Brainstorming: Realtime Story Telling Versus the Montage

“Metamorphosis” pays homage to Battleship Potempkin

Sergei Eisenstein is credited for pioneering montage in film.  Using quick collision of shots, Eisenstein theorized he could manipulate the audience’s emotion and create film metaphors.  Coming up with a number of methods or conflicts to a montage, they were not necessarily linear.  This brainstorming article discusses two opposite techniques of story telling.  Traditional dialogue versus the montage.

When I started guerrilla filmmaking, I believed in my heart characters defined the story and dialog defined the characters. Early, I relied on conversation to create a new universe that would exist only minutes. From what I have seen in short, guerrilla films this is not only norm but a near exclusive practice. The writer or director introduces their story through talent in a stable scene not threatened with continuity distortion.  Generally, talent comes in pairs or solitary speaking with audience directly or indirectly.

Battleship Potemkin: You do not know her. You do not hear her. But you sympathize her.

Writing and acting deliver credibility and most rewarding, empathy, if done well.  But what if the universe is bigger than the character?  What if the cost of character development solely via dialog eats into your budgeted time?

The Curious Augustus Shank

Art imitating life: Standing around, drinking, telling stories.

Most of my early films had melodramatic characters in a familiar and stable world.   It was they who were unstable.  The villains of Clever Girl (2007), The Curious Augustus Shank (2008), and GLOBEX (2009) were either vengeful, malicious, or tyrannical.  The films rarely explained the universe enveloping them.   In contrary, the characters and the dialog, defined the universe.  However, methodically explaining the world through dialog, was laborious.  It was time to evolve.

Picking up the tempo …
Out of the many countless elements of filmmaking, I decided to pick up the tempo, the pulse, of my films.  I wanted more excitement and danger.  A higher pulse in short film could open doors into untested genres while improving audience attention,  If that had been all I wanted accomplished I would have resorted to quick cuts and witty banter.  But I wanted more …

… in a dangerous world
Decisions led to a subtle direction change – to melodramatic worlds. Moving focus from character introduction to universe introduction.  The silent film,  Wish You Were Here (2010), was the first 48 Hour Film Project to pull the audience into a world before its characters.  The first act came by montage, using foreboding music and a series of newspaper overlays, it introduced a world on a brink of war just before spotlighting the protagonist.  The end of the first act is book ended with another montage of images quickly depicting romance over time. There is another third and final montage at the end of the second act as our hero becomes the Beast of First Street, terrorizes the city inhabitants.

Lessons learned
Irony choosing a silent film to replace dialog with montages.  Restricted from dialog, three montages told stories about a dangerous world, blossoming romance, and loosing grasps on humanity.  Void of long sentences, contrived set ups and coincidences, I only needed a few seconds, a few frames, to tell the story.  But will the audience embrace it?

Sometimes, I believe audiences as a collective expect storytelling explicitly from a character they can relate to.  There are many tangents here regarding communication theory.  Knowing your audience, what messages you want to convey to them, etc.  But there is also the art; the director tells the story as he sees fit.  Damn the audience if they choose to ignore it.   Thus montages became frequent in future projects.  I wasn’t focused on characters speaking to the audience.  I was focused creating a full fledged world in less than seven minutes.  The pulse of the film was directly tied into a quick line of dialog and flashy editing.

Filmmaking fruit from the tree of montage
Amber Alert 2 with Trailer (2010) was inspired by movie trailers.  What is a trailer?  Its carefully chosen and crafted scenes that tells enough (or in some cases, all) of the story to entice you to watch the full version.  Or better put it is a  “montage”.  We see enough to understand the story, the plot, and the characters.  Many scenes in feature films are made with the sole purpose to put it into a trailer.  In guerrilla filmmaking, trailer like scenes can be quick and dirty.   There is no introduction.  BAM!  Here is the plot and everything you need to know – now.  It’s easier to direct talent as they convey one mood per scene.  With a series of cuts, we can move one location to another.  We can offer a back story, showcase , in a few short minutes.

Amber Alert 2 with Trailer: You have to understand the consequences taking short cuts.

Montages are explicit.  The short cuts need to deliver a message, within or with the next immediate scene.  Metaphors are made and there should be no misunderstanding what the point was.  Whether or not it is embraced is solely decided in the hearts and minds of viewers.  What are lost are subliminal messaging and subtle hints.  The extra second long-shot could reveal a character flaw or describe how expansive or lonely the world is.  The few steps one character approaches another with that look on her face could change the mood in a second.   With a montage, that same mood would have to made in seven words or less.

Director’s chair
The next four 48 Hour Film Projects following I Wish You Were Here, continued featuring montages  including an all out parody of the television series, 24.

  • Amber Alert 2 with Trailer – Opening trailer describes how the neighbors of Myer’s Hollow confront a suspected kidnapper but looks to turn the table against those who accused him.
  • Why I Live with Dumbbells – A montage of psychological torment.
  • One – Montage of interviews followed by another of an abandoned world.
  • 5: a Parody of 24 the Series – Opening montage of “Previously on 5” mimicking the television series.


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