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How to Use Realism vs Formalism in Film

Jourdan Aldredge

Apr 8, 2022

When you venture into the world of film theory, the lines between reality and art can quickly begin to blur. After all, to quote French film critic André Bazin from his seminal work of film criticism What is Cinema?, “Reality is not art, but a realistic art is one that can create an integral aesthetic of reality.”

However, for filmmakers looking to shoot their first short films, there are many decisions still to be made in terms of how you might choose to portray reality in your film versus how much you explore reality and the avant garde.


Let’s explore some of these difficult film decisions and then try to explain the age-old debate between cinematic realism vs formalism in film. And hopefully you’ll be more equipped to tell stories where you can create your own integral aesthetic of reality, whether you’re working on a short film, corporate video, or commercial project.

What is cinematic realism?

Going back through film history, there’s an almost endless amount of important genres and styles to explore as part of film theory. However, one film type which stands out even today is this concept of realism (also called “cinematic realism”) in film. 

But what does this term actually mean?



Cinematic realism is simply an academic term for a category of film which is part of the realism in art movement. This cinematic realism can also be called “slice of life cinema” as its style is meant to recreate all of the small and intimate sights, sounds, and feelings of everyday life — but on the big screen.

There are many ways in which filmmakers can choose (and have chosen) to create cinematic realism as a cinematic style, and we’ll go over a few of them below. But from a basic definition, it’s best to think of it more as a categorical term that fits the style within a greater realist art movement.

What is cinematic formalism?

On the other end of the film theory spectrum, we have to talk about formalism. This theory is often thought of as the antithesis to cinematic realism and the goals of classic realists filmmakers. It's less about realism and reality and more about fictional events and various kinds of movies (and other forms of content) which are meant to be enjoyed.

From a basic definition standpoint, formalism is considered the polar opposite to realism. It’s focused on the “formal” or technical elements of film and the opportunities they present to tell more commercial and fun-to-watch films and videos. 

As such, there are an even greater number of ways in which filmmakers can use formalism in their craft. Its style dictates that all of the elements (including scripting, shooting, lighting, editing, soundtracking, etc.) are meant to work together following the same formula.

Realism vs formalism



As mentioned above, the best way to discuss both cinematic realism and formalism is simply in regards to their relationship with each other. And in many ways this might be the central debate in film theory and criticism, at least in terms of how we as filmmakers (and cinefiles) must wrestle with the implications of cinematic storytelling.

From a basic definition standpoint again, here are some of the key hallmarks of each of these distinct styles:

Characteristics of realism (also called “slice of life cinema”)

  • It's focus is on the everyday, mundane, and unspectacular elements of life.
  • Shots are more objective without extra effects or meaning.
  • Camera is usually framed at eye-level and reflects human behavior and movement.
  • Shots are often static on a tripod, or with little movement.
  • Lighting and composition feels open and random without added flair.
  • Locations are usually real locations and not tailored sets.
  • Focus of editing is on continuity and not meant to distract in any way.
  • Music and audio is diegetic and meant to come from the world.

Characteristic of formalism

  • It's considered the classic Hollywood style.
  • It's focus is on creating entertaining films which audiences can enjoy.
  • Shots are more subjective and meant to add effects and meaning.
  • Camera can be framed up with different angles, levels, and lengths to add variety.
  • Shots usually incorporate movement to make them more active and enjoyable.
  • Lighting and composition is meant to draw the viewer into the action.
  • Locations are often on controlled sets which aid in production.
  • Focus of editing is on story and entertainment, not necessarily continuity.
  • Music and audio can be non-diegetic to make the film more exciting.

As you can see, these two different film styles line up to symmetrically oppose each other. Still, the debate between the two quickly becomes muddled as filmmakers have found ways to incorporate elements of both into their own unique styles.

Types of realism and formalism in film

We’ll get into some famous directors as well as their individual choices and styles, but first we need to look specifically at realism and the many types of subcategories which exist for this film style. 

  • Classical realism: A name for the artistic movement from the early 21st century that informs much of the cinematic realism style from its explorations with paintings and photography.
  • Classical Hollywood cinema: The original predominant style of formalism in film with its heyday coinciding with the golden age of American filmmaking from the 1910s into the 1960s.
  • Neorealism: Also called Italian neorealism which comes from its roots in Italian cinema; this post World War II-style aimed to capture the Italian psyche and conditions of everyday life.
  • Surrealism: Characterized by the rejection of dramatic psychology; surrealism was an artistic response to the realism of the early 21st century which aimed to shock and challenge audience perceptions.
  • Cinéma vérité: A style of documentary-filmmaking which was meant to capture “true cinema” from true events and in documentary films without any external messaging or meaning which rose to prominence in the 1960s and beyond.
  • Hyperrealism: Owes its roots to painting and sculpting; hyperrealism is a more modern style of realism which focuses such images on exact, photographic realism.
  • Psychological realism: A hybrid-style of realism which inserts elements of realism into formalistic stories to portray the inner-movie or narrative of characters’ minds.

Famous realist filmmakers



Now let’s take a look at a few select filmmakers to explore how they’ve chosen to follow these different film theories and subgenres. From Jean Renoir to Martin Scorsese, some of the most famous filmmakers throughout film history have found new and creative ways to work with these styles.

  • Jean Renoir — The Rules of the Game (1939): A true filmmaking pioneer, Jean Renoir’s most famous film could be considered a great example of classic realism’s use in film as he strove to portray real characters in a naturalistic and real manner.
  • Vittorio De Sica — The Bicycle Thieves (1948): One of the most famous examples of Italian neorealism, The Bicycle Thieves is taught in film schools as the textbook example of how the Italian filmmakers of the 1940s brought a fierce, and at times heartbreaking, honesty to filmmaking.
  • Martin Scorsese — Raging Bull (1980): Known for combining different genres and styles, Raging Bull might have been Scorsese’s most successful attempt to turn a standard sports and wrestling genre picture on its head with added elements of realism.
  • Richard Linklater — Before Sunrise (1995): For a look into modern realism, Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy is a great example of what can be achieved when you strip away many of the formalistic elements of classic filmmaking and instead focus on characters and mundane conversation.
  • Kathryn Bigelow — The Hurt Locker (2008): Perhaps one of the best examples of how contemporary Hollywood seamlessly combines elements of realism and formalism, Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker presents a new future for open-ended filmmaking decisions.

How to use aesthetic realism and formalism in your projects

Now, the question remains: How do you use the aesthetics and nature of realism and formalism in your own films and projects? While we could give you a list of which types of camera shots to use and which styles of composition to consider, the real answer is going to come down to your own cinematic choices and decisions.

In many ways, we’re at the precipice of a new age of film and media where traditional Hollywood production and theatrical screenings are on the way out. New media options like YouTube and TikTok are available for up-and-coming filmmakers, and streaming services are experimenting with different formats and lengths which haven’t been utilized before.

Still, many of your filmmaking decisions will come down to how you might want to portray real life versus how you might want to distort reality. There’s no right answer here on which options you choose, but understanding the history of how these decisions have been made in the past can help inform your future.

Further reading

If you’d like to read more into other types of film theory, or simply check out other cool filmmaking tips and tricks, be sure to read some of these additional articles from the Soundstripe blog: