Experimental Filmmaking for Dummies (Part 1): Why You Should Be Making Experimental Films
Here at NFS, we've covered experimental films from time to time, sharing details on how they're made and things of that nature. Last month we even shared a delightful, albeit brief, history of experimental cinema that touched on a few of the core concepts and definitive filmmakers of the genre. Despite these brief forays into the avant-garde, however, we've never actually talked about making experimental films. Until now, that is. In our new series, "Experimental Filmmaking for Dummies", we'll explore not only the multitude of reasons why every filmmaker can benefit from experimental filmmaking, but also how to get started with making shorts in all of the most popular experimental sub-genres. Stick with us on this one. It'll be a fun ride.
What Is Experimental Filmmaking?
Experimental film is difficult to define, not because its guidelines are so abstract or even esoteric, but because it's such a wide-ranging genre that defining it almost defeats the purpose of the genre itself. In one sense, it refers to anything that defies the conventions of traditional narrative and documentary cinema. It doesn't have to tell a story. There don't have to be characters. There doesn't even necessarily need to be a message of any kind. It can be visceral or mundane, engaging or a complete bore. It can be highly personal or overtly political. It can be literally anything.
On the other hand, experimental film is an aesthetic and aural art form. Film inherently takes some of the most expressive elements from other artistic mediums and combines them into a magnificent smörgåsbord of sight and sound. All films have elements of photography, music, painting, dance, etc. However, narrative and documentary films don't necessarily use all of these artistic elements to their full potential; they're more focused on creating an enhanced sense of narrative reality than creating pure aesthetic art. With experimental films, however, the extent to which these elements can be mixed and manipulated to evoke or portray emotion or ideology is infinite.
As a result, experimental filmmaking is an absurdly powerful artistic medium that can be matched by few, if any, other art forms in terms of pure expressionistic potential. If that's not reason enough to get started with this fantastic genre, here are a few more of its copious benefits.
Benefits of Experimental Filmmaking
There are numerous reasons why you might want to make experimental films alongside (or instead of) narrative and documentary films. These reasons are varied, and there are certainly more than I can list and write about here. But the following reasons should give you a basic sense of why experimental filmmaking might just be one of the most beneficial things that you can do as a filmmaker.
Creative Freedom: First and foremost, this type of filmmaking is one of the most creatively freeing things that a person can do. Narrative filmmaking, like it or not, is all about restraint in what you show and how you show it. Even the narrative films that break away from convention are subject to the idea that every image and every sound needs to be in service of the story and the characters.
With experimental filmmaking, however, you're free to throw any and all restraint to the wind and make creative decisions that would be "unacceptable" in the world of narrative film. You can express emotions, ideas, concepts, and literally anything else through literal or abstract imagery, through juxtapositional editing, through creative use of sound design. You can disregard the technical, and focus solely on the creative.
Spontaneity: In narrative filmmaking, it's difficult to be truly spontaneous. When time is money, which it always is in a narrative environment, people tend to stick to the schedule and get the shots they need to tell the story. This isn't a bad thing in the slightest, but it's not conducive to creating art, which requires at least a certain amount of spontaneity.
With experimental filmmaking, creative decisions can be well thought out choices made prior to shooting, or the shooting can be a spontaneous act of expression in and of itself. When you're not burdened with schedules and shot lists, and the AD isn't hassling you to get the next shot set up, you are free to make creative decisions as you see fit, right on the spot.
Personal Expression: Narrative filmmaking, by its very nature, is a collaborative craft. In order for narrative films to be made properly, it takes dozens (if not hundreds) of individuals, each with a specific role in the production of that piece. Even though we still promote the idea of the auteur in our current filmmaking climate, pure personal expression is nearly impossible in an environment where hundreds of unique voices coexist. Don't get me wrong, creative collaboration is a fantastic thing, and it's the best way to make narrative films, but it can be detrimental to the idea of the personal art.
Experimental filmmaking, however, offers filmmakers the ability to express whatever the hell they want, in any way they want. Your cat just died and you're all torn up inside? Make a film about it. Girlfriend dumped you for a guy named Chad? Make a film about it. The point is that making films like these can be both cathartic and productive, and oftentimes the process of making the film can help you resolve, or at least gain perspective about whatever issues you might be going through.
Social Expression: A good many narrative films have cultural, social, political, or religious undertones implicitly stated through narrative conventions. However, when tremendous amounts of money are on the line, investors and EPs tend not to want their finished films to be political or religious statements due to the fact that those types of films alienate audiences, which is the last thing you'd want to do in the pursuit of making a commercially successful film.
Just like the previous section, experimental filmmaking allows you to focus your creative efforts squarely on the statement that you're trying to make with your film, without any of the back and forth politics that come with narrative filmmaking. If you want to make films about your displeasure with the US Congress, then you can make the most scathing critique known to man. That's your prerogative as an experimental filmmaker.
Creative Betterment: With experimental filmmaking, anything and everything is possible. You can try things with the camera that you would never think to do on a narrative set. In the editing room you can stack, manipulate, and composite video to your heart's content. You can create the most mundane or insanely abstract images and sounds and re-arrange them in any way you see fit.
When you have no creative restrictions, you're more likely to try new things and, well, experiment. It's through this experimentation that you can begin to bolster your creative toolset, and create and master techniques that you may be able to incorporate into your narrative and documentary films.
Defining a Unique Cinematic Voice: It might seem fairly cynical of me to say this, but most narrative films these days are all strikingly similar to one another in terms of their style and what they offer the audience in an artistic sense. Most of us grow up watching and studying the same films, and when it comes time to make our own, we draw from the same cinematic vocabulary that most other filmmakers are using. The result is relative conformity.
In my opinion, that's what makes filmmakers such as Steve McQueen so successful and prevalent today. As someone with a background in fine art and video installation art, McQueen has forged a unique style and perspective that has allowed him to take the narrative filmmaking world by storm with his three features. No one is making films like McQueen, and that can be at least partly attributed to his early career as an experimental filmmaker and artist.
In the same vein as McQueen, you can begin to develop your own unique cinematic voice through an exploration of and involvement in experimental filmmaking.
There Are No Wrong Answers: In the world of narrative and documentary cinema, there are definite guidelines as to what constitutes a good or a bad film. Whether or not a film is good or not all depends on the writing, the directing, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the sound, and so on. With experimental cinema, however, these "restraints" can be tossed out the window because expression is the primary purpose, not technical perfection.
This might sound like a cop-out, and to a certain extent, it is. With that said, just because the primary goal of this type of expression doesn't mean that we should be sloppy in the technical aspects of making these films. However, technical knowledge isn't a prerequisite for experimental filmmaking. There are no major barriers to speak of. You don't necessarily need a camera or an in-depth knowledge of After Effects. The only thing you really need to get started is an inherent desire to create and express yourself.
Experimental filmmaking is a world all its own, and it's one that is often overlooked by the majority of filmmakers these days. It certainly shouldn't be, though. It's a unique and powerful art form that provides countless benefits beyond the fact that it allows us to be artists in the truest sense of the word.
In order to get you guys even more stoked about making experimental films, here's one of the greatest of all time, Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon:
In our next article, we'll talk about the easiest way to get started with making experimental films, the "found footage" film.
What do you guys think? Do you have any experience with experimental filmmaking? If so, what did you think of it, and what were the benefits (or disadvantages) of that experience? Let us know in the comments!