Experimental Filmmaking

Also known as avant-garde (vanguard), experimental films are rare and totally unpopular. In fact, most people will go their entire lives without ever catching a glimpse of an experimental movie. Most will never sit through one.

As the word “experimental” suggests, this type of movie is trying something new, different… so different that, at first, it will cause confusion, if not annoyance on the viewer.

In simple terms, experimental films are incredibly easy to define but quite difficult to understand since most people have no preconception of what they are. Imagine a movie that is neither narrative nor documentary. What remains? Chaos, disorder, incoherence … An amalgam of ideas forced together by the filmmaker without any regards for characters, structure, or theme.

The vast majority of avant-garde films are not screened in theaters, aired on TV, or sold in discs – they are not mainstream and have little to no commercial life whatsoever.

So who makes them and why?

Although most filmmakers are in it for the money, trying their best to create something profitable, other directors just want to make movie for themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bunuel Un Chien andalou ant hand

Ants emerging from a man’s hand in
“Un Chien Andalou” (1929).

Like any other art form, cinema can also be a therapeutic activity. This is not to imply that those who make them are maniacs, not at all. However, some directors are not concerned about what people may think or commercial success – they make movies for themselves.

Occasionally, an experimental movie may become popular despite its peculiarities or even because of them. Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel achieved quite some renown with Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog). A surrealist, 16-minute movie from 1929, Un Chien Andalou is generally considered the most famous experimental movie. Here goes the first minute…

Un Chien Andalou opens with a title card that reads “Once upon a time,” followed by a tight shot of a razor being sharpened. After sharpening his razor, a man (played by Buñuel himself) walks to a balcony, from where he gazes at the moon, which is about to be obscured by a passing cloud. Then there’s a close-up of young woman, who sits calmly at the balcony. The man looks at the moon again, and, as he looks back at the woman, he slits her eye open. End scene. Another title card: “Eight years later.” Another man bicycles down a street while wearing a nun’s habit…

Again, experimental films are not tied to any story structure, character arc, or common sense. These brave filmmakers make movies for themselves.

Success Amid Chaos

The great thing about experimental films is that it allows filmmakers to try something new.

Have you heard of mockumentaries? Mockumentaries are part narrative filmmking, part documentary filmmaking — they tell fake stories while using the techniques found in documentaries. The result is a hybrid style that spawned a new genre altogether. Many movies such as This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show and many TV shows like The Office and Modern Family have found great acclaim in this style.

Though they are now part of a different genre, the early mock-documentaries were part of someone’s experimentation.


Documentary Filmmaking

Unlike narrative cinema, which tells stories that are usually pure fabrications of someone’s imagination, documentary filmmaking is more concerned with exposing and interpreting real facts and historical events. Subjects of documentaries can be the illegal hunting of endangered species, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and the downfall of the Nazi regime.

Even though documentary cinema explores real events, not all documentaries present the absolute truth. Filmmakers, like any other artists, are both privileged and burdened by the power of manipulation. As such, they are blessed and cursed by the possibility to bend the truth.

While some directors choose to simply broadcast occurrences, like Jacques Perrin in Winged Migration, others prefer to judge them, like Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Still others work to alienate an audience, like Leni Riefenstahl with her Triumph of the Will, a famous propaganda movie about the Nazi regime.

Despite their different purposes, the three movies above are considered documentaries because they debate and analyze real events.

The Structure of Documentaries

At its core, documentary filmmaking is an opinion former and a trendsetter. Its structure is built as to allow the filmmaker freedom to manipulate and persuade their spectators. Even the purest directors fall prey on their position and the liberty of the medium, and they end up being biased enough to impose their own perspectives onto the world.

Documentary filmmakers have the following weapons in their arsenal:

Voice of God Narration: This is the voice-over heard in a documentary film. The pretentious reference to the almighty is due to the influential force the voice-over has in documentaries. In narrative cinema, voice-over offers exposition and personal comments. On documentaries, however, voice-overs are used to state some “truths”. If you hear the sentence, “There are only 80 pandas left in the entire world” spoken by a deep voice, you will believe the statement. That’s the reason why most narrators are men and many from Britain – apparently the British accent is more persuasive than American English.

