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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Montage

I've had an absolute plethora of clients through recently wanting to know my thoughts on montage - in particular, layout - so thought it might be an idea to dig this article up out of the archive on the old blog. I'd be particularly interested to hear from people who lay out montages any other way than those I outline below. The last way I deem "correct" in the article I learned from a director/producer -"they" taught me differently at uni, but it always came back in coverage as "incorrect", whereas now everyone is SILENT about my montages... Hopefully that means they're correct now and not dull! What do you think about montage?
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Many thanks to David over at Vicious Imagery for letting me indulge my John August fantasy once again with this question:

How do you feel about montages? Are they good, bad or ugly? Overused and amateurish, or a useful device to communicate a story without dialogue? Also, what's the best way to present a montage in a screenplay?

A great question...s. Well, there's quite a few there actually. So, here we go!

First off, I love a good montage. They're economic and can be extremely useful. Like flashbacks and non-linearity and just about every other screenwriting device however, they receive a bad press. This is not, I think, because montages are good, bad, ugly, amatuer or overused, but because lots of new writers use them without knowing a) exactly what they are and b) how to lay them out properly.

So, what is a montage? Well, as David says, it's a device to communicate a story without dialogue. Generally. Now and again, you'll find directors or writers who'll mix in a bit of (usually) non-diegetic dialogue to add to the mood. We can see an example of this in THE CROW when Eric Draven remembers a series of shots about him and his girlfriend when they were still alive. It goes beyond a flashback in that it tells a complete tale: them cooking together, their engagement, them making love, even running through a cornfied together (ick! and who actually does that, by the way?). But anyway, this story then feeds into his resentment at their deaths and the vengeance Draven wreaks on their murderers. Nice one.

So a montage is a series of shots that tells a story or (this is the one that is used more regularly) gives the viewers a notion of time passing. These latter montages are the ones that give them all a bad name I think: often writers want to show a story has moved from say, Christmas to Summer and think "Great! Stick in a montage." Don't do this, unless it adds directly to the story and pushes it forward. Remember: you want to get your action in as short a time frame as possible. Eking it out over months via montage is not a good idea. Equally, don't stick in a montage 'cos you can't think of anything else to do in that space. Everything in a film must add to the narrative. Fancy images with a cool soundtrack doesn't do that, it just makes readers write on their reports: "Is this neccessary?" (Besides, what music is chosen is a production decision and not the writer's generally anyway.)

So, the "rule" I always bang on about is this: always have a good reason for a montage and make sure it advances your story and/or reveals character.

But what way to set out a montage? There are many incorrect ways. The one I most often see is this:

SERIES OF SHOTS

A - Lucy types at the keyboard

B - Lucy stops, takes a swig of coffee

C - Lucy resumes typing

D - Lucy stops, picks up the baby

E - Lucy falls down exhausted

You'll notice the "series of shots". Big no-no as far as a straw poll of producers and agents I've emailed this morning are concerned. They say it references production - something to be avoided in spec scripts. The letters are sometimes numbers and aren't incorrect, but I hate seeing both. Why? I'm a finnicky cow probably, but there are a lot of us out there. Is it worth it when you can take them out?

What I dislike most about this montage though is the fact it could be one scene. Also, nothing really happens in it. Montages should have things in that need to be "summed up" quickly - big events, story exposition, motivations, that kind of thing. That's why montage gets a bad name - it's too often used with no drama behind it. Think again of Eric Draven's reminsicing about his girlfriend. It is a little drama all of its own. It makes the viewer, in the context of Eric's thirst for vengeance, say "They were so happy together! Damn them! Get the bastards!" Or words to that effect, at least.

The second most common layout error I see is this one:

INT/EXT. LOCATIONS - VARIOUS. DAY/NIGHT.

We see a montage of THE COUPLE, happy together - cooking, eating out, with their children, etc.

Oi, writers, no! ; )

It's the writer's job to PAINT A PICTURE, not remind the reader THIS IS A SCRIPT that will ultimately BE A MOVIE (well, hopefully). You want to keep the reader in the world of the script, not give them a rude awakening. If the montage calls for the Happy Couple showing how happy they are, you have to signify it and render it as images, not an IOU - as in, "IOU one montage to come later, courtesy of the director and the cameramen, etc." Tsk!

The good news is, the slugline's fine. So here's the layout as I've learned it:

INT/EXT. LOCATIONS - VARIOUS. DAY/NIGHT

(MONTAGE)

Here you put your actions

One after the other, avoiding letters or whatever in front of each one

Don't take more than one or two lines for each

Make them dramatic and ensure they tell a story

And generally try to avoid more than about five or six lines

And don't use more than two in a 90-pager, one in less

(END OF MONTAGE)

11 comments:

The Moviequill said...

MONTAGE is my favourite word... after menage

Lucy said...

You really need to get out more my yankey doodle dandy! ; )

Hope said...

