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Whether concrete or abstract, the subject matter of an artwork must be expressed with form – a set of conventions of patterned relationships used to perceive, evaluate, and define an artwork.
Filmmakers have two basic senses to explore in their movies: sight and hearing. The elements that stimulate these two senses are innumerous. Consequently, the combination of them generates infinite different styles and stories. But all these different possibilities are found in one of three possible film forms.
Narrative form tells stories.
Documentary form exposes reality.
Experimental form experiments on the medium.
|Note: Experimental movies were excluded from the section below because they don’t have tangible patterns like those found in documentary and narrative films. Read more about experimental films.|
Is the movie structured linearly or not? Narrative movies often present facts in a chronological order, just like life. High Noon (1952) is an example of a linearly structured movie. It opens with Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) planning his wedding and retirement. When he finds out that Frank Miller, a deadly killer, was set free and is now returning to his county, Kane cancels his plans. During the middle portion of the movie, Kane tries to recruit men to help him. The movie ends with the showdown between Kane and Frank Miller.
|Note: Not all narrative movies have linear structure. Read more on narrative cinema.|
On the other hand, documentaries are a collection of scenes and moments assembled in a non-linear fashion. If done right, the several sequences in a documentary interweave back and forth to create a meaningful amalgam that surveys a specific theme and makes a specific point.
Who’s point of view is it? A documentary film assumes the position of a specific group of people that defends a certain cause. In order to offer a holistic analysis of any given topic, documentaries often have an investigative perspective that surveys many sides pertinent to an argument. But this could be biased.
Narrative movies often share the protagonist’s perspective, and everything pertinent to the story is told from his or her point of view. This quality of narrative cinema attempts to make the audience identify with the main character.
Film Scholar’s Insight
Making the audience identify with a particular character is a long known trait of the Hollywood style. This technique has proven to be a successful method for evoking the audience’s interest. To achieve this, characters must be personable and their goals easily understood.
Theme is the central idea that governs and unifies a film and its elements. A narrative movie can have a theme like “love conquers all” or “greed is your demise.” One-word themes like “justice” or “peace” are also fair game and quite common.
In documentary cinema, the theme is called "thesis," to borrow from the tradition of academic papers and scholarly journals. A thesis, like a theme, also unifies and governs the movie. However, theses are different because they are complex statements that must be identified before pre-production or even development can start.
When making a documentary, the first thing you need is a thesis. Read this carefully because some people ignore it and regret so.
What you need first is actually an idea, a concept. Then you need to produce a statement from it, something clear with perspective and relevance. This statement is your thesis. All the interviews and documentation presented in the documentary must reinforce the thesis.
Let’s say your thesis is “President George W. Bush was a disgrace for the world.” To support this thesis, you should not include interviews from people who have nice things to say about him. There’s no question that this technique is biased, but documentaries function this way.