Doing more with less: Dogme 95 and self-imposed limitations

In 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote a manifesto in opposition to the excesses of overproduction in filmmaking. In it, the two Danish directors formulated ten specific rules designed to force filmmakers to focus on the narrative and the actors’ performances instead of on unnecessary and expensive gimmicks.

These rules, known as The Vow of Chastity became the foundation of the Dogme 95 movement:

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited

It’s easy to read this list and wonder how anyone could possibly produce a feature-length film under such restrictive terms. But in the last fifteen years, over sixty films have been made that adhere to The Vow of Chastity. Many of these motion pictures are actually quite good. In fact, the very first Dogme 95 film released, The Celebration, managed to win a Special Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

I think the most interesting thing about the Dogme 95 movement is that it demonstrates how effective self-imposed limitations can be. They can help us keep focus on what is really important in our work by freeing us from limitless possibilities, which are often just distractions.

So next time you’re feeling creatively stuck or overwhelmed, consider reining yourself in to help you keep your priorities in order.

31 Comments for “Doing more with less: Dogme 95 and self-imposed limitations”

  1. posted by Tom on

    Why rule #10?

  2. posted by Iris on

    Creativity is often (maybe not always) released in constraint. Example: the writer will often choose a computer writing program that has no distractions, or a Neo-type machine that is not connected to the internet. Thereby purposely limiting what they can do with it. Such constraints (disciplines) have proven to release creativity in many.

  3. posted by amybee on

    I enjoyed some of the early Dogme 95 films, Lars von Trier especially. I recently saw Levring’s Fear Me Not. Brilliant, and totally NOT Dogme 95. Levering was one of the original Dogme 95 directors, but has moved away from it, as have others. Fear Me Not was storyboarded and intentionally shot. It was more Hitchcock in its extreme planning and execution. Not tons of extra scenes shot that ended up on the cutting room floor. There’s an unclutterer lesson there also.

    @Tom, I’m not sure that the director wasn’t credited at all. More that the director isn’t credited in the opening credits, like James Cameron’s Avatar.

  4. posted by c on

    In the fabulous collection A Formal Feeling Comes, one writer says that composing poems in form (sonnet, pantoum, villanelle) is like “dancing in a box.”

    I find that when writing poetry, if I get stuck on finding a word, or on what image should come next, that converting/rewriting/rewording the entire piece into a form with a strict meter or rhyme scheme often gives me the momentum to continue; it’s a known path.

    Then I can bring that movement back into a revision of the original piece. And of course, sometimes the formal exercise is just denser, crisper, and slimmer, so that’s how it stays.

  5. posted by Quill on

    “So next time you’re feeling creatively stuck or overwhelmed, consider reigning yourself in to help you keep your priorities in order.”

    Should be “reining”. ;)

  6. posted by Mike on

    @ Quill is correct. Kings reign, while jockeys take the reins.

    @ original article: This is indeed a creative concept that has been used to good effect. Former sitcom screenwriter, now game designer, Mark Rosewater teaches that only by establishing boundaries for a creative effort can a writer find something with resistance to push against; remove all boundaries, and the work becomes formless, nebulous, and exhausting to craft and comprehend.

    A perfect example of the latter would be Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. To this day, it is still impossible to be sure who the main character of that movie is. In a way, that movie is the antithesis of the Dogme 95 concept. For better or worse, knowing that provides a valuable perspective.

  7. Avatar of PJDoland

    posted by PJDoland on

    @Quill-

    Correction made to the post. Will make a note of that in the future.

  8. posted by Battra92 on

    As a photographer I can understand the need to using what you have in front of you but I’m not a big fan of purposefully limiting yourself. Heck, the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane, is full of innovations and cost a fortune to make. On the other hand, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves) was made with a cast of nobodies and shot on the streets of Postwar Rome. Art is impossible to restrict with rules.

    Of course, most movies made today are crap that use either the technique of the day (slow motion to fast motion camera movements) or just overblown special effects or rely on overpaid stars to tell mediocre stories. I’d love to see good movies again but they just aren’t making all that many anymore.

