The Visual Shorthand of Film

During the past few years, I’ve been paying closer attention to the images filmmakers use to tell their stories. Film is a time intensive media, in that the filming itself needs to take place within a certain amount of time, after which, the images are edited, to happen within a certain time frame. To that end, filmmakers use every tactic in their visual dictionary to tell the story, as expediently as possible, which means there is almost no wasted imagery. If it’s on the screen, especially if its a recurring image, or a prominently featured one, then there’s usually a purpose behind it, and it’s something the director wants you to notice.

I wrote earlier about how the composition of people and objects within the frame, tells the audience which things are of primary importance. This is just as true of things like set design and the objects themselves. When directors use the objects, and the design of the set, to help push the narrative, set the tone and location, denote themes, and character, this is called, “visual shorthand”. The point is to give the viewer a large amount of information without anything having to be said.

For example, in early television shows, one visual shorthand of the Western, was the sight of tumbleweed. Despite that these specific plants can be found all over the US, their image is so associated with the Western, that when its seen in any other context, the audience still knows what it means, and the images of lonely cowboys, saloons, and wild shootouts, are automatically invoked.

Here’s a primer on some of the recurring symbols used in the language of film:

Doors/Windows

Top 30 Swing Doors GIFs | Find the best GIF on Gfycat

Doors and windows often have multiple meanings, depending on the context in which they are shown, but most of the time they represent portals to another world, or sometimes an emotional setup for the story. If you see the camera, or characters, moving through doorways, or windows, in interiors, its not just a change in scenery, but sometimes means a change in the story is about to happen. Notice if the camera is moving from the outdoors to the indoors. That could mean that we are about to get a glimpse into a character’s interior thoughts, or find out something new about their motivation. If the camera is moving from indoors to outdoors, that could mean a change in a character’s circumstances, such as they are now free of some emotional confinement, or have solved some problem that has given them new life.

Is the person moving through the door, to another interior space? What does that mean within the context of the story? Has there been a change in a character’s circumstances? Sometimes, if characters are using doors between interior spaces, this means they are changing their mind about something, or are of two minds about a subject of great importance to them. One clue is to look at any discussions being had just before, or after, an entrance.

Interiors are considered places of safety, which is how they are used in most narratives. In Horror movies, the horror comes from the disruption of the safe space, through invasion from an external threat, in home invasion movies like The Strangers, or the threat is internal, in haunted house movies like The Shining.

In Horror movies, if a character is indoors looking out they are being shown as being in a safe place. Usually, characters who are inside looking out, want to stay inside, and do not want to go out. In a scene from the movie It Follows, Jay is being stalked by a death avatar. She and her friends, run to another friend’s Summer home. When they get there, we are inside with Jay, as she looks out the giant picture window, in the middle of the room. The lighting in the room is warm and yellow, and Jay feels safe, as her friends move around the room behind her, but she is still nervous, as both she, (and the audience) peer out the window, where it is getting dark, and objects are not quite seen. She is vulnerable outside, because that’s where the creature is. In fact, pay close attention to this detail, while watching the film, because every time Jay sees the creature, she is often in what she believes is a place of safety, at school, at home, in a hospital, or in a car. She is always looking out of windows, until she is forced outside by the invasion of the monster.

On the other hand, if a character is outside looking in, they usually desire to be inside, either because they think being inside is safe, or because they are the antagonist, wanting to disrupt the lives of those already there. Looking inside, from the outside, often represents desire and longing. What is desired is whatever is framed through the window. What is the person or thing seeing, and is what they are seeing, something they want for themselves, or something they wish to take? Someone looking through a window at a beautiful woman, could means they are coveting that particular woman, but if the woman in the window is a mother with her family, then whoever is watching her may be craving safety, stability, or motherly love, because that’s what she represents.

