What is Experimental Film — History, Examples & Movements (2023)

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.


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.


  • 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.

(Video) Experimental Film is More Mainstream Than You Think

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.

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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.

(Video) Experimental and Documentary Films: Crash Course Film History #16

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.

(Video) A Beginner's Guide to Experimental Cinema

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.

(Video) Experimental Film Form

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.


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.

(Video) 5 Tips for Experimental Filmmaking

Up Next: What was Dogme 95? →


What is an experimental film example? ›

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.

What is meant by experimental film? ›

Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms or alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working.

What are the types of experimental film? ›

  • EXPERIMENTAL FILM. For me, experimental film is essentially a broad strokes or umbrella term for moving images that explore the human condition, nature, or fantasy in ways that haven't been traditionally explored before. ...
  • VIDEO. ...
  • VIDEO ART. ...
1 Mar 2013

What is an experimental film quizlet? ›

What is experimental film? Films that explore film form and subjects in unconventional ways. Avant-guarde film. Films that attempt to visualize aspects of human consciousness that evade easy visual replication (dreams, memory, sensory experiences, etc.)

What is experimental and example? ›

Experimental research is research conducted with a scientific approach using two sets of variables. The first set acts as a constant, which you use to measure the differences of the second set. Quantitative research methods, for example, are experimental.

What are examples of the experimental method? ›

The researcher decides where the experiment will take place, at what time, with which participants, in what circumstances and using a standardized procedure. Participants are randomly allocated to each independent variable group. An example is Milgram's experiment on obedience or Loftus and Palmer's car crash study.

What's another name for experimental films? ›

What is another word for experimental film?
art filmart movie
independent filmindie film
indie movierepresentational film

How do you know if a film is experimental? ›

Works that are experimental by AAFF standards typically have one or more of these qualities: they primarily explore the medium of film or video itself, they are not fundamentally narrative, and/or their dominant element is abstraction or lyricism.

What makes a good experimental film? ›

Experimental films are films that push the boundaries of conventional film making. The experimental aspect could be new and different ways of working the camera, using lighting, playing with audio effects, scripting or even acting.

What are the 4 types of experiments? ›

Four major design types with relevance to user research are experimental, quasi-experimental, correlational and single subject. These research designs proceed from a level of high validity and generalizability to ones with lower validity and generalizability. First, a note on validity.

When did experimental films start? ›

In Paris in the 1920s, artists like Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Duchamp brought film into the fold of the avant-garde. They focused on form, making freewheeling, semi-abstract films from assembled images and snippets of text.

What are the two types of experimental? ›

Types of Experimental Design

There are two basic types of research design: True experiments. Quasi-experiments.

Why do filmmakers choose experimental films? ›

Social Expression

Just like the previous section, experimental filmmaking allows you to focus your creative efforts squarely on the statement that you're trying to make with your film, without any of the back and forth politics that come with narrative filmmaking.

Do most experimental films tell a story? ›

True: Most experimental films do not tell a story. Experimental films often critique culture and media. Experimental films invite interpretation.

What are six characteristics most experimental films share? ›

What are Fred Campers six characteristics that most experimental films share? they are not commercial, personal, don't conform to conventional expectations of story and narrative cause and effect, exploit the possibilities of cinema, critique culture and media, and invite individual interpretation.

What is experimental method answer? ›

The experimental method involves manipulating one variable to determine if this causes changes in another variable. This method relies on controlled research methods and random assignment of study subjects to test a hypothesis. The scientific method forms the basis of the experimental method.

What is an example of a experimental research question? ›

An experimental question is a cause-effect question. Note: Things that can be changed or change on their own are called variables. For example: In the question, “How does water affect plant growth?

What are some examples of experimental group? ›

Example of an Experimental Group

The group of participants listening to no music while studying is the control group and the groups listening to music, whether with or without lyrics, are the two experimental groups.

What are the 3 types of experimental design? ›

The types of experimental study designs are into three types as Pre-experimental, quasi-experimental, and real experimental.

What are the three types of experimental? ›

The three main types of scientific experiments are experimental, quasi-experimental, and observational (non-experimental).
  • Experimental, or randomized control, is the highest level of scientific experimentation. ...
  • Quasi-experimental is the second type of scientific experiment.

What is abstract form in experimental film? ›

Abstract films are non-narrative, contain no acting and do not attempt to reference reality or concrete subjects. They rely on the unique qualities of motion, rhythm, light and composition inherent in the technical medium of cinema to create emotional experiences.

What is the name for experimental? ›

What is another word for experimental?
14 more rows

What are the two differences between documentary and experimental films? ›

Experimental films reject the techniques and goals of narrative filmmaking altogether, aiming to evoke a specific mood, thought, or emotion. And documentary films may borrow from the narrative techniques of fiction films, but instead of inventing their stories and characters, they seek them out in the real world.

Do experimental films avoid telling stories? ›

Non narrative film, sometimes referred to as experimental films or avant-garde films, is a cinema which does not use narrative storytelling (though it can still have a plot). It may use other elements such as dialogue, but these are secondary to the images.

Do experimental films critique culture and media? ›

Experimental films critique culture and media. From their position outside the mainstream, they often comment on (and intentionally frustrate) viewer expectations of what a movie should be.

What is experimental media? ›

Experimental Media Arts is a field of creative practice, dialogue and research that combines contemporary art, technology, the sciences and design for artistic expression, innovation and social intervention.

What are the 3 qualities of a good experimental design? ›

In general, designs that are true experiments contain three key features: independent and dependent variables, pretesting and posttesting, and experimental and control groups. In a true experiment, the effect of an intervention is tested by comparing two groups.

