An Introduction to Film Theory

How to understand and employ the basics of film theory and impress your friends.

A photograph of writer and film theorist Alison Bechdel who came up with the feminist Bechdel test for films. To pass this test, a film must have named female characters who have a conversation about something other than the male protagonist. A photograph of writer and film theorist Alison Bechdel who came up with the feminist Bechdel test for films. To pass this test, a film must have named female characters who have a conversation about something other than the male protagonist.

The Everyday Critic 

We’ve all been there before. We’re at a dinner party or grabbing a drink with friends when the latest movie release comes up in conversation. Inevitably, there’s always someone offering their very detailed opinion of the film or criticizing any other opinion tossed around. 

Maybe you’re trying to impress that person or be the one with an impressive take on the latest release, or maybe you’re just trying to garner a deeper understanding of the many layers of a complex art form. No matter what your motivation, it’s important to learn how to watch a movie.

When watching a movie through a critical lens, you’ll develop an understanding of the many technical aspects at play within the film. You’ll also be able to recognize a film’s influence on culture and society or its place within the director’s previous repertoire. 

Critical viewing of a film also means possessing the necessary knowledge to recognize the techniques filmmakers use to entertain. It means noticing the effort that has gone into creating a carefully crafted experience for the audience, from the lighting to the music to the camera angles.

Learning the Basics

Before viewing a film, it can be helpful to find out some basic production information about it. This includes facts such as the director, the studio, the film’s genre classification, the country of origin, and any awards or nominations it may have won. At first glance, this information may seem irrelevant, but it can ultimately help to understand the film’s context.

The context surrounding a film will help you understand its cultural and social significance and help you to more easily identify the themes and techniques within the film itself.

If a movie is from a major production studio, it probably has a big budget and more recognizable actors or directors. This film has a lot of money behind it and a lot of money to advertise: it also has significant profit expectations. Understanding what country of origin a film has will also help provide a social and political context to a film and may help you draw cultural comparisons.

An Introduction to Film Theory

Film theory is the study of film and the many technical aspects that create a vision for the audience to experience. It is also a way to understand how films shape or influence society and what may have influenced the film itself.

Understanding film theory is a fantastic way to foster a greater appreciation for the many technical aspects of film as well as the artistry and creativity that emerge from the melding of technique and inspiration.

There are 4 major schools of film theory, each with their own unique way of examining the medium of cinema as an art form and how it can influence and shape culture. These are the Formalist, Auteur, Feminist, and Apparatus theories.

Not To Be Confused With

When discussing film theory, it is important not to confuse this area of study with other fields such as film history or film criticism.

Film history is the study of the evolution of cinema as a visual art form from the late 19th century to the present day. This area of study focuses on the technical aspects of the medium, specifically the evolution of film and camera technology.

Film criticism, on the other hand, is the interpretation, evaluation, and analysis of films. Film criticism usually offers an interpretation of the composition of the film as well as its structure and style, while film theory analyzes the many dimensions of films to offer a critical social and cultural interpretation.

While film theory attempts to understand film as an art form and its influence on culture, film criticism is not specifically concerned with the influence a film has on society or what message it is trying to convey. Rather, it focuses solely on the film and its stylistic or technical aspects.

Film theory and film criticism are very closely related, but it is essential to distinguish the schools of film theory as separate from that of film criticism.



Formalist Film Theory 

Rudolf Arnheim, a perceptual psychologist, first articulated the Formalist film theory in the mid-twentieth century. Formalist film theory examines all the technical or formal aspects of the film, such as lighting, sound, camera angles, set design, editing, and color palette.

Based on an understanding of perceptual psychology, this theory aims to explore how these technical elements form a conscious and unconscious perception that the audience experiences.

Perceptual psychology proposes that we don’t form a view of the world or interact with the world based solely on visual data but it is how this data are  internalized and met with internal emotional resonances and sensations that allow us to form an impression.

The formalist film theory attempts to understand film as a field of raw visual data produced through technical elements and then interpret the emotional and sensory perception that arises in the audience based on the data.

Formalist Film Theory In Action

The formalist film theory believes that, through the technical aspects of the film, such as lighting, sound, and editing, the director brings the audience to an altered sense of reality and controls the perceptions and impressions these elements make on the audience.

The use of lighting to create a specific mood or slowing down or speeding up film to demonstrate the illusion of time moving faster or more slowly are formalist elements of film theory. Each of these techniques demonstrates an illusion or break in the reality the audience understands and lives.

How the director chooses to create a mood or illusion and draw a distinction between the film and reality as we know it to be are examples of formalism. Each of these elements goes to create a specific vision of reality that the audience can experience sensually and react to emotionally, despite not being the vision of reality we readily understand and interact with.

Auteur Film Theory

To understand the auteur theory of film, you have to look at a movie as a book and the director is the author. In fact, ‘auteur’ means author in French. This theory analyzes movies based on the idea that movies are a story constructed with the style and vision of the director just as an author crafts a story with its own unique style and use of techniques.

This theory examines the technical aspects of the film, the lighting, sound, editing, etc., as tools that each director wields uniquely and with its own style. While all the tools may be the same, each director leaves their own unique mark and has their own way of handling them, just as each author has the same vocabulary and literary tools at their disposal and yet creates a totally unique story. The fundamental question in Auteur film theory is “what is the director trying to do?”