Depending on what type of windows someone is looking through, the people inside may be trapped, or imprisoned, a visual often used in ghost stories. A shot of an opening window or door, while it is dark outside but the room is lit, means invitation, and/or welcome, which is not always positive, especially in Horror movies. If the interior is dark, but it’s sunny outside, that can mean emotional release, and/or physical freedom.

Opening Window GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Another way that doors and windows are used is through Framing, and how people are composed near, or around them. For example, in the movie Crouching Tiger, Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are often shown speaking close together, but always framed through doors and windows, which shows that the two of them are emotionally confined, and that their relationship is constrained. Sometimes they are being viewed in a semi-indoors state. There are four walls, but the doorway has no door, and the windows are just open spaces without glass, or coverings. The two of them are contained within an interior, but not really, because the doors and windows are wide open, and they can walk free at at any time. They don’t have to remain indoors, if they don’t wish to, which indicates a relationship, where the two of them want to be together, but are deliberately keeping themselves apart. This semi-open room is also a visual depiction of their conversation, during scenes where Mu Bai is almost about to confess his love for Shu Lien, signifying how close they are to freedom from these false constraints.

Contrast those images with Rainer Warner Fassbinder’s 1974, Fear Eats the Soul, in which an older German woman falls in love with a young Black man from Morocco. Everyone in their environment questions their relationship, and the couple is often filmed through doorways, and windows. Their love is confined to a series of small interiors. They are not free to be who they are, or express themselves, and the settings show this constraint. So, within the context of some stories, doors mean confinement, but if the doors, the room, or the windows are open, that means its a situation people can escape from, but choose not to. And pay attention to the size of the doors and windows, because the smaller they are, the slimmer their chances of freedom. When doors and windows are present, but completely closed, then they are a barrier, sometimes representing disagreement between two people, competing philosophies, or that a person feels trapped..

Bars/Horizontal and Vertical

American Horror Story Magic GIF by AHS - Find & Share on GIPHY

Vertical bars represent barriers, or constraint, usually of an individual. Any form of vertical bars, set close together, is a sign that the character is trapped or imprisoned in their situation. Any set of vertical bars can act as a barrier between the character and the viewer, or the character, and other characters, like the vertical bars of a staircase, or pillars in an otherwise open space. If a person is seen by the camera through a screen, or vertical bars, it means the person is emotionally constrained, or feels that way. If the bars are between two or more people, it is usually an indication of disagreement, that they are rivals, or otherwise in opposition to each other.

In the television series Lovecraft Country, a character named Ruby is often shown through sets of vertical bars at the beginning of the series. She is alone, and in a situation she dislikes, so what these bars mean, within the context of her story, is confinement, that she feels trapped by her circumstances, and can see no way out. Even when she appears to be free to do as she chooses, the bars are a barrier, indicating that she is afraid to leave, or take advantage of her situation. Later in the series, she is no longer being shown through bars or screens, meaning she is no longer afraid, and has decided to embrace her circumstances.

Horizontal stripes are representative of a particular genre of film, recalling the black and white noir films of the forties. Window blinds, are usually what’s used to make the effect, which is supposed to let the viewer know that they have entered a world of dark characters, and black and white thinking. Think of movies like Bladerunner and Dark City. Horizontal bars are often cast using lighting, and sometimes represent conflict, or attraction, especially if they stretch between two characters, such as the kissing scene between Deckard and Rachel in Blladerunner. When you see horizontal bars stretching between two characters, that symbolizes, their connection to each other, that these characters are equals, or exist under parallel circumstances.

Mirrors

Horror GIF of the Week: There's Something in the Mirror | The Year of  Halloween

Mirrors can represent that an individual is emotionally divided, or living a double existence. This was used to great effect in the movie Us, where there are several scenes involving mirrors. One of the characters is looking at herself in a mirror, while she cuts across her face with a pair of scissors. In truth, the woman looking into the mirror is the double of the woman she just killed, a woman who was vainly fond of getting plastic surgeries, and her double’s use of the mirror in this way, is a mockery of what the dead woman did in life. In this case, the mirror is representative of a very literal double existence.

