What Is Film?

by Julie N. Books (Author)
©2016 Monographs IX, 160 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 224


In What Is Film?, Julie N. Books critically evaluates three philosophical doctrines of film realism (transparency, illusionism, and perceptual realism) and defends her view that films are creative works of art. By examining contemporary films, such as computer-animated films and films with computer-generated images, Dr. Books shows how films are creative works of art, thereby undermining the long-held view that films are slavish recordings of reality. This book is ideal for academics and courses on the philosophy of film, film theory, film history, filmmaking, metaphysics, and the philosophy of art.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 Transparency
  • Introduction
  • Photographs and Transparency
  • Films and Transparency
  • Criticisms of Transparency
  • 2 Illusionism
  • Introduction
  • Currie’s Arguments Against Cognitive Illusionism
  • Arguments Against Cognitive Illusionism
  • Currie’s Arguments Against Perceptual Illusionism
  • Evaluating Perceptual Illusionism
  • 3 Perceptual Realism
  • Introduction
  • Currie’s Account of Perceptual Realism
  • Problems with Resemblance Theories
  • 4 Summarizing the Doctrines of Film Realism
  • 5 A New Theory of the Ontology of Film
  • Introduction
  • Films as Creative Works of Art
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

← viii | ix →



I would like to thank Bruce A. Aune, Thomas E. Wartenberg, and Gareth Matthews for helping me with my doctoral dissertation The Ontology of Film (2002), which I have updated by discussing more recent films in this book. I would also like to thank my husband, father, friends, and pets for their support. Finally, I would like to thank the editors at Peter Lang Publishing for their assistance with publishing this book. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →



There has been an ongoing philosophical debate about whether films are realistic mediums that record reality or creative mediums that create new realities. In my doctoral dissertation The Ontology of Film (2002),1 I discussed three philosophical doctrines of realism in film, namely transparency, illusionism, and perceptual realism. By explaining how these three doctrines were inadequate, I laid the groundwork for my own theory, which I believed could preserve their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. My theory, which I called ‘neo-creationism’ in light of the new computer technologies that were being used then to create film images, said that films are not slavish recordings of reality, but rather creative works of art that alter and transform reality, as well as create new realities, such as computer-generated realities. I showed how films are creative works of art by explaining how filmmakers create the many different artistic components of film images. I also discussed animated films, computer-animated films, films with special effects, and films with computer-generated images that showed the creative and artistic nature of films.

Since I wrote The Ontology of Film (from 2001 to 2002), there have been many films with special effects, computer-animation, and computer-generated images due to the advent of new and improved computer technologies (like performance capture and motion capture) and better computer software programs ← 1 | 2 → (like MASSIVE and Tissue) for making film images. While Tron (1982) heralded the incipient stages of computer-generated images in films, the explosion of computer-based images occurred after the blockbuster films Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991), which featured a liquid metal killing machine (the T-1000), and Jurassic Park (1993), which featured realistic dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Brachiosaurus. These two films were highly successful because of their innovative use of special effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). After seeing the striking lifelikeness of the computer-generated character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) in the winter of 2002, months after my doctoral dissertation was published, I suspected that computer-generated images would become more prevalent over time. Sure enough, since then there have been many more films with computer-generated images in them, such as the film series Spider-Man, Superman, Men in Black, X-Men, Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Star Wars. There have also been lots of computer-animated films since then, such as The Polar Express (2004), Madagascar (2005), Happy Feet (2006), Beowulf (2007), Wall-E (2008), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Rango (2011), Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), Frozen (2013), Big Hero 6 (2014), and The Peanuts Movie (2015). This book updates my doctoral dissertation The Ontology of Film (2002) by including a discussion of some of these newer films, particularly computer-animated films and films with computer-generated images, that were released after the summer of 2002 and before the end of 2015. By examining these more recent films, I believe that we can more clearly see how films are creative works of art. I am also confident that many more films in the future will continue to prove my doctoral dissertation thesis that films are creative works of art.

Unlike classical works that discussed realism in film in terms of film style, as with André Bazin’s What Is Cinema? (1967), this book is not about film style, or about how films should look. It is about the ontology of film, or the study of the being of films. In other words, it is about trying to understand what films are. I have titled this book “What Is Film?” as I try to answer that question by looking at feature films, the motion pictures that we see in movie theaters today, and finding a defining feature that they all have in common. While there are many common features that such films have, such as visual images that appear to move (hence the popular names “motion pictures,” “moving pictures,” and “movies” to refer to feature films), I believe the most important feature that is common to all feature films that we see in movie theaters today is their creative component. The creator of the film, or filmmaker, has to make creative choices ← 2 | 3 → and decisions about how the images in the film are going to look. Similarly, the artists who help to create those film images, and editors who edit them, also contribute to the filmmaking process in creative ways. You can look at the end credits of a feature film to realize how many other workers, such as artists, animators, designers, and editors, have helped the filmmaker to create the final version of the film, or final cut of the film. It is this creative component that makes these films creative works of art. In this book, I will discuss some of the many different creative components of feature films to demonstrate how such films are creative works of art.2

Since many films relied on photographic methods of production, such as the traditional 35mm films that were common before the arrival of digital films, and photographs were often seen as slavish and non-artistic recordings of reality, many people believed that films were also slavish and non-artistic recordings of reality. As Rudolph Arnheim summarized their argument, “Film cannot be art, for it does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically.”3 In his influential book Film as Art (1933, revised in 1957), he rejected that argument and said that films are art through the diverse ways in which they do not show us reality, even when they are based on photographic methods of production. Arnheim, and other classical film theorists, such as Hugo Münsterberg (The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, 1916), did not have the luxury of talking about computer-generated images in films as I do to prove their points about films being works of art. The new computer technologies have changed the nature of films to allow for more artistic and creative expressions than ever before. I set out to show how this revolution in filmmaking affects the ontological status of films as creative works of art.

The reason Arnheim and others felt that they had to defend the nature of films as being works of art is because of the photographic basis of film images. Since many films in their time were comprised of photographic images, films were thought by other film theorists, such as André Bazin (What Is Cinema?, 1967), to be merely mechanical and accurate recordings of reality just like the photographic images on which films were based. However, as Arnheim and others showed in their works, and I will show in this book, photographs do not just mechanically and accurately record reality because the photographer makes creative choices and decisions when making a photograph. For instance, the photographer selects and manipulates the composition, the lighting, the colors, and the angles of the shots. As a result of this deliberate and intentional process of selection and manipulation, the photograph shows viewers what the photographer wants viewers to see, which may not be the way the world really looked at the time the photograph was taken. The photograph is thus a creative work of art. ← 3 | 4 →

Films are creative works of art too, because they also involve human creativity in the process of making them. In this book, I will show some of the many different kinds of creative aspects that go into the making of films. Furthermore, with animated films, computer-animated films, and films with computer-generated images, there is no longer a necessary photographic basis for them, which means that when you see them, you may be seeing absolutely nothing from the real world. As Ian Jarvie (reiterating Alexander Sesonske) points out, an animated film may show what never happened anywhere because “What is photographed in animation work are thousands of pictures painted on cels,” as with the classic film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).4 With animated films, which involve drawing and painting images by hand, and computer-animated films, which involve using computers to make film images, the process of making film images is more like making paintings than making photographs because the filmmakers can control every aspect of how their film images look.


IX, 160
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
illusionism computer-animation philosophical doctrine Film realism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. IX, 160 pp.

Biographical notes

Julie N. Books (Author)

Julie N. Books, Esq. received her A.B. with honors from Princeton University, her J.D. from The College of William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law, her MA in philosophy from New York University, and her PhD in philosophy from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Supersensible in Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgment’ (2016).


Title: What Is Film?
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