8½ is about the struggles involved in the creative process, both technical and personal, and the problems artists face when expected to deliver something personal and profound with intense public scrutiny, on a constricted schedule, while simultaneously having to deal with their own personal relationships. It is, in a larger sense, about finding true personal happiness in a difficult, fragmented life. Like several Italian films of the period (most evident in the films of Fellini's contemporary, Michelangelo Antonioni), 8½ also is about the alienating effects of modernization.
The title is in keeping with Fellini's self-reflexive theme: the making of his eighth-and-a-half film. His previous six feature films included Lo sceicco bianco (1952), I vitelloni (1953), La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955), Le notti di Cabiria (1957), and La Dolce Vita (1960). With Alberto Lattuada, he co-directed Luci del varietà (Variety Lights) in 1950. His two short segments included Un'Agenzia Matrimoniale (A Marriage Agency) in the 1953 omnibus film L'amore in città (Love in the City) and Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio from the 1962 omnibus film Boccaccio '70. The working title for 8½ was La bella confusione (The Beautiful Confusion) proposed by co-screenwriter, Ennio Flaiano, but Fellini then "had the simpler idea (which proved entirely wrong) to call it Comedy".
According to Italian writer Alberto Arbasino, Fellini's film used similar artistic procedures and had parallels with Musil's 1930 novel The Man Without Qualities.