What is a motif and how is it used in cinema?

Have you ever noticed how sometimes films reuse a piece of sound, music, or visuals over and over again? When that happens, it’s called a motif.

What is a motif, exactly? You may know that the term motif is related to repetition: it’s an element that shows up again and again to emphasize an underlying theme in the story. So how does that apply to film? In this article, we will clearly define what a motif is and how it differs from the theme of a story. We’ll also take a look at how motifs are used in cinema.

What is a motif?

A motif is a repeated narrative element that is used throughout a work that supports the theme of the story. A motif doesn’t have to be presented in any specific form. It can be a reference to a specific time, a sound or a line of dialogue. Music, colors and repeated events can also become motifs when used intentionally throughout a story. Essentially, motifs further strengthen your story’s theme, reintroducing important elements throughout the work to underline their significance.

As a video producer, you may be especially interested in visual motifs. The term visual motif refers specifically to the visible elements that reoccur in your film to help tell your story. This can include things like props, set design, symbols, events and costumes. Specific colors or color combinations can also be used as motifs.

Motif vs theme

Motifs are not to be confused with the theme of the story. The theme is what you want your story to be about. Motifs are used to support the theme and really drive home the message you want to convey. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, one of the major themes is love, and to support that theme, the work includes a rose.

Red rose
While Romeo and Juliet’s theme is love, a motif the plot uses to support that is a rose

What makes an element into an effective motif?

When it comes down to it, almost anything in your film can be a motif. The element you choose, however, has to meet these three criteria to be great and effective.

  • First, it has to support the theme of a story. You can repeat as many elements in your story as you like, but if none of them support the actual theme of the story, they have no purpose being there. In fact, it might confuse your audience because they will assume that the element they’re seeing through the work holds some kind of importance. Motifs need to directly support the theme; otherwise, they muddy the theme.
  • Second, the motif must be recurring throughout the entire film. There is no magic number for how many times an element needs to be repeated. It really depends on the story. However, for a motif to really make an impact, it needs to be present throughout the work in some capacity.
  • Lastly, it needs to enhance your narrative elements. So that would include the theme of the story, but it also includes the plot, setting, character and conflict. There’s a lot that motifs can add to the narrative significance to your work. You just have to know how and when to use them.

Examples of motifs in film

Red balloon signal an unseen threat in It: Part 1

Throughout the entire series in the franchise, It uses the motif of a red balloon. Red balloons show up throughout the series to signal to the Losers’ Club that Pennywise the Clown is watching them. This, in turn, supports the series’ motif of childhood trauma. Sometimes, Pennywise appears after the balloons are shown; sometimes he doesn’t. Regardless, the repetition of the balloons reminds the characters — the audience — that Pennywise is somewhere nearby, watching. It adds a ton of tension to the film and makes the Losers’ Club fear him even more.

Scene from the movie It
Red balloons in It supports the It series’ theme of childhood trauma by making the children feel they’re always being watched. Image courtesy Warner Brothers

Musical motifs in Star Wars

The entire Star Wars series is full of motifs. The franchise features some of the greatest examples of musical motifs. Every single film throughout the franchise has the same powerful score, crafted by John Williams. Whether it be the title text scroll, the space battles, the lightsaber battles, using the force to overcome dire situations, Star Wars uses its score and specific musical cues to connect the plots lines and characters throughout the series. It feels like everything in the series is connected, just like how the characters are with the force.

Scene from Star Wars: A New Hope
Star Wars uses the same score whenever their main characters have to overcome a huge obstacle by using the force. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox

Indian Jones uses dialogue motifs to establish character

Pieces of dialogue can be used as a motif, too. How many times have you heard Indian Jones shout: “It belongs in a museum” or “Snakes. Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?” Both quickly establish Indian Jones’ character. We know he is a man of integrity, respecting ancient artifacts as pieces of history rather than a way to make a quick buck. We also learn he has a fear of snakes, which is used throughout the series to put Indian Jones through uncomfortable situations when snakes are present and to show that even this hero has fears he must overcome.

Scene from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Snakes appear throughout the entire Indiana Jones series, causing conflict for Jones. Image courtesy: Disney

When we take a look at the series’ third installment, Last Crusade, throughout the film Indian Jones corrects his father whenever he calls him junior. This motif supports the film’s message of family. Indian Jones’ relationship with his father is strained at the beginning of the film. He clearly doesn’t want to be associated with his father. However, as the film progresses, their relationship improves.

Motifs can add layers of narrative significance to your film. When they support the overall theme, they really drive home what you’re trying to say to the audience. Whether you use motifs through props, music, color, sets or dialogue, these recurring elements help underscore the theme of your narrative.

Image courtesy: Eon Productions Ltd.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's Managing Editor.

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