In the 1976 version of Carrie, there’s a scene where Carrie stares into a mirror for some time before breaking it. This represents that she is fractured, or her personality has been twisted. There is a double self and the cracked mirror is a symbol of her inner anger and frustration. On the outside, she appears to be a typical Prom going teen, but in truth, she is a vengeful “outsider/victim” with hidden skills, who later, murders her classmates. When you see characters looking into broken or cracked mirrors, it means that person is also broken, or that there is anger and rage underneath their smooth/placid surface.

Mirrors also represent vanity. When you see a character looking into a mirror, notice what type of mirror, and who is looking. Is it a woman looking into a hand mirror, or is it a full length mirror, that shows her entire body? Are they standing or sitting? For example, cisgender, male actors are rarely shown looking into mirrors, while sitting down, unless the subject of gender conformity is the movie’s primary theme, as in the 2005 movie, Kinky Boots, where the actor (Chewitel Ejiofor) is performing the role of a transgender woman. His character, Lola, is shown sitting in front of mirrors, applying makeup, or having discussions about gender. (Straight, cis-gender men are always shown standing, while looking into mirrors.)

You also see this when a character believes they are in one type of situation, but upon closer inspection, such as in a mirror, they find their situation to be much more precarious. For example, they may believe they are in a normal environment, because that is what the mirror shows them, but the mirror indicates to the audience that supernatural, or demonic forces, of which they are unaware, have invaded this safe space. This is often used as the basis for the “bathroom jump scare” in Horror movies.

Supernatural forces, (or sometimes just regular people), can use mirrors as doorways into our worlds, as in movies like, Mirrors, Oculus, and the movie, They, in which the opposite occurs, as a young woman passes through a mirror, to discover that there is a dark, and terrifying world behind it. In that sense, the mirror itself represents a double world. In the movie, Mirrors, the image seen in the mirror is the other world, and the person seen in it, is a backwards version of the viewer. These other worlds are almost always malignant, and the beings that inhabit them, and who look like us, are dangerous to the people of this world.

Blood

Blood Magic | Pagans & Witches Amino

Blood can mean many things, depending on the plot of the story. If the plot involves young women, it represents childbirth, or menstruation, and/or a sign that a girl has reached womanhood status. In Carrie, the titular character has her first period, at the beginning of the film. Having never been informed about it, Carrie reacts with panic and terror, and is bullied by her classmates, and abused by her mother. What, for many women, is simply a normal right of passage, becomes for Carrie, a rite of trauma and shame. She has become a woman, but no one respects that, and she isn’t allowed to be one, as she is infantilized by her mother, who beats her for it, and by her peers, who still bully her, the way they’d done since they were children. Blood is the catalyst for everything that happens in the film. When one of her classmates humiliates her, by dumping a bucket of it on her at her Prom, a callback to the earlier scene where she was bullied after getting her period, it prompts the blood soaked Carrie to go on a psychic killing spree, eliminating her entire graduating class. In this scenario blood also means passion, rage, and revenge.

Blood can be seen as a sign of sexual maturity for female characters, or as an indication that sexual activity will, or already has, occurred, as in the movie Ginger Snaps, when Ginger’s first menstruation attracts the attack of a werewolf. After she survives the attack, her behavior changes dramatically. Her mother is congratulatory, but her sister, Bridgette, is alarmed, because Ginger becomes violent, sexually aggressive towards the boys at her school, has an unprotected sexual encounter with a boy in her class, and kills a teacher and a classmate. In this case, blood symbolizes predatory maturation. Ginger has become a maneater, in every sense of the term.

The classic euphemism for blood, is Life. Leviticus 17:14 states “For the life of every creature is its blood”, and the phrase, “The blood is the life.”, has been quoted in vampire films since Bram Stoker first wrote the phrase. In the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, is the literal embodiment of this phrase, as she is a mystical totem, that has been given life, through the use of Buffy’s blood. When a god-like being threatens to sacrifice her sister, to open a portal between worlds, it is Buffy’s blood that is required to stop it, which makes Buffy a Christ-like figure, as she sacrifices her life, using her very blood, to save the world. When Buffy’s friends ask why it always has to be blood, the vampire, Spike, paraphrases the famous quote in his answer.

