What is Realism and Formalism of Film?

Have you any idea about what is realism and formalism of film?

If you have no idea about these film theories then this article is going to be read worthy for you.

In this article, I will discuss about two basic film theories with proper film example so that reader will get a clear concept about it.

Recall History

If we briefly review the history of film, we will find out that The Lumiere Brothers first 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. After that, D.W Griffith who is the pioneer of American motion-picture credited with developing many of the basic techniques of filmmaking, in such films as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) etc.

These filmmakers were each pioneers for early film theories like realism and formalism. They started such convention of filmmaking that has continued for long time throughout the film history. I will elaborate those film theories. So, let’s get started with theoretical definition.

What is Realism?

Realism, started by the Lumiere documentaries, is all about showing the actual world. It doesn’t mean they do show the actual world, but they try to make it look that way. This means there is often a handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available daylight. Realistic dialogue, characterization and decisions are the common element of realistic films.

If you notice such films, you will see the filmmaker use non-professional actors. They don’t build sets, but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations and life events. The films often deal with social issues. Generally realism in film focuses the daily life occurrences of human being. This type of films often shot on the streets with people who had never acted before, using just a camera on a tripod and a basic light.

Basic Traits of Realistic Film

Take a look at the main characteristics of realistic film:

  • Nonprofessional actors
  • No special effects
  • On location sets and props
  • Minimal editing
  • Natural lighting
  • Documentary-style making

For instance, The Rules of the Game(1939), Rome, Open City(1945), Bicycle Thieves (1949), The River (1951), The Golden Coach (1953), French Can Can (1955), Without Pity (1948), City of God(2002), Before Sunrise(1995) etc. often cited as a masterpiece of realism in films.

What is Formalism?

Modern film theories used to evoke certain emotions or mental states with the help of technical cinematic facts such as lighting, scoring, sound and set design. Formalism is primarily concerned with the way that it portrays and communicates different styles and emotions, rather than concentrating on the principal themes that it is representing.

When studying formalism, we can easily compare film this theory to painting. If an artist’s painting more concentrated on shapes, colors and lines rather than lines, it seems as something more along the lines of formalism, because the artist does not concentrate on rendering as much as he in concentrated on depicting what is in his mind.

The theory is the same in film. Formalist films are more concerned with their artistic style and design and they often come directly out of the artist’s imagination. Formalist filmmakers are primarily concerned with the style of the film rather than rendering reality. This type of films were popular because these films had story-lines, and they focused on illusions, myths and fantasies.

Basic Traits of Formalist Film

Take a look at the main characteristics of formalist film:

  • Professional actors
  • Relies heavily on special effects
  • Editing speeds up or slows down time
  • Lighting and sound create exaggerations
  • Breaks the illusion of reality

For example, films like A Trip to the Moon (1902), Rebecca (1940), The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), Star Wars Series etc. are the perfect example of formalist films.


Film theory is a discipline, which encompasses different aspects of film in order to explore different concepts regarding the form of expression. The realism and formalism in film theory is often used as a topic of study. Filmmakers apply these theories in their films with a view to making sophisticated films. Techniques of lighting, editing and the use of different shots may vary from theory to theory. But, the emotional connection that the viewer feels is quite strong in both theories. Because, the use of these techniques and strategies grasps the viewer. All in all, these theories could not stand alone. They both need elements from the other to create a coherent and presentable film.