Crafting an Effective Series of Shots / Montage

In prepping today’s Daily Dialogue post which features a scene from the lovely movie Chocolat, I watched two video clips — a Series of Shots and a Montage. They’re both great and provide some good takeaways for screenwriters.

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Scenes from the movie “Chocolat”.

First, just to be clear: There is no set definition in Hollywood of Series of Shots or Montage. The latter does have a specific historical derivation. In fact back in the 30s and 40s, directors would sometimes hand over the job to a montage specialist. For example, future director Don Siegel worked at the montage department at Warner Bros. and was responsible for dozens of montages including this one in Casablanca part of which you can see here:

Over time, the meaning of the term evolved so as a result, Montage and Series of Shots get used interchangeably. The way I think about and teach the subject is this:

• Montage: A series of individual pieces that tells a mini-story covering a long period of time.
• Series Of Shots: A series of individual images that tells a mini-story covering a short period of time.

Chocolat features both. Here is a Montage wherein Vianne sets up her chocolate shop:

Here is a Series of Shots in which Vianne prepares for a party:

The biggest single takeaway is this: Both tell a story. A mini-story, but still one with a beginning, middle, and end.

The Beginning is the start of preparations.
The Middle is progress being made.
The End is the task finalized.

So there is a basic chronology of time moving forward. But both are much more than that. In each mini-story, there is some element of tension, even conflict.

In the Montage, the local citizens express curiosity about Vianne is doing with the shop, some dismissive in this disruptive influence in their small village, most notably evidenced by Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the town’s mayor, notably upset about Vianne opening the shop during Lent, a time of abstinence. The Montage ends symbolically enough when the pious Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss) gets struck by wheel sent rolling along when some local boys get distracted by the delicious sights in the shop window.

In the Series of Shots, the middle of the mini-story is taken over by Reynaud who at first attacks the chocolates in the shop window display, then gives in to the ‘seduction’ of the sweets, a metaphor for his repressed sexual desires and lust for Vianne.

A third takeaway: The individual images of food preparation are visually appealing and the cumulative effect is to have immersed the viewer in the wondrous subculture of fine cuisine.

But — and this is a big ‘but’ — one problem for screenwriters is the simple fact that what we write on the page in the way of Series of Shots and Montages almost never can match up with the visual representations on film. So our challenge is not only to tell a mini-story… not only to provide something else going on in the way of the mini-story’s psychological meaning… and not only to entertain with each individual shot and the whole set of images… we have to use language which is imbued with visuality and emotionality.

As these two examples in Chocolat demonstrate, Series of Shots and Montages can be wonderfully effective narrative devices. However they also set the bar really high for us, ultimately in a good way. We need to ask ourselves: Does this Series of Shots or Montage I’m considering for my script rise to the level of entertainment approximate to that of Chocolat? If not, we need to work like hell to get in that ballpark through the choice of images, the arc of the narrative, and the use of psychological dynamics at play in our mini-story.

What are your favorite movie examples of Series of Shots and Montages? Head to comments and share your thoughts.

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