Blood can symbolize a great many things in horror stories, like pain, sacrifice, passion, birth, life, death, and even humanity, as was shown in the 1982 version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Scientists at an Antarctic research station use their blood to determine who is, and is not human, after encountering an alien that may be masquerading as one of them. When images of blood are present in a film, its not always just blood, for blood’s sake. Look for religious connotations. Look for female characters. Sometimes there’s a purpose behind it, and the viewer should examine the context, under which this occurs, to understand any deeper meanings of its appearance, although in many horror movies, blood is just blood.

Snakes

Rules GIF by Doja Cat - Find & Share on GIPHY

Snakes represent sexual temptation, sensuality, and/or the promise of sex. Sex has not yet happened, but it might, or a character, usually a woman, desires it, or will be tempted to engage in it, but feels that it is forbidden. This symbolism comes from the Judeo-Christian story in Genesis, where Lucifer, while in the form of a snake, tempts Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, after which, both she and Adam become aware of their nudity, and sex, which gets then kicked out of the Garden. Since then, at least in Western media, snakes represent the forbidden, temptation, sexual desire, or sometimes, deception, since the snake in the Garden is said to have lied to Eve about what was at stake. (In other cultures, snakes may have no religious connotations at all, so this isn’t a good measuring stick by which to judge non-Western films.)

In the 2017 movie, Thelma, a young girl with psychic powers is confused about her sexual attraction to another young student, named Anja, which prompts her psychic powers to act out of control. Later in the film, Thelma attends a party, and prompted by her belief that she is falling in love with Anja, dreams of snakes climbing over her body, representing desire, and temptation for what she has been told by her parents, is forbidden. In the 2020 HBO television series, Lovecraft Country, there’s a scene where one of the leads, a young woman named Leticia, has an unspoken attraction to her co-lead, Atticus. This attraction is represented by a snake slithering out of Atticus’ pants, after their first kiss.

This euphemism for sex, is especially prevalent in music videos. The list of music videos featuring snakes is uncountable, including the above video for Megan Thee Stallions WAP, and the music video for Lil Nas X’s, Montero: Call Me By Your Name, in which the singer is seduced, under the Tree of Knowledge, by a giant snake (wearing his own face, btw), that proceeds to have sex with him. Music videos are not subtle.

Snakes can represent different things in different cultures. For example, snakes represent fertility in some parts of Southeast Asia, and in some African religions, the snake is a symbol of one’s ancestors. You should look closely at the cultural meaning, when watching international films, to understand the imagery.

Snakes in horror movies are also what’s known as a “Specific” phobia, called ophidiophobia, which means that sometimes a snake is just a snake, an image meant to evoke terror and revulsion. A “Specific” phobia is a fear of a distinct object, unlike some of the more amorphous fears, like fear of being alone, or a social fear, like speech giving. In movie like Snakes on a Plane, the snakes are just regular snakes.The most famous of these types of films is the Anaconda franchise, about hostile mega fauna in the Amazon Jungle, showing up in increasingly larger sizes in every movie. More than 50% of Americans say they have a fear of snakes, so Horror movies involving little snakes (Snakes on A Plane), venomous snakes (Vipers), mega-snakes (Ananconda, Titanoboa), and people who are part snake (Venom, Ssss), are not going away any time soon

Eyes

Things that can change your eye color | Santa Prisca Silver

It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and this idea is the shorthand used in film, when eyes are the focus. Nowhere is this more evident than in the films Bladerunner, and Bladerunner 2049, where the symbolism of eyes is one of the primary themes. In these films, the way to tell if a person is human, is by monitoring the reaction of their pupils to emotional stimuli, or in the sequel, seeing if a replicant’s status is written directly onto their eyeball.

https://screenrant.com/blade-runner-2049-eyes-memories-symbolism-meaning-explained/

In Bladerunner, the determination of whether or not someone is a replicant is called the Voight-Kamph Test. The idea for such a test comes directly from normal human interaction. We all conduct our own Voight-Kamph Tests everyday, using this to determine how much respect or belief a person should be given, determining their basic character, how intelligent they are, or their emotional status, based solely on looking into the eyes, only in Bladerunner, its to determine if someone lacks humanity.

