What is a Motif in Film?

Have you any idea about what is a motif in film? Do you actually understand the use of visual motif and symbolism in films?

Using visual motif in film is one of the quickest ways to show off filmmaker’s metaphorical interpretation as well as intellectual skill. The concept is not that much concise. There are some rules or grammar to use motif in a film. Filmmaker must need to understand the motif meaning, how it supports film’s theme and how to use it appropriately for better storytelling.

If it is absolutely a new term to you then you are going to learn an artistic part of film making. Keep reading and focus on my key points. Let’s start with a simple definition.


Motif simply refers to repeated ideas, images or patterns used throughout a film more than once to reveal the theme of the story. Some film scholars and directors define motif as a repeated narrative element that supports the actual mood of the story. Motif presented in films using story telling tools like sound, lighting, color/symbol, dialog, any special effect or specific visual etc. A motif became significant when it reveals a hidden meaning that directors try to convey through their films. Perfect use of motif may improve a film’s quality or aesthetic value.

How it can be Used in a Film?

The film’s visual motifs use repetitive patterns through props, set designs, costumes, symbols, and events to support promised theme of the film. However, a film maker can use motif in different ways. In the following I explain three most effective, great and smart ways. Have a look.

i) Meaningful motif can present through background music or dialog If any filmmaker use repeated story telling tools that carry no meaning then the audience will get confused. If they don’t get the point and wonder why it is used again and again, then there is no use to include motif in films.

ii) Use recurring motif in a way that have an impact. The number of usage motif is not certain. It depends on plot. Use such way that audience remember for a long time. It may be a sweet jingle, a color, an object, symbol or code or any specific camera angle.

iii) Include such motif that boost up narrative elements. Motif which has connectivity with the protagonist or antagonist are considered as intelligent one. Perfect motif can play a vital role in characterization too. In many films any specific character presented by using motif. Film character can be memorable through motif.

Examples of Motifs in Film

For more clear understanding of application motif in films, I am upholding some film examples that brilliantly used motif.

  1. Throughout the entire series in the franchise ‘It’ the director uses red balloons as a motif. Red balloon indicates an unseen threat and childhood trauma in this film.
  2. Director Barry Jenkins used one of the marvelous atmospheric motif in his film Moonlight (2016). In this film he showed places through motif where blacks can be emotionally weak. Moonlight is always present when the main character, Chiron, meet his most vulnerable side.
  3. The whole Star Wars series is full of motifs. The franchise features some of the greatest examples of musical motifs. Star Wars uses its score and specific musical cues to connect the story line and characters throughout the series. Every single film throughout the franchise has the same powerful score, crafted by John Williams.
  4. The use of oranges in The Godfather is another brilliant motif. Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ trilogy always shows off Mediterranean fruits like Orange as a symbolic motif. Orange is always in the frame right before someone gets killed or someone just attacked to be died.
  5. ‘Indian Jones’ film uses dialogue as motif to establish character. Have you noticed dialogues like- “It belongs in a museum” or “Snakes!”. “Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?” This American media franchise established Indian Jones character through these dialogues.

End Words

Besides, there are so many films which you may notice several motifs such as Matrix, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the lost ark, Speed, Jaws, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, Hail, Caesar!, American Honey and so on…. Motif has been used from the early films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Implicit meaning behind the film can be expressed through the motifs. Moreover, it can add layers of narrative significance to your film. Just as a film maker you have to know how and when to use it properly. That’s it!