Realism, Formalism, and Classicism

August 31, 2007

These past three days we’ve been looking at some of the first films ever made, and the different traditions that they started. First we have The Lumiere Brothers who invented a portable camera, took it to the streets, and made the first documentaries. Next there was George Melies, the magician, who made fantasy films and developed some of the first special effects. Then there was Edwin Porter, director of the Great Train Robbery, who used actors and sets and effects to try and tell a believable and compelling story on film.

These three filmmakers were each pioneers for traditions that have continued throughout film history. These traditions are known as Realism, Formalism, and Classicism.

Realism, started by the Lumiere documentaries, is all about showing the truth. A realist will try to preserve the illusion that their film world is unmanipulated, an objective mirror of the actual world. We rarely notice the style in a realistic movie. They often aim for a rough look, with the idea that “if it’s too pretty, it’s false.” This means there is often handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available light (often just the sun). They use non-professional actors (real people playing themselves). They don’t build sets, but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations. They films often deal with social issues. For example: A man needs to find a job in order to feed his family. He is offered a job, but it is required that he own a bicycle for transportation. He and his wife pawn everything they can to buy a bike. He gets the bike and goes to work. On his first day of work the bicycle gets stolen. Now he must find the bicycle. This describes the first 10 minutes of “the Bicycle Thief.” It was shot on the streets of Italy with people who had never acted before, using just a camera on a tripod and a basic light kit.

At the other end of the scale, we have Formalism. Formalist directors have no desire to show reality. They want to show their personal vision of the world. They are concerned with spiritual and psychological truths that can best be represented by distorting and exaggerating the image. When Melies made “A Trip to the Moon” he wasn’t concerned with what a space ship or the moon might actually looked like. He wanted to be funny and use cool special effects. So he makes a purposefully fake looking bullet, which the astronauts climb into and are shot into space, hitting the moon (which does have a face) right in the eyeball. Formalistic films are often dream-like. They have detailed, exaggerated sets and costumes. They have complicated camerawork and symbolic lighting. The style draws attention to itself., as if the director is saying, “Look at me! I am an artist and I made this!” At the extreme end, formalist will avoid story and characters altogether, and instead try to convey a particular mood or emotion by showing abstract images.  Watch Melies’ “The Black Imp” or “Trip to the Moon

In between the two we have Classicism. This is typified by “The Great Train Robbery” and most hollywood style films that came after it. Classicism is all about ideal storytelling. The goal of a classicist is to tell a story in the best way possible. They want to you get caught up in the characters and their problems, to feel what they feel, but not be distracted by the filmmaking techniques. Classicists will build sets that resemble reality and get them exactly right for the story. They will make polished pictures with the camera, but nothing that will make you gasp “look at that camerawork!” They will use professional actors who can portray the characters emotions, and who will bring in a big audience. If there are special effects, they will look as realistic as possible.

Realism: A Clip from “Spinal Tap” by Rob Reiner. Even though it’s a fictional movie with actors pretending to be in a rock band, they shoot it like a documentary. handheld camera, natural lighting, etc.

Realistic Classicism: United 93 

Classicism: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s obviously fictional, taking place on another planet with spaceships and junk, but they try and make it as believable as possible, and have calculated the camerawork, editing, music etc. so that you empathize with Luke and feel his tension. The camerawork is good, but doesn’t call attention to itself.

Formalistic Classicism: City of the Lost Children 

Formalism: Blinkity Blank by Norman Mclaren. No characters, no story, just abtract pictures with music. All put together to create emotion and a psychological experience.

download the following handout and answer the questions:

realism vs formalism handout


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