When thinking about images and themes in film, it is important to understand that a special language is created between the viewer and what is seen on screen. As images, musical themes, dialogue and even colors are repeated in a film, a history of meaning is created for the viewer.
Often these symbols start off representing one idea. Over the course of the movie, as our knowledge of this world increases and our understanding deepens, they symbols come to represent something deeper and more meaningful
…And The Context
Each film creates its own discrete context. The dark screen at the beginning of a movie is a blank slate. As the credits roll and the film is shown, an unspoken context exists for everything that is seen by the viewer.
As these recurring ideas and images — the “signifiers” or “symbols” – are presented in relationship to each other, they create a context. That context enables a viewer to determine a “language” for what the images presented might mean.
This “language” is an intimate creation shared exclusively between the movie and each person in the audience who watches it. It’s what makes watching a movie such a deeply personal and engaging experience. Each of us is told the story in a language that is, literally all our own.
Let Me Explain It in Practical Terms
Let’s say we are watching a film. As the camera pans across a kitchen, we see the dirty dishes, cooking utensils and food scraps from an evening meal. On the counter is a carving knife next to a half-eaten roasted chicken. That might signify any number of warm fuzzy images of happy home cooked meals. But what if that knife were on the floor next to a pool of blood…?
Sound Effects and Music
Adding sound effects and music will further enhance and clarify that image. Take the knife next to the chicken. If the music playing in the background is “Happy Birthday,” you’ll probably think this image is what remains after a family birthday dinner. On the other hand, if the music were from the soundtrack to “Psycho,” you would probably think that something is about to go horribly wrong with dessert.
When writing, we are limited to words and symbols like emojis or drawings. In painting and sculpture we are limited to the physical objects created. In music, there are words, harmony, melody and rhythms at play but no inherent visuals. In dance, there are movement and visuals often in combination with all of the previously mention; but, still, it is limited to the confines of the stage.
In film and video, all of the above can be used without limitation. Words, symbols, people, objects, music and sound effects can be introduced from anywhere at any time.
For many people, this makes film the most powerful art form available; filmmaking the ultimate combination of all modern art forms; and therefore, the screenwriter the most essential part of the process.
Why It Matters to Screenwriters
As the writer of a screenplay, your medium is the printed word. But you are working with ideas. You are putting your ideas down on the page. It’s your responsibility to be aware of how the ideas and images you present in your script affect your story and your readers. What do the images that you create “signify” to the reader of your script? What do they tell your audience about your world, characters and story?