Making Your Own Fantasy Film: A Field Guide


So you want to make a fantasy movie? Here’s what you need to know about working in the genre.

Fantasy is old. Very old. Our earliest recorded narratives all contain elements of fantasy, and it’s safe to assume that the oral traditions that informed these ancient tales were themselves chock full of fantasy.

There was a time when the planet was a magical place. Monsters and fairies and capricious beings of all kinds inhabited the forests, caves, and rivers we depended on for food and shelter.

Mysterious or confusing events often had only one explanation—magic. There were forces at work in the world that shaped how people lived their lives, and there wasn’t much else to do at night except tell ourselves stories about it.

And, this was happening everywhere. Cultures across the planet were explaining photosynthesis and meteorology and medicine and just about everything else with tales of magic—the key element of the fantasy genre.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the works of Homer to the Panchatantra, fantastic stories about good vs. evil have recorded the development of the human story all over the world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh recorded in ancient cuneiform
The Epic of Gilgamesh, recorded in ancient cuneiform, is roughly four thousand years old. It’s one of the world’s oldest recorded narratives, prominently featuring an epic battle between good and evil—and plenty of magic. Image via The British Museum.

So what, technically, is “fantasy?” The term itself can mean anything, so does a fantastic story or movie just need a little razzle-dazzle? Not quite.

Like every other narrative genre, fantasy overlaps with its neighboring categories, so we can split hairs about what is and isn’t fantasy all day. As entertaining as that sounds, we all have work to do, so let’s establish a rough idea of what we mean when talking about “fantasy.”

Defining the Fantasy Genre

At its most generic, fantasy involves magic—however it manifests. This might be supernatural, otherworldly, alchemical, divine—you name it. From there, the genre breaks down into many sub-genres—we’re only going to cover a few here to help you get your head around your particular project.

As a genre, fantasy is part of the larger speculative fiction family, where it lives with its cousin’s science fiction and horror. Typically speaking, fantasy also takes the battle between good and evil as a central theme. Protagonists can often be small parts in much larger machines that pit epically powerful forces against each other.

The earliest fantasy movie is likely Alice Guy‘s “The Cabbage Fairy,” filmed in 1896. In it, a fairy strolls through a garden and plucks infant babies from cabbages, and presents them to the camera.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that fantasy films became more frequent staples.

“The Cabbage Fairy” (1896) is one of the earliest fantasy films.

So, let’s look at some fantasy sub-genres that have helped shape what we think of when we think of “fantasy.”

High Fantasy

This is fantasy‘s fantasy. High fantasy is what most people think of when they think of the genre. (The name comes from a 1971 essay by author Lloyd Alexander titled “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance.”)

High fantasy’s hallmark is the presence of a secondary world. This is a world that looks much like Earth but operates a little differently—even if it is internally consistent as its own system. Think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Westeros from Game of Thrones.

The worlds are similar to ours, but there a few things you can do there that you can’t here—namely magic. (If you plop high fantasy onto our own Earth, you end up with low fantasy.)

Battle scene from the movie Fellowship of the Ring
2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a perfect example of high fantasy in film. It takes place in a “secondary world,” magic is real, and the fate of every living being is on the line. Image via New Line Cinema.

High fantasy explores some world-threatening problem—something that will kill or enslave everyone and alter life irreparably. Usually, the main character descends from royalty or some other hereditary mystery, and often, high fantasy follows the path of the bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story that takes us from childhood into adulthood as our protagonist assumes their genealogical destiny.

In high fantasy, the stakes are high, the scope is huge, and the fate of everything is on the line. We should feel swept up in the wonder of this secondary world, where magic allows us to be more human than human.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is to fantasy what cyberpunk is to science fiction. It’s modern, it’s gritty, and it’s nuanced. This sub-genre takes place on Earth (though you could set it in a secondary world if you want the job of extra world-building), typically in the 20th or 21st century, and with elements of the fantastic. Those elements might include supernatural beings, the presence of magic, or something arcane.

If the fantastic exists in urban fantasy in secret, then the rest of the world typically operates just like we’re used to. If, on the other hand, the fantastic exists openly, then the laws of our world will operate slightly differently.

Closeup of a vampire in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer blends our modern world with the supernatural world. In the series, Buffy and her companions battle vampires, demons, and other creatures, even as they struggle to understand their own powers and interpersonal relationships. Image via 20th Television.

Common conflicts in urban fantasy involve humans vs. supernatural beings or traditionalists vs. magic users. Acceptance, tolerance, and repression are common themes behind inter-character conflict.

Urban fantasy typically explores more sophisticated ideas than high fantasy, as its primary focus is reconciling the supernatural with our modern world.

