Montage: The Revolution of Film Editing



Films are essentially works of art that are made to tell a particular story (Bordwell, 2005). What is unique about film, as compared to other forms of art is that it is made in the form of motion pictures, meaning that the viewer gets the chance to appreciate the story in a more lively manner as it happens (Leonard, 2014). This is however feature, that could get the filmmakers into a lot of responsibility as they may be tempted to present too much detail in the story than they really have time to do. Bruckner (2015) opined that it is for such reasons that editing is an important aspect of filmmaking, requiring that where necessary, there will be a means to cut things short, while leaving the details and content of the story that creates an understanding for the viewer intact. There are several aspects of film editing and as far as the need to get a detailed and lengthy story told in just a little piece of time and space, the concept of montage is employed. In this paper, a detailed research work based on montage as a revolution of film editing is presented. The research paper looks into both the theoretical and practical aspects of montage, while giving some historical background to the concept. It also presents a number of real world examples of how montage has been used in some popular films to achieve certain goals.

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Overview and history

Defining montage, Reisz (2010) explained that it is a technique in film editing, where a director or the editor puts together series of short shots in an edited sequence to take up space, information and time. In other words, through montage, it is possible to use limited space to present more shots within a limited time to offer detailed information that the viewer needs to know. The introduction of the technique or term has been associated with a number of directors, including Sergei Eisenstein. It is however commonly accepted that montage started as part of the works of early Soviet directors who used the technique as a general form of creative editing (Knight, 1957). By this, the claim that montage is a revolution of film editing can be clearly appreciated or understood. That is, the concept or practice in itself did not start as it is known to be used for today but has eventually developed into its present state of usage. In subsequent sections of the paper, further detail will be given on the modern day usage of montage. In different jurisdictions of filmmaking, montage has been used as a term to depict different things. As noted already, in early Soviet period, it was generally used as a form of creative editing. In France, it was known to simply denote editing, while in both American and British studios, montage was used as sequence presentation (Barba, 2009).

Till date, Bruckner (2015) notes that montage has gained much prominence with the American and British usage of it for the purpose of sequence. For this reason, montage in filmmaking is mostly distinguished from other forms of montage with the term montage sequence (Leonard, 2014). for example between the periods of 1930 and 1950, the main approach or technique to making montage was to combine several short shots that offer various specialized visual effects such as fades, split screens, exposures, music, and dance within a limited space to tell what would otherwise have been a length story (Goodman, 2008). It is true to say that up till date, this approach remains the most popular form of montage. In the study of the revolution of montage, it has always been important to refer to some of the earliest noted directors, as the works of these people are known to be what have evolved and revolutionise to the present day. One such noted director is Slavko Vorkapić, who was a Russian director, who worked in the 1930s and used montage in films such as Maytime (1937), Viva Villa (1934), The Good Earth (1937), and Romeo and Juliet (1936). Between the period of 1933 and 1944 also, Don Siegel popularised montage in several films including Knute Rockne, All America (1940), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), and Casablanca (1942). Other earliest directors who made montage popular include Peter Bogdanovich.

Theoretical framework 

The concept of montage is based on the Soviet montage theory, which is explained to be an approach to cinema, which relies heavily on editing (Eisenstein, 2014). As reflected in the name, the Soviet montage theory comes as a contribution from Soviet Cinema theorists, who presented a sense of formalism to filmmaking. The main argument of these theories over the years had been that without a strong basis to editing, it becomes difficult to use films for the purpose for which they are made. Such purpose is sending a message that is wrapped around a group of actors. In most cases, every actor has a long sequence of story to tell as part of the overall theme. Editing is thus required to help shape the pieces together in a more sequential order, which presents a plot. With time, editors in France, America and Britain saw that there could be more to editing than post-producing films to make them have a plot cut within a given time frame. The gradual evolution of editing to make scenes more embedded with shots, music and other elements of art such as dance therefore gave birth to the concept of montage. 

Montage as a revolution in Film Editing

In a number of works of literature, montage has been descried as a revolution through film editing because it has moved from a mere Soviet creative editing to taking the centre stage as the preferred technique used in modern films to present a film’s continuity through the use of quick and fast-paced editing (Lam, 2013). Lam further notes that the revolutionising of montage as a technique in film editing has happened over the use of five main methods of quick and fast-pacing editing, which have become necessary part of film continuity. The five types of methods of montage that have revolutionise film editing since the time of Sergei Eisenstein are metric, rhythmic, tonal, over-tonal, and intellectual. Each of these will be briefly discussed in this paper with specific practical examples of how they have been used in modern films.  

Metric montage

Metric montage comes from the word meter, which also depicts measure. By this type of montage, directors or editors link several shots together in relatively same length of time (Fabe, 2014). Consequently, in using the metric montage, the most important work for the editor is to focus on presenting the relevance of the shots as being closely related or relatively same. For this reason, Golden (2013) stated that editors who use this method do not place emphasis on the content of the montage, as the cuts and edits could be random and follow no sequence or continuity. The most essential responsibility of the editor is to show that each of the shots and the contents they have are equally important to getting the theme of the film and so they are presented in relatively same length of time. In The end of St. Petersburg (1927) and Requium for a dream (2002), metric montage is used. In the former, the former, the editor used it by presenting several unrelated shots within a limited to communicate the message of chaos to the viewer. In the latter, it is used by shortening the pieces of shot but preserving the original proportions of the content. The image below is from Requium for a dream (2002), where this particular shot together with others are presented several times within a few seconds to emphasise an act of trauma and emotional chaos that the character is going through. 

Rhythmic montage

Rhythmic montage contains elements in metric montage but also introduces movements in addition to the length of the scene. It is for this that the term rhythmic is used to denote that there is rhythm presented through the course of the clip. By inference, whereas the metric method do not place emphasis on the content of the shots, content is very important in rhythmic montage. Eisenstein (2014) explained that content is important in rhythmic montage because the editor uses it to tell a story of virtually same process that happened at different times or within a lengthy time but shortened into an edited piece. In direct relation to this description, Lam (2013) noted that a common way that rhythmic montage has been used is in sports films, where editors use this method to present the rhythmic movements that come with training regimes such as punches, running, push-ups, and others. In such sports training regimes, one can expect that the player will undertake several activities within the course of time. When telling this story to the viewer, the director would want to preserve the sense rigor and tenacity that came with the training regime but may not have all the space to do so. One typical example is in Rocky (1976), where the training section by Rocky was presented in the form of rhythmic montage. The editor therefore uses montage in cutting up pieces of the same content of training presented within relatively same length of time but in a rhythmic movement. 

Tonal montage 

Galili (2013) emphasised that the core element that makes tonal montage different or unique is the fact that it is used mainly to present an emotional tone to the viewer. The term tonal can thus be associated with the emotional tone that the viewer receives from the use of this type of montage. Other than the emotional aspect, Manovich (2013) opined that the tonal montage basically combines the elements of metric and rhythmic into one. In essence, all tonal montage are rhythmic montage but not all rhythmic montage are tonal montage. A rhythmic montage becomes tonal when it presents that element of emotional tone. Because of the emotions involved, Fabe (2014) noted that it is very common that editors who use the tonal method will combine both video and aural characteristics in the montage to give a real feeling behind the emotion being presented. What is more, using tonal montage may come with an emphasis on pace of the edits to tell the emotional story better. For example Lam (2013) notes that it is common for editors to use faster cuts and shorter clips to tell the emotion of happiness while using slower and longer cuts to tell sad and gloomy emotions. 

In both The Revenant (2015) and In the mood for love (2000), tonal montage is used. The two pictures below are from the montage of In the mood for love, where two characters are both showed to be on their writing tables at the same time, depicting that they are trapped in their circumstance of love.

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Over-tonal montage 

Over-tonal montage is sometimes referred to as associational montage. As reflective in the name, it involves cutting various tones and overtones of shots together as one. That is, whereas in tonal montage, the emotion or tone may be built around the same person or tone, in the overtone, the emotion could be around different characters, or there could even be contrasting emotions depicted in the montage (McCormick, 2014). Because of the characteristic of presenting various tones and overtones in a common shot, Eisenstein described the over-tonal montage as presenting “moment that overtones can be heard parallel with the basic sound, there also can be sensed vibrations, oscillations that cease to impress as tones, but rather as purely physical displacements of the perceived impression” (Bordwell, 2005, p. 53). From this definition, Eisenstein sought to create the impression that in using over-tonal montage, editors go behind merely depicting an emotion to offering a physical displacement of the emotion that is being depicted. 