Eyes are ubiquitous in horror movies, but scenes and shots of eyes, almost always mean the same thing from genre to genre. They are the most common body image, representing thought and memory. Characters are shown looking into the distance, when remembering an event, or the camera will push forward into a person’s eye, to show they are thinking. The use of the eye symbolizes perception, the act of seeing and thinking at once, surveillance and monitoring, and psychic abilities. Sometimes actual eyes are used to symbolize these traits, or an image on a wall, or on another part of the body, like a tattoo.

Sometimes, the very first thing we see about a character, is an emphasis on their humanity, symbolized by an extreme closeup of their eyes. Each of the Bladerunner films opens with an extreme closeup shot of an eye. The 1976 version of Carrie uses a sudden, and extreme, closeup of the character’s eye, to show when she is using her psychic abilities, and in the movie Dark City, a movie in which character’s personalities are swapped for new ones, via syringe to the eye, memory and the self are symbolized by a closeup of the protagonist’s eye, in the opening scene. In A Clockwork Orange, we are shown the erasure of the “self’, when Alex, the films main character, is tortured by being forced to watch scenes of violence, after which, his body viscerally rejects violence. A closeup of his eye was the first thing we saw of his character, and by the middle of the film he has been transformed from a cruel and smirking delinquent, to a frightened and humbled nobody. He is no longer himself as we first met him.

A character’s lack of humanity can also be shown by having the audience look at the world through that character’s eyes, as happens in The Terminator franchise, where diagrams and symbols occlude the point of view shots, to show that we are looking at the world from the point of view of a machine, or in movies like Halloween, where the framing of the pov shots, indicate the relentless implacability of the killer, Michael Myers. In 28 Days Later, we get closeups of a character’s glaring, bloodshot eyes, to show that they’ve been infected with a zombie-like virus, called Rage. One of the most popular ways that we are shown that a character has lost their humanity, is by having their eyes change to an unnatural color, or lose all color so that the eye sockets look empty, as in zombie films, where opaqueness of the eyes is used to show a lack of self. The body is moving, but there is no one home.

And then there is the camera. The camera is also an eye, as it stands in for us, the audience. Where the camera is placed, tells us which characters are important in a scene, what else we should be paying attention to in that scene, and how we should feel about what we’re’ seeing. For example, in the movie Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle has just had a disastrous date with Betsy, the woman of his dreams. When he tries to contact her again, he calls her from a pay phone, in the basement of his building. As he tries to speak to her, the camera slowly moves away from him, and down a long, and empty hallway, as if uninterested in what Travis is doing. Betsy will have no more to do with him, and its pointless for us to keep watching Travis’ useless gestures to atone. Travis’ actions are pathetic, and the camera looks away, as if to spare us the embarrassment of watching him grovel, or as if we, the audience, were attempting to give him some privacy.

Goodfellas – Opening titles | George Traynor - AS Media S6C

Sometimes the director wants to convince us of a character’s reliability as a narrator, by showing a scene from their point of view. This is used several times in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, to show Henry Hill’s pov. His ease and arrogance as he walks into a local bar full of wiseguys, who all know his name, and the long tracking shot, used as we follow Henry, on his first date with Karen, his future wife. Both scenes serve different purposes. In one scene, we are seeing the world from Karen’s pov, which is dizzying and glamorous. She is impressed by Henry, and her thoughts are spinning. The second scene is meant to show Henry in his element. He is in an environment where he is known and respected. The camera moves are steady, and slower than in the earlier scene, to show this assurance. In fact, when we first meet Henry in the opening scene, we know what type of story the movie is going to tell us, with one lingering shot of Henry’s eyes, as he stands frozen, at the trunk of his car, looking like a deer caught in headlights.

