Semiotics: Signs and Motifs in Film

Film Theory - So The Theory Goes - Talkies - Semiotics - Sound Production in Film

Any recurring image or symbol in a narrative is called a motif. These can be overt, such as a recurring line of dialogue, or subtle, such as a colour scheme. It’s common for the film’s central theme to be reflected in its various motifs.

Always keep in mind that motifs aren’t always where you expect them to be. It’s not enough to simply say it is a motif in reference to a picture or symbol. The symbol needs to be used repeatedly and serve a purpose in the larger narrative or film context.

What is a Motif? Definition and its use in Films

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what a motif is, but in the simplest terms, it’s a device used to give a film its own identity and stick in the minds of its viewers. If you’re working on a film or TV show with a series of sequels in the works, these are essential.

In semiotics, signs are the fundamental building blocks of meaning. For instance, a person’s choice of clothing can be thought of as a set of signals revealing something about that person’s personality and values. You can tell a music fan by their black band tee and baggy pants, but you can tell even more by combining these signs into a system.

Red, for instance, is just a colour, but it can also signify anger or love depending on the context in which it is used.

Similarly, films feature a wide variety of recurring themes. Something is said to be a motif if it appears multiple times in a film and foreshadows future events or establishes a connection between characters.

What is the difference between Motifs and Themes?

The difference between a motif and a theme could be of interest to you. What makes your story interesting to others is its theme. You want your story’s elements to inform the guiding philosophy of your work.

A story’s theme is its intended significance. Motifs are recurrent images or symbols that serve as a visual reminder and commentary on the story’s central idea. Though it isn’t required to convey a theme, it often helps.

Any form of storytelling adheres largely to the same basic structure. However, the number of characters and plots for the story and the author’s choice in how to portray them can greatly alter the themes present in the story.

Are Motifs the same thing as Metaphors?

We have already defined that a motif is a recurrent literary device with symbolic significance. In contrast, a metaphor uses an established comparison between the two concepts.

Because they are so visually similar, the terms can be used interchangeably. However, the significance of their meanings is distinct. A motif is simply another way of describing a recurring element in literature, while a metaphor indirectly compares two concepts that are not actually related.

The main distinction lies in the reiteration. Motifs in films should be strategically implemented across multiple scenes for maximum impact. They should have an impactful message while still being pertinent to your story.

Use of Motifs in the films

Most of our favourite movies share common motifs. Examples of this include a child’s bicycle, pet, paintings, and certain letters which repeatedly appear in the films. For example, Mirrors are a recurring motif in the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

Film Examples – Motifs in Jojo Rabbit

Motifs - Jojo Rabbit
JOJO RABBIT | Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Shoe culture plays a significant role in Taika Waititi‘s Jojo Rabbit. Oftentimes, the use of a film’s recurring motif is buried deep within the narrative. In other works, such as Jojo Rabbit, it is spelled out for the audience.

Examples from the Coen Brothers and Taika Waititi are clear because of the way in which they transform seemingly innocuous items (desks, shoes) into symbols with profound significance.

Film Examples – Motifs in James Bond

Spectre / Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions
Spectre / Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions

Bond films make a good case study for analysing because of their widespread recognition and iconic status. They have become ubiquitous in the spy film genre, to the point where they are frequently mocked and imitated.

James Bond films frequently feature recurring themes, such as women, classic cars, and villains with physical flaws.

James Bond is a classic car enthusiast, and he frequently drives a heavily modified Astin Martin, complete with an ejector seat and machine guns. His faster sports car-driving opponents frequently underrate him.

Bond movie villains often have striking physical abnormalities. Le Chiffre cries blood instead of tears, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld has a scar running down his face from an injury he sustained in Spectre.

Bond is never without a beautiful woman at his beck and call, and they often make an appearance in enticing poses during the opening credits. They can be read as a metaphor for Bond’s inherent misogyny and chauvinism; after using them, the men in the earlier films would simply get rid of the female leads. They are symbolic of the fact that he enjoys special rights as a member of society and is never held to account for his sexually promiscuous behaviour.

Motifs and Music

post production - So The Theory Goes

Music often evokes feelings and builds mental pictures of characters in films and TV series. When certain characters appear, the audience is given hints about the story’s direction through the motifs and themes associated with them.

Always keep in mind that the film’s score is not the responsibility of the scriptwriters because they are not composers. Nevertheless, screenwriters have the freedom to suggest and even mandate the musical accompaniment of specific scenes. The opening title sequence is one opportunity for them to set the tone for the entire work.

Motifs serve as the film’s signature and help viewers connect emotionally to the show’s characters and settings. Recurring motifs can influence genre and character expectations, and you can take advantage of them.

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work!

Please upgrade today!