Motifs are a great way to reinforce the theme of your project, but understanding how to build motifs that work well in your projects requires a strong attention to detail and a clear game plan.
Looking for a clear definition that boils down the motif meaning? Need examples of motifs in film? Or motifs as a literary device? Want to build your own motifs?
Check out the post below.
Video Essay: Visual Motif in Film
what is a motif?
The basics of motif in film
Motifs have been used since the first works of art, and they’ve grown into one of the best narrative devices in film and literature.
How does one define motif?
What is a motif in film?
A motif is a repeated narrative element that supports the theme of a story. A motif in film can be presented in a number of ways like physical items, sound design, lines of dialogue, music, colors, events, and symbols. Any motif used will vastly improve your story if it has narrative significance.Visual motifs in film use recurring patterns through props, set design, costumes, symbols, and events to support the intended theme of a story.
What does a good motif do?
- Supports the theme of a story
- Is a recurring element in a story
- Enhances your narrative elements
This motif definition may seem simple enough, but how well you execute your motifs will show your prowess as a visionary filmmaker.
What about musical motifs?
A motif that is music is also referred to as a leitmotif.
Have you ever heard this song?
The James Bond theme song has been used over and again since 1962, and while we get to hear the theme song at the beginning of every 007 film…
We also hear it during moments that are distinctly ‘Bond’.
Whenever 007 begins to do something truly unique or some action that distills and supports the character of Bond, we will hear ‘his song’.
It informs us that this moment important, it supports the overall theme of 007, and it also lets us know that the tide is about to turn.
They use the James Bond theme to signal a change from losing a fight…
To winning a fight.
It doesn’t matter if you use a motif in literature, film, music, or on a canvas — the central idea is that something is repeated to support a theme.
Now that you have a better understanding of the meaning of motif, we can begin to talk about how motif is different from theme.
motif vs theme
How is a motif different from theme?
You may be curious about motif vs theme.
A theme is the central thesis for your story. You want the elements of your story to inform the underlying philosophy behind your material.
In short, a theme is what you want your story to mean.
The theme for Jurassic Park is, “Humanity’s scientific and technological hubris will lead to our own destruction.
Light and fluffy stuff right?
A motif is a specific element that supports and informs the theme.
All of the events in the film (and book) support the theme because the entire park goes awry specifically due to scientific hubris.
Not only did they make a mistake by breeding the dinosaurs using frog DNA, but the entire park breaks loose because of Nedry’s greed and the winner-take-all culture of marketing scientific discoveries.
Each of the characters represent a community related to the theme, whether it be the entrepreneur, standard science, alternative science, and the blood sucking lawyers…
Each of them adding to the overall motif of the film.
A theme is not dependent on the use of a motif, but often the meaning of your theme won’t be effectively communicated without the use of motif.
Wallpaper, architecture, and clothing can also use a motif. The theme below is Japanese art. The motif is the fan pattern.
So, we’ve defined motif, and showed how a motif is different from theme…
What’s a motif when you compare it to some other narrative devices?
What about motif vs metaphor?
motif vs metaphor
How is motif different from metaphor?
As stated in our motif definition, there must be a repeated pattern for something to truly be considered a motif.
If something that supports your theme occurs only a single time in a film or in a work of literature it cannot be considered a motif...
Rather, it will most likely be considered a metaphor.
The key difference is the repetition.
Motifs in film should be thoughtfully placed in multiple scenes so that they truly elevate the material. They need to be relevant enough to serve your story with some significance, but also have an effective message.
We will explain how to build your own motif later in this post.
But first, let’s look at some common visual motif examples in film.
motif examples in movies
Motifs examples in film and literature
Let’s dive into some motif examples in movies — some of which come from book adaptations of classic and contemporary literature.
You’ll notice how each motif example takes advantage of a theme in its own unique way. So while commonplace motif examples may seem a bit overplayed, there is actually a lot of opportunity for creativity.
For example a rose (motif) represents love (theme) in Romeo and Juliet, whereas it can also represent lust (theme) in American Beauty. It’s all in how directors decide to define motifs in their films.
