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How the biggest films of the year combine their meaning with symbolic composition

Every shot in a film conveys information that filmmakers expect from us.

They can communicate something directly or indirectly, but the best filmmakers can even communicate with us subconsciously. By learning the language of composition and framing of recordings, we can decipher how filmmakers incorporate symbolism into their images to give them a deeper meaning.

In this post, we’re going to look at some key movies and how they use this language to tell a deeper story. Let’s dive in!

SPOILER ALARMS: Minor spoilers for Palm Springs, minor spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit, Head Spoilers for Since 5 Bloods.

Minari (2020)to you. Lee Isaac Chung

When two or more characters are in the same frame, the way they are arranged conveys something about their relationship.


“Minari”Recognition: A24


“Minari”Recognition: A24

In this shot by MinariJacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri) look in two different directions and confirm to the audience that they are in conflict. However, they visually overlap and are carefully framed by a single object – a religious tapestry – that tells us that they are still uniform.

Also note that the production designer or set designer placed a pair of characters, a pair that reinforces the state of their relationship from the point of view of our protagonist, their son David (played by Alan Kim, not pictured), who sees them as one uniform front, a matching set.

Director Lee Isaac Chung unconsciously draws our attention to the characters’ relational dynamics, even in a scene that addresses a different element of the plot.

Palm Springs (2020), you. Max Barbakov

Sometimes a simple change in the angle of fire can draw attention to the symbolism of its content.


‘Palm Springs’Recognition: Hulu

At the beginning of Palm SpringsWe find Nyles (Andy Samberg) swimming alone in a pool on an inflatable pizza slice. We understand that it tells us that Nyles is aimless – literally floating through life.

Then Nyles meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and they find meaning in living together.


‘Palm Springs’Recognition: Hulu

The film ends with a recreation of the same take with both characters floating on interconnected pizza slices. With an overhead shot, director Max Barbakow draws particular attention to this connection and creates a tone of harmony and union. Max and Sarah are still floating, but they are floating together, undermining the initial symbolism of the lonely slice of pizza.

Promising young woman (2020), to you. Emerald Fennell

Often times, the implicit messages can be built into a recording with small but precise details mise en scene.


“Promising young woman”Recognition: Focus functions


“Promising young woman”Recognition: Focus functions

In this shot by Promising young womanCassie (Carey Mulligan) is positioned right in front of a trapezoidal headboard to give the illusion that she has angel wings and tells us that her vigilance is the work of a guardian angel, not retribution, catharsis, or misanthropy.

Director Emerald Fennell also framed Cassie very symmetrically – a visual cue of stability and order – to convey her organized, methodical approach to revenge.

I am thinking of ending things (2020), to you. Charlie Kaufman

Composition decisions can also bring you into a character’s reality, and a shot with an additional negative space above a character’s head suggests the presence of thoughts or questions in their head.

I am thinking of ending thingsLike