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November 26, 2021

What Is a Motif in Film

What are the unique characteristics of your film? What symbols, items, and music will your audience associate with the characters, themes, and different plot lines in your movie? What is a motif in film? Well, let's begin with defining a motif.

The Oxford Dictionary Of Literary Terms defines a motif as, "A situation, incident, idea, image, or character‐type found in many different literary works, folktales, or myths…."

What is a motif in film?

This definition may seem broad, but in short, motifs are a way you can make your film distinctive and help your viewers remember your film. They are critical if you are writing a television series or a movie with multiple planned sequels.

Motif and music - leitmotifs and title sequences

One of the easiest ways to conjure up emotion in a film or TV series and create an image of a character can be through music. The themes and motifs associated with characters establish a relationship with the viewer; the audience is signposted when certain characters appear.

Characters often label themes in significant scores: John William's 'Hedgwig's Theme' in Harry Potter, named after his pet bird that he was gifted on his first trip to Diagon Alley, symbolizes Harry's childhood innocence in the first film. Lilly's Theme from Deathly Hallows: Part 2 characterizes the loss and impending reunion that Harry may have with his dead mother.

Scriptwriters are not composers, and therefore it's important to remember it isn't your job to write the score for the film.

However, scriptwriters can suggest and establish when certain scenes should be set to music.

The first way you can do this is through the title sequence, which should hint at the mood of the entire piece. The title sequence to Casino Royale, with its use of blood flowing down the screen and the 'iconic James Bond logo,' suggests very heavily that the James Bond central theme - with its iconic four-chord leitmotif - should be used here.

In Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, James Chapman says, "The visual style of the film is enhanced by its distinctive sound, especially the energetic signature melody with its twanging electric guitar and strident bass."

The 'gun barrel' sequence in which Bond breaks the fourth wall to shoot at us, the viewer, and blood trickles down the screen is a motif that has been used in every Bond film.

The script of Casino Royale, although significantly revised, hints very heavily at the use of the James Bond central theme and leitmotif.

It references the gun that is shot at the audience in The Great Train Robbery (1903). The motif of the gun also symbolizes the voyeurism that we as an audience are invited in on and is characteristic of the spy film genre.

But what about other pieces of music? Can you include this if you want to conjure up a mood in a film or series by linking one of your characters to a particular piece of music that already exists?

Yes. You can write music into your scenes, indicating it in your scene headings. However, this is no guarantee that any pieces of music you list will be used. Remember, there are copyright restrictions, and licensing the rights can be very expensive.

There will also be many people from producers to the composer and the editor who will all have their input into the use of particular soundtracks and themes. You might not have any say on the final decision, which could happen long after you finish work on the film or show and have moved on to other projects.

Other motifs in James Bond

James Bond is a good case study for examining motif examples in film because they are so iconic and well known most of us can recognize them even if we have never seen a Bond film. They have become staples for movies in the spy genre and are often parodied or imitated. Here are some examples.

Classic cars

Bond is a fan of classic cars: he is often seen using a modified version of the Astin Martin fitted with a range of extra features such as an ejector seat and guns. His opponents in faster sports cars often underestimate him.

Classic cars are also symbols of Bond's place in society: they suggest that he is part of the establishment and comes from "old money." A key tension of the films that have come under scrutiny in recent years is how Bond as a character is outdated since he is overly privileged and often presented as arrogant and a "toff."    


Attractive women are very easily at Bond's disposal and appear in alluring positions during most title sequences.

On one level, they symbolize Bond's misogynistic and chauvinistic characteristics: in the earlier films, he uses women and disposes of them when he sees fit. They also denote his privileges in society since he is never held accountable for his promiscuity.  

However, in later rebooted Bond films, the beautiful women Bond encounters are his downfall and are a vital point of his lonely hero's journey. Every woman he engages in a relationship with ends up dead: Vesper in Casino Royale and Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace; Bond soon realizes that attaching himself to a woman is as dangerous for the woman as it is for himself.

Women represent Bond's sacrifice and add a romantic and emotional dimension to the films that stand in contrast to the violence and impersonal nature of Bond's career; he is the epitome of the conflicted, complex hero.  

Villains with physical deformities

Many of the villains in Bond films have very distinctive deformities. Le Chiffre sheds tears of blood when he cries, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld is injured in Spectre with a scar down his face.

Christopher Waltz is the deformed villain Blofeld who faces Daniel Craig as Bond in the latest film in the series No Time To Die.
All rights reserved: Express

Villains with a physical deformity are often hardened due to the injuries they usually endured in childhood. They revel in discussing their injuries in their monologues.

They lack humanity or empathy for Bond. They are a kind of character foil to Bond, showing how easy it is for Bond - also an orphan- and also often lacking in humanity - to end up crossing over to become a villain.  

Think about what motifs you can include in your film or series. Consider what best sums up your characters and the themes you are trying to convey in a simple, pithy manner.

Symbols and motifs in Netflix's Squid Game

Netflix's recent hit Squid Game is a somewhat allegorical tale about a group of impoverished South Korean people invited to play in a series of kids games for a grand prize of 45 million Won - $38.5 million - with one crucial catch. Eliminated players are killed off.

Squid Game is rich with symbolism and motifs that underpin its central themes of greed and inequality and the film's suggestion that life in South Korea is far from ideal.

The show frequently appropriates childhood games as motifs. While we would expect the playground-esq sets the players play on to be small, they dwarf the players. This infantilizes the players; they are treated like irresponsible children.

While the deaths of the players are brutal, the hosts treat them as if they have just lost a childhood game with little consequence; the players are simply "eliminated."    

The symbols the guards wear on their masks: triangles, squares, and circles are simple. They resemble the symbols from popular video games consoles.

Bright colors in the sets and the use of classical music help create a stark contrast that detaches us from the dark reality of what is happening to the players.

Bright colors, massive playground equipment, and gamer-esq symbols are motifs in Squid Games that help infantilize the players.
All rights reserved: Indian Express

Adding motifs to your work makes it distinctive

Now that you understand what a motif in film is, it's time to start incorporating your own. But beware, symbolism and motifs are very similar concepts. However, a motif doesn't necessarily have to be a symbol. Motifs are simply recurring idea or object that makes your film distinctive.

Motifs are your signature, and they help viewers develop relationships with characters and places in your series or film. Overtime motifs also create genre and character expectations that you can subvert to your advantage.

If you are struggling with motifs, then attack them last. Develop your ideas first, refine them and then work on structural and character edits. In the course of working on your script, ideas about motifs and where to place them might come to you.


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What Is a Motif in Film
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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