Let’s look at some great motifs examples in movies.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
In the third installment of Harry Potter, director Alfonso Cuarón uses a few different examples of motif, but one of the most striking is... Dogs.
It begins with this scene:
As you can see, dogs are a main theme for the scene.
The dog even plays into the action and the dialogue of the scene, especially when Aunt Marge mentions that “...if there is something wrong with the bitch, there will be something wrong the pup.”
Check out how the following shot list demonstrates how Alfonso Cuarón introduces the dog motif in this scene:
The motif may have started with this scene, but it definitely didn’t end here. Right after Aunt Marge is ‘blown up’ — this scene happens.
Later in the story, Harry and his friends read tea leaves in class.
What do we need for our motif to continue?
Each instance gives the motif new meaning.
Harry is chasing the snitch during a game of Quidditch when his opponent is struck by lightning. Harry looks to the clouds as sees…
At this point, the dog motif has both informed the theme, but also the plot of the story to such an intense degree that there needs to be a narrative payoff.
As mentioned in our motif definition...
Motif improves with narrative significance.
So what theme does the dog motif support?
When you take a step back, you will see that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is about two things:
Friendship & Loyalty
Which animal is considered to be man’s best friend?
Which animal is considered to be rather loyal?
This is a great example of motif in movies.
more motif examples
The Silence of the Lambs
We’re going to take you through the various motifs used in The Silence of the Lambs that connect the events of the story to American culture. Jonathan Demme subverts common visual motifs of Americana.
1. Buffalo Bill
To begin our exploration of the visual motifs of Americana, let’s look at the main villain in The Silence of the Lambs...
Buffalo Bill Cody was an American symbol of heroism, freedom, masculinity, and strength in the American West.
In the film, Buffalo Bill is a deliberate inversion of an iconic American figure, and this signals the film’s core statement:
America is not innocent.
At play is a sickness completely unique to American culture.
Demme very consciously brought the motif to the forefront of his storytelling in many different scenes throughout the film.
2. Movie Poster
Let’s look at the American motif in the movie poster:
The colors on this poster are predominantly red, white, and blue.
3. American Eagles
When Starling investigates Mofet’s storage unit one of the first things we see is a statue of an American Eagle with wings spread wide:
Lecter also mounts a victim spread-winged like an eagle on the side of his cage, all of which is surrounded with red, white, and blue bunting.
Let’s look at another visual motif in this film.
4. American Flags
When Starling investigates Mofet’s storage unit, we also see a big American flag draped over the car where she discovers the severed head.
There is an American flag also draped on Buffalo Bill’s wall of terror.
When Starling shoots the window in Buffalo Bill’s basement, there is an American Flag standing on the window sill.
American symbolism can also be found as a decoration on a Department of Justice cake which opens up a scene near the end of the film.
Are there any other motif examples in this film?
5. Catherine Martin
Catherine is the daughter of a U.S. Senator who is taken by Buffalo Bill.
When we first meet her she is listening to Tom Petty’s American Girl.
The news graphic that describes Catherine’s disappearance features a distinctly American color pattern.
There is a great deal of subtext on gender roles in this film.
Starling constantly has to deal with her place as a woman in a predominantly male driven profession.
Lecter seems to notice this, which allows us to connect with Lecter.
But the great visual motifs hammer the point home.
How to build motifs in your film
There are a few basic steps you should take that can lead to masterful execution of motif in your next project.
1. Establish Your Theme
As a director, you’re bombarded with questions all the time, and you need to make split-second decisions that will affect your overall project.
Knowing your story’s themes will help you find quick, consistent answers.
It’ll inform every decision you have to make as a director, from the color of a character’s wardrobe to the depth of field for a specific shot.
We know that the theme for The Silence of The Lambs:
The inversion of the American myth.
What’s the theme of your next project?
2. Identify Motifs with a Script Breakdown
A script breakdown is where you identify and tag all of the requirements for each of your scenes in your film or project.
These are known as scene elements.
Names, locations, props, costumes, vehicles — all of these are opportunities for defining motifs that serve a larger theme.
When performing your script breakdown it is important to look at each element on the page and ask yourself why they exist.
Is it a necessary addition to your story?
Is it an opportunity to tell your story more effectively?
In the script for The Silence of the Lambs that big American flag draped over the car in the storage unit was originally just... a ‘tarp’.
Jonathan Demme and his team came up with the idea to use a rather basic item as an opportunity to inject some visual motif in the film.
They took the tarp and replaced it with an American Flag.
This is a great example of how something relatively basic in the original script became an opportunity for the filmmaker to make a statement.
3. Share Your Motifs with Your Team
All of your tagged elements will generate in your breakdown reports. These reports can be shared with department keys like your Production Designer, Prop Master or Cinematographer.
That way everyone is on the same page and can being to suggest new, creative ways to enforce the motif.
When performing your script breakdown, you can also add scene notes at the very bottom of the page and embed images, videos, and text.
There is no reason to leave anything to chance, so be as specific as you can when filling in your scene notes.
This one scene in The Silence of the Lambs has a ridiculous number of scene elements including set dressing, props, and fake blood…
This requires intelligent organization.
4. Shot List Your Visual Motifs
Imagine you’re about to pitch an idea for a film or show.
How much more effective will your message be if you not only have a great idea for motif in your film, but also have a clear plan that proves your idea will work to support your theme and elevate the material?
Then you can begin to build a shot list that shows your motif.
Below is a shot list for the ‘Your Self’ storage scene. Take a look and see how Jonathan Demme took the motif definition to heart in this film.
You can see how the use of high angle, low angle, POV, and visual motif were all used in this scene in a very effective way:
Some of these decisions are rather subtle, but the effect that each has on the viewer adds up, and builds an experience for the viewer.
more on motifs
Motifs in the medium of cinema
While a motif needs to support the theme of a particular story, that doesn’t mean that the same motifs haven’t been used in multiple films.
There are a few common motifs that have been used a ton over the years.
Mirrors | Motif Examples in Film
Mirrors are one of those really robust examples of motif.
Commonly, mirrors are used in stories where a character has to reflect on their identity or decisions, or to suggest a slow descent into madness.
The usage of mirrors in Black Swan is a motif, but if it were used a single time, it would very simply be considered as a metaphor.
Like this scene:
If anything, the most constant motif in Nightcrawler is that of the camera.
Lou is constantly talking about, using, and in some cases being recorded by cameras, and it is a great example of motif toward theme.Check out this video on how Dan Gilroy filmed Nightcrawler:
This is a good example of how a motif can be a visual choice or a shot size, it doesn’t always have to be an object or a section of music.
Birds|Motif Examples in Film
Birds are also commonly used in film as a metaphor to represent freedom, but one area where they are used as a motif is in Hitchcock's Psycho.
The film begins in Phoenix.
Marion’s last name is Crane.
‘Bate’ is a term used to describe a raptor flapping its wings.
Norman has a very large number of stuffed birds in his parlor.
These stuffed birds aren’t just in the frame, but each type of bird used at specific moments actually informs the relationship of these characters and supports the emotion behind each line of dialogue.
Check out the shot list below to see how Hitchcock used his motif:
Norman also tells Marion that she, “eats like a bird”.
This motif is supportive of the theme of the overall film...
Predator vs. Prey
It also supports the emotional shifts during the scene.
Dolls|Motif Examples in Film
Ever since Chuckie the doll terrorized children for like... twenty movies, children’s dolls have become a source for creepy imagery but…Often a doll can signify the civilian casualties of war, and this has been used in many films like Oz: The Great and Powerful.
Another example of this cinematic motif is in Disney’s Mulan.
This is a great example of how objects can signal loss. We all understand the purpose of a child’s doll, so we get the message from a visual device.
Match Cuts: Creative Examples in Film
Everyone loves to see a great scene transition, but how do you connect your scenes in a cinematic manner that creates a deep connection?
Consider using a match cut.
Our next post is all about building effective match cuts for your next film, and just like our post visual motif — we provide the best examples.