It is for the reason given above that different tones and overtones are combined in this sense so that the impact can be more realistic and physical (Burch, 2014). Some writers therefore regard the over-tonal montage as combining metric, rhythmic and tonal montages (Torop, 2013). Once this is done, it helps to bring out the difference between tone and over-tonal montage better because whereas the former evokes individual response in each cut making up the edit, the latter depicts the overall emotion that comes after the entire montage, rather than the individual cuts in the montage. One of the best ways in which over-tonal montage is presented is in Magnolia, where the three types of montage are combined to present the emotion that comes with all the characters listening to a song on the radio. 

Intellectual montage 

Intellectual montage seeks to offer a more deeper understanding to the edits as the editor uses different scenes of lesser meaning to create greater meaning (McCormick, 2014). In Apocalypse Now, intellectual montage is used to present two scenes simultaneously, each of which had a message of sacrifice. What was unique however was that whereas one of the scenes offered a lesser meaning of sacrifice, the other had a greater meaning of sacrifice. That is, Willard was showed walking into the camp to kill the Colonel. This scene was edited to include the scene, where a villager is slaughtering a cow. Analysing this montage critically, one gets the meaning as to why it is an intellectual montage. This is because the single montage presented had two perspective of interpretation, which somewhat contrast. First, the slaughtering of the cow was seen as a greater meaning to understanding why the killing of the Colonel was not a mere murder but a sacrifice. This is because in the religious practice of the villagers, slaughtering of a cow was done as a sacrifice. At the same time, the montage is used to depict the slaughtering of the Colonel rather as the greater meaning. That is, the slaughtering of the cow was a less meaning of sacrifice because it was an animal, which is of course slaughtered on a daily basis. But by combining it with the killing of the Colonel, it brings out the depth of the sacrifice to the village. 

Torop (2013) therefore noted that the use of intellectual montage offers more psychological rather than emotional effects to the film. It also has the potential of using all the other forms of montages in creating it. From a more theoretical perspective, Lam (2013) argued that one of the best ways to understand intellectual montage is by understanding the Kuleshov Effect. This is because according to the Kuleshov Effect, “each shot possesses its own photograph, and that it evokes a certain emotion when placed in sequence with other shots” (Lam, 2013). It is for this reason that editors are able to put together two photographs or shots with their own meanings, one with lesser meaning and the other with greater meaning to create one common psychological effect on the viewer. 

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Essential features of montage that give films meaning 

As emphasised in several parts of the paper earlier, montage is basically a form of film editing. It is now revolutionising because it seem to be the most preferred and fastest growing option for editing to maintain continuity in films. Gleeson-White (2013) admonished that while using montage in films, it is always important to preserve certain key elements, regardless of the type or method of montage used. Keep and Berry (2013) further added that it is only when editors are able to preserve or put emphasis on these elements that their ingenuity in editing can be brought to light. That is, by maintaining these elements or features in montage, it becomes a true piece of editing work rather than a mere cut and paste process. Three such features that were found from the body of literature, necessary to emphasise on in montage making are detail, characters, and plot.


According to Wilkinson (2015), one of the core features that every montage ought to carry is detail. That is, as a technique of film editing, montage should be presented in a way that captures as much detail of the story or film as possible into a little space and time. Kiss (2017) posited that by approaching montage with the sense of making use of detail, it helps the director to tell the story in a more meaningful manner. That is, the viewer gets every piece of what needs to be told and therefore gets a better understanding of the storyline. There are a number of films with montage, which the exclusion of the detail that came with the montage can be seen as having negative impact on the understanding of the story. A typical example of this is Rocky, which the training sessions of Rocky was depicted with the use of montage. As explained earlier, the editor employed a rhythmic montage in this film. 