Auteur Theory In Action

The auteur film theory sees each film as a combination of technical elements that are uniquely strung together in a style and vision unique to the director. In this way, the director is the author of the movie just as a writer composes a novel.

The auteur theory often examines a film in discussion with the director’s other films. Putting the repertoire of a director together will help specific themes, images, motifs or stylistic techniques emerge. These recurring images and themes then become part of the director’s recognizable style.

Consider, for example, Quentin Tarantino, his films are recognizable as containing a specific style, theme, score, and even stylistic techniques that are unique to him as a director. In other words, he has become the author of an entire repertoire that is totally unique stylistically using the same tools and techniques that are at the disposal of every director.

Feminist Film Theory

Analyzing cinema through the lens of feminist film theory is to analyze the role of women in the technical aspects of the film, in the production (such as writers, directors, etc.), how women are portrayed in film, and the ways in which that portrayal may influence society’s perception of women.

Feminist film theory proposes that the way in which women are portrayed in film is directly related to how society views women as a whole. If a woman on film is nothing more than a damsel in distress or a shallow seductress, these roles represent the views society may hold of women as being infantile and helpless or even malicious and antagonistic.

To analyze a film through the feminist lens, it is important to recognize the ways a film portrays women through the use of lighting, sound, editing, and even in regard to the story itself. Once an analysis can be made of the film’s depiction of women, the feminist film theorist will then examine how that depiction may influence society’s view of women.

If women are always the damsel in distress onscreen, that may serve to convince the audience, and even society at large, that that is the true nature of women.

A photograph of writer and film theorist Alison Bechdel who came up with the feminist Bechdel test for films. To pass this test, a film must have named female characters who have a conversation about something other than the male protagonist. A photograph of writer and film theorist Alison Bechdel who came up with the feminist Bechdel test for films. To pass this test, a film must have named female characters who have a conversation about something other than the male protagonist.

Can It Pass the Bechdel Test?

In 1985, Feminist Alison Bechdel created a test that has been popularly coined ‘the Bechdel Test’ in regard to the depth of female characters portrayed on film. This test aims to determine whether or not a female character is written to have an impactful resonance in the plot of a film or if she is just merely a plot device to emphasize the heroism and virtue of the male lead.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must have 2 or more named female characters. These characters must both have dialogue and, most importantly, the dialogue must be about something other than a man. While this may seem simple, it would surprise you how many movies do not pass the Bechdel Test.

Some movies that unfortunately don’t pass the test are the Lord of the Rings, The Blindside, The Little Mermaid, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Avatar, and even The Avengers. Does your favorite flick pass the test?

The Apparatus Theory

The apparatus film theory believes that movies are innately ideological and carry a meaning that is reflective of real-world beliefs. This theory also attempts to examine the interplay between the audience and the film.

Stemming from earlier film theories such as a Marxist or psychoanalytical theory, the apparatus theory attempts to extract real-world, practical meaning from a film and attempts to understand how a film’s reflection of real political or ideological beliefs influences an audience’s belief.

In order to analyze a film through the lens of the apparatus theory, proponents believe that all aspects of a film have significant meaning not only to the story or in regard to the director’s repertoire but in critical analysis. In this theoretical lens, each element of the film is a tool for significant political or ideological meaning to pass through.

The Apparatus Theory At Work

The relationship between the audience and a film is one of deep interconnectedness, and just how deep that connection goes and how it is established in the first place is one of the aims of the apparatus film theory. This theory attempts to explain how technical effects and tools, such as lighting, sound, color, and camera angles work to deepen that connection between the audience and the screen.

This theory considers the camera to be an eye that takes the place of the audience’s own eye, allowing the audience to step into and explore a new world or perspective they may never have the chance to otherwise know.

Because of this view of the camera as an eye, each aspect of the film becomes important, from the lighting the director chooses for a scene to the dialogue the actors speak. Each of these elements serves to deepen the connection between the film and the audience.

Deeper Than You Think

The essence of film theory boils down to the notion that cinema and film is an art form and, like all art forms, it contains layers of messages and meaning that are ripe for extrapolation and interpretation. While there are 4 formal schools of film theory and each of these has evolved over the course of cinema, each also has a different perspective through which one can extract meaning from the film.

Each school of film theory allows the audience to peel back the layers of a movie and look deeper, exploring your own participation in cinema through emotional and cultural reactions to it.

To understand and utilize film theory, you don’t have to spend hours pondering over every film you see and analyzing each shot and scene-although you certainly can. To put film theory to use in your own life, explore the different formal schools of theory and understand that echoes of them are pointing toward new ways of watching and truly comprehending a film to get the most out of it and understand the impact and influence it may have on you even without you knowing it.

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A Director’s Repertoire;

Understanding and identifying the individual style and techniques in a filmmaker’s repertoire.

Sound and Lighting;

Visual and auditory techniques used on film to create a story for our senses.

Mood and Tone;

How to analyze the atmosphere of a film and its impact on the audience.

Shots and Angles;

The artistry of filmmaking comes in turning something technical, such as the shots used in a film and the camera angles, into a work of art.

Character and Acting;

The mind-blowing plot twists, heart-wrenching moments, and intense action are made more powerful when experienced by characters that we as audience members care about. 

Genre/Setting;

A film’s genre is determined by the plot of the movie, the type of character and their actions, the setting and time period, as well as the theme. All of these elements form cohesive and identifiable categories of films.

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