There is a long history of the use of eyes in film, and not just as windows to the inner life of the characters, but it is assumed, by what we see onscreen, that the audience has a soul, too.

Weather

Thundering GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Different forms of weather represent the moods of the characters, are a cue for how the audience is meant to feel during a scene, and sometimes, its just the weather. But since most rainfall for movies is manufactured, we can assume that there is a reason why directors may want to show it onscreen. For example, whenever there are funeral scenes in movies, and TV, the director might need to create some rain, to use as a visual shorthand, to represent the emotional turmoil of the characters, or just encourage the audience to feel gloomy. Mysteries and Horror movies want to create a feeling of dark foreboding, and this is easily accomplished via storm. In fact, this is done so often that it has become a cliche engaged in by lazy filmmakers, (ie. “It was a dark and stormy night…”)

Rain is used to represent the emotions of a specific character. Characters without rain gear, getting caught, or running through the rain, are meant to show how out of control or miserable their lives are, or to show their carefree attitude. Both of these are beautifully depicted in the 1998 movie, Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellan, as the director James Whale, and Brendan Fraser, as his gardener. Here, the two of them attend an outdoor party, at which it starts to rain. Whale casually strolls through the rain, stating that he won’t melt. He has not a care in the world, but by the end of the scene, after the two of them have settled into his, now soggy, open convertible, his expression is weary and depressed. Things are not as carefree as he says. What started as nonchalance, has transformed to show how miserable his life really is, and both moments are equally true. Another film that showcases the freedom and joy of getting caught in the rain, and not giving a damn, was Gene Kelly’s iconic performance in Singin’ in the Rain.

Thunderstorms, are a way to heighten tension, or drama during a particular scene. Boiling clouds are an indicator of emotional turmoil and rage. A woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, might find herself walking through a thunderstorm, with waterlogged hair, her mascara running. If its just raining, she’s merely sad, but if its a thunderstorm, then she is actually enraged, but keeping it all in check, while the weather expresses her true feelings. It could also mean that she is resolved to her fate, or has reached a conclusion that she is unhappy with.

Walking In The Rain Sad & Empty Gif

The thunderstorm in one of the opening scenes of The Addams Family, is used to great comedic effect, and emphasizes the drama, as the family engages in its yearly seance, to contact the ghost of Gomez’ beloved brother, Uncle Fester. The drama reaches a shattering crescendo at the height of the storm, when Uncle Fester shows up at their front door.

Martial arts, and other action movies, love to use rain to heighten the dramatic tension of a story, without using dialogue, and showcase fights. Rather than have characters give long speeches, or explanations, we know the fight is important, because its storming as a stand-in for the character’s emotions. Having a large fight take place in inclement weather is also a good way to hide stunt doubles, hide moves that don’t connect, or showcase moves that actually do, as water is flung about in huge splashes whenever a strike hits.

Sunshine means peace, tranquility, happiness, and that all is normal and right, with the world, but can also be used as a contrast to show actions that are at odds with the peace of nature, or characters whose lives, or situations are tragic and dysfunctional. The tragicomedy of Little Miss Sunshine happens against a backdrop of relentlessly sunny weather, contrasting the family dysfunction, and the terrible conditions of their 800 mile road trip, to attend a beauty pageant. The world may be normal and bucolic, but their lives are everything but. In 2018’s Halloween reboot, the first time we see Michael Myers is during a brilliantly sunny day, to contrast the darkness and evil of his character. Sunshine is sometimes ominous, as its used as setup for the horrors that follow, as the first murders Michael commits are against this same backdrop. Sun and blue skies is a sign of normalcy, and Michael (and any other horror that happen in these films) is the disruption of that. Sunshine at the end of a dark movie, represents a return to normal, that the horror is now over, and that the evil has been destroyed, as happens at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Til Dawn.

