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Five Steps to a Better Montage

mind reader guesses your first video was a montage

I’m going to try something I’ve never done before. I’m going to try to read your mind right now.

Ready for this?

Here we go…

Think back to the first video you ever edited. Do you remember it? Take a moment to picture it in your mind…

Okay, here’s the mind-reading part.

I’m going to try to tell you exactly what your first video was…

(Drumroll.)

It was…

A montage.

So…was I right? Did I read your mind? Was your first video a montage?

In case you’re not sure, a montage is a series of images (such as video clips or photos) usually set to music. Does that pretty much describe your first video?

Okay, clearly I don’t really read minds. There’s a chance that I didn’t guess your first video correctly. Maybe it wasn’t a montage, but I think that would be the exception.

For many (most?) people, the first video they ever edit is a montage. It’s a series of photos from a vacation set to music. Or it’s a series of video clips from someone’s childhood set to music. Something like that.

Montages can be fun and entertaining. They can stir your emotions, especially if you’re one of the people who was involved in the event portrayed in the montage.

For example, when you combine images from a recent waterski trip with an appropriate song, everyone who was on the trip will likely love the video.

But as great as montages are, there are ways you can improve them.

Following are five ways you can level up your montages:

1. Give Your Montage Context

In other words, if I (as the viewer) wasn’t on the waterskiing trip, what can you do to help me enjoy the video anyway — even if I’m a complete stranger?

Here’s something you can do: You can give the montage some context. Many montage videos don’t have this.

What do I mean by context?

The video should answer questions such as:

  • What is this event?
  • When was it?
  • Where was it?
  • Who was involved?
  • What were they doing?
  • (Very important) Why should I (the viewer) be interested in this?

If you build the answers to these questions into the video, even a stranger watching the video will likely understand what’s going on. And this will increase the likelihood that they enjoy watching your video.

How do you answer these questions in the video?

You could just have scrolling titles at the beginning of your video, but that’s probably the most boring option. I think there are much better (and more interesting) ways to share the information.

One good option is…

2. Use a Voice-Over in Your Montage

A voice-over is a very effective way to share information with the viewer, and yet voice-overs are surprisingly (and glaringly) missing from many videos.

Does it make sense to add a voice-over to a montage?

Not always, but I think it often does.

Voice-overs can answer all the questions I listed above. And they can also contribute to setting the mood and tone of the video.

(And yes, you can still have music in your videos. Just duck the music down during the voice-over, so the viewer can understand the voice-over clearly.)

Do you want an example of voice-overs used in montages? Watch “Planet Earth” narrated by David Attenborough.

Of course, before you can record a voice-over, it’s a good idea to have a script, which takes us to the next step…

3. Write a Script for Your Montage Video

Writing a script for a montage video can be a bit of a challenge. Here’s what I like to do to make things easier on myself.

I start by viewing all the clips and photos I might use in the video. This gives me a rough idea of what I have to work with and what the general bullet points for my script should be.

Then I jot down the bullet points and take a note of the accompanying shots that I might use to illustrate my points.

After that, I write a first draft of the script, covering the bullet points.

Finally I read the script aloud, make any needed changes, then read it aloud again.

Reading the script aloud is important because you write a voice-over script “for the ear”. This means we should avoid complex sentence structure, complex words, or anything that can make the voice-over confusing or difficult for the viewer.

The script has to be clear when you read it aloud.

4. Use Imagery to Support the Voice-Over

Once you know what your voice-over will include, you can add supporting imagery such as video clips and photos.

I want to emphasize the word “support”. The imagery supports — or even better — proves your voice-over’s points. For example, if the waterskiing voice-over says, “John had some amazing wipeouts,” you can show three clips that show him falling over and over.

The voice-over makes the point, and the imagery proves it.

This brings us to another tool you can use to prove your points.

5. Insert Interviews into the Montage

Interviews are a great way to add context to your montage. You can use them to punctuate your points. You can use them to share information with the viewer.

You can use them to set the mood and tone.

Interviews are so versatile and important, it’s frequently a good idea to use them in your videos — even in montage videos.

You can do a lot with interviews, but one classic way to use them is to have someone tell a story of something that happened and then while they’re telling the story, cut away to the footage (or sequence of photos) that shows what they’re talking about.

Once again, this adds proof and variety to your video.

Conclusion

Chances are that your montage video already includes photos, video clips, and music. These are three important elements, but if you add the additional elements I discussed above, you can take your montage videos to the next level.

If you prepare a script, add voice-overs, and add interviews to your montages, you’ll give the viewer context.

Not only will the montage video be more interesting to the folks involved with the subject of the video, but it will make the video more interesting (and understandable) to a wider audience.

Even better, it can make your montage into more of a concrete story. When a video is a story, it’s infinitely more enjoyable for your viewers.

Stock media provided by AndreyPopov/Pond5.com

11 thoughts on “Five Steps to a Better Montage

  1. Your description of how a beginner makes a video is right on target! But here’s a question. The music added to clips and images is likely to be a popular, copyrighted tune. And as such, it can’t be posted to youTube or other sharing venues. What music would you use? Or, how would you share the videos containing copyrighted music?
    Thanks for your insight! – David, an Izzy member.

    1. David, that’s a good question and the solution is to use royalty-free music. It requires you to purchase a license up front, but then you can use the music in your videos without having to pay royalties. My main source for royalty-free music is Smartsound.com.

      Anyway, I’ll plan a separate article on this topic, because there’s a lot to be aware of.

      Thanks for being a member. :)

      1. Hi Izzy thanks for the tips.
        Like yourself I’ve used a lot of SmartSound Music; it feels food to actually be “legal” and also support the artists.
        I know this is getting a bit off topic, but since we’ve mentioned both YouTube and SmartSound … recently a lot of false claims are placed against my videos by copyright agents. One company, “Orchard Music”, seems to place many inaccurate claims against my videos that legally used tracks from SmartSound.
        YouTube’s policy is to assume violation, they accept Orchard’s claim s with no questions asked. The appeal process is not moderated, Orchard is empowered to be its own judge. I have currently have two cases where Orchard has rejected my appeal.
        The second step appeal is unclear, but YouTube warns that if the decision goes against me I will receive a “strike” against my account.

        While Orchard has a false claim against my video they can place ads on it and collect revenue. The odds are sure stacked against a hobbyist like myself who is just trying to “do the right thing”. It’s discouraging; sometimes it feels like I might as well just use commercial music and don’t worry about it.

        Izzy, as a professional, do you run into this sort of nonsense too? Have you considered or use Vimeo?

        Best wishes
        George

      2. Izzy – thanks! Next time you see a special on smartsound.com let your viewers know (if you don’t mind) – I’m sure a lot of us would like to try it out if the opportunity presented itself.

        Thanks!

        1. Glad it helped. :)

          Regarding SmartSound — the best thing to do is get on their email list. I sometimes miss their promos.

  2. Thx Izzy

    These Montage tips are spot on.

    What is the easiest and cheapest option to record the voice over straight to your Macbook?
    I STILL use FCP 7 and love it!

    Rock2015Roll

    ETT

  3. Izzy, great tips! I think the interview idea is great and would be even more effective if you plan ahead and interview during the event. Of course, there is always the balance of getting the shot and at the same time not annoying the subjects and take away from the moment.

    One thing I like to do is time my cuts with the beat of the music, which I think adds congruency between the music and video/photos.

    Keep the awesome info coming!

    -Bill

  4. Hi Izzy,

    What about copyright on stills?

    I’m glad to have you on the internet!

    Thanks

    1. Thanks, Carmen. And yes, you definitely don’t want to use photos without explicit permission from the copyright holder. :)

  5. Izzy,
    As someone who is deeply involved in experimental filmmaking practices and who studied the montage theory specifically. I believe your definition may be a bit flawed. Putting an arrangement of footage to music is a rhythmic montage. There are in fact, may other types of montages….really. It is a science as well as an art, so I believe the term is being degraded in your post. Actually, I assert that a montage is, in fact, an arrangement of clips intended to evoke a certain emotion from the audience BECAUSE of its “non-linear” arrangement, not because they have no “intent.” You asserted in your post that montages don’t have necessarily any technical or artistic merits to it, and for that, I am upset as to your response.

