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.

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. 

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 create meaning out of objects and symbols.

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:

  • The lightning bolt scar from Harry Potter
  • Cameron’s dad’s car from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • Curt’s locker from American Graffiti

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. 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. 

Metaphors in movies

Communicating effectively

Visual metaphors are effective and efficient at communicating. In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite became the first international film to win the prestigious “Best Picture” award at the Oscars. How did this South Korean film resonate with audiences around the world?

Bong Joon-ho uses various metaphors throughout the film. Some are subtle while others are literally called “metaphorical” in the film. A visual metaphor is effective because they are efficient at communicating to all audiences.

This video essay by Lessons from the Screenplay breaks down how and why Parasite’s metaphors are so effective.

Parasite  •  What is a visual metaphor?

As stated in the video, these metaphors transcend language. Their ability to communicate meaning and specific information is one of the most effective and efficient tools a filmmaker has. Now that we understand why filmmakers use metaphors, let’s take a deeper look at what they use them for.

What is a visual metaphor used for?

Establish character arcs

Like Parasite, a visual metaphor in film can be used early and frequently touched on thereafter to be effective. Oftentimes, these metaphors are tied into a character’s arc. These metaphors are a great tool to use when writing an effective character arc.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off does this through Cameron’s father’s Ferrari. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - Visual Metaphor Examples

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  •  Visual Metaphor Examples

Early in the film, Cameron expresses the repercussions of taking his father’s car out. This establishes a connection between the car and Cameron’s father’s values. While the initial scene is subtle, it creates meaning in the car that we would not have otherwise.

Throughout the film, Cameron’s anxiety and fears revolve around the car, especially when they learn the miles have gone up and this father will discover that they have taken the car.

The payoff comes in one of the final scenes where Cameron talks about how his father values the car more than his own son. 

Ferris Bueller's Day Off  •  Visual metaphor in film

When Cameron finally “kills the car,” we initially feel anxiety about the repercussions for Cameron, but the scene ends with a sense of relief. Why? Because the car is a metaphor for Cameron’s cowardice and fear of standing up for himself.  

This is a great example of building up a metaphor for a thematic pay off in a character’s arc. Sometimes, visual metaphors are used to communicate entire themes of films.

What is a visual metaphor used for?

Personify themes

In the beginning of the film 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, which he feeds and nurtures. 

The image of the bird being fed within a coat pocket is shocking because birds are typically flying free. While this 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 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  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 metaphor will be a great place to start. Then work backwards to what object or image will function as your metaphor. 

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

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 and give them an extra layer of meaning. 

Up Next: Metaphors explained →
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