Weather represents that time has passed in a particular place. In places that experience seasons, for example, we can tell where we are in the story, by the weather. The weather can also be the story. The 1982 version of The Thing wouldn’t be the same without its snowy backdrop, which is such an integral part of the story, that the same story couldn’t be told without it.

Water

Stock Footage - Swimming Pool Water in Slow Motion | VideoHive | Swim team,  Girls swimming, Swimming pool water

Water always has a special importance in film, and one should always pay close attention to its meaning, when it its being prominently featured.

Sometimes the use of water has a very specific context, and takes on special significance, as in the movie, Moonlight, where it represents softness, and vulnerability, especially within the confines of an urban environment, where people are not encouraged to display either, and where large bodies of water are rare. Chiron, the lead character in the movie, has his first sexual experience near water, and water is an ever present motif in the film. In the language of this particular film, its related to whether or not the lead character is “soft’ or “hard”, meaning weak or tough. Whenever Chiron experiences a moment of fear or vulnerability, he happens to be near water, such as when his mother’s boyfriend teaches him how to swim.

That is symbolism unique to the theme of Moonlight. In other instances, immersion in water, or visions of drowning, could mean that a person is overwhlemed by their situation. They are literally “in over their head’. This type of imagery was used frequently, in the TV series Hannibal, where the closer characters got to Hannibal’s orbit, the more they became overwhelmed by him, and would have visions or dreams of themselves drowning.

The symbolism behind water can be tricky. It has so many meanings, that its appearance must be viewed within the context of the type of film. Water in movies, just like in the real world, takes on the shape or meaning of whatever it is within. In a Western it means life, and safety, but in a Romance, it means tears, or implied sexual activity, and desire. It can also represent birth, or rebirth after trauma, as in “washing the slate clean”. In the Judeo Christian tradition, bathing means the washing away of sin, and becoming a new person in the eyes of God.

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth washes her hands of blood after she participates in the murder of King Duncan, which has been taken as a sign of guilt. This is such an entrenched idea in American culture, that just the image of wringing hands is seen as a sign of guilt or anguish. In other instances, female characters will shower, after they feel they’ve been violated, essentially washing away the filth of what happened to them, or immerse themselves in a bath, to calm themselves after an emotionally turbulent event.

Pools of water represent the emotions of the people near them. If two people are speaking near a calm pool of water, that could indicate that the two are equals, about to be romantically involved, or that the two of them are of the same mindset, and there is no conflict between them. This is often the case in romantic movies, where a couple might take a walk along the seashore. However, if the water in a scene is turbulent, that could indicate that the couple is not as emotionally aligned as they seem, that they may be having domestic troubles, or foreshadowing that the relationship will fail.

Checkered Floors

Iconic floors in film

From time to time, you may notice that a checkered floor is prominently featured in a movie. That’s because a checkered floor sometimes has meaning within the context of the plot, or its of significance to the mindset of the character standing on it. Since it brings to mind the game of Chess, it often shows up when two characters are on opposite sides of a conflict, having a war of words, or are trying to outmaneuver one another. If a person is standing on a checkered floor, it serves the same purpose as the mirror, indicating that the character is having inner conflict, or are of two minds about an issue.

In the above scene, Marie Antoinette is shown standing on a checkered floor. This indicates that she feels conflicted about her position, as the Queen of France, and a young woman who just wants to live her life, free of the responsibility of reconciling her two countries. She is also being pressured to give birth to the next generation of royals, but her husband will not touch her, and she is being scorned by the court, for not producing an heir. If she doesn’t have a baby soon, than her position as Queen will be in jeopardy. The conflict is internal and external, as she has been thrust into an environment where she knows no one, doesn’t always know who her friends and enemies are, and has to carefully maneuver through an environment she doesn’t understand, if she wishes to maintain her position.

