it. You like it and it feels right, so move on.
Mix Close-ups and Deep Shots
Montage works by keeping you guessing, by throwing you off-balance because you just don’t know what is coming next. But you don’t always need to place two totally random clips side by side. Terry Gilliam creates a similar effect in the viewer’s mind by putting shots that constantly alter depth on screen. You’ve got a dramatic close-up and then a long, wide shot, then both together as a part of the image enters the frame close by. Surrealist painters like Dali used this to confuse height and depth and produce a kind of horizontal vertigo.
Use Color and Tone
The only problem with montage is that it can get a little out of hand, sometimes too crazy. So rein it in with a use of color (or black and white) which stays the same throughout the whole sequence. If your sequence looks too diverse, give it a color that carries through every clip. Or try increasing or decreasing color saturation by a small amount (maybe 15 percent), or boost contrast dramatically so every clip looks similar.
Use music to enhance the montage. If two images can collide with each other to create other ideas, then music can add to the battle even further. Music that seems out of place, or contradicts what we see, can be really effective. Even regular continuity editing benefits from this now and then.
Finally, two other types of montage useful for movies which use continuity editing:
Parallel montage is when you cut quickly between two separate locations, to show simultaneous events going on. They can be related or unrelated—either way we’ll make connections and get some interesting ideas out of it.
Accelerated montage is where you use faster and faster cuts to create a turbulent stream of images that the viewer just can’t process fast enough to keep up. The result is a big disorientating overload, but if the images relate somehow it should add up to an overwhelming theme or feeling. Cuts should be shorter than two frames, preferably ten frames long.
Excerpted from Stand-Out Shorts: Shooting and Sharing Your Films Online by Russell Evans, © 2010 Taylor and Francis Group. All rights Reserved.