Experimental film

“You can make an experimental film through improvisation, or a mathematical plan, or just letting nature take its course.”

Bordwell & Thompson (2007)

In their book Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson identify two main types of experimental film:

  1. films based on abstract form
  2. films based on associational form


Abstract Form

It is possible to organise a film around colours, shapes, sizes and movement in the images. These visual qualities within a film can be organised through an abstract pattern of theme and variations: a motif is introduced, followed by a series of different versions of that motif, often with such extreme differences that the original motif becomes difficult to recognise.

Designing Form in an Abstract Film

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) outline five ways in which the form of an abstract film can be designed:

  • An introductory section showing the kinds of relationships the film uses as its basic material.
  • Other segments go on to present similar kinds of relationships, but with changes. The changes may be slight, but soon differ sharply from the introductory material.
  • Bigger contrasts emerge; sudden variations help the viewer sense when a new segment has started.
  • Similarities and differences won’t be random if the film’s formal organisation has been created with care.
  • Some underlying principles run through the film.

(Film Art, p. 372)

” Experimental filmmakers often start by photographing real objects. But the filmmakers then juxtapose the images to emphasise relations of shape, colour, movement, and so on” (Film Art, p. 372).

The viewer of an abstract film is forced to use their senses in an unusual way. They don’t need to use their eyes for practical purposes. Rather, the abstract within the film becomes interesting for its own sake. The viewer becomes more aware of pattern within an abstract film.


Associational Form

An alternative experimental approach is associational form, in which a film is organised around the assembly of images and ideas that may not have any logical connection. In the same way as poetry uses language and metaphor to convey meaning, associational form in film uses patterns of imagery and sound to suggest associations and connections that bind the ideas and emotions within the film together.

Basic Principles of Associational Form

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) suggest the following principles operate within a film designed around associational form:

  • Images are gathered into distinct sections (a principle also found in abstract form).
  • The film creates variations from part to part; for example: changes in tempo – a fast section followed by a slow one.
  • Use of repeated motifs to reinforce associations.
  • Associational form “strongly invites interpretation, the assigning of general meanings to the film” whereby the viewer draws conclusions based on their own interpretation.

(Film Art, p. 379)

Associational form generally avoids explicit statement. Filmmaker’s using this form tend to create films composed of a series of unusual and striking combinations of images, leaving the viewer to use their imagination to find meaning within the film.

Abstract and associational forms are fascinating approaches to filmmaking. They are not something I was familiar with until now. The idea of creating films out an abstract pattern of theme and variation or disrupting a narrative in such a way that the viewer is left to draw their own interpretation of the film has opening up a whole new visual landscape for me.



Bordwell, David, & Thompson, Kristin (2017) Film Art: An Introduction, 11th edition. New York: McGraw Hill