Sometimes a checkered floor means a more direct conflict, like people having an actual physical fight. In the television series, Into the Badlands, two of the most powerful characters, in the first season are Quinn, and The Widow, whose ideologies are in direct opposition. The two of them have been engaging in a covert game of chess throughout the first part of the season, with moves and countermoves, which finally culminate in this fight scene, after The Widow’s assassination attempt on Quinn’s son. The fight is occurring on more than one level, as the two of them are also engaging in a war of words, as they attempt to psych each other out, and throw the other off their game.

Once you start noticing the checkered floor, in movies, tv shows, and music videos, its impossible to stop seeing it. Some people like to assign hidden occult meanings to the images of checkered floors, as they were once a symbol of the Masonic Order/Freemasonry. This is such an intricate and complicated philosophy, much of it conspiratorial, that I can’t begin to parse any of it, and I won’t try to do it here, since any definition of its meaning is suspect, based on who is giving it. So, depending on who you are, you may derive more meaning from the sight of a checkered floor than I would. We will go with the simplest explanation, for now, that sometimes a floor is just a floor.

Empty Chairs

Empty chair - GIF on Imgur

I spoke about the imagery of the “empty chair”, in my defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, here:

An empty chair in a movie scene is often meant to represent a space where someone should be. In this movie, the empty chairs, usually situated on porches, (or at dinner tables), which are, traditionally the site of familial gatherings, are meant to represent  the absence of loved ones. The entire movie carries a mood of unspoken grief and melancholy, which is only alleviated by its hopeful ending. The Elders of the community fled to The Village because each one of them has experienced the tragic loss of a family member, and  the point of the movie is that they cannot run away from loss or pain. The scattered, empty chairs are a constant reminder of their loss.

https://tvgeekingout.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/in-defense-of-the-village/

Sometimes, an empty chair represents an actual person, which implies a presence, as much as it does an absence. In that case, the other characters in the film will refer to the chair as a person, or talk to the chair, as if someone were in it. In the 1991 Movie, The Addam’s Family, the empty chair at the family table is meant, not just to draw attention to Uncle Fester’s absence, but the family’s anticipation of his possible return, as they prepares to hold a seance, to contact him in the presumed afterlife.

The most common usage, however, is the loss of a loved one. In the above .gif, for the movie UP, the pictured character has lost his wife of many years. He is also very lonely, and his grief, and loneliness, propel his actions for the rest of the film.

An empty chair represents a place of rest, comfort, or even conflict, depending on its placement in the scene, and the context of the film, and the style of chair. Take for example, Game of Thrones, in which the image of The Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, is the fuel behind nearly all of the carnage that ensues, spawning at least three different plotlines, throughout its 8 year run, ending in its destruction at the end of the series. A chair in the middle of a barren landscape, with no where else comfortable to sit, represents an opportunity for respite, however a chair in the middle of such a landscape would also work well in a horror movie, as it seems distinctly sinister, but in the shape of a boulder, or a piece of driftwood, it regains its former meaning.

While a single chair implies that a character is lonely, multiple empty chairs, sitting in rows, or just next to each other, imply community and/or dialogue, or in the context of a horror narrative, a community that’s been disrupted. For example, the sight of the backs of two lawn chairs, looking out over a sunset, indicates togetherness, friendship, or marriage. Overturned chairs represent a disruption of a household, the status quo, or a community, especially if there are multiple overturned chairs. A fallen chair, depending on the style, is seen as ominous representations of illness, or death. Empty, or tipped over wheelchairs, for example, are never a good sign.

These are just a few of the symbols, and cliches used in film. Think about this as you’re watching your favorite movie, but keep in mind, sometimes, an image is just an image, and may have no particular meaning. You have to carefully weigh the images against the story, and characters, to determine if there is meaning.

One thought on “The Visual Shorthand of Film

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s