How do you write an experimental short film? ›

How‌ ‌to‌ ‌Write‌ ‌an‌ ‌Experimental‌ ‌Short‌ ‌Film
  1. Write your script. ...
  2. Prepare the crew, equipment and other requirements. ...
  3. Shoot your script. ...
  4. Go wild with post-production. ...
  5. Finally, release your work.
21 Sept 2020

What are the characteristics of a good experimental design? ›

Characteristics of a Good Experimental Design
  • Provides unbiased estimates of the factor effects and associated uncertainties.
  • Enables the experimenter to detect important differences.
  • Includes the plan for analysis and reporting of the results.
  • Gives results that are easy to interpret.
29 Aug 2012

What is the main purpose of an experiment? ›

An experiment is a procedure carried out to support or refute a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy or likelihood of something previously untried. Experiments provide insight into cause-and-effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated.

What are the five experimental methods? ›

Mill formulated five Experimental Methods. They are – the Method of Agreement, the Method of Difference, the Joint Method of Agreement and Difference, the Method of Concomitant variations, and the Method of Residues.

What are the top 10 experiments of all time? ›

Top 10 Beautiful Physics Experiments
  • Young's double-slit experiment applied to the interference of single electrons.
  • Galileo's experiment on falling bodies (1600s)
  • Millikan's oil-drop experiment (1910s)
  • Newton's decomposition of sunlight with a prism (1665-1666)
  • Young's light-interference experiment (1801)

Where are the experimental films from? ›

While experimental film as a separate mode of film practice is international, its most prevalent manifestations were in western Europe before World War II and North America and Britain in the postwar period.

Who created criteria for defining experimental films? ›

Kracauer (1960) defined two basic types of film: narrative films (story films), and nonnarrative films (nonstory films), which he divided into 'films of fact' and experimental/avant-garde films.

When and where was the first experimental sound film created? ›

The first known movie made as a test of the Kinetophone was shot at Edison's New Jersey studio in late 1894 or early 1895; now referred to as the Dickson Experimental Sound Film, it is the only surviving movie with live-recorded sound made for the Kinetophone.

What is the meaning of experimental study? ›

Experimental studies are ones where researchers introduce an intervention and study the effects. Experimental studies are usually randomized, meaning the subjects are grouped by chance. Randomized controlled trial (RCT): Eligible people are randomly assigned to one of two or more groups.

What is the importance of experimental research? ›

Experiments are conducted to be able to predict phenomenons. Typically, an experiment is constructed to be able to explain some kind of causation. Experimental research is important to society - it helps us to improve our everyday lives.

Is Mother an experimental film? ›

An experimental short film in homage to one of the most influential female avant-garde filmmakers, Maya Deren.

What is experimental storytelling? ›

Experimental fiction breaks one or more of the conventions that the reader expects to find. All the main characters may be depicted as hateful, disgusting human beings. Instead of delivering a discernible story, the writer may ramble on about this and that, piling digression upon digression.

Can films be used as historical evidence? ›

Despite its weakness as a primary or secondary source, very occasionally, a film can be so important that it becomes a historic item itself, and so contributes to historical knowledge. This sometimes happens when a film plays a very significant part in recording past events.

Why is it important for films to be historically accurate? ›

Basically, historical accuracy in our media, especially if it claims to be historical, is important because it can shape people's perceptions of what parts of history were like.

What are the principle ways of organization in experimental film? ›

The three major patterns of organization used in experimental films are associative, structural, and participatory.

What are the 4 main issues that are used to classify films? ›

A motion picture content rating system classifies films based on their suitability for audiences due to their treatment of issues such as sex, violence, or substance abuse; their use of profanity; or other matters typically deemed unsuitable for children or adolescents.

How do you write an experimental film? ›

How‌ ‌to‌ ‌Write‌ ‌an‌ ‌Experimental‌ ‌Short‌ ‌Film
  1. Write your script. ...
  2. Prepare the crew, equipment and other requirements. ...
  3. Shoot your script. ...
  4. Go wild with post-production. ...
  5. Finally, release your work.
21 Sept 2020

Is experimental film making a new field? ›

Experimental filmmaking is a new field. As shown in the video, director Errol Morris invented a device that allows interview subjects to respond to questions while looking directly into the camera lens.

What are the 4 types of experimental design? ›

Four major design types with relevance to user research are experimental, quasi-experimental, correlational and single subject. These research designs proceed from a level of high validity and generalizability to ones with lower validity and generalizability.

What are the 3 basic experimental designs? ›

The basic principles of experimental design are (i) Randomization, (ii) Replication, and (iii) Local Control.

What is experimental format? ›

The definition of 'experimental writing' is highly subjective, but for me it includes writing that plays with form and pushes the possibilities of language further than usual. Some experimental writing can be difficult, asking for careful and active reading, such as Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker (1980).

What are the 7 steps of experimental design? ›

What are the steps of DOE?
  • Set objectives.
  • Select process variables.
  • Select an experimental design.
  • Execute the design.
  • Check that the data are consistent with the experimental assumptions.
  • Analyze and interpret the results.
  • Use/present the results (may lead to further runs or DOE's).


1. Intro to Experimental Film - Quentin Tarantino AUTUER study tasks
2. Experimental Films of the 1940s
(kubricklynch - Film History)
3. What is Avant-Garde Film? - a Video Essay
4. Experimental Films of the 1960s
(kubricklynch - Film History)
5. Film Theory (PART II: Experimental Filmmaking)
(Mythical Pigeon)
6. The Relationship Between Art Movements and Film
(kubricklynch - Film History)
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