The Three Minute Transformation: Symbols, Self-Determination and the Training Montage


In this paper I am going to examine how training montages in Hollywood motion pictures become symbols for the idea of easy transformation. I am going to argue that the motivational properties of training montages create a false sense of self-determination and agency.

Montage is popularly considered to be a cinematic trick for the passage of time (Hamilton, 2009: 1). Typically they are characterized by short successive segments of film without dialogue but often a heavy reliance on music to communicate mood. The montage sets the narrative of the film into hyper drive in which the protagonist continues through cinematic time without the hindrance of dialogue or place setting. The history of the film montage, although likely as old as the medium itself, solidified in Russia with the advent of Lenin’s ‘Directive on Cinema Affairs’ in 1922. Lenin argued shortly there after, “…of all the arts for us the most important is cinema” (Taylor and Christie, 1994: 53). The political interest in film was for its capacity to promote party propaganda. However, the film initiative taken by the Bolsheviks party was more discursive than straightforward. Lenin’s approach to cinema was strategic, he felt that first there needed to be an audience, an established appetite for film, and once there was an audience using it as a party medium would be more successful. In this regard, the question of whether or not a film was a ‘useless picture’ was inconsequential if it helped generate ‘audience’ (Taylor and Christie, 1994: 52). This attitude allowed both film theorists and directors to experiment with the medium outside of strict documentary style propaganda pieces for the illiterate, disparate, population.

One of the filmmakers in the Soviet Workshop was Lev Kulseshov. Kuleshov focused his attention to the observations of “…the audience in the cheap seats” (Taylor and Christie, 1994: 53). This is interesting because it reveals how self-aware the process of producing cinema for economically disenfranchised people was. These observations led Kulseshov to develop a theory. “Any discussion of experimentation in Soviet film in the twenties begins with ‘Kuleshov effect’ to illustrate the power of editing. It was an illusion achieved through time which demonstrated that the succession of one shot by another would alter the apparent meaning of the component shots” (Kovacts, 1976: 34). Kuleshov’s argument, that the proximity of separate visual material would be understood in the audiences’ mind as one piece of visual material was seminal in the production of the Soviet Montage Theory. “The essence of cinema, its method of achieving maximum effect, is montage…thus for Kuleshov, the break between cinema and theatre was complete and final” (Taylor and Christie, 1994: 53).

S.M Eisenstein similarly employs a scientific methodology to further develop the montage theory. Eisenstein argues that there is a semiotics for film, which, if understood correctly by the filmmaker, could allow for unbridled access to onscreen symbolism. This indicates a shift from thinking about film as an extension of theatre or document, to thinking about film in its own capacity with its own vernacular. The montage became indicative of the new, alternative power, of film. Film was clearly not just a portable theatre or tool for documentation because it had the power to develop narrative outside of traditional channels. Eisenstein, like early European scientists who proceeded to give Latin names to the living world, also began to label the perceived difference in the treatment of film—in particular the different kinds of montages. The montages were sectioned into four overlapping but independent categories; the metric montage, rhythmic montage, tonal montage, and over tonal montage (Eisenstein, Taylor and Glenny, 1988: 51).

The metric montage is dictated by a strict time sequencing similar to a waltz. The content of the footage is subordinate to length of the edit. The rhythmic montage gives slightly more preference to the content while still following a mathematical formula. The tonal and over tonal montages shift from relying on a strict composition to ‘picture quality’ – aesthetic based consideration. Because of the calculability of the edits it follows that a similar calculation can be made for the subsequent emotional response in the viewer. Eisenstein demonstrates this theory by generating alternative definitions for the previously defined categories; primitive motor and primitive emotional, melodic emotional, and pure physiologism, respectively (Eisenstein, Taylor and Glenny, 1988: 190-192).

Eisenstein’s treatment of the categorical montage is surprisingly prescriptive and instructional. His attempt to tangibly quantify and qualify the emotional response in the viewer suggests that montages were considered an effective strategy for inducing feelings. The categories of montages were meant to ‘fine tune’ emotive responses so audience manipulation could be more precise. This is not inherently bad, per se, as all narration requires manipulation on the part of the storyteller. However, given the political climate and the state sponsorship of the research it is clear that montages were not considered inconsequential or, as is the case today, an inevitable symptom of contemporary film production. Montages, in this regard, acted as both time compressor and emotional generator in the otherwise limited environment of black and white silent film – It was “…the nerve of film”. The film workshop went as far as to suggest that, “to determine the essence of montage is to solve the problem of film as such (Eisenstein, Taylor and Glenny, 1988: 163). In this respect, soviet montages not only functions as the ‘nerve of the film’ but also as the ‘key’ to understanding the movie. Perhaps then a similar logic can be applied to more recent film history, ‘montages as microcosm’ for the films underlying message.

The training montage features the protagonist undergoing a series of challenges to perfect their craft. Typically physical, although sometimes cerebral, the protagonists visibly exert themselves beyond a comfortable limit. The film G.I Jane (1997) exemplifies the genre’s treatment in Hollywood cinema (with the exception that the main character is female and not male). The protagonist is recruited to participate in a training program for the Navy Seals—an elite division of the American Military. The montage sequences in this film are distributed throughout the movie with the largest section of training occurring for approximately eight minutes at the halfway mark. Within this ‘key montage’ the protagonist begins as an unfit recruit, which is visualized by several scenes of exhaustion during an obstacle course. She attempts scale a wall only to fall down and is shown repeatedly lagging behind her comrades. Towards the end of the progression she emerges as a formidable competitor, which is visualized through repeated one-arm push-ups and a new muscular body.

Motely, C. (2005) in his essay Fighting For Manhood: Rocky And The Turn-Of-The-Century Antimodernism describes one of Rocky’s training montage which is remarkably similar to GI Jane’s:

On the first day of his training, we see Rocky covered in sweat, holding his side in pain, barely able to climb the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This emphasizes his failed manhood, as he is unable to excel physically. However, after a montage of punching frozen carcasses, beating punching bags, and doing sit ups, Rocky is able to sprint joyously to the top of the museum’s steps, all while the lyrics of the rousing music repeat “Getting strong now/Going to fly now. (Clay, 2005: 65)

Men’s Fitness (2015) published an online list titled 10 Greatest Training Montages In Movies Ever which includes G.I Jane (1997) along with classics like, Rocky IV (1985), Karate kid, Kick Boxer (1989), Never Back Down (2007) and Batman Begins (2007). Within these films the goal of the hero shifts with changing trends, settings, and politics but the training montage remains alarmingly consistent in structure. Initially, the hero must visibly fail in a practice arena only to be later seen visibly succeeding in the same or comparable practice arena. The indexed time of a training montage typically hovers somewhere between three to eight minutes, which could reference any amount of time within the on screen narrative but usually a few weeks to a few months. This practically places the protagonist’s before and after versions of self within recent memory of the viewer.

Like the ‘Kuleshov effect’, the sequencing of the footage is what generates its significance for the viewer where it’s the context of the scene and not the individual scenes that establish the narrative—‘symbolic juxtaposition’ (Hamilton, 2009: 2). Typically, in story telling the hero extracts their heroic status not from innate goodness of the hero’s own character per se but through the contrast established by comparing the hero and the antihero (good vs. bad). However, within training montages the hero’s progression through the narrative is propelled not by contrasting the morality of one character with another but by contrasting the hero with the hero—the weak version versus the strong version. This point is further exemplified in the Rocky training sequence where the ‘practice arena’ (in this case the Philadelphia Museum of Art stairs) remains constant. Rocky’s physical abilities are the only variable in the sequence, making the audiences ability to make a direct comparison all the easier.

Screenwriter Robert Mckee’s argues in his guidebook for filmmakers that, “montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided” (Mckee, 1999: 344). Although Mckee is correct in thinking that montages are ‘substitutes’ for a more developed plot he misses the point. Montages glean their potency not from their novelty but from their predictability as on screen devices. Because of training montage’s are interchangeable structurally it is possible to consider training montages not as coincidental narratives but as symbols.

Greg Urban in his essay Symbolic force: a Corporate revitalization video and its effects discuses the potency of symbols to communicate feelings in a Harley Davidson company advertisement. The company’s motivational video came out in response to restructuring and layoffs. Urban compares the Harley Davidson video to mid century anthropologists Victor Turners findings on the symbolic potency of the Mudyi tree for the Ndembu people. The symbolic force of the Mudyi tree for the Ndembu tribe lays in its multiple ritualistic functions in the culture. Although the tree is not easily categorized, it is most notably envisaged as a fertility symbol due to its milky sap associations with breast milk and importance in a female puberty ritual (Turner, 1967: 20). The tree is part of a “…time of conflict and sadness, as young girls are growing up and leaving home. So the symbolism calls up sentiments of togetherness and community to overcome the internal divisiveness”(Urban, 2015: 107).