    As soon as you mentioned suggestions I have to roll my eyes, because adding an interview no longer makes it a montage video. It is a documentary with a montage sequence in it. No longer is it a montage film. There are in fact, five different kinds of montages. Anyone who is as much of an editor as me knows that the five kinds are: Metric Editing, where the tempo of the film is shown through the length of the shot. In a Metric Montage, the story is emphasized through the speed of the edits in comparison to the length of the shot. This DOESN’T mean that music is put to it at all. In fact, many aren’t.

    A rhythmic montage is what you were describing, footage cut specifically in rhythm to a segment of music. Stylistically, it is how one transitions between beat shifts that makes a great rhythmic montage, your suggestions, in fact, would do more harm than good. In the case of a voiceover, it is best used with a metric montage. I would say that great transition and storytelling theory would help the best here. You touched on it, but honestly, that was the most important advice you could give. Not the voiceover. Which is usually a montage killer if the writing is bad, which most of the time, it is.

    There is also a Tonal Montage. Where the lighting, shadows, and colors of the footage aid in the telling of the story, and not the visuals or even sound design themselves. None of your suggestions could improve on cinematography, which is the key to a great Montage in the first place. Imagery moves the story, no shot should stand out from another unintentionally. Everything needs to be well exposed and consistent in that exposure between a sequence of edits. That wasn’t mentioned either. Color correction would be a key suggestion there to add.

    The Over-Tonal Method is the first three combined. All of these done with a holistic view would be in my definition, a great montage video. When you say “supporting imagery,” I believe you are undercutting what footage is supposed to do. In fact, the footage is supposed to be “visual evidence” with deep level metaphors. What you have described is in fact, surface level metaphors, and that will only give you the typical “so-so” video. A high level of metaphor will emphasize any auditorial element more powerfully than anything else. Slow-Motion, in fact, adds emphasis to a point. But I don’t believe those elements are mentioned in your post. In fact, it looks mostly at audio additions. Nothing was mentioned about soundscapes or sound design. Those elements separate good from great videos, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t mentioned.

    The last, and final type of montage is the intellectual montage. My short film was an attempt at that type of montage, which in fact was screened at the Hollywood Short Film Festival and nominated for best Cinematography. This genre is designed to offer an intellectual stimulation. Where how the footage makes you feel is the way the story is told. The arrangement to all of the elements prior (including sounds) combined to give an intellectual experience, where one has to jumble the pieces together to find meaning. Particularly in regards to how the piece makes you feel. There is nothing linear about it. Never is there an interview. It is about a conceptual connection. Deep metaphors the emphasis here.

    So in conclusion, I am disappointed and offended by your post. It’s lack of respect for the industry and advice that will be a detriment to the genre itself. It may be helpful to someone who never does video work for a living, but to someone who does, this could cause a great harm in adding stereotypical filmmaking habits with a lack of innovation. Your credibility is questioned by me, and I will likely never read another post from you again. I would suggest studying the vasts amounts of theory and doing a bit of research before you make, what you say is an opinion about montages.

    1. Hi Abby,

      Thank you for the detailed comment!

      First of all, I’m sorry that my post disappointed you. I probably should have mentioned that it wasn’t really directed to folks who are professional editors. This one (and many others like it) are more directed towards folks who are trying to make their personal videos more interesting (family, vacation, etc).

      Your insights are excellent and it reminds me once again that there’s always more to learn.

      In fact after I read your comment, I searched the phrase “tonal montage” because the concept is fascinating. That took me to a Wikipedia page about “Soviet montage theory” which I’m definitely curious to read more about.

      Anyway, if you explore my site further, please keep in mind that my content is largely focused on helping everyday folks with their videos. I do have some pros who follow long, but they’re a minority.

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