Behind the use of rhythmic montage was the real sense of detail about the tenacity and toughness of Rocky’s training that the editing offered. A closer analysis of the film would show that the montage about training session added a lot of meaning to the story because it gave the viewer an actual picture of what made the character possess the attribute of strength that he had. It is not surprising that Manovich (2013) mentioned that montages which present enough detail can be used to justify present, past or future events that will be seen in the film. In a typical tonal montage, the extent of detail that the editor presents in the editing can help to refine the meaning of the film. For example based on the detail that comes with the montage, the director can justify why two characters who fall in love did not merely do so at first sight but having a series of emotions that bond them together behind the scenes of what has been seen since the beginning of the movie. 


Another feature that is common with almost every type of montage is attempting to build meaning around the characters. That is, editors have brought a new revolution to film editing by using montage to create different types of characters. It is for this reason that Keep and Berry (2013) stated that one of the core responsibilities that every editor has in creating a montage is the careful selection of characters to create the montage around. In most films, including some of those used as a case study in this paper such as Rocky, In the mood for love, and Revenant, the editors do the most obvious thing by creating the montage around the main characters of the film. Gleeson-White (2013) justifies the practice of using the main characters in creating montage by explaining that the main character often has the lengthiest part of the story to cover. Meanwhile, one of the main uses of montage is to cut long and lengthy stories short. Consequently, when the montage is made to feature the character, the director gets the advantage of telling most parts of the story in a very short and precise manner. 

While analysing the types of montage, Cowan (2013) noted that the use of metric montage may not be very ideal in depicting a film’s meaning around the character. The reason for this is that in most metric montages, the editor’s emphasis is on presenting the same time and frame for the clips in the editing rather than presenting the same content or message. For this reason, the need to place emphasis on the main character may not arise when using metric montage. In other forms of montage however, using the main character is almost a necessity. This is because the other types such as tonal, over-tonal and intellectual montage seek to capture either the emotion or psychology of the viewer, which in most cases done best when it is around the main character. 


Another feature that ought to be embedded in montage is the main theme of the story. Kiss (2017) explained that the theme is the best element of a film that helps to portray the meaning hidden behind the story. By this, it is easy to agree to the fact that featuring the theme of the story or the film in the montage is a very easy way to use it to create meaning for the film as a while. Golden (2013) noted that when one says that the theme must be featured in the montage, it means the clips or shots that are cut and combined in the montage must all have elements of the theme. For example in the film, In the mood for love, the theme was love and so not only did the director use a montage that showed the two characters in love. In addition to that, it showed the two characters in more pensive mood, thinking about each other, while doing exactly the same thing, which was writing on their desks. 

A critical analysis of this particular montage would show that because the two were depicted as doing the same thing at the same time, it was symbolic of two hearts that cross along the same path. In The Revenant also, the theme was fortitude and resilience. This theme was strongly presented in the montage, which showed series of shots depicting harsh fogging weather that the character had to withstand to show his physical fortitude as a revenant. It is based on this that Burch (2014) indicated that when using montage to express meaning based on theme, the editor does not have to overly rely on the characters alone. This is because as seen in The Revenant, there may be other scenes that equally tell the theme but may not even have images of any of the characters. In this sense, using metric montage can be seen as most effective in this feature of montage. 

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The paper has looked at the meaning, history, theoretical basis and practical aspects of montage. It has emerged that the term started as a creative means of editing in Soviet Cinema but together, it is used globally as a sequence or continuity technique, thereby revolutionising film editing. The real essence of montage as a revolutionising tool in film editing is the fact that it has been used in many different ways to present various types of editing. For example over the years, editors have used it in ways that edit shots based on measure and length as in metric montage. It has also been used in ways that places emphasis on movement in editing as seen in rhythmic montage. In tonal and over-tonal montage also, it is used with emphasis on emotion, while it is also used with emphasis on psychology in intellectual montage. Based on the analysis in the paper, it has been establish that the best way to take full advantage of montage is to present it in a way that clearly carries certain features such as detail, emphasis on characters, and theme. Once these features are presented, it is always possible to use the editing that comes with montage to add better and detailed meaning to the story.

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