Films use cinematography, which we assume to look real, but in fact, stylistic possibilities are almost endless and films do not have to look – or sound – like real life.

In the clips below, see a variety of approaches, from the original “German Expressionist” movement which attempted to show interior psychology through distorted or unrealistic physical depictions, all the way to those which concentrate on showing us real life as closely as possible.

German Expressionism was an art movement of the 1920’s.  In the cinema, the movement produced some of the classic horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu the Vampyre (based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula).  The stylized look of the films – with their jagged lines, diagonals, harsh shadows, unrealistic sets and props, and mannered acting – profoundly influenced the cinema to come.  Horror movies in general owe a lot to the German Expressionist style, and the shadowy crime films of the 1940’s which were termed Film Noir also adopted the look to express the sinister interior reality of their tortured characters.  Alfred Hitchcock carried on the idea of expressing interior psychology with distorted or exaggerated visual style, and today’s auteur director Tim Burton is an acknowledged fan of German Expressionism, as the video below points out.

A creepy thriller from 1955, The Night of the Hunter tells the story of a travelling “preacher” who is actually a serial killer of children.  The film consciously imitated the look of the German Expressionist films of the 1920’s to create a similarly disturbing feeling.

This is an excellent analysis of Moonlight, 2016’s Best Picture Oscar, with an explanation of how the film uses camera and other elements in expressive ways. 

Actor-director Danny De Vito obviously had fun bringing Roald Dahl’s typically macabre children’s story, Matilda, to the screen.  Look at the overt stylistic choices De Vito makes to exaggerate the evil principal Miss Trunchbull, while the children are filmed in more “normal” fashion.

The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987) goes wild with exaggeration on every level – story, acting, use of colour, decor, costume, and over-the-top camera and editing making use of ultra-wide lenses, extreme low angles, and plenty more.

Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation was the first Iranian film ever to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Farhadi uses a style we might term “documentary realism.”  While the film is carefully constructed fiction, it nonetheless feels like real life, using handheld camera and few stylistic interventions, so that it seems spontaneous and lifelike.

This short documentary accurately explains how in the 1940’s, Italy became the first country of many to explore a new kind of filmmaking – putting real people and a truthful depiction of social realities at front and center.  The Italian post-war movement called Neo-Realism produced a handful of films that had a profound impact around the world.


British director Ken Loach explains the approach of social realism, that insists on location shooting, static or “reactive” camera style, dialogue which seems improvised, and other techniques to strengthen the films’ realist impact.

Keeping it simple doesn’t mean no feelings!  Watch how another British realist director Mike Leigh, with the simplest possible camera positions, no music, and no overt stylistic manipulation, allows his actors to create this believable and very tender moment.

In 1995, a group of Danish filmmakers including Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg announced a new concept to the world.  At first their proposed realist movement called Dogme 95, and its preposterous manifesto, seemed like a joke – no widescreen, no black and white, no flashbacks, no special effects, no tripod, no music unless found on site while shooting.  But the first films that followed the movement’s strict “Code of Chastity” were powerful and astounded the world.

The movement was really an effort to counterbalance the big-budget, special-effects-driven commercial cinema.  It was open to any filmmakers anywhere, and to date, over 200 films have been made according to the Dogme principles.

A short film called We Are the Party, following the rules of the Dogme 95 realist movement.

In 1980’s Raging Bull Martin Scorsese “pulls out all the stops!”  While the film opts for a “documentary realist” look of old-style black and white, everything else is put to work:  camera movement, lens choices, editing, and use of sound all become highly expressive elements.

Music and sound effects can also be “expressive” and take a film far beyond realism.  In The Mask (1994), anything goes!