Urban argues that the Harley Davidson video plays “…a role analogous to that of the milk tree among the Ndembu.” For Urban, the point of the symbol was not to ‘cure’ the problems but “…rather affirm a broader sense of community in the larger group as a whole” (Urban, 2015: 108). By comparing the Ndembu people to the affected factory workers Urban is describing the framework of how cultures apply symbols to establish group cohesion. The Mudyi tree, like the Harley Davidson video, are examples of how “…symbols affected social conduct”(Urban, 2015: 95). The concept of group cohesion as a result of symbols is further supported by the consequent research Urban did on the audience’s emotional responses. He concludes that the symbols in the video are easily interpreted for a positive response from people who share the community of the factory workers. “The overall symbol calls up feelings–in this case feelings about America, small town life, and craftsmen…the sensory or ‘orectic’ pole of the symbol this is the pole that taps into feelings and summons emotions” (Urban, 2015: 102). Whilst people outside of the target community, immigrants etc., were less responsive to the symbols.  A similar framework of symbology can be applied to the training montage. Although training montages serves a utilitarian purpose of time compression, in the same way the tree ritual helped initiate females into puberty, the additional function is to engender emotions in the viewer (community members) through its potency as a symbol – ‘symbols call up feelings’ (Urban, 2015: 107).

Training montages are essentially symbols for transformation. However, unlike actual transformation, which is incredibly hard and cumbersome, the training montage is entirely palatable if not enjoyable. Partially enjoyable because of the expected outcome of the viewer (satisfaction) and partially enjoyable because the illustration of labour is so reduced it no longer requires a sympathetic response on behalf of the viewer. This ‘transformation spectacle’ is motivational in its illusionary easiness ­ change feels attainable. A quick glance at some you tube comments under sections of training montages suggests this hypothesis is valid, You Tuber Anthony Bealle comments about the Rocky training montage, “From when I was a youngster to this day, still motivates me!” Kiloton says “I come here once every 4 years to re-affirm my life” (You Tube, 2015).

Watching the onscreen protagonists ease themselves from a weak body to a strong body asserts the belief that change is self-determined and more importantly, achievable. Perhaps the potency of training montages can be attributed to the notion of ‘character building’—where hard work is seen not as a symptom of classed oppression but viewed as a much needed opportunity to develop oneself. ‘Good character’ is “…an ideal associated with nineteenth-century conceptions of work as meaningful and rewarding” (Gray, 2010: 79).

Take for instance Rocky: an impoverished boxer who fights and injures himself for forty dollars, and that’s if he wins. He is a self-described ‘bum’ who “…is not considered a ‘true’ man; he has no power, whether it be economic, social, or physical, and is the constant pawn of forces beyond his control” (Motley, 2005: 65). Rocky, via the strength of his character, transforms himself physically from a ‘bum’ into a man. The narrative sets up a framework for change, which alludes to the idea that the change in Rocky is not just physical but is a total character transformation—a self-made man.

The myth of the self-made man, and of character building is, of course, not outside a socio-economic contextualization. Both of these ideas—were a useful management tactic because it offered ways to prevail over the declining intimacy between employer and employee in the modern corporation. By cultivating loyalty, good habits, self-discipline, and other forms of “good” character, employers hoped to counteract some of the growing pains of modernisation” (Gray, 2010: 84). In this respect training montages can be seen as part of larger program that promotes self-improvement in lieu of societal improvement. Rocky, like GI Jane and the other protagonists are depicted achieving their goals through self-motivation alone despite typically coming from poor economies. The montages associated with these symbolic transformations reduce the complexities of change into a simple, easy to understand, comparisons between the weak character (before) and the strong character (after).

It is easy to normalize the training montage as part of the ‘natural’ language of film and defend the feel good vibes generate from such inspirational moments. However, considering its roots in soviet Russia it is interesting to consider how these symbols of transformation function in a contemporary context and who might the self-determination / good character rhetoric benefit. The emphasis on ‘self determination’ particularly with Rocky in post-industrial America reads somewhat ironic in hindsight. How are you supposed to exercise your way through poverty? You’re not, but after you watch a few films (to say write this essay) you feel like might be able to, and that’s likely the point.



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