  9. posted by Rue on

    @Tom Why #10? My guess would be that by not being credited, the director is able to focus on making the movie as good as possible and true to his/her vision without having to worry about what it will do to his/her reputation.

    Whether that truly works or not, I don’t know.

  10. posted by Anita on

    I agree that limitations can be beneficial to creativity, as long as they are (1) self-imposed, (2) limited in time and scope (i.e. for a month, for the duration of a specific project etc), and (3) maleable whenever the artist/author feels they no longer benefit from them.

    However, attempting to impose such rules on others, on an entire artistic genre, or on art as a whole, is not encouraging creativity, quite the contrary.

  11. posted by chacha1 on

    I am wondering just how many filmmakers signed on to Dogme 95 and have since decamped. Many artists experiment with new theories, very few do not, eventually, move on. Especially intentionally self-limiting theories, like “I will draw all my images using straight lines” or “I will not put anything in my shot that does not naturally occur within the frame.” I would guess that for most, the self-limiting approach serves well as a temporary challenge to help define exactly what the artist really wants to pursue, but poorly as a lifelong directive.

  12. posted by Andy on

    So the effect of these restrictions is that the resulting film is something that you could observe in your own life.

    Then why bother with the film at all? Isn’t the whole point that I get to see things I wouldn’t normally, like murder, explosions, space travel, etc.?

  13. posted by Michelle on

    If you’re interested in the effects of constraint on creativity, check out The Five Obstructions (made by Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth). Basically von Trier challenges Leth to remake one of his short films five times, each time with a different constraint.

  14. posted by Rachel on

    @Andy. That is one philosophy. Many, many people involved in and appreciate of film would disagree.

    Personally, I enjoy genre works in film and books a great deal. Lots of people have no use for material that isn’t intimate and realistic. It doesn’t resonate with them. I understand this as well.

  15. posted by eva on

    Even Lars von Trier broke some of these rules–in just one example, a non-handheld camera is used extensively in ‘Direktøren for det hele’ (Automavision), and some is shot off-location. It was simply too restrictive, it seems.

  16. posted by Loren on

    @Andy – I don’t think this approach is meant to be used ALL the time by everybody. But it forces you to be more creative and do things that might be out of your comfort zone. Instead of a director building a set to his exact specifications he has to bend a little and find a place that is perfect.
    I always hated in Writing classes being asked to ‘Write a free verse poem’ because there are literally infinite possibilities on what you can write. Sometimes it’s better to impose some constraints to help narrow the possibilities.
    (Also I love movies that explode, however I also love documentaries that can show me details of everyday life in new ways.)

  17. posted by m on

    I’m pretty sure those are the same prerequisites Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl worked under.

  18. Avatar of PJDoland

    posted by PJDoland on

    @m – Yeah, one could say there’s definitely something a little fascist about having that many rules.

    BTW, have you ever seen the documentary on Riefenstahl that was made a few years before she died? It’s called The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. It was very interesting and not overly sympathetic.

  19. posted by Katha on

    m – That was probably meant as a joke, but anyway:

    Riefenstahl especially for her Nazi era films went for monumentalist, manipulative images and used (and invented) very modern-for-her-time techniques. That is about the opposite of the “intentionally limiting yourself” spirit of Dogme 95.

    And Leni Riefenstahl using a handheld camera? Perhaps in her underwater films when she was over seventy, but that is hardly what she is known for…

  20. posted by Katie Alender on

    I was in film school when that school of thought became popular, and I never quite understood it. Part of filmmaking, like all other arts, is manipulation. You can do this well and subtly without subscribing to a list of needlessly strict rules. Does not bringing a prop to a location really make a better movie?

    It feels like getting rid of the sponge to keep the kitchen sink clear of clutter to me. ;-)

  21. Avatar of

    posted by HappyDogs on

    The last video I made with my little Flip camera met all these criteria perfectly. It’s a nice idea, but it seems like it would make for some not-terribly-interesting viewing. I submit my own videos as evidence.