Documentation: To make a point convincingly, the filmmaker must present evidence from legitimate sources. The evidence is the documentation. A letter from your Uncle Bob carries less legitimacy than an article from the New York Times, hence selecting sources is paramount for documentaries. Newspaper articles, bank statements, government records, surveillance footage are all fair game for the filmmaker because they carry the weight of truth. For the most part, at least. Occasionally, directors may intentionally misuse documents and take it out of context to mislead the audience.

Interviews: Much like documentation, interviews are common on documentaries and equally valid as sources. In the documentary Super Size Me, for instance, because the movie director, Morgan Spurlock, has no knowledge over heart health, he has to consult with cardiologist Stephen Siegel, MD, who becomes his expert witness.

Expert Witness: An expert witness is anyone that has great knowledge on the subject that they are testifying on. It requires no degree but vast experience. An illiterate farmer from Texas could be considered an expert witness on a documentary about cattle manure. As a general rule, the audience is much more likely to listen to an expert witness than a random John Doe from the streets. Expert witnesses don’t always have to be interviewed on camera. Their statements or archival footage also carry great weight.

Narrative Filmmaking

Narrative filmmaking refers to the types of movies that tell a story. These are the films most widely screened in theaters, broadcast on TV, streamed in the internet, and sold as DVDs and Blu-rays.

Here’s a clip from Once Upon a Time in The West (1968), one of the greatest Westerns ever made and a perfect example of a narrative film:

Though fictional filmmaking is another term for narrative cinema, the word “fictional” doesn’t imply that such movies are purely based on fictional events. In some cases, reality and fiction blend together. To illustrate, one of the storylines in James Cameron’s Titanic is about the steamship RMS Titanic that struck an iceberg in her maiden voyage and sunk soon afterwards – a real, greatly documented incident that happened on April 14, 1912. However, the romance between Rose and Jack, another prominent storyline in the movie, is a product of Cameron’s imagination, just like both characters.

The terms “fictional cinema” and “narrative cinema” mean that the filmmaker has the freedom to create storylines and alter historical facts as he or she sees fit. This freedom allows the director to shape the movie and perfect the story. One of the many reasons why Titanic broke a box office record was because the audience could identify with Jack and Rose and root for them.

The Classic Elements of Narrative Films

Fictional films are made of a string of events and structured based on cause and effect. While the beginning of a movie and the introduction of certain characters can be arbitrary, the subsequent scenes must happen based on a clear logic; an identifiable motivation that justifies character behavior, action, and goals. The occurrences in narrative cinema are never random; rather, they are always organized based on a main line of action and connected through theme. To illustrate:

  • In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and unfairly incarcerated (cause), he begins to plan his escape (effect).
  • In Tootsie (1981), when Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is confronted by his agent who says that he will never find job in show business, Michael decides to dress up as woman and prove that he is a great actor worthy of major roles, regardless of his gender.

The Movies According to Hollywood

 The Hollywood Style (or Classical Hollywood cinema) refers to a set of “rules” which most American films abide by. These notions, many of which originated during the Golden Age of Hollywood, have be adopted by filmmakers around the globe as a standard.  They are not necessarily rules, but perhaps guidelines that help the industry defines its stories:
  • On Characters:
    • Likable protagonists who the audience can love and cheer for. Think Will Kane in High Noon, and how he embodies values of honor, justice, and bravery.
    • Active, goal-oriented heroes who have goals and obstacles to overcome.
    • Character arc is how characters grow and evolve as the story unfolds. This often makes them more sympathetic because they can learn from previous mistakes and become better people.
  • On Structure:
    • A linear, chronological sequence of events is preferred by Hollywood purists because it doesn’t call attention to the mechanics of the medium (though nowadays this is no longer an issue since the audience has grown accustomed to it.)
    • A beginning, middle, and end is a oversimplification of the 3-act structure. This notion makes sure that the story is always progressing, while throwing twists and turns at the audience.
  • On Conflict:
    • On a narrative film, conflict or obstacles are expected on practically every scene.
    • Even “happy” scenes will generally contain an element of tension, which is designed to hook the audience and keep them engaged.

Film Form

Film Form Quote

Whether concrete or abstract, the subject matter of an artwork must be expressed with form – a set of conventions and patterns used to perceive, evaluate, and define an artwork.

Filmmakers have two basic senses to explore in their movies: sight and hearing. The elements that stimulate these two senses are numerous. As a result, the combination of them generates infinite different styles and stories. But all these different possibilities are found in one of three possible film forms:

Note: I don’t discuss experimental films in the sections below due to their “different” nature. To read more about experimental films, on the respective link above.


Analyzing Form

On Structure

Is the movie structured linearly or not? Narrative movies often present facts in a chronological order, just like life. High Noon (1952) is an example of a linearly structured movie. It opens with Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) planning his wedding and retirement. When he finds out that Frank Miller, a deadly killer, was set free and is now returning to his county, Kane cancels his plans. During the middle portion of the movie, Kane tries to recruit men to help him. The movie ends with the showdown between Kane and Frank Miller.

Note: Not all narrative movies have linear structure. Some notable examples are:
  • Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
  • Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
  • Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
  •  (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

Documentaries, on the other hand, are a collection of scenes and moments assembled in a non-linear fashion. If done right, the several sequences in a documentary interweave back and forth to create a meaningful amalgam that surveys a specific theme and makes a specific point.

On Perspective

Whose point of view is it? A documentary film assumes the position of a specific group of people that defends a certain cause. In order to offer a holistic analysis of any given topic, documentaries often have an investigative perspective that surveys many sides pertinent to an argument. But this could be biased.

Narrative movies often share the protagonist’s perspective, and everything pertinent to the story is told from his or her point of view. This quality of narrative cinema attempts to make the audience identify with the main character.

The Hollywood Style

Making the audience identify with a particular character is a trait of the Hollywood style. This technique has proven to be a successful method for evoking the audience’s interest. To achieve this, characters must be personable and their goals easily understood.

On Theme

Theme is the central idea that governs and unifies a film and its elements. A narrative movie can have a theme like “love conquers all” or “greed is your demise.” One-word themes like “justice” or “peace” are also fair game and quite common.

In documentary cinema, the theme is called “thesis,” to borrow from the tradition of academic papers and scholarly journals. A thesis, like a theme, also unifies and governs the movie. However, theses are different because they are complex statements that must be identified before pre-production or even development can start.

Filmmaker’s Insight

When making a documentary, the first thing you need is a thesis.

What you need first is actually an idea, a concept. Then you need to produce a statement from it, something clear with perspective and relevance. This statement is your thesis. All the interviews and documentation presented in the documentary must reinforce the thesis.

Let’s say your thesis is “President George W. Bush was a disgrace for the world.” To support this thesis, you should not include interviews from people who have nice things to say about him. There’s no question that this technique is biased, but documentaries function this way.


What is Cinema?

Plus: A Quick Voyage Through the Early Years of Motion Pictures

lumiere poster cinematographe

Probably the first poster advertising a film screening. Cinema was so new at the time that they had to explain what it was in the image.

Cinema, or motion picture, is the art of moving images; a visual medium that tells stories and exposes reality.

Created in the tail end of the 19th century, cinema is the world’s most recent art form. It is also, by far, the world’s most complex, collaborative, and costly artistic expression.

Is Cinema Really an Art Form?

It’s not very common, but I’ve been asked that question a couple of times, and I’m never sure how to answer it.  On my post about Film Form, I start the article with a quote from Maya Daren, the Russian filmmaker, where she compares cinema with other art forms like dance, theater, music, etc.

For me, motion picture is a grand art form that uses elements from all other arts. So if you consider literature, photography, music as arts, then you would have to consider filmmaking an art as well because they are all integrated.

However, I do understand why some may show uncertainty. When watching big budget Hollywood flicks such as X-Men or The Avengers, it’s sometimes hard to really admire cinema because there’s so much happening on the screen that we get caught up in the story or visual effects (not to mention all the soda and pop corn). But even in expensive spectacles like those action movies, you can still close your eyes and listen to the score, or mute the volume and watch its photography. (Have you ever done that? It’s pretty awesome.)

The humble point I am trying to make to all the naysayers is that by breaking cinema into its many parts, it is easier to absorb its artistic elements. For instance, take a look at this frame from Wes Anderson’s 2014 film, Grand Budapest Hotel.

