In my humble opinion, there is no greater seven minutes in modern cinema history than the famous Rocky vs. Ivan Dragon training montage sequence from Rocky IV (1985). I know this is no ground-breaking take or anything, but it’s amazing just how watchable and enjoyable this section of the film is.
Especially when you start to really think about what’s going on from a filmmaking perspective.
This famous Rocky IV sequence, along with so many like it, is really just a masterclass in Soviet montage theory filmmaking. This technique dates back to Soviet cinema, and includes some great Soviet filmmakers and Soviet film theorists of the Moscow film school.
And as we'll explore in the article below, here is a quick list of the different types of montages used from throughout film history:
- Intellectual montage (or ideological montage)
- Metric montage
- Rhythmic montage
- Tonal montage
- Overtonal montage
Each is really a simple combination of how recording footage with a movie camera can be edited and juxtaposed in a way that pits our two characters (a hero and a villain) against each other so perfectly.
So, let’s explore the fascinating history of montage theory and go over the different types you should study and learn.
The Kuleshov Effect
Before we dive into montages and Soviet montage theory, we have to quickly cover the Kuleshov Effect. This technique is regarded as one of the main principles on which montage theory (and film theory itself) is based.
Developed by Lev Kuleshov and discussed in an essay from as far back as 1916, Kuleshov’s idea is an early principle of film theory which studies how shots can be perceived when juxtaposed against each other.
While the term owes its origins and name to the famous Soviet Russian filmmaker and theorist, it’s been perhaps most popularized in modern times from some now famous explanations from the great Alfred Hitchcock (as you can see in the video examples above).
When compared to montage theory, the Kuleshov effect is a key element in understanding the psychology of how these strings of shots affect an audience when strung together in a sequence.
We’ll explore more below, but if you’d like to read a bit more in-depth into the Kuleshov effect and how to use its principles in your own film projects, check out this article here.
Intellectual montage (or ideological montage)
Since we just covered the Kuleshov effect, we should probably start with the intellectual montage (or ideological montage) as our first example of what a montage is and how it works.
Unlike the types of montages that we’ll go over below (which all have hard or loose rules that make them tick), the intellectual montage is best thought of as a summation of all of the rules of film theory used together. An intellectual montage or ideological montage is the editing together of clips to create an intellectual or ideological meaning.
You can see a great example of this in the sequence above from The Godfather (which itself is also a helpful illustration of parallel editing). This scene uses a variety of shot types and lengths which might at times appear disconnected to connect a theme and story which is both challenging and intellectual.
Moving on from intellectual montage, these other types of montages will be more simplistic in definition. Take for example the metric montage — the most basic of the montage types.
The metric montage is simply a type of montage where shots are edited together based on the number of frames. It’s a fun technique for mathematicians perhaps, but in the real world this metric montage technique is not used too often because it relies on mathematical symmetry rather than feeling, rhythm, or intellect.
You can see the metric montage in action in the clip above. Each cut is dictated by a number of frames, creating a nice mix but lacking much of the nuance to film editing in general.
This is probably the most fun type of montage to actually work with, because the rhythmic montage style is built on rhythm and feeling. In rhythmic montage theory, each shot is cut based on how it feels like it should connect with the next shot.
Sometimes that feeling is dictated by elements of the story, and sometimes those cuts are dictated by pacing. More often than not, you’ll actually see this rhythmic montage style set to the music or soundtrack of a scene.
The iconic sequence from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly might be one of the most famous examples of this montage technique in action. (Although as is the case with many of these montage types, you could certainly make the case that it shares some hallmarks of metric, tonal, or intellectual montage techniques as well.)
Sitting next to rhythmic on the types of montages chart, tonal montages are a style of montages which are even more so focused on the tone. Or more specifically, on how cuts in a montage make a viewer feel.
The elements of what define “tone” are a bit subjective, but suffice to say a tonal montage is a sequence of shots which help to connect a viewer to one specific feeling as they view the shots combined together.
It’s not just the cuts of the shots at work either. Tonal montages usually make heavy use of sound (both diegetic and non-diegetic) as well as shot composition and mise-en-scene. You can find all of these elements at work in the original source text for montages from Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.
Finally, as a way to wrap up all of our montage types together, we also need to explore overtonal montage. And to be honest, while this montage type is often defined as one that includes all of the other montage types (like tonal, rhythmic, and metric), it obviously can be quite similar to (or often confused with) intellectual montage.
Still, overtonal is best thought of when compared to tonal montage as simply a way to describe a sequence of shots edited together to provide more than just a feeling or tone, but also to also convey action, narrative, and story overall.
There are plenty of examples of overtonal montage to find out in the real world, but I like this scene from The Untouchables as it draws directly from Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.Think of it as an homage of the original montage style, but with a modern lens, the addition of even higher stakes, and more narrative action underneath.
Those are just the textbook definitions for the different types of montages. However, while it’s helpful to study and understand Soviet montage theory, it’s also important to know that film editing is an ever-evolving artform.
Just because these rules and techniques made sense for classical filmmakers in film history doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with your own editing decisions for your short films or YouTube videos.
If you’d like to continue reading about editing shots, as well as explore plenty of additional tricks and techniques, check out these great articles on the Soundstripe blog:
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