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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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