  22. posted by miketv on

    It seems like these rules would put more people out of work than downloading would.

    And frankly… “rule” number 8, I’m looking at you. Dogma 95 is now its own genre, making it now impossible to make a film true to this overly-minimalist ethos.

  23. posted by Amy on

    This seems like an interesting concept. However, if the director is not credited, then why do we all know who he is? On Netflix, he is listed as the Director and even on IMDB, it is under his name. Granted on IMDB it says (uncredited) but please, it lists it as his film.

  24. posted by Karyn on

    I think “rules” such as the ones on this list work best if they are seen as guidelines to inspire rather than as a literal “must-do” list. Just as most of us wouldn’t actually live in an extremely stripped-down minimalist environment, yet we can draw uncluttering inspiration from pictures of such extreme environments, so lists such as this can be an inspiration to guide directors away from leaning on superficial cinematic clutter and to remember that the heart of a truly good film is character and story.

    As the old adage goes, Learn the rules well so you’ll know when to break them. ;-)

  25. posted by Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com on

    Wow what a unique post. I never thought I’d see this on Unclutterer but I can see where the idea comes from.

  26. posted by m on

    Sorry for the terrible analogy, though it did raise a few interesting points on such ridged parameters. Also, so true that a camera in that day could not be hand-held. What fascinating thoughts ~ now what does film-making have to do with uncluttering and organization?

  27. Avatar of

    posted by Abeline on

    This sounds like it would make for an incredibly boring movie. I’ll take my big-budget blockbusters with explosions and impossible stunts, please.

  28. posted by JC on

    The process of forcing oneself to work within a certain set of parameters can stretch the creative process. To continually limit oneself to only one way of doing things can also strangle a project. Knowing just when to contract, and when to expand to make a project its true best is the goal.

    I am currently designing and sewing some new clothes. I started out limiting myself to using only patterns and fabric I already had, but finally admitted that I would need to purchase some threads, closures, linings etc. that I would normally not purchase until starting a specific project, even if I already had some yardage on hand. Some of my ideas would not have come about if I had not limited myself initially.

  29. posted by Tod on

    Katie, I agree with you. Filmmaking — art in general — is about manipulation. The rules as described would HAVE to result in a highly naturalistic film. No props. No music. No filters and handheld camera only!

    I prefer an artist to give me his vision of reality. I don’t enjoy naturalistic art that looks just like “real life”. I know how ordinary life is. I see it all around me. I want to see how things could be and ought to be, the best of someone’s imagination.

  30. posted by Barb on

    This sounds like a great exercise to do as a filmmaker, to ensure they’re putting the proper focus on character development and storytelling. I can see it becoming too restricting to use for every film, but it seems like a great idea for at least one project early in one’s career.

    It seems analogous to many of the Project Runway challenges, where the designers are given very specific materials or other limitations within which to create. There have been so many imaginative and beautiful garments created as a result of those challenges. And then, it’s interesting to see which designers flourish under the carefully defined rules of a challenge, but have trouble self-editing or defining their own style when they’re set loose.

  31. posted by Sian on

    Just so some commenters aren’t confused, I don’t think the idea ever was to follow these rules for the rest of the director’s working life-Lars von Trier certainly hasn’t. But it’s interesting to try it once? Most of the directors who signed up have only made one Dogme 95 film-that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an interesting way to stimulate creativity. I was amazed at the sheer variety that these ‘restrictions’ produced, not all of them were serious art films-one person did an adaptation of a Maeve Binchy novel “Evening Class”, it was just as brilliant.

    And yes, these particular rules would result in a highly naturalistic film, which not all moviegoers like. But even directors who make the ‘slice of cake’ sort of films have given themselves creative restrictions at times; Hitchcock for instance did it twice at least, once with Rope where he wanted it to appear as one continuous shot through the use of 10 very long takes. The other is Lifeboat in which the whole film is set on one very restrictive set (the lifeboat).

    No creator HAS to try this, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed out of hand.

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