Skip to content


20 Of The Best Experimental Short Films You Can Watch Online

26 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Maria Cristina


During the 1920s art house cinema was beginning to gain its reputation as respectable filmmaking. This opened the doors for even more radical types of movies, one that would even question the basic narrative structure all films were following at the time. This was known as experimental or avant-garde cinema. They were usually short films produced outside of Hollywood to challenge the cinematic conventions of the film industry.

Most directors were forced to use their own money in order to make these films. They were usually shown in the same theaters designed for art house cinema, until their reputation grew enough for theaters specialized in experimental filmmaking.

Another factor that motivated the rise of these kinds of movies were the artistic trends of the early twentieth century. Painters and writers were already questioning the norms of their fields and created modernist styles such as Cubism, abstract art, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Many of these artists influenced young filmmakers who were trying to step away from commercial cinema.

This list highlights some of the most prominent sub genres from experimental films. The earliest of them was part of the Dada movement which began as a result of the sense of meaningless of life perceived after the consequences of World War I. There are experimental narratives as well, which reworked the narrative structure of movies and surrealistic movies, inspired by psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Other filmmakers experimented with the scenery of cities by filming them poetically, these were known as lyrical documentaries of city symphony.

With the arrival of sound, even more styles were developed. Animation became a suitable alternative because of its capability of economic productions, considering the high costs of filming pictures with sound. This meant that abstract films would still remain popular since they were based on animated nonobjective pictorial styles.

After World War II other innovative trends were created. The rise of documentaries and newsreels inspired the experimental compilation film, in which footage from different sources or a movie would be cut into a specific style to build up emotions or convey a metaphorical meaning. The lyrical film would also focus on emotions but with little association to narrative. The rise of these styles led to another name for experimental films: underground movies, although the audience associated this term with controversial avant-garde movies.

Contemporary experimental films are reminiscent of past sub genres. The deconstructive film is directly related to the 70’s Structuralist cinema and compilation film. This time instead of editing over numerous sources the main focus was mainstream films and its artificiality. The most recent film of the list was considered to be part of pluralism, which in essence, is not even considered an official movement.

After structuralist cinema’s domination, most budgets were reduced because of costly filmmaking styles. Other theaters were refusing to display experimental films unless controversial themes would be censured. Therefore, filmmakers parted their own ways to create numerous individual styles which did not belong to any specific movement, but were all categorized as pluralist cinema.


20. The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) by Germaine Dulac

Dulac abandoned commercial filmmaking and impressionistic cinema to direct a Surrealist film. The screenplay, written by poet Antonin Artaud, combines impressionistic cinematography and a disjointed narrative logic from Surrealism.

In the movie a clergyman carrying a large seashell smashes laboratory beakers, an officer intervenes and breaks the shell. The clergyman witnesses this act with horror. The rest of the film includes the priests pursuit of a beautiful woman through an incoherent series of settings. The officer prevents this love by intruding along the different scenarios.

The film’s screening caused an uproar because of Dulac’s softening of surrealistic techniques. Artaud also had several disagreements with Dulac, he wanted to control the directorial aspect of the film but Dulac rearranged the shooting schedule at the same time Artaud was acting for the Passion of Joan of Arc. Additionally, since it was the first surrealist film screened, the critics did not appreciate the meaningless of its images, and was soon overshadowed by Un Chien Andalou. These factors have proved to be obstacles for the film’s recognition.


19. The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (aka Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra) (1928) by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić

Robert Florey, a Hollywood cameraman, turned to experimental narratives and directed this ingenious film for a reported $100. It combined close ups of actors against black backgrounds with stylized miniature scenes made of paper cut outs and shot with an ordinary light on a kitchen table.

The movie satirizes the Hollywood casting process and its mistreatment towards potential talent. The protagonist is a man who dreams of becoming a star, but is dehumanized by being labeled with a number. Towards the end he dies and goes to heaven, where he is rewarded with the removal of his number.

The cinematographer of the movie was Gregg Toland, whose work was appreciated enough to be offered jobs for many major films such as Citizen Kane. Slavko Vorkapić was the special effects designer whom was also offered many promising jobs after the movie. With a crew as talented, Hollywood Extra was given enough support from the likes of actors such as Charlie Chaplin to be exhibited commercially.


18. Scorpio Rising (1964) by Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger’s underground cinematic classic was an anticipation of the structure music videos would have in the future. The director created a fusion of motorcycle culture, homoeroticism, diabolism, death, and mass media. Aggressive montages of staged scenes, documentary shots, comic strips, movies and mystical traditions were divided in episodes by rock and roll songs.

The film was a portrait of American masculinity. It presented the motorcycle culture of the 1960s without professional actors and shot in real locations, techniques used for documentaries at the time. However, Anger’s approach was not documentary, it proved to be experimental because he was inspired by a reality decorated with his own vision. He compares his work with a Cezanne painting of landscapes, vistas drawn with his own perspective.

The film stars Bruce Byron as Scorpio and includes music by Ricky Nelson, The Angels, The Crystals, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. All of the films songs were actually licensed for the film, and even if most of the budget went to buy the rights, Scorpio Rising has remained one of the most famous underground films and one of Kenneth Anger’s best work.


17. The Nose (1963) by Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff

A pinboard film adaptation of a story by Russian author Nikolay Gogol. For this type of animation, thousands of pins were placed on a board and moved and photographed under different lighting situations. As a result both directors created fantastic transitions and movements within the characters. A notable animation was the nose itself, particularly when it falls from the man’s nose while he looks in the mirror.