2014-02-22-grandbudapestsceneryTell me if that’s not a painting. Look at the clouds, the vanishing mountains, the rocks. Gorgeous, isn’t it? And although some frames are more breathtaking than others, every single frame is still incredibly important to the cinematographer. What changes is the subject: sometimes they are shooting a closeup, other times they are shooting sweeping vistas like the one above.

Perhaps the reason why filmmaking currently receives a lot of criticism is because digital cinema is replacing a lot of the old techniques from traditional cinema. For example, decades ago the background above would have to be traditionally painted with paint on canvas. But today that doesn’t happen as often. The artist in charge of the background probably took a picture of the landscape and “enhanced” it in Photoshop, composting in the foreground elements. But does that really diminish his creation when the end result is still so pleasant and attractive? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief History

The kinetoscope.

In the beginning, the first two versions of the film camera (the kinetograph in America and the cinematograph in Europe) were used to record simple events such as a train arriving at a station and an elephant being electrocuted (because you see that every day, right?). Documentary filmmaking so-to-speak  was then born and tremendously explored.

The Pioneers

Thomas Edison together with his employee  William Kennedy Laurie Dickson invented the first motion camera in the early 1890s: the kinetograph, as it was called, was a bulky machine so heavy that transportation was impossible. To make things worse, the device used to view the movies only allowed one person to watch at a time, thus it was not a projector. This device, the kinetoscope (pictured), was popular in penny arcades where guests would pay to watch short films through a peephole on top of the device.

Meanwhile in France, the Lumière brothers developed a device that was much more practical and user-friendly. This early movie camera, called the cinematograph, was only slightly bigger than a shoe box. It was light, so light in fact that the brothers could take it practically anywhere to film whatever they wish. Moreover, the cinematograph was also a projector, which is why the Lumière brothers are sometimes heralded as the “fathers of cinema,” as projection is an essential component of the movie experience.

Scholarly Insight

To say that the first movies were documentaries is a fallacy. And a big one. The first one-reelers were no more than a minute long, and they were called actualities. They were recordings of regular daily events. Documentary filmmaking – something far more elaborate than actualities – was developed later. Documentaries are complex films with a different structure and purpose. [Read more…]

Perhaps the only valid argument for calling those first actualities “documentaries” is on the account of a specific style of documentary called cinéma vérité (French for “truthful cinema”). Cinéma vérité is characterized by a naturalistic approach to filming. Those first actualities were indeed naturalistic because the camera operators shot natural scenes without any intent to neither distort them nor ennoble them.

The Business of Moviemaking

Make no mistake, since the very beginning, the movies were about one thing: making money. That’s why inventors like Edison and the Lumières were quick to apply for patents; their mission was to corner the market.

After charging admission and witnessing the audience’s positive response, the Lumière brothers hired men to travel the world and capture exotic images. When they returned to France, what brothers screened ranged from elephants in India, to the pyramids in Egypt, to the waterfalls in Niagara. But this model of showing sceneries could only go so far. The audience got tired of what quickly became the “same old same old.”

But one stage magician, George Méliès, changed the game. With his performer background, Méliès saw a potential in the camera that no one had seen before. He focused on telling fictional stories and creating visual effects like this one: [add image]

Méliès was arguably the first filmmaker because in his productions he applied various elements that make modern narrative cinema such as actors, art direction, scripted actions, costumes, and a lot of editing.

New Heights

After Méliès, it was only a matter of the time for the art to spread and captivate the population. Entrepreneurs found a way to monetize the newly-invented art. Theatres were built, and admission tickets became mandatory to enjoy that show of lights and shadows. With the high demand and increasing profits, the market became favorable for filmmakers. Soon, studios were raised. Cast and crew signed contracts. Producers became gods. And in the 1930s, the American film industry peaked, churning out dozens of movies a month.

Cinema evolved. Movies became longer. Sound was added. Hollywood was built. Color film became economical. Hitchcock lived, prospered, and died. Specials effects were created. Digital was invented. A century passed, and the motion picture industry still flourishes.

Nowadays, cinema can be defined as the art of colorful moving images enhanced by voices, sounds, and music, still telling stories, still entertaining, and most importantly, still selling popcorn.