• Owen R. Horton

What is Film Form?

Below, we will discuss major concepts of formalism as they relate to film.

Form vs. Content. Content is what the film is about; the subject of the film. Form is the means by which the content is communicated. Form allows the author to make specific choices about how to express the content that shape the way we receive it.

Form IS Content and Content HAS form. These two elements are not separate; instead, they are interdependent. In film, we can read the form as a part of the narrative (colors can tell a story); content has a form (linear, non-linear) that works to shape the story.

Form and Content are both about EXPECTATIONS. "Chekov's Gun" is the most classically-used example, but we have even more basic expectations of both form and content. We expect Westerns to look a certain way, and we expect Science Fiction movies to look a certain different way. For content, we expect a romantic comedy to have a happy ending, while we make no such assumptions about a Noir film. On a more advanced level, films can manipulate our expectations to connect ideas. This can be done through editing.

Fundamentals of Film Form

1. Movies depend on Light

2. Movies provide an illusion of movement

3. Movies manipulate space and time in unique ways


Photography, and by extension film, does not exist without light. We can go even further and state that sight does not exist without light. If we imagine a film frame to be a canvas, then light is the paint. When we consider light, we must both examine where it is used and where it is excluded. Shadows are the absence of light, but in films, they are just as important.


Movies are called "movies" because they move. This is what distinguishes them most of all from other visual mediums. However, films do not actually move. Rather, they are a collection of individual still images cycled through at incredible speeds in order to mimic movement. Films are an optical illusion, and smart directors abuse this notion.

Time and Space

Although the movie camera is often thought of as a point-of-view narrator (usually omniscient) that the audience lives through, it does not operate according to laws of physics. Instead, editing allows the camera to travel impossible distances instantaneously. It also allows us to perceive reality faster or slower than normally possible. Beyond slow-motion, editing back and forth between shots and locations can cause the last 15 seconds of a bomb's timer to last minutes of real time.

Realism: An attempt to capture an actual "real" world. An interest in representing the world of the viewer in the world of the film.

Antirealism: A rejection of the ability for art to reflect reality. An embrace of the fantasy dreamscape that is cinema.

Verisimilitude: No matter how fantastic the images and stories of the film, do they make sense within the logic of that world? Verisimilitude and Realism are not the same thing, and can at times be opposites.

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