Montage theory

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What is Montage

In the infancy of film and later television editing was not part of film making. It was staged like a piece of theatre where everything was one long take. The Lumi?res brothers for example worked with only one take to illustrate various stories. As the cinema evolved and more people began to create films new ideas emerged such as using different lenses. As films broke the idea of splicing film together to tell a story evolved until Sergei Eisenstein among many other editors began to explore Montage Theory.

Montage literally translated from French is assembly, the process by which an editor takes two pieces of film of tape and combines them to emphasise their meaning. It is a method by which through two unrelated shots we may create a third and different meaning. Visualise for example shot a which is a pumpkin and shot b which is a hammer going down. Mix both shots together and you get meaning C. Mixing the two shots together insinuates that the pumpkin will be destroyed by the hammer.

In the Soviet Union directly after the Octobre revolution Soviet editors such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein developed a very individual style of editing. Whilst films in America where only around three hundred or more shots a film we find that soviet films had over a thousand shots. The pacing was much faster and they were pushing the limits of comprehension of the audience at the time. In Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible we find really good examples of this with the fight between the Russians and the Teutonic nights. There are a very wide variety of shots and the action is really alive flashing from one shot to another in quick successions.

Sergei Eisenstein is an important individual within the world of editing because he developed “The Film Sense” with fast editing and juxtaposition. The school of thought at the time was that shots complemented each other. If you show a person walking then the next shot should help continue the action. Eisenstein developed the idea of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is the process of showing one thing and another which are unrelated and through combining the two they create a new meaning. Imagine that you are creating a documentary about the night life of students in a pub. You have two shots, A which is a shaker being filled to create a cocktail and shot B is someone dancing. If both shots are juxtaposed then it leads us to believe that although the two shots were unrelated in time and space the student whom we see after the shaker has had his head filled with alcohol which is why he’s behaving that way.


From montage theory we will now take a look at editing in general. Editing is one of the most important parts of modern television because without it modern television would cease to exist. Whenever we watch a film or program on television we notice that each program is different. Adverts for example are very short, around 30 seconds whilst programs last 25 minutes and films may last up to four hours and more.

Creating the story

The first stage for the producer and editor is to know what is the story they are trying to tell. The story is the skeleton of the edit and helps organise the edit into chapters and topics much as in writing. In writing this document for example I begin with the general concept of editing and Montage, I then need to create an outline for the story and as the framework is created I can then add elements as the process is happening. Over a period of time a story will begin to emerge in the form of a rough cut.

Rhythm and Pacing

Rhythm and pacing are very important within edits because if we are editing a news story then it must be very fast with shots not lasting more than around 3 seconds. In documentaries though there is luxury to play around with the pacing of an edit. If we look at “War Photographer” for example we are introduced inside James Nachtway’s world. The way in which the film is edited deeply affects the way in which we perceive the person whom is being shown. It takes ten minutes for us to hear James Nacthway speaking for the first time. It is feature length so we are given the luxury of watching the way in which this interesting photographer works and lives. If we take the feature film and look at it’s basic structure then we may be able to edit the project down to around 25 minutes to fit within television schedules. The pacing will be much faster and more information will be given. If it is edited properly then the viewer should have the same feeling seeing a half hour version as for a 1hr 36 minutes version.

When watching an action film such as Die Another Day we expect the cutting to be very fast, many shots to show various angles and to extend the action as far as possible to amaze the audience and in parts to contribute a little humour. In contrast if we were to watch Pride and Prejudice we would see far longer shots with a lower variety of shot sizes and elements.

With sequences such as the helicopter sequence from Apocalypse now with the music and the huey helicopters and the firing of weapons and feeling we have right from the beginning of the film we can’t help but be amazed at the beauty of the helicopter sequence. In the same way Blackhawk Down is a beautifully edited film with the descent from the helicopters into Mogadishu, the succession of shots showing the situation and the people within this situation so that we really feel something for the soldiers.


One sequence which I remember well is from the series “Spaced” which aired on British television where a couple are having an argument and we see shots of the two people arguing and this is intercut with scenes from Streetfighter and each time the girl scores a victory her avatar on the game wins, everytime the guy wins his avatar is holding the upperhand. The sequence really contributes to the audience’s enjoyment of the scene.