Understanding the basics of film theory will help you when it comes to understanding the filmmaking process, but will also allow you to critique films in a constructive way.

Understanding film theory

Film theory is a great conversation starter, lots of people have reasons why their favourite movies are great and why they feel others are not. To really dig deep and understand the meaning of film, film theory is in the forefront of all discussions.

If you want to work as a filmmaker one of the most important aspects to understand is film theory. Understanding film theory and digging deep into the roots of a film will not only help you in your career in film but will also help you develop better, well-rounded films.

In this article, we are going to look into what film theory is, what film history is and the different types of film you may come across.

Let’s delve into it!

What is film history?

Film history is the journey of film from its initial inception to the present day. You’ll look at the ways film has changed over the decades, how it’s developed, and the different types of filmmaking that have been created over the years.

READ MORE: Writing an award-winning short film

What is film theory?

What is film theory?

Film theory is a scholarly approach to film in which it tries to understand and explain what the film is about. It provides a reflection of where the film has come from and an in-depth review of some of the core topics. In basic terms, film theory aims to breakdown and analyse each film.

Overall it’s a great way to break down the way a film has been written, produced, and edited. The main elements film theorists use to analyze film is:

  • Angles
  • Lighting
  • Type of film
  • Types of shot
  • Sound
  • Colour
  • Editing

What are the different types of film?

There are many different types of films, and over the years the way we consume these have changed, but what actually are the different types of films, and how do film theorists break these down?


Classical film is between the two elements of realism and formalism (scroll below for more in-depth breakdown) and empathises interactions between people. Examples are The Godfather and Spotlight. Most dramas are classed as classical and you’ll notice a few of these characteristics:

  • Minimal special effects
  • Filmed on location or in a studio
  • Lighting and sound used to create the mood of the film
  • The films use professional actors


Formalism is where the director is tasked with bringing the audience watching into an alternative, warped universe. Special effects are used heavily in these films to alter reality for the audience. A couple of examples of formalism films are Star Wars, Star Trek, and Batman.

The key characteristics of formalism films are:

  • It gives a warped sense of reality.
  • Lighting is exaggerated to give it an extra-dimensional feel.
  • Lots of special effects
  • Uses professional actors



Realism is a type of film that focuses on real life. These films show a raw outlook on the real world that has no special effects and uses a lot of natural lighting. Examples of Realism films are Shifty, Harsh Times, Schindler’s List, and Trainspotting.

The key characteristics to look out for in Realism films are:

  • No special effects
  • Natural lighting
  • Filmed in a documentary style
  • Little editing to the colour and saturation of the film

What is analysed in film theory?

There are a few factors that are analysed when it comes to film theory, here are a few factors that are considered by film theorists:

  • Angles
  • Lighting
  • Types of shot
  • Sound
  • Colour
  • Editing

Let’s have a look a little closer.


There are a few angles you need to consider when storyboarding your story out for your next film, these are high angle, low angle, eye level and oblique angle. These are used to help you manipulate the viewers emotions and set the tone of that scene.


The lighting helps you to set the tone in the scene and is great to project a mood or a feeling and can add to the feel of the scene. Lighting used correctly can be the definitive factor of bringing your film from average to great, it really does have such an effect.

The main types of lighting you’ll come into contact with are High Key Lighting and Low Key Lighting.

Types of shot

Types of shot

There are a few types of shots used in movies, and these are the shots film theorists take into consideration when analysing films. These are:

  • Full Shot (FS)
  • Long Shot
  • Extreme Close-Up (ECU)
  • Close-Up (CU)
  • Medium Shot (MS)
  • Extreme Long Shot (ELS)
  • Over The Shoulder (OTS)
  • POV Shot

READ MORE: The top 12 cinematography tips you MUST know as a filmmaker


There are two main types of sound these are diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is the sound that is visible on screen or the sound that’s implied on screen. Examples of this are noise made from props, or the dialogue coming from the characters.

Non-diegetic sound is sound that is not visible onscreen and is not implied by any action onscreen, it’s any sound that’s comes outside of the stories place. Examples of this are narration or mood music.



The two types of colour film theorists focus on are saturated and de-saturated colours. Saturated colour is great for romantic films, amazing scenery and generally for a happier scene.

Whereas desaturated colour is perfect for those dark, depressing scenes – it brings back the idea of struggle and tough times.


Editing in film is an integral piece of the filmmaking puzzle. An editor’s job is to make the film flow well and guide the audience along with the storyline. You need the editing to be smooth to capture the audience’s imagination and allow the story to flow to its full potential.

Here are few editing guides to help you study/improve your editing skills:

Who uses Film Theory?

There are a few types of people who use film theory in their everyday life, these are professors, creatives, and critics.


Critics use film theory to dissect each film and critically review every aspect of the film – film critics usually give an in depth reasoning to why they think that of a movie and back it up with facts around the set up of the film (lighting, dialogue, story and so forth).

If you’re looking to become a film critic try setting up a blog reviewing film and use some of the above concepts to really nail down your review technique.


If you’re looking to become a filmmaker, you really need to know your stuff – so film theory is a big deal! Make sure you understand the history, the technique and the way a film is developed throughout the individual stages. It will make you a much better filmmaker and give you a good standing when trying to break Hollywood.



Professors use film theory to teach their film courses. They need to provide an in-depth review and an unbiased opinion to educate and nurture their students.

Understanding multiple aspects of film theory bodes well as it allows them to discuss and give a three-dimensional view of the film. This allows the students to form their own opinion by using classic film theorists techniques.

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