Sword and Sorcery

When there’s no time to talk things through, sword and sorcery will take care of the problem. Gone are the swelling crescendos and self-sacrifice that are part-and-parcel of high fantasy. Gone are the feelings and relationships and complications of urban fantasy.

Sword and sorcery is usually about one adventurer, maybe two, who’s good at kicking ass. Taking names is optional.

This sub-genre is more interested in adventure, combat, magic, and conflict. Who cares what’s going on in the larger world? This badass has problems of their own.

Sword and sorcery is about excitement, determination, revenge, and cosmic justice. People get what they deserve in this sub-genre, and it’s usually a sword through the gut or a fireball to the face.

Scene from the film Conan the Barbarian with the hero wielding a sword
Conan the Barbarian is sword and sorcery to a T. In fact, Conan‘s creator, Robert E. Howard, was an early progenitor of the sub-genre, which glorifies individual strength and perseverance. Image via Universal Pictures.

The name comes from a letter written by Fritz Leiber in response to legendary fantasist Michael Moorcock, who, in the Amra fanzine, demanded a name for the type of literature written by Robert E. Howard.

Howard, the famous trendsetter from tiny Cross Plains, Texas, more or less invented the sub-genre in the 1920s and ’30s with his now-famous “yarns.” His best-known contribution to fantasy literature is Conan, of “The Barbarian” fame.

Like all narrative sub-genres, sword and sorcery didn’t just appear out of thin air, Howard’s talent aside. It has its roots in mythology, like the labors of Hercules, the heroes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Norse sagas, and Arthurian legend (which is, itself, a hodgepodge of oral traditions and histories).

Sword and sorcery tells us stories of men and women living by their wits in simpler times, when a sword or a staff, a horse, and a loincloth were all you needed to conquer the world.

Dark Fantasy

This one is a bit of a pickle. While the bite-sized definitions we’ve been working with here are useful for organizing our thoughts about our fantasy projects, they’re a little short to do true justice to the nuances of these sub-genres.

Writers and filmmakers of all backgrounds, from all over the world, contribute to the body of work that creates a generic consensus. Sometimes, the parts of the whole are largely similar and easy to group. Other times, however, as with dark fantasy, it’s just not that simple.

Scene from the movie Pan's Labyrinth featuring the monster up-close
Pan’s Labyrinth is fantasy with familiar elements from horror films. It asks its audience to think about the idea of “fantasy” a little differently. Image via Warner Bros.

The easy way to sum it up goes something like this: Dark fantasy explores the horrific side of fantasy by combining the two genres—sometimes in this world, sometimes in a secondary one.

A slightly more sophisticated way to think of it would be to intone Jacques Derrida, the post-structuralist philosopher famous for his theory of deconstruction. That philosophy seeks to erase the differences between binary opposites or expose insight when we de-prioritize how we’ve traditionally received a story or a movie (like giving us a few of the same events through another character’s eyes).

In the deconstruction context, dark fantasy erases the idea that optimistic fantasy and nihilist horror have to exist at two different ends of the spectrum. Instead, let’s package them together.

In short, dark fantasy is a fantasy story with horror tropes and magic.

Magical Realism

This just doesn’t get any easier. If dark fantasy was a challenge to pigeonhole, magical realism is even harder. There’s even a difference between magic realism and magical realism. We could write a dissertation on this topic (it would take several, actually), but we’re not here for college credit, so let’s just hit the highlights.

Magical realism started in Germany’s Weimar Republic thanks to Franz Roh, an art critic who described the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) painting style as magischer realismus (magical realism). José Ortega y Gasset oversaw the translation of Roh’s book into Spanish in 1927, and from there, it made its way to Latin America. It has its roots in surrealism and the fantastic, which is how it ended up, of all places, in this blog post.

Scene from the movie The Green Mile with guards taking a giant prisoner to his cell
The Green Mile brings magic into our everyday world as if it’s no big thing. How does it work? What are the limitations? How is it even possible? Magical realism doesn’t care, and that’s the point. Image via Warner Bros.

History lesson aside, magical realism does just that—it makes the magic real. Telekinesis, prophecy, flight—anything you can think of (and then some) has a place in magical realism. The sub-genre treats these fantastic phenomena as if they’re as normal as gravity. No one thinks oddly about it or even really considers the magic to be magic.

Magical realism is a good way to create symbolism or explore characters via exaggeration. When we normalize phantasmagoric attributes among people and animals, we’re really looking closely at what we already know about them, not what cool feats they’re capable of.

But it’s still cool to watch, and it’s a clever way to bring mystery and wonder into otherwise normal projects.

Portal Fantasy

This is a particular sub-genre of fantasy, but it’s also a famous one. In a portal fantasy, our protagonist leaves our world and enters a secondary world. It differs from the other sub-genres in that it acknowledges the existence of both the primary world and the secondary world, without dwelling in only one of them.

