Written by Lee Hamilton
Montage often falls into the same category as voice over, dream sequences and flashbacks, as being an over used screenwriting gimmick which is widely regarded as being an easy shortcut to reveal information and which is almost never emotionally involving. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee tells us that on the whole, “montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided.” (1999, p344) Yet look at the 2011 Oscars. Out of the ten films nominated for best writing, both original and adapted, eight can be described as containing montages. [Fig 1] This case study will examine the concept of montage, why screenwriters choose to use it and its effectiveness as a story telling device.
In order to study montage, this essay will analyse the film Up (2009) written and directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter. Up was nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar in 2010. The movie focuses on seventy-eight year old Carl Fredricksen who attempts to fulfil a life-long promise to his wife of adventuring in South America. The film features an extended sequence in the first act which shares several elements of montage; quick successive shots, no dialogue, a specific soundtrack and montage’s most common use, it shows the passage of time. Analysing this sequence, I will look at how the montage relates to the movie as a whole plus its relationship with the other screenwriting techniques used within the script.
TYPES OF MONTAGE
Montage is mostly considered to be an editing technique. When on screen the device is usually combined with other facets such as cuts, transitions and music but it’s also frequently used in screenwriting too, usually to condense time, space and information both in terms of plot and page count. Soviet montage theory suggests there are six types of montage [Fig 2] but in relation to modern day methods and for the purposes of this study, there appears to be two simpler types.
- A series of shots.
- Symbolic juxtaposition.
To give an example of both, a series of shots montage would be the ‘travelling’ montage in 127 Hours (2010) where we see several shots of the main character riding his bike through the desert landscape. This montage seems only to serve to deliver information by setting the scene and with no further meaning. Symbolic juxtaposition on the other hand, such as the ‘training’ montage in The King’s Speech (2010), where the king practicing speech techniques (determination) is juxtaposed against with his public speaking scenes (facing fear) results in the delivery of a third meaning – frustration. The montage in Up heavily utilizes this symbolic juxtaposition and although it’s essentially used to show the passing of time, I will later explain how the juxtaposition of differing shots have been used to derive a deeper meaning.
The condensing of time can be a useful tool in screenwriting, especially when every word counts. In Up, an entire lifetime gets condensed into approximately four minutes (or forty-nine scenes). Those informed before watching the film know that the protagonist is an elderly man, so let’s look at why the writers felt it was necessary to show Carl’s whole life so early in the script and before the main plot really begins.
The montage sequence at its basic level is showing exposition by providing the audience with backstory. We’re shown young Carl and Ellie getting married, making a home together, Carl working as a balloon salesman and Ellie in the exotic bird house at the zoo, their grief at not being able to have children, their renewed dream of living at Paradise Falls, the dream that gets forgotten as life gets in the way, and finally the couple in their later years, Ellie’s decline in health and death, leaving Carl alone.
One possible reason for showing us this is that Carl Fredricksen, for the most part of the story, is a somewhat grumpy and stubborn character. Not really the most likable of protagonists. By providing the audience with some of the most poignant and significant moments of Carl’s life, his love filled marriage with Ellie, their shared dreams and grief’s etc., the writers are giving us what Blake Snyder would call a ‘save the cat moment’. Snyder explains that “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (2005, p121) Here, the montage is used to explain to the audience where Carl’s current attitude towards life has come from. Viewers are able to like, sympathise, and empathise with the character. Arguably, the scenes proceeding the montage showing us how ruthless developers are trying to buy Carl’s home from out under him could have been enough to have established him as the every-man up against it all. Although this would have the audience rooting for Carl, it wouldn’t go very far to explain his motivations for not wanting to sell his home.
Although the backstory shows us both Carl’s and Ellie’s lives, the main focus is on Carl and his current mindset. This allows the audience to understand his motivational through-line. From the information given in the montage, we can clearly see that Carl is already in emotional crisis long before the inciting incident occurs. The accidental assault of a construction worker is the action that catapults Carl into taking decisive action but it is the information delivered in the montage – the shared dream of leaving home and travelling – that makes sure we understand his motivation in setting that goal – the unfulfilled promise. The decision to deliver this information up front puts the audience in a position of knowledge rather than one of puzzlement and also eliminates the need for flashback or expositional dialogue later on in the film. Using a flashback would also leave the audience confused early on as to why Carl was motivated to get to South America so eagerly.
The writers have clearly utilized montage as a narrative device. Interestingly, they chose not to use dialogue to show this internal motivation or to deliver vital exposition. What animation often does well, is portray emotion through facial expression rather than words. This may be because of the young age of the target audience, economy of words in the script or the precise manipulation of the characters that the animators have. Whatever the reason, lack of dialogue is a frequent element of a montage. Having rapid shots doesn’t often leave much room for a long speech neither does another common feature of montage, music.
Usually a montage is signified by the accompaniment of a specific memorable soundtrack, which normally lasts the length of the montage. I won’t go into too much discussion about music as it wouldn’t have had much influence on the screenwriting process. “Married Life” by Michael Giacchino is the classical track that plays over the sequence and very much reflects the pace, tone and emotion of the writing. Commonly, montage is very fast paced with rapid shots. Something McKee comments on, the “high energy of such sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience’s eye busy.” (2005, p343-4) This could certainly apply to the montage in The Green Hornet (2011) where the sequence is a stylized edit which essentially equates to a minute long showing of multiple bad guys readying to take out the hero. Was it necessary to spend as much screen time on delivering one small piece of information? It certainly looks good on screen but such an effect can potentially distract an audience as they wonder how the special effect was done rather than follow the story.
Up has a slower paced montage but combines a range of shot lengths. The quick succession of shots technique is still in there – the dropping of coins into the jar when saving up for their adventure and Ellie fixing Carl’s tie which changes style through the decades – but they’re also juxtaposed against slower paced shots such as the doctor breaking the bad news about the baby they’re never going to have. Slowing the pace during such moments heightens the emotional impact of the scenes. The changing pace also reflects the tonal shifts in the sequence. Emotionally, the writing takes the audience up, down, up and back down again. Shot structure, much like scene structure, takes us from positives to negatives and vice versa. A deeper meaning (or theme) can be derived from the way the shots have been juxtaposed with each other. I would argue that the varying tone and pacing of the montage used in Up goes against what McKee has suggested. The shots don’t just keep the audiences eye busy, they’re emotionally engaging and take us through a full range of emotions – happiness, joviality, grief, sadness, and hope to name but a few.
Montages can be placed anywhere in a movie but the two places used most often are in act one, to provide backstory, or just before midpoint, which Snyder calls the ‘fun and games’, where it’s often used to show the protagonist preparing for a confrontation. There are several techniques a screenwriter can use to structure their movie so let’s look at how montage can be used along side these devices.
If we take the hero’s journey, act one would usually see the writer show the ‘ordinary world’, the ’call to adventure’, ‘refusal of the call’ as well as introduce the ‘mentor’. Let’s look at how the montage sequence in Up is integrated into this method of writing. Carl is established in his ordinary world very much during the montage so therefore is setting the scene. Although arguably, we have both the call to adventure and refusal within the montage itself – actively saving money for their trip (the call) and life getting in the way (the refusal).
I’m going to suggest that the call to adventure is pretty much the same as the inciting incident – Carl accidentally injuring the construction worker. The refusal would then be Carl contemplating moving to a retirement home and the introduction of the mentor character is obviously Russell, the boy-scout who tags along on Carl’s adventure and makes him realize that the adventure you get isn’t always the one you set out looking for. With the hero’s journey approach, we can see that the montage actually plays quite a significant part in the movie. It’s the point that Carl must come full circle to but to have also changed in the process.
If we look at the sequence approach, where a movie is theoretically made up of eight sequences. Each sequence has a specific job to do and is connected to the next in the sequence. To break it down further, each sequence should contain a goal, an activity, and a complication. Normally a montage wouldn’t follow this structure. It would be more likely only fulfil part of this set and show only the ‘activity’ part of the sequence. But in Up, we can see how the writers have followed this approach fully within the montage not just once, but twice. Firstly, Carl and Ellie want to start a family (goal), they decorate the nursery in preparation (activity) then are devastated by the news that they are unable to have any (complication).
This links directly into another repetition – remembering their dream of going to South America (new goal), saving money in order to get there (new activity) then time passes, life gets in the way and old age sets in resulting in Ellie dying (new complication). This technique is a particularly useful tool for screenwriters as it can help further the story in a dramatic and engaging way. Condensing it into a montage shows that the practice can be repeated effectively and used to deliver more information to the audience.
By applying structure to a montage, using goals, setbacks and revelations, the sequence can clearly be enhanced emotionally and intellectually by continuing to move the forward story.
The film also utilizes symbolic imagery to reinforce and remind the audience of the main themes – ‘Life is an adventure’, ‘Dream fulfilment’, and ‘Companionship’. Balloons, airships, birds and badges are frequently used motifs, which symbolize these themes. These image systems are both established and developed within the montage. Screenwriter and author Karl Iglesias tells us “Symbols are a powerful way to tell your story with pictures, especially when they’re used to reflect your theme.” (2005, p166) This compliments the decision not to use dialogue during the montage and goes back to the old adage – ‘show don’t tell’. Iglesias further emphasises this with “Never explain intellectually. Dramatize emotionally.” (2005, p43)
Examples of this during the montage include the airship mobile Carl hangs above a baby’s crib as he and Ellie decorate the nursery. With the let down that there will be no baby, the airship model then becomes a permanent fixture on the living room mantle piece below the mural of Paradise Falls. Later in the film, Carl’s house physically turns into an airship and the original ‘Spirit of Adventure’ airship is later discovered also.
The introduction of birds, whether it be a real parrot on Ellie’s arm at the zoo or ceramic ornament alongside the airship on display, is a symbol which later comes into fruition when Carl and Russell later emotionally bond with Kevin, the giant bird in South America. This shows how the montage uses and creates imagery to sow the small seeds which later blossom into major plot points, characters, and story.
As well as reoccurring symbolism, the montage sequence also contains a lot of foreshadowing. This occurs in three different ways. Firstly, set ups are planted in the montage to be paid off later on in the film. Secondly, there are pay-offs from pre-montage set ups. And thirdly, there are self-contained set ups and pay-offs within the montage. Examples of each are set out below: -
The arranging of the two mismatched chairs in the living room, moved next to each other as the young couple build a home together. The chairs come to symbolize the union of Carl and Ellie. Further on in the montage we see the chairs filled as the couple sit comfortably sharing a tender moment, emphasizing their bond. Later in the film Carl risks danger to save the chairs from destruction, clinging on to the memory of marriage and togetherness. The ultimate pay off is Carl unloading the two chairs from the house in order to lighten the load. His acceptance of Ellie’s passing and his new life beautifully mirrored by the careful arrangement of the chairs together as other household furnishings are just dumped around them.
A second example and a significant set up in the montage which is later paid-off is the balloon selling cart that keeps trying to float away while Carl works. A heavy pre-curser to Carl applying the same idea to his entire house.
A pre-montage set up, which is paid-off during the montage, is the bookending of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. A single blue balloon floats into young Carl’s bedroom at night as he recuperates from a broken arm. A gift, from young Ellie as she sneaks in to visit him. The meeting, which results in young Carl falling in love, is complimented by a similar scene during the montage. This time it is Ellie recuperating in a hospital bed when a single blue balloon drifts her way. Carl visits her for the last time before she passes away.
A self-contained example is notably the young married couple climbing a grassy hill on a summer’s day for a picnic. Energetic Ellie runs ahead to the top as stocky Carl struggles with the climb. This is later re-enacted by the couple in their later years. This time it’s excited Carl that reaches the top first, eager to surprise his wife with two tickets to South America. In opposition to the first shot, it’s Ellie who falters this time as old age catches up on her.
This use of foreshadowing shows us that “every action has a consequence, every piece of information has repercussions.” (2008, p192) We’re not just seeing Carl and Ellie sitting in their living room together for the sake of it. We’re seeing it so that later we’ll be able to recognise the change in the protagonist’s arc – he’s let go. The time duration that’s covered by the montage could also be said to have enhanced the foreshadowing. Set ups and pay-off are seen to span a lifetime and have larger implications on the character’s story, even though these moments are condensed in screen time by the montage itself.
The montage in Up could almost be described as a film within a film. The same structure that’s applied to a movie, sequence, or indeed a scene has been applied here. With a beginning, middle, and end, it not only supplies backstory, expresses theme, gives character motivation, emotional subtext, and sets up meaningful imagery, it also moves the story forward towards the inciting incident which propels the protagonist into action. Up provides an excellent example of how a montage can and should be used. Deepening its value by relating to and engaging with the other writing devices used. Returning to McKee, he stipulates “Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts” (2005, p5) Up surely proves that a McKee contradicts himself, as montage can be both thorough as well as a screenwriting shortcut.