Watch a stage play and you’ll notice that stage plays cannot rely on special effects, outrageous stunts, or visual effects to tell a story. Instead, stage plays must tell a compelling story using nothing but a stage and a bare minimum of sets that suggest an actual location. If you can tell a compelling story on an empty stage, you can probably tell a compelling story on film as well.
However, the reverse isn’t always true. One feature of film that never translates well into a stage play is a montage. Not only is a montage too troublesome to create on stage (constant changes of action, costume, and setting), but a montage also distances the audience emotionally from the characters. This is especially apparent in a montage scene from Pixar’s latest film, “Elemental.”
Notice that this montage from “Elemental” lets you see the two main characters interacting, but doesn’t let you experience the action as they’re interacting. Montages tend to be a lazy way to move a story along while a more effective way would be to focus on a single emotional moment and let the audience really feel the emotions of the characters involved.
Now watch this scene from “Jerry Maguire” where the hero is trying to reunite with his wife. Not only does this scene intensify the emotions and tease them out so the outcome remains unknown, but to raise the stakes, the hero is trying to declare his love for his wife in front of a group of other women.
Even better, the tension remains high because the emotional moment is intense. The hero is laying bare his heart in front of everyone. This isn’t just a moment where he says he likes her but a moment when he declares his love for her and the reasons why. The scene starts in doubt, gradually gets more intense, and finally concludes with the ultimate victory of the hero reuniting with his wife.
Because the emotional outcome remains in doubt and the emotions increase in intensity with high stakes, we can’t help but get emotionally sucked into the moment as well. The scene drags out the outcome to increase suspense and make us really watch and study the two main characters.
None of that happens in a montage. In the “Elemental” montage, there’s nothing at stake (risk) so there’s no tension there. The characters aren’t pushing their emotions to the extreme so there’s no intensity. There’s no final outcome that makes us happy or sad. As a result, the montage in “Elemental” cheapens and simplifies the emotions of the main characters while the scene from “Jerry Maguire” lets us experience the emotions of the main characters.
There is a place for montages, but it’s rarely when creating emotional scenes. “Elemental” could have been a better story if it let us feel the emotional struggle between the main characters more instead of taking the lazy way out and showing us a montage instead.
Don’t make this same mistake. Study the better Pixar movies (“Toy Story”, “Up”, “WALL-E”, etc.) and notice how many montages you see. Then study “Elemental” and ask yourself if the montage helps or hurts the story.