Of course, there’s magic waiting on the other side of the portal. There’s usually some quest or a mission that our protagonist must complete with the help of the magical beings native to the secondary world.

Much like Jason and the Golden Fleece, there is some talisman or some secret that the protagonist must uncover to return to the primary world as a fully-developed person.

Scene from the film The Wizard of Oz featuring Dorothy and the Good Witch
The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe are among the most famous portal fantasies. Their protagonists must complete quests to return home to our world. Image via Warner Bros.

Portal fantasies are great ways to combine character growth and adventure. The Goonies, the famous ’80s film about a gang of kids exploring a seemingly magical underworld to save their homes, isn’t quite a full portal film, but it’s a good example.

Once you take your protagonists through the portal, you’ve suspended reality. Mikey sums this up quite nicely in his famous speech about “our time.”

The Goonies’ special time in the underworld ends as soon as they give up and return to the “real world” without having completed their quest to find treasure to save their homes.

In John Carter, based on the famous novels by one Edgar Rice Burroughs, our hero is capable of magical jumps that are attributed to his development back on Earth. Once you’ve moved your characters into the secondary world through the portal, it’s easy to attribute powers to them that make their journey more exciting.

Superhero Fiction

Speaking of people who can do incredible things once they leave their primary world and enter a secondary one (Superman, anyone?), we have our final sub-genre of the post—superhero fiction.

Unless you’ve been living in an underground apocalypse shelter for the last twenty years (which would be awesome), you already know how big superhero fiction is. Some of the biggest films of the previous two decades have been superhero fiction, and then there’s the comic book industry, the video game industry, TV, merchandise. Superhero fiction is a capitalist dynamo.

Scene from the series WandaVision with the protagonists sitting outside a shop at night
Modern superheroes struggle with the same problems as everyone else—namely those caused by human relationships and emotions. Their powers, however, make the topic more palatable. Image from WandaVision via Disney.

Superhero fiction is a bit of a catch-all. It can latch itself onto high fantasy, dark fantasy, magical realism, or portal fantasy. The rules are pretty simple—some people (maybe just one) have abilities that far surpass the capabilities of a normal person. This might be the result of magic, scientific experimentation, alien lineage, or even divine intervention. The backstory about why a superhero is capable of exceptional skills is usually a critical part of the narrative experience.

Giving someone abilities greater than others creates power differentials, which opens all kinds of opportunities for conflict and exploration. Do you tolerate superheroes? What keeps them from becoming supervillains? Should magical people be able to act as judge, jury, and executioner of regular people committing regular crimes? Why is a magical being bound by a particular nation’s laws?

The isolation and prejudice that superheroism causes are prominent themes in the sub-genre, particularly over the last decade. Our superheroes arise out of our cultural fears: nuclear annihilation, foreign subjugation, illness, and death. They are a way to humanize the incomprehensible, just as our forebears did with their myths about gods, monsters, and superhumans.

Fantasy Filmmaking and You

Right, so you have a palette of fantasy sub-genres you can mix to create your own, signature fantasy story. We won’t get into the specifics of camera operation, lighting, editing, and post-production that you need to actually make your movie.

We’ve got plenty of articles for you on those topics, and I’ll bet our plucky editor comes along behind me, your humble author, and links them for you in that last sentence. (Let’s see . . . ). But there are a few takeaways to consider as you get ready to make this movie.

First, the magic is not enough. It should serve your story, not suffocate it. If you just want to make a movie about sexy people doing cool stuff, get into music videos.

If you want us to wonder why you’ve given your character superpowers, why you’ve shoved them through a portal, or even why they’re willing to die in the struggle between mankind and oblivion, then the story must support these decisions. What is it about people, life itself, that you find interesting enough to capture in a film?

Scene from the film The Boy Who Could Fly with the protagonist sitting on the roof
The Boy Who Could Fly is the perfect final image for this post. Not only are its magic effects modest by today’s standards, but it also highlights how superpowers usually aren’t about superpowers. In this case, they’re about autism. Image via 20th Century Fox.

Once you figure it out, all of this magic is at your fingertips to bring it to your audience’s attention. You don’t need a huge budget and tons of effects (remember The Boy Who Could Fly? It wasn’t all that flashy, but he could fly! And was it about flying . . . or was it about autism?). Practical magic effects on your low-budget or indie project are entirely possible. (Watch the bottom of this post for some suggestions.)

Just remember: The point of fantasy is the wonder. These stories are much bigger than our meager lives. Create accordingly!

Now that Darin’s called me out, I’ve swept through the blog to find you guys some awesome fantasy production elements:

And, of course, let’s not forget the selection of high-quality fantasy tracks available on the library.

Cover image via Warner Bros.


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