Dave Trottier says the series of shots is okay with the A, B, C, D. Has it gone out of fashion since?

David Mamet calls the montage (or equivalent speech) "The death of my kitten" or "I don't know why I'm telling you this..." He says it always comes in the same place: seven-tenths of the way through, just before or just after the beginning of the third act.

If my memory serves me correctly, Closer managed to portray the passing of time in a relationship without any montages.

My thoughts for the day!

Lucy said...

Hey Hope. The A,B,C,D thing is just a personal thing of mine as far as I'm aware. I just don't see the point of it. You don't have letters anywhere else and the reader still knows what's going on.

"Series of shots" though I heard is BAD though as you rightly say these things are prone to fashions - in my view again, why bother when the word MONTAGE sums it up better?

As for David Mamet - ALWAYS just before the third act? He's clearly not reading the scripts I read - I find them more frequently in Act One.

Colin McBride said...

Thanks, Lucy. Blum's 'Television and Screenwriting' gives pretty much the same advice as you do and I think it's the best and most straightforward way to do a montage. Also I find that I've had a tendency to use them right at the end of a script - particularly if it's a multi-stranded affair

Lucy said...

Hi Colin, glad you liked the post. I haven't read that book I don't think - guess I should! ; )

When I write montage, I usually put them around the middle I think. Though I'm pretty sure I've only written one script with a montage in now you come to mention it. Intriguing...

Milli Thornton said...

I'm not in anybody's camp yet (still reading as many views on this issue as I can), but just for the record:

"The Screenwriter's Bible" makes a distinction between montage and series of shots.

Montage is based on a concept, such as passage of time or stream of consciousness. Whereas the series of shots tells a story and should lead to some dramatic action or a resolution.

He advises to preface either without using a master scene heading, such as

MONTAGE - BRAD AND BIFF GO CAMPING

SERIES OF SHOTS - GRANDMA TURNS TO THE DARK SIDE

He says the word montage often indicates to the director: "Put the music here." But, as Lucy says, don't try to control the selection of music. His other main advice also affirm's Lucy's: "Use sparingly."

Trottier promotes using double hyphens to set out your list of shots in a montage. He promotes letters A), B), C) and so on for a series of shots.

I agree with out trusty Bang2write on layout. I think it should flow as part of the atmosphere being created. Argh, to me double hyphens and alphabet letters are one of those "rude awakenings" (perfect term for it, Lucy!), both visually on the page as well as what happens in your head as you read.

But I do like Trottier's idea of not needing a master scene heading. I found I have way too many of those already and I'm currently going through my script (using the "Bible" and "The Hollywood Standard") to cut down on them by whatever legit means are available.

BUT, that's also why I plan to get coverage from Lucy and several other sources. I've found that the formatting books (not to mention blogs, online articles and what have you) tend to contradict one another on the subject of formatting ... to a degree that had me quite depressed at one stage.

For instance, I applied Riley's rules for margins ("The Hollywood Standard") to a script I'd previously formatted using Trottier's margins. The result was a different page count!

So one of my burning goals for seeking coverage is to find out if I've successfully blended a range of formatting "standards" provided by the experts to create a script whose layout serves my story (and does not give readers more reasons to grieve).

:0)

Thanks, Lucy! I gleaned some helpful insights here about how to make my montage more exciting.

David said...

How is it OK to write VARIOUS LOCATIONS? I would think you need a new slugline for each location. It seems like you completely break screenplay format by doing that.

I'm just a student and don't really know much about the biz but it just seems incorrect at first sight.

Lucy V said...

One huge problem David is screenwriters often overwrite their scene description and break up stuff with sluglines that's actually obvious.

For example, if in your montage you have a couple walking in the park, then in bed together, then in a museum, breaking it all up with extra scene headings is more than you need - cos in the montage itself we know where they are, ie:

EXT/INT. VARIOUS LOCATIONS - DAY/NIGHT

(MONTAGE)

Jack and Julie take a stroll in the park

Jack and Julie make love in Julie's flat

Jack and Julie look at the whale in the Natural History museum

(END OF MONTAGE)

Of course, some people do break it all up with various scene headings - there's no real hard and fast rule. I prefer this one 'cos it takes up less space.

Ali Rizvi said...

why you guys are discussing the comprehension of the layout, every human is different. and i think they way express their self would be different tooo... dont confuse your self in the comprehansions...a b c d S, full stops,lines just maintain the grammmer and convert the subtext into images by using your emotional intelligence.thats it.

Lucy V said...

If it were that easy Ali, I wouldn't have read literally thousands of confusing, boring or just plain weird montages! End of the day layout montages any way you want - I list lots of differing articles on my "Format 1 Stop Shop" but make sure you use your montage for a good STORY reason. Too often writers stick them in for no real reason other than they want to... Those montages stick out a mile. Don't believe me? Dive into your nearest spec pile.