This man is the protagonist of the story. He lost his nose, and suspects it ran away from his face. He decides to follow it, provoking an uncertainty with what is real or a dream. Another man suggests he found the nose, yet the thin line between fantasy and reality had already been breached, and even the protagonist is uncertain of his lost nose. The pinscreen technique showcases this world fantastically, as the movement between backgrounds is very smooth.


16. A Movie (1958) by Bruce Conner

American Sculptor Bruce Conner brought the compilation film to notice with this short film. Thrilling scenes of Westerns and jungles are intercut with newsreel shots of daredevil stunts and disasters with intertitles of the film’s tittle in between.

This work of found art received international recognition and exhibition in museums. He evoked a sense of past tense with a retrospective of vintage clips, which included dirt tainted film with stunts and pin up girls. This movie paved way for deconstructive films because of its fixation with destructive images (the explosion) and his free association techniques with editing.

The movie represents the tragic foolishness of the human condition. It demonstrates famous images from the recent past which were often used as mass propaganda. These big ideas of commercial (pin ups), war, excitement, and mainstream movie tittles are all recollected in one short film.


15. Outer Space (1999) by Peter Tscherkassky

Austrian Structuralist filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky’s fascination with Hollywood opulence enabled him to create a deconstructive film by dismantling a widescreen horror movie. He superimposed images from the original to emphasize on genre conventions, which created new obstacles to disturb the heroine via hallucinatory abstract imagery.

It’s main target was narrative cinema, but to denounce its storytelling techniques it relied upon its conventions and appeals. Thus, it was a different experience for the director by stirring away from his structural cinema roots to seek narrative tendencies.

The original film was called The Entity and stars Barbara Hershey as a terrorized woman being followed by an invisible being. Even if Outer Space presents shots from this motion picture, it was shown in black and white instead of color like the original. It also sounds much more aggressive, because of the crackling and distortions of the track, yet, the original film was violent by itself because of controversial rape scenes.

Therefore, even if the movie has a different look than The Entity, the director kept alive the overall emotions, by still making the heroine feeling chased but by images, and the violence still present because of sounds.


14. Rain (1929) by Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken

A highlight of Joris Iven’s avant-garde films. It is a modernistic work where the movie was not a reflection of the outside world, rather, it was a world by itself, even if it depended on reality.

At first impression it seems like an abstract work, since it is a presentation of water falling on water. It drops on the flooded streets of Amsterdam, the canals, bonnets of cars, and so forth. What makes this short distinct from other abstractions is that it actually tells a story: rainstorm over Amsterdam wets numerous objects and people on its path to soil.

Therefore, it could also be referred to as a documentary, which categorized the movie as a city symphony, lyrical films that demonstrated scenic landscapes of a city.

By being a city symphony it transforms the short into something much more profound than rain falling on a city. It was a symphony of water, a demonstration of beauty with such a mundane topic like urban rain.


13. Surogat (1961) by Dušan Vukotić

Zagreb studios produced this highly stylized cartoon aimed towards art-cinema audiences. The film needed no dialogue to satirize modern life. It has a simple yet charming animation style based out of bold geometric shapes with an undefined background.

The story is about a man’s visit to the beach ending tragically as everything, even the scenery and the hero himself, turn out to be inflatable imitations. Some of these include a boat, parasol and girlfriend. This suggestion of inflatable imitations is a reminder of the creation of artificiality in the world, directly insinuated by a nail in the end.

Surogat is known by many names, such as Erastz and The Substitute in english. Other translations include Cypporar, Der Erastz, Le Succedane, and Surogatto. This former Yugoslavian short (the region is currently known as Bosnia and Herzegovina) was the first non US film to win the Oscar for Short Subjects (Cartoons).


12. Begone Dull Care (1949) by Norman McLaren, Evelyn Lambart

McLaren’s abstract films masters hand painting and scratching directly on the film celluloid. He developed these techniques soon after Len Lye’s works, shown throughout art cinemas in North America. Evelyn Lambart also helped make this short by incorporating color corrections and including dust as an artistic image as well as the enhancement of the overall product.

The abstract images of the movie are accompanied by three pieces of jazz performed by the Oscar Peterson trio. The music rhythm synchronizes with the shapes and color shifting making this visual music. It invokes feelings that are hard to explain with words and instead are sensed by music dancing with images.

The synchronicity of the visual with the auditory was highly planned. The different elements were arranged according to the instrumental sections of the songs, paying close attention to frequency. This makes the film all the more proportionately complex, turning into a visual feast of choreographic harmony.


11. Entr’acte (1924) by René Clair

This Dadaist short was screened during the intermission of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche, who was also the set designer of the film. It began with a brief prologue where Erik Satie (the film’s composer) and Picabia leap in slow motion into a scene and fire a vintage World War I cannon towards the audience. The rest of the film consisted of unconnected, irrational scenes.

The film was divided in two parts, the first assembled a number of disconnected contrasting views of Paris, such as a subway car seen in Méliès style miniature and Marcel Duchamp playing chess with Man Ray.

The second half emerges with a young man aiming a rifle at an egg, before being shot by another man and falling from a rooftop to his own funeral procession. From this point on, the film turns into a prewar chase comedy as a vehicle travels along the streets of Paris followed by raging bourgeois in pursuit.

Entr’acte convinced filmmakers that modernist style could be created without using completely abstract painted imagery. It challenged the storytelling conventions of the time, the norms of working for the film industry. It relied heavily on graphic editing, with a setting full of geometric relations adjacent to its images. It masquerades reason by presenting the demented pseudo rationality of the world.



Pages: 1 2


Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates