Reader Question: What is the difference between montage and series of shots?

May 2nd, 2011 by
Phil asked:
Best way to write a group of shots, MONTAGE or SERIES OF SHOTS, and is there a difference?

Does it make a difference how you write these shots if there is to be a VO in them? Say the Protagonist is describing the events as they are happening.

Dredging deep into my brain cells, I recalled something about montage from the “Cinema as an Art Form” class I took as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, recalling it has Russian roots. A quick check of Wikipedia supports that memory. First an excerpt from Soviet montage theory:

Soviet montage theory is an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily upon editing (montage is French for “build, organize”). Although Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s disagreed about how exactly to view montage, Sergei Eisenstein marked a note of accord in “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” when he noted that montage is “the nerve of cinema”, and that “to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema”.

While several Soviet filmmakers, such as Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin put forth explanations of what constitutes the montage effect, Eisenstein’s view that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other” has become most widely accepted.

Then this excerpt from the montage (filmmaking) entry in Wikipedia:

Montage is a technique in film editing in which a series of short shots are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information. It is usually used to suggest the passage of time, rather than to create symbolic meaning as it does in Soviet montage theory.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, montage sequences often combined numerous short shots with special optical effects (fades, dissolves, split screens, double and triple exposures) dance and music. They were usually assembled by someone other than the director or the editor of the movie.

Film historian and critic Arthur Knight connects the development of the Hollywood montage to aspects of Eisenstein’s editing:

“The word montage came to identify . . . specifically the rapid, shock cutting that Eisenstein employed in his films. Its use survives to this day in the specially created ‘montage sequences’ inserted into Hollywood films to suggest, in a blur of double exposures, the rise to fame of an opera singer or, in brief model shots, the destruction of an airplane, a city or a planet.”

—The Liveliest Art, Arthur Knight

With that as background, here’s how I would describe the distinction between a montage and a series of shots:

* A montage tells a story through a series of visuals around some central theme.

* A series of shots conveys a passage of time through one shot after another.

So for instance, if you wanted to write an extended dream sequence with a collision of images, that would be a montage. If, on the other hand, you wanted to show that patient discussing their dreams over a period of weeks with their psychiatrist, that would be a series of shots.

Montage: theme.

Series of shots: time.

I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying that’s how I use them.

Practically speaking, you will run into people in Hollywood who use montage when they mean series of shots. “You know, do a montage like the Rocky training sequence to show a passage of time.” So be aware of that. But technically it’s helpful to observe the distinction between montage / theme and series of shots / time for your own writing.

How to write them in a script? I don’t think there is any definitive right or wrong way to approach them as long as what you’re writing is clear to the reader. Here’s how I do them:

MONTAGE – DREAM SEQUENCE

 — A boy races down a wildly curving hallway…

– A dog howls at the moon…

– Someone’s bloody hands sharpens a knife…

Or:

SERIES OF SHOTS – TRAINING

– Biff tries to climb the rope ladder, but fails…

– Biff works out with weights…

– Biff knocks out some push-ups…

– The rope ladder again, only this time he clears it with ease.

The double dashes indicate each new image.

Technically you would signify the end of a montage or series of shots with this:

END MONTAGE

END SERIES OF SHOTS

However if you are consistent in using primary slug lines to begin new scenes, that should imply to your reader the end of the montage / series of shots.

Re the use of V.O.: I don’t think it matters.

Finally there are three important questions to ask about a montage or series of shots are:

* Does it tell a story? A montage or series of shots should convey some sort of narrative. It can be straight ahead and linear (series of shots) or thematic and non-linear (montage), but there has to be something cohesive in terms of a montage or series of shot’s narrative. And that story has to somehow tie into and advance the overall story you are telling.

* Is it entertaining? Looking at the series of shots I wrote above, while it may tell a story — how Biff developed the strength to climb a rope ladder — but it’s not the least bit entertaining. It’s not enough just to pick out select shots or images, you have to craft each shot / moment so it is compelling or interesting, and cumulatively so as a whole they entertain the reader.

* Do I really need to use one? Here’s a fact: Whereas a montage or series of shots may work really well in a movie, they are not nearly as effective on the page. In fact, I’d say writing a viable, entertaining series of shots is one of the single most challenging tasks facing a screenwriter. So only use a montage or especially a series of shots if the story absolutely requires it.

Tomorrow’s question: How do I go about selling a script if I’m not interested in a screenwriting career? 

UPDATE: In comments, Ken King reminded me of the “Montage” montage in Team America. I posted that here. And here’s the montage:

13 thoughts on “Reader Question: What is the difference between montage and series of shots?

  1. Adaddinsane says:

    A series of shots that does work on paper is the one from The Graduate – swimming pools, beds, Mrs Robinson – I haven't seen the original script but there's a copy of it in Denny Martin Flinn's "How (not) to write a screenplay".

  2. Phil says:

    Thanks Scott…good answer!

  3. James says:

    For the most part, I find MONTAGES and SERIES OF SHOTS to be overused in spec screenplays. They almost always seem like a cheat and rarely convey the tone the writer wants.

    They also read very artificially mechanical.

    Modern screenwriting practices seem to incorporate them into description without really acknowledging the mechanics of it. (Which seems to make them easier to read).

    Kinda curious how Edgar Wright handles them in his screenplays. He generally does that flash cutting thing between transitions that moves a lot of exposition in like 2 seconds and is humorous to boot.

    You should highlight your last two asterisks Scott! I think they are so on the money.

    I wrote about montages awhile back. Here's a shameless plug if anyone wants to check it out. http://on-the-scene.blogspot.com/2007/05/montage-in-screenplays.html

  4. Phil says:

    Would a Montage have music too? I'm thinking of the Rocky training segments….

  5. Scott says:

    @Phil: You wouldn't indicate that in a selling script. In fact, that again points out why a series of shots in particular is a tough thing to pull off on the page as compared to a movie where you can not only see the action, but hear the inevitable kick-ass song to drive the thing.

  6. Yossi Mandel says:

    We can argue that all film is a series of shots. We cut out the boring parts. Film does not take place at the placid speed of life. What we call technically SERIES OF SHOTS is just a speedier version of film-making as a whole. Therefore, it may make sense to just use sluglines.

    Montage, on the other hand, is not what we typically find in a film. Symbolism is usually subsumed in elements that are secondary to the storytelling. Russian/Soviet art in general is heavy in symbolism, perhaps that's why montage originates there. I'm sure many art PhDs have analyzed this to death already.

    Scott, thanks for making the distinction crystal clear.

  7. Ken King says:

    Unfortunately, can't link to video from Team America (seems like Warners got them taken down), but here's what Trey Parker had to say about montages (kind of the opposite of Scott's definition):


    The hour's approaching, to give it your best
    And you've got to reach your prime
    That's when you need to put yourself to the test
    And show us a passage of time

    We're gonna need a montage (montage)
    It takes a montage (montage)

    Show a lot of things happening at once
    Remind everyone of what's going on

    And with every shot, show a little improvement
    To show it all would take too long

    That's called a montage (montage)
    Girl, we want a montage (montage)

    In anything, if you want to go
    From just a beginner to a pro

    You need a montage (montage)
    Even Rocky had a montage (montage)

    Always fade out in a montage (montage)
    If you fade out
    It seems like more time has passed
    In a montage (montage)

    There was an earlier, slightly different version of the song in a South Park episode, the changes were mainly expanding the scope from sports-specific training.

  8. Phil says:

    Gotcha…thanks.

  9. Scott says:

    Thanks, Ken. You reminded me of this post featuring that video. I'll update the OP here with it and a HT to you.

  10. Mragendra Singh says:

    The link from Team America, isn't more like "Series of Shorts"? Since it shows two simultaneous events happening 1) The protagonist is getting ready and 2) The Bad guys are sending the invitation and it is getting popular. It more depicts the passage of time.

    Which clearly means I am still a bit confused about distinction between both. Help me in understanding.

    Cheers
    Mragendra

  11. Scott says:

    @Mragendra Singh: The so-called 'montage' in Team America is a perfect example of what I mentioned in the OP, how some people will use montage when in actuality they're referring to what is more aptly called a series of shots. It's just something you will run into in Hwood and elsewhere.

    Of course, the filmmakers of Team America can be forgiven because it's a lot easier to write a song parody using the word "montage" than the phrase "series of shots." Besides most people will have heard of the former and not the latter.

    For purposes of clarity, why not stick with the definition I gave in the OP:

    Montage — Theme

    Series of Shots — Time

    If you refer to them like that, you shouldn't be confused again.

  12. Ken King says:

    In response to Mragendra:

    My comment about Trey Parker's definition being the opposite of Scott's was a reference to the lyrics of Montage, which say that a montage is the way to show a passage of time, vs Scott saying that is a series of shots.

    It's likely a good example of what Scott was saying when about people saying montage when they meant series of shots, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of it being an actual difference of opinion.

    Words mean what we all agree they mean: if most people now think of the sequence illustrating Rocky's development from streetfighter to skilled boxer as a montage, and call similar sequences in other movies montages, then that series of shots is a montage, and someone gets to coin a different word for the other kind of sequence.

    In the end, though, it was just an excuse to link to a funny song written by a (sort-of) industry-insider making fun of a trope that's been done to death. ;-)

  13. Scott says:

    @Ken: You're right, I'm sure. There are people in Hwood who refer to a sequence conveying a passage of time as 'montage.' And if that works for them, fine. I'll just call it a series of shots in my script. The main thing is that we both know what we're talking about, even if the designations we use differ.

    In the objective reality of 'language,' the only thing tipping the scales in my direction — I think — is the historical roots of montage to Soviet cinema, which is how I started the OP. And there per Eisenstein, it is a series of overlaying visual images, a "collision of independent thoughts."

    Does that sound like the best way of conveying the passage of time? I would say no, rather it's a good way of conveying some sort of thematic imagery.

    On the other hand, a series of shots is a proper way to think of how to convey passage of time, a series of linear images with a beginning, middle and end.

    No matter what, to my larger point, they're both difficult to write in any way that compares to how they are supposed to come off on screen, especially a series of shots, so personally I avoid them at all costs.

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