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Two Major Film Theories From Film’s Inception: Formalist & Realist

film theories With the birth of film in the late 1800’s two central theories of film quickly formed. The first more centered on documenting what one saw around them, and the second theory set on expressing the endless possibilities of the imagination. The major differences between Formalist and Realist film theories are the pacing and the focus. Now let us explore what these two theories are and how they differ.

Some of the earliest films were Realist films. Realist films were made popular by the Lumiere brothers, who documented their surroundings. These Realist films, or “actualities” as they were called, were thus in a sense early forms of documentaries. They dealt with and showed everyday life, like “Baby’s Breakfast”, which is merely a baby eating breakfast.

film theories
Shot from Lumiere’s Film: Baby’s Breakfast

The “story” was a real life incident. These films ran much slower, in pace and in excitement, than Formalist films would. The content may have been interesting or funny to audiences, but the length of each single shot dragged on for some time.

Lumiere thought of film as a technological advancement that was made to simply showcase life to the entire word. The brothers did not believe it was meant to be used as a means for storytelling. So, in the beginning Realistic films did not deal with made-up or staged stories, only realistic situations. They later began to deal with story lines that were in fact staged or acted out, but they still continued with their previous characteristics of documenting life with long singular shots.

The focus of these films were very different from Formalist films as well. Realist films cared much more about showcasing the characters and/or actors. They used close-ups much more frequently in order to convey emotion. The focus on the talent meant they relied on them to tell the story to the audience.

Another popular style of film-making during this era was Formalist. These types of films were much different than the realist films discussed above. Filmmaker George Melies was one of the pioneers of this style of film theory.

film theories
Shot From Melies’ Most Famous Film: A Trip to the Moon

Formalist films were popular because they were starkly different from the “actualities” that were introduced to the audience during the early stages of film. These films had story-lines, and they focused on illusions, myths and fantasies.

Unlike Realist films they focused on external devices in order to show emotions and convey messages. Music, makeup, sets, props, etc. were the driving forces behind these type of films.

film theories
Shot from Melies film: Under The Sea

They also utilized several camera techniques before realist filmmakers ever began too, like multiple exposure, superimposition and time-lapse. In Melies film ‘Paris De L’Opera’ a celluloid strip was not functioning properly in the camera and as a result, in the dailies he saw a bus transform itself into a hearse. Although a mistake, he discovered this technique which then became popular in Formalist films.

Pacing in Formalist films was much quicker and the shots lasted for shorter periods of time, as they wanted to make these films more exciting to the audiences.

So while Realist film theory lends itself as an early style of documentary, Formalist film theory is the catalyst behind the blockbuster style of movies we enjoy today. Both film theories are an integral part of film history and are stepping stones in the creation of everything that has come after them.

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