Montage is the means of a filmmaker to express their thoughts and ideas visually. Filmmakers use montage to create powerful,
emotional and stimulating sequences. Montage represents a core element of filmmaking. This webpage resource is designed to offer an
insight into the power of montage.
Although the definition of montage is editing, the term montage refers to many aspects of cinema. It is often used to suggest artistic editing, or to suggest rapid, stimulating editing.
However, montage theory influences a range of filmmaking including imagery, pace and timing of editing and spectator response. The film which demonstrates preeminently the various uses of montage is
The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein; 1925). Conversely, montage is often a diverse and personal form of expression and there are many good examples, such as Un Chein Andalou
(1929; Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles; 1941).
The theory of montage arises from the work of Lev Kuleshov, who established the a + b = c definition of montage. He discovered that a picture followed by another picture produces a thought; this phenomenon
is often called the Kuleshov effect. Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments, which included showing a picture of a silent, open mouth followed by a bird flying through the sky, which made people think
that the mouth was singing. When he showed people the open mouth followed by a picture of food, people thought the mouth was hungry. It was from those experiments that our concept of montage developed.
The imagery of the Kuleshov effect is shown below in the montage triangle.
The a + b = c definition is useful because the letters can be substituted for other things. For instance, during the Kuleshov effect the spectator is effectively shown two noun-pictures, a picture of an open
mouth followed by a flying bird. The spectator thought the mouth was singing, which is a verb. When Kuleshov showed the open mouth followed by a plate of bread, people thought the mouth was hungry, which is
an adjective. The Kuleshov effect allows us to show pictures of nouns in such a way that people can think of words from different parts of speech, such as a verb or an adjective. It is this type of
communication, achieved by montage, which gives cinema so much artistic and intellectual value.
Noun noun verb
Noun noun adjective
The a + b = c form can be substituted for a metaphor, and even other kinds of rhetorical trope. The technical form of the metaphor is tenor + vehicle = ground. A metaphor is making an association between two
generally unrelated concepts, although the metaphor can be a complex rhetorical device, film can represent a simple metaphor visually by using the Kuleshov effect. For example, Un Chein Andalou shows a lunatic
sharpening a razor, he walks out onto a balcony and looks at the moon, and he sees narrow clouds pass across the moon. Then, he slits through the eyeball of his victim with his sharpened razor.
Visually, the actions of the clouds passing through the moon and the slitting of the eye have the same graphic appearance, therefore the sequence can be considered to represent a metaphor. The a + b = c
form can therefore be used as a template.
Montage allows the filmmaker to express literal ideas directly, to use pictures as if they were words. This example shows how the sentence Africa is the mother continent can be expressed with pictures.
The shape of the woman holding the baby fits into the exact shape of the African continent on the map and the obvious transition would be to dissolve between the two.
The above example shows how to use noun-pictures to create montages. The majority of what we see on the screen is a representation of a common noun. We can use noun-pictures as if they are words, and then use the
technical aspects of cinema such as editing to make a kind of visual sentence, as the Africa is the mother continent example demonstrates. The Kuleshov effect works by putting thoughts into the mind, thus pictures
can be used like words, and therefore such a practice it is often a successful strategy to adopt when creating a montage.
Montage also refers to the pace and timing of editing. Montage is as much about editing and cutting as it is about content. Rhythmic and metric editing is used by filmmakers for many artistic reasons, often to create
tension and to generate as much tension as possible from a dramatic scene. Montage can also determine a spectator's response. When Sergei Eisenstein made The Battleship Potemkin he established five types of montage;
intellectual, rhythmic, metric, tonal and overtonal montage.
Intellectual montage is based on the Kuleshov effect, a montage which makes the spectator think. During the mutiny on the Potemkin, an officer and a sailor are fighting, and as they are fighting they fall onto a piano.
Later, Eisenstein cuts back to the piano showing manuscript paper on the piano, which demonstrated that the revolution had other dimensions, it was about equality, but it was also about access to education and culture.
The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most powerful scenes in film history. It begins with a crowd waving towards the Potemkin from the Odessa steps. It is a diverse group containing the young, old and disabled.
Suddenly, armed troops march down the steps firing at them. There are two distinct rhythms; the fleeing crowd desperately trying to escape the massacre and the almost mechanical marching of the soldiers down the steps.
The tension is highlighted by the rhythmical editing.
Towards the end of The Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein accelerates the cutting during a scene where two battleships go into attack. By accelerating the editing, Eisenstein was making the shots shorter in length, thus building
tension as he worked towards the film's climax. The crew of the Potemkin raise the red flag and the crew of the attacking battleship mutiny, this serves to relieve the tension created by the metric montage.
A tonal montage is essentially imagery. When fishermen sail out to the Potemkin to give the sailors fresh food, the sails of their ships are white against a morning mist. Eisenstein frames the ships from behind a balcony,
which design presents the image of Greek columns, which signify strength. Likewise, the people of Odessa walk to the pier in columns. This is a tonal montage, creating rhetorical imagery by finding similarity in the environment
in which the director is filming.
During the course of a film, the spectator should experience a series of emotions. Spectators watching The Battleship Potemkin feel sympathy, anger, exhilaration and excitement during the film. This is linked to catharsis.
A spectator should feel pity or remorse for the tragic protagonist of a tragic play. Film can be much broader and reach out to a range of emotions, this is overtonal montage.
Although modern filmmakers do not always use Eisenstein's five montages, The Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most influential films ever made. More recently, filmmakers have tended to use the theories of Christian Metz to
influence how they make films. This means the film language, the language of signifiers and codes. There is a distinct difference between how language behaves and how signifiers on the screen behave. In language the signifier
is a sound and the signified is the meaning of the sound. It is written: signifier → signified (the meaning of the signifier). In film the signifier and the signified are essentially the same.
It is written: signifier = signified (every picture is both a signifier and a signified). In film we need two signifiers to produce a signified to recreate the kind of relationship between words and sounds that exists in language.
Therefore, we are back to the a + b = c form.
Signifiers belong to one of four groups:
Mise-en-scène (concept signifiers) the concept of an object such as a prop, a person or place in time that is represented on the screen. The mise-en-scène is everything that is put in front of the camera.
It is lighting, costume and setting, props and figure movement and expression.
Editing (punctuation signifiers) such as a fade or dissolve or any transition. Some transitions carry significant meaning, such as a dissolve may express an elapse of time between two scenes.
A dissolve may express other things; there are no truly set rules to transitions and their meanings. Editing also means the pace and timing of cutting.
Sound / music (aural signifiers) anything the spectator can hear.
Written word (literal signifiers) anything on the screen the spectator can read.
Montage is characterised by juxtaposition, but juxtaposition designed to create a clear and concise meaning. The more a director has something to say, the more powerful their film will be. Montage is the key to the diversity of
cinema; montage makes cinema attractive and meaningful. However, montage is also a challenge; a challenge to create powerful and meaningful cinema. Montage makes a film unique and diverse and making montages is how the director
puts their personal creative identity onto their film.