What is an experimental film? This elusive and niche genre can be difficult to define, and there are many common misconceptions about experimental filmmaking, but we’ll be sorting through the fact and the fiction to provide a comprehensive overview of what it means for a film to be “experimental”. We’ll get started with a definition, then dig deeper into experimental filmmaking as a genre, and finally close things out by taking a look at some notable examples.

Avant garde film definition

First, let’s define experimental film

There are many film terms and phrases that could use simple definitions, and we’ve compiled them all in our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology. You can also look up definitions for every genre of film in our ultimate guide to movie genres.

EXPERIMENTAL FILM DEFINITION

What is an experimental film?

An experimental film is a project bucks the trends of conventional cinema and pushes the medium of film in unexplored ways. The spectrum of experimental films is extremely broad; this genre encompasses a great many types of projects of varying lengths, styles, and goals.

There are experimental feature films, though more experimental projects have shorter runtimes. This is due in part to many experimental films being made for low budgets and/or the fact that the majority of experimental films are never intended for mainstream appeal or traditional distribution.

AVANT GARDE FILM CHARACTERISTICS

  • Can be any length
  • Niche and often artsy
  • Pushes boundaries and tries new things

Experimental filmmakers

Digging deeper into experimental film

Let’s dig a little deeper into what it means for a project to be classified as an experimental film. There is a modicum of debate over what exactly constitutes an experimental film, and some projects blur the line between traditional cinema and experimental filmmaking by including elements of each. Experimentation can be found in the editing, in the filming, in the subject matter, or in the manipulation of the camera and celluloid’s chemical and mechanical processes.

A beginner’s guide to experimental cinema

There are many misconceptions about what experimental filmmaking is, so let’s dispel a couple. One common belief is that experimental films have no story. While some experimental films certainly lack anything that could be considered a traditional narrative, that does not hold true for all experimental films.

Another commonly held notion is that experimental films are weird for the sake of being weird or that they are simply filmed nonsense. This is quite a reductive stance to take on the entire genre, but it is an opinion shared by many. The audience for experimental films can be extremely niche, and experimental filmmakers are aware of this. They are not made for everyone.

Surreal = experimental is another common misconception. Containing an element of surrealism does not automatically make a project experimental in nature. However, there is an intrinsic linkage between surrealism and experimental cinema, so the misconception is understandable. Let’s clarify this point with an example.

Sexy Beast  •  dream sequence

This dream sequence from the gangster flick Sexy Beast is undoubtedly surreal yet there is nothing experimental at play. The surrealism is conjured through traditional filmmaking means only. So, while surrealism and experimental cinema often go hand-in-hand, surrealism alone is not enough to constitute a film being labeled as experimental; the filmmaking methods and the pushing or warping of boundaries play important roles as well.

The history of experimental cinema

Experimental filmmaking over the years

Since the first camera was invented, artists have been experimenting with the tool. At the dawn of cinema, everything was an experiment. It was only through the intervention of time that certain techniques and methods became standard.

While many of the techniques used in Voyage dans la Lune seem antiquated by modern filmmaking standards, they were absolutely boundary shattering way back in 1902. Radical experimentation was necessary to pull off so many things that had never before been seen or created in the medium of film.

A Trip to the Moon

As cinematic techniques improved and became seen as standards, there were still filmmakers willing to experiment and push the envelope. 1929’s Un Chien Andalou was an early masterpiece of both surrealism and experimental filmmaking. Many of the techniques used in Un Chien Andalou were experimental at the time but have since been integrated into more standard filmmaking techniques as the decades have passed. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel were two master surrealists and played an important role in the common linkage between surrealism and experimentation through their boundary pushing methods.

Un Chien Andalou

By the 1940s, surrealism and experimental filmmaking were further linked through the work of Maya Deren. Over time, she has proven to be one of the most influential experimental filmmakers of all time. She created a number of experimental short films, the first of which, Meshes of the Afternoon, is often credited as a turning point for experimental and avant garde cinema. The short remains a highlight of the genre more than 70 years after it was first released.

If you are interested in making your own short films, check out our how to make a short film guide first.

Meshes of the Afternoon  •  Maya Deren

Andy Warhol is a name well known in the pop art world, but he made numerous contributions to the experimental film world as well. Warhol made nearly 150 experimental short films throughout his lifetime, and a number of them made throughout the 1960s were considered important contributions to the form. Below is a compilation of six of Warhol’s shorts made between 1964 and 1966.

Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

David Lynch is perhaps the most well-known filmmaker to consistently experiment in his films. He earned a spot on our list of the best directors of all time. Some Lynch projects explore a blend between experimental cinema and traditional filmmaking, while other Lynch projects comfortably fall into the “wholly experimental” category. Since his debut feature in 1977 with Eraserhead, Lynch has continued to employ experimental techniques in his feature films to this day. A significant degree of Eraserhead’s experimentation can be found in the atmospheric sound design. Listen closely to the trailer below.

Eraserhead  •  trailer

Now that we’ve explored a brief history of experimental filmmaking, let’s see if we can sort experimental films into a few distinct categories.

Experimental film examples

Types of experimental films

Though experimental films in general can be a bit difficult to categorize as they defy convention by their very nature, there are a few common types we can examine from a bird’s eye view. The first type is: experimental films that challenge the form of filmmaking. This includes projects that defy the expectation of what a film is and manipulate the creation process, like Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man.

Dog Star Man  •  complete

This piece of experimental filmmaking was originally produced as four shorts before being compiled as a singular project. Dog Star Man is often hailed as an experimental masterpiece and was made through various manipulations to the film stock, experimenting with different exposure types, and radical editing techniques.

Another film that lands in the “challenges the form” category is Derek Jarman’s Blue. This one-hour-19-minute experimental film features just a single, unchanging visual for the entire duration: a solid blue screen. An intricately orchestrated audio track underscores the static visual, and the two combine to form a highly emotional experience.

Blue  •  Derek Jarman

Our next type of experimental film is the experimental documentary. Check out our list of the best documentaries to set a baseline for traditional documentary filmmaking before we jump into the experimental side of the genre. This experimental category encompasses projects like the nearly century old Soviet-produced Man With a Movie Camera. The full documentary is available to watch below.

Man With a Movie Camera

Another experimental documentary found in this category comes from none other than Orson Welles with For for Fake. This documentary, essay-film hybrid blurs the lines between fact and fiction in a fascinating way.

F for Fake Video Essay

Experimental Animation is a tried and true category of experimental filmmaking with many worthwhile and envelope pushing entries. Again, you can set a baseline for the non-experimental side of this genre by checking out our list of the best animated films ever made. As for the experimental side of the medium, first, we can return to David Lynch for his contribution to the category.

Six Men Getting Sick

The above short film, Six Men Getting Sick, was David Lynch’s very first foray into filmmaking. He began his journey into the arts as a painter, and you can see him bridging the gap with this painted filmmaking experiment.

For further examples of experimental animation, we can look to the Quay Brothers. Their shorts utilize a dreamy blend of stop-motion animation and puppetry. A number of their shorts are in the criterion collection; here is a highlight reel for four of their shorts.

Criterion teaser for the Quay Brothers

And for one last example of experimental animation found in a recent film, we can look to 2018’s German-Chilean production La Casa Lobo. Sculpture, stop-motion, traditional animation, and other artistic techniques were blended together in jaw dropping fashion that utilized life-size sets and dizzying camerawork. This experimental production pushes the boundaries of animation and accomplishes things never before seen in the medium. It gives the absolute best stop-motion films a run for their money.

The Wolf House  •  trailer

Experimental filmmaking remains alive and well in the modern filmmaking age. As long as there are boundaries left to push, filmmakers will continue to experiment.

UP NEXT

What Was Dogme 95?

If you’re interested in experimental filmmaking, the Dogme 95 cinematic vow of chastity makes a fascinating case study into a radical filmmaking experiment. Learn about the movement, why and how it was created, the films that comprise it, and more, up next.

Up Next: What was Dogme 95? →
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