Film is primarily a visual medium. Filmmakers have various tools to create meaning through visual elements, one of which is the visual metaphor. Visual metaphors are often subtle, but are incredibly important for filmmakers in communicating and resonating with an audience. What is a visual metaphor? How and why do filmmakers use them? We’ll break down a few visual metaphor examples to answer these questions and more.

Watch: What is a Metaphor — 8 Types Explained

Subscribe for more filmmaking videos like this.

What is a visual metaphor?

Visual metaphor definition

Before we dive into visual metaphor examples, it’s important to understand how visual metaphors differ from other literary devices? What makes them unique? How do you spot and interpret a metaphor? The answer starts with the visual metaphor definition.


What is a visual metaphor?

A visual metaphor is a representation of a noun through a visual image that suggests a particular association or similarity. Visual metaphors are commonly found in film, television shows, photography and even commercial ads.

The meaning created from these objects can help move a story forward, relate to an audience or consumer, or establish a theme.

Visual metaphor examples:

  • Workers killed like cattle in Strike
  • Kissing in front of fireworks in Aladdin
  • Shower drain shot in Psycho

Metaphors in movies

The function of visual metaphors

The function of visual metaphors depends greatly on what it is being used in. For example, the goal of advertisements is to persuade a consumer while the goal of a film may be to entertain an audience. Both, however, rely on the engagement of the audience. 

To properly engage an audience, a filmmaker must communicate both effectively and efficiently. Visual metaphors are perfect for this reason. They help convey meaning through the simple presence of a visual. 

To understand the importance of visual metaphors, it is important to understand the effectiveness of metaphors in general. This video by Ted-Ed analyzes the effectiveness of metaphors and how they are so precise in communicating ideas.

The art of the metaphor  •  What is a visual metaphor?

As mentioned in the video, the precision of metaphors cannot be understated. Visual metaphors, therefore, are a filmmaker's best friend at communicating to an audience. To better understand the function of a visual metaphor, let’s focus on a specific and effective example. 

What is a Visual Metaphor Used For?

Establish characters

Visual metaphors are great for quickly establishing a character without extensive exposition or on-the-nose characterizing action like saving a cat.

Apocalypse Now has one of the most famous opening sequences of all time. Why? Sure, there’s legendary cinematography, jaw-dropping practical effects, and an instantly iconic needle-drop, but there’s also a great visual metaphor.

If the scene isn’t already permanently etched into your brain, brush up on it below:

Apocalypse Now  •  visual metaphor examples

Here, director Francis Ford Coppola uses superimposition to create a visual metaphor: Captain Willard’s face is shown over imagery of an active conflict. With this visual metaphor, we instantly understand Willard’s mental state: this is a man broken by the Vietnam War. All this without a single word.

Let’s write out the metaphor to make it clearer: “Captain Willard’s head is a warzone.” This can help us differentiate what makes a characterizing visual metaphor versus a characterizing symbol.

A famous symbol in this vein is Cameron’s father’s car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the film, his father’s car represents his relationship with his father, and as the film progresses, his attitude toward the car shifts accordingly.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - Visual Metaphor Examples

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  •  Visual Metaphor Examples

But the car doesn’t work as a visual metaphor because it can’t be directly compared to anything, it simply represents a larger theme. We can’t write out the car symbol as we did the Apocalypse Now metaphor: “Cameron’s father’s car is his relationship with his father” doesn’t make much sense, and isn’t really clarifying.

Of course, this doesn’t mean a visual metaphor is any better or worse than a symbol. They’re just different.

What is a Visual Metaphor Used For?

Personify themes

In the beginning of the film The Shawshank Redemption, we are introduced to an older inmate named Brooks Hatlen (SPOILERS AHEAD). Brooks has a pet bird that he keeps in his cardigan pocket. He feeds and nurtures the bird. 

The image of the bird being fed within a coat pocket is shocking because birds are typically flying free. While this visual metaphor may not be obvious at first, it becomes more apparent when we understand one of the film’s themes — the dependence of prisoners on the institution

Brooks Attacks Heywood  •  Visual metaphor examples

As the film goes on and we better understand Brooks' relationship and dependence on the prison system, the visual metaphor of the bird becomes more thematic. The ending voice over narration even says “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright.” This brings full circle the visual metaphor of Brook’s bird to Andy’s freedom.

Visual metaphors are an incredibly effective tool when used with intention. Understanding what you want to communicate through a visual metaphor will be a great place to start. Then work backwards to what object or image will function as your visual metaphor. 

Next time you watch a film, be sure to make note of objects that filmmakers use as visual metaphors and pay attention to how they are incorporated into the film.

Metaphors in movies

Intellectual Montage

Visual metaphors can be used to heighten the power of editing. Sergei Eisenstein knew this perhaps better than anyone else. The Soviet director pioneered the intellectual montage, which used editing to juxtapose seemingly unrelated images and create visual metaphors.

Eisenstein applied Hegelian/Marxist dialectic theory to filmmaking; essentially, montage could create a thesis, antithesis, and, finally, synthesis. The power in this approach, Eisenstein believed, was that instead of instructing the audience what to think, film could get the audience to organically arrive at a conclusion themselves.

So what does all of this mean, and how does it relate to visual metaphor? Let’s look at one of Eisenstein’s most famous sequences from Strike:

Strike visual metaphor

Here, Eisenstein pares footage of workers being killed by soldiers with cattle being killed at a slaughterhouse. Through editing, Eisenstein creates a visual metaphor: the workers are being killed like cattle.

This metaphor informs one of the themes of Strike: the Tsarist regime was an enemy of the proletariat. Furthermore, just as it is the slaughterhouse’s job to kill cows, it was the imperial army’s job to persecute workers; it’s simply the nature of their sociopolitical position. Thus, the two parties could only exist in conflict.

A bit heady, right? If Eisenstein tried to spell this out explicitly, he’d most likely lose the audience. But by viscerally depicting it through a visual metaphor, he is prompting the audience to arrive at the conclusion themselves, whether they know it or not.

Eisenstein’s use of intellectual montage, and visual metaphor, made him one of the most important filmmakers of all time. To this day, directors still borrow from his movies and theoretical writing. His work’s longevity proves that visual metaphors are certainly worth your time.

Up Next

Types of metaphors and examples

Visual metaphors are only one type of metaphor employed by screenwriters and filmmakers. Learn about other types of metaphors in our next article where we break down iconic examples that will help spark ideas for your next project. 

Up Next: Metaphors explained →
Solution Icon - Screenplay and Documents

Write and produce your scripts all in one place.

Write and collaborate on your scripts FREE. Create script breakdowns, sides, schedules, storyboards, call sheets and more.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copy link