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.
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…
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 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: