Access Course Access Film Studies Film

The importance of Form: introduction to film studies

Form and Content

In What is Film Studies?, I stated that films have form, and distinguished between content (the subject of a film) and form (how the content is expressed). A useful way to clarify the distinction is to consider the difference between a film in which a robbery is taking place and surveillance footage of an actual robbery. When people (shop owners, police, reality TV fans, etc.) watch surveillance footage, what they are interested in is the content – the actual robbery. Obviously the surveillance camera will have been placed in a prime position in order to see what takes place – it would be foolish, for example, to point it towards a wall or to place it at such a low angle as to only capture people’s legs – however, once these limited choices are made, the camera is, so to speak, left to its own devices. As such, when we look at the footage of a crime, what we see is a shot from a single perspective, played out in real time. The footage will have been successful if it allows us to identify the robbers, unsuccessful if it does not. While we may feel some excitement when watching such footage, this will come from the knowledge that we are watching a real crime take place, rather than from the use of any formal technique.

In contrast, if you are watching a robbery take place in a film, then the content will be mediated by a variety of formal elements, chosen by the filmmaker to elicit a particular effect in the viewer. For example, the filmmaker may intersperse the robbery with flashbacks or may employ crosscutting in order to convey additional information. We may know from the outset that the robbery is doomed to failure or may be unsure of what will happen. A major star may be cast as the robber, or the detective on his case. The action will be shot from several different angles, providing us with particular points of view. Potentially hundreds of shots, of differing lengths, will be employed to establish the rhythm of the scene. Sound, either cacophonous gunfire or a musical score, will be used to involve us in the action or heighten the tension. As such, what distinguishes a film from mere footage is the application of formal principles, both narrative and stylistic. The filmmaker has a great many choices to make in terms of the narrative, mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, and editing of the film. How these various elements relate and the patterns they create are known as the film’s form, and this can have a massive impact on the viewer’s expectations, feelings, and the meaning of the film.

Form and Expectation

The nature of film form leads us to expectations that a pattern exists between the various formal elements. As such, we become caught up in the desire to develop and complete this pattern. We form expectations about what will happen next, and curiosity leads us to form expectations about what has happened in the past. Films which do this especially well explain the phenomena of finding oneself ‘drawn in’ or ‘hooked’ after only a few minutes, despite having potentially seen the film before. Once we have become engaged with the film, the filmmaker may choose to gratify or to cheat our expectations: when an expected outcome is delayed we experience suspense; when an expectation is cheated we experience surprise.

Form and Convention

Not only are our expectations derived from cues within a film but also from our prior experiences. Such conventions may result from our experience of life in general, films we have seen, or other artworks. For example, the reason that we expect Dorothy to find her way home in The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) may be due to our having been on journeys ourselves, having read Homer’s Odyssey, or having seen E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982). If, for example, E.T. had ended with the death of the eponymous alien or Dorothy had remained in Oz forever we may have been surprised, and might even have felt cheated. [Note in the case of E.T. even his subsequent resurrection and being ‘taken-up’ pay homage to prior conventions.] Some films do, however, break conventions rather than reinforce them. On such occasions these films can go on to create new conventions which then furnish future expectations.

Form and Emotion

The fact that we have expectations will often cause us to make an emotional investment in a film. Both the emotions represented in a film and the emotional response felt by a viewer are important in our experience of film. Often the emotions that are represented in film prompt an identical response in the viewer. For example, the sporting hero’s ecstasy at accomplishing his goal may lead us to feel ecstatic or joyful, whereas the babysitter’s horror at learning someone else is in the house will likely cause us to be afraid. However, this is not always the case. Our emotional response to a film will depend both on how the emotions represented in the film are related to other elements, as well as on our expectations, which are guided both by cues within the film and conventions. For example, the pain expressed by the grimace on the villain’s face may lead to an emotion of satisfaction as our expectation that ‘the bad-guy will get it’ is gratified, or our experience of the conventions of comedy may prompt us to react with laughter to a situation which, in real life, we would not. Both how emotions are represented onscreen and our emotional response to them have formal implications.

Form and Meaning

As active, intelligent viewers, we look for meaning in films. Such meaning may be of two main types: explicit and implicit meaning. To say that a meaning is implicit is to say that it lies beneath the surface. This is the most natural sense of the term ‘meaning’: it is an interpretation, connection, or inference we make on the basis of that what we see. What we see on the surface is the explicit meaning of the film and is probably more likened to a plot summary or basic description. It is only when we delve beneath, when we view actively, that we see what is implicit – the deeper meaning. As such, in The Wizard of Oz the explicit meaning involves a girl’s who dreams of leaving home coming to realise that there’s no place like home; implicitly, however, the meaning may be more to do with the transition from childhood to adulthood or may betray political and economic concerns of the day. Likewise, we might see Haneke’s Hidden (2005) as an explicit examination of one man’s guilt or as implicitly uncovering unsavoury incidents in French history. Whatever the supposed implicit meaning of a film, we must be certain to link it to the film’s formal composition, otherwise it remains merely supposition. It may well be that even the filmmaker himself is unaware of implicit meaning on some level: perhaps the film betrays some unconscious personal issues or cultural prejudices.

Form and Evaluation

Some people will evaluate films on the basis of how realistic they are, or on moral criteria, or even on the basis of their story alone. This is why we may find a great deal of difference of opinion with regards to the value of any particular film. There are, however, some standard criteria which, when applied to the film as a whole, allow for a degree of objectivity in evaluation a film. Thus, we may consider a film in terms of its coherence or unity; the intensity of effect it arouses; we may consider its complexity; or its originality. The point of evaluation is not merely to ‘rate’ films but rather to urge us to acknowledge them as constructions, perfect or imperfect, original or generic. Such evaluation should, in turn, inform our understanding and appreciation of the film.

Principles of Film Form

A useful way to gain insight into film form and to identify formal elements and patterns within any particular film is to consider some general principles, which might be thought to apply to a film’s formal system. These principles, however, are not hard and fast rules to which filmmakers must comply but rather a matter of convention. They are: function; similarity and repetition; difference and variation; development, and; unity or disunity.  Let us consider them in turn.

Function: Firstly, of any element in a film we can ask, What is its function? What is the element doing? Both narrative and stylistic elements have functions, which are almost always multiple: that is to say, each element can be doing many things. One way to notice the functions of an element is to consider the element’s motivation. Motivation should not be taken to apply only to reasons for characters’ actions, but to any element in the film that the viewer justifies somehow. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Toto motivates Dorothy’s running away from home; the contrast between rural Kansas and Oz motivates the absence/ presence of colour; the wicked witch’s movement across the sky might motivate a camera movement to keep her in frame.

Similarity and Repetition: Secondly, we are used to regular patterns featuring repetition in music, poetry, etc. Repetition is essential to film in basic ways: for example, it allows us to recognise characters, settings, etc. However, we also recognise more subtle repetitions throughout films: lines of dialogue; specific music; camera positions; characters’ behaviour; story action; etc. Motif is the term for any significant repeated element in a film, this could be: an object; a colour; a place; a person; a sound; a character trait, or; a camera movement. For example the song, ‘We’re off to see the Wizard…’ acts as a motif in The Wizard of Oz while Scarface (Hawks, 1932) has an ‘x’ motif – both being repeated elements within each respective film. Filmmakers also use similarity to cue us to compare two or more distinct elements – this is known as parallelism. Motifs can assist in creating parallelism.

Difference and Variation: Thirdly, although form requires a stable background based on similarity and repetition, there is also a demand for variety, contrast and change. Motifs (scenes, settings, objects, stylistic devices) will seldom be repeated in exactly the same way and, as such, even similarities can lead us to spot variations. We might, for example, think that it is only our familiarity with ‘We’re off to see the Wizard…’ which allows us to identify the traits of each character from their own variation of the song. Differences between elements can even sharpen into opposition. For example, colour opposition in The Wizard of Oz contrasts Kansas with Oz, Dorothy with the wicked witch, etc. All elements in a film can play off one against one another, so that any motif may be opposed by another motif. We might say that repetition and variation are two sides of the same coin – to notice one is to notice the other – and we ought to look for both similarities and differences when thinking about film.

Development: Fourthly, all films operate by a principle of development. Development depends not only upon similarity and difference but also on progression. Formal development is a progression moving from beginning through middle to end. These developmental patterns are varied and most films are composed of several: e.g. the mystery; the journey. In our Wizard of Oz example, the basic development is that of the journey – ABA (in this case Kansas-Oz-Kansas). Often comparison between the beginning and end of a film will be revealing here. Development is a dynamic process: constant interplay with similarity and difference, and repetition and variation, leads the viewer to an active, developing engagement with the film’s formal system.

Unity/ disunity: Fifthly, when all of the relationships between elements in a film are clear and economically interwoven, we say that the film has unity. We call a unified film tight – every element has a specific set of functions, similarities and differences are determinable, development is logical, and nothing is superfluous or ‘left hanging’. Unity does, however, admit of degrees – even a tight film might contain a few loose elements or unanswered questions (Toto’s fate is never established; isn’t Ms. Gulch still going to take him away?). Unity can be used as a criterion of evaluation, however, sometimes disunity contributes to broader patterns and meanings: consider, for example, the aforementioned Hidden.


Form, differentiated from content, plays an enormous role in determining viewer expectations. Film form can reinforce or break prior conventions and, in doing so, can lead to our expectations being gratified or revised. Form also helps explain our emotional engagement with film and can inform a variety of meaning. We can summarise the principles of film form as a set of questions that you can ask about any film:

  1. For any element in the film, what are its functions in the overall form? How is it motivated?
  2. Are elements or patterns repeated throughout the film? If so, how and at what points? Are motifs and parallelisms asking us to compare elements?
  3. How are elements contrasted and differentiated from one another? How are different elements opposed to one another?
  4. What principles of progression or development are at work throughout the form of the film? More specifically, how does a comparison of the beginning and ending reveal the overall form of a film?
  5. What degree of unity is present in the film’s overall form? Is disunity subordinate to the overall unity, or does disunity dominate?

Analysis and understanding of these principles and how they are applied provide us with a more concrete method of evaluating film.

4 replies on “The importance of Form: introduction to film studies”

Content = water
Form = jug in which it’s presented

Always remember that from your first class Jim! 🙂

Hope that you and Dr Gordon are very well.

Lisa (2009 Access course, now MA English Lit! )

Liked by 1 person

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