Understanding the Cinematic Technique of “Montage”

The villain’s plan has been set in motion. The heroes come back together after their flaws have been exposed. Despite their differences, they agree to disagree and suit up. After their armor is applied and capes are donned, they unsheath their weapons as their ship hums to life. While “Back In Black” by AC/DC plays on the stereo, they journey onward to defeat the villain once and for all.

This series of events, the quick cutting, fast-paced, building something or going somewhere scene, is what a modern audience calls a “montage.” However, there is a difference between the modern understanding of montage versus the cinematic technique of montage. Montage is defined as a literary, musical, or artistic composite of juxtaposed heterogeneous (similar) elements (Merriam-Webster). The technique of montage is achieved when two or more clips are cut or assembled to tell a story. Every film that is composed of more than one shot has utilized the montage.

In a cut, a few things are implied to the audience. Let me explain using a screenplay as an example. Imagine this is a scene at the beginning of a movie:

Alex, a pale lanky fellow in his early twenties, steps out of the front door of his NYC Brownstone on an early October morning. Mid-sized trees line the awakening avenue. Alex heaves his satchel, carrying his laptop and notebook, over his shoulder. 

Alex trudges up the wide stairs, carrying a bruise on his cheek. His satchel’s band is snapped and one side of his shirt is untucked. 

He enters the library with heavy breathing. He sits down at desk, drops his satchel on the hard wood surface, and lets out a deep sigh. The girl at the circulation desk gives him a funny look.

Although this does not clearly tell a story, there is still some semblance of a narrative being shown through the different shots. I challenge you to read it over again and try to figure out what happened to Alex between the beginning and end of the scene. There are many possibilities, such as falling down a flight of stairs, being mugged, or possibly putting on a show so he can study the emotions and reactions of those who see him. The truth is any one of these examples could be the case. The beauty of a montage is that the filmmaker does not have to show you the whole journey, but rather leaves room for the viewer’s imagination and clarity later in the film.

Films such as Fight Club (1999) and Oppenheimer (2023) utilize montage in a way that allows them to tell the story in a tight, efficient way. Voice-over and quick cutting allow for the essential aspects and actions of the scene to take place without wasting any time. The montage eliminates poor pacing, allowing the film to cut to the point where the relevant portion of action or dialogue is happening, lets the audience hear and see everything they need to, and then transitions. As with all scenes, this is relative based on the emotional investment required when developing the scene. 

Occasionally, a movie like Dune (2021), Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), or Stalker (1972) will opt for a more drawn-out feel to allow the world, characters, and audience to breathe. Slower films use montage just as much as quicker paced movies, in fact they probably use it more considering they do not cut between scenes as fast. Since slower movies linger on shots and scenes for longer, they must be efficient when it comes to the choice of scene and the content they hold.

If filmmakers wish to master the medium, they must grasp the concept of montage. They must seize and understand the tool of montage to manipulate their audience into suspense, heartbreak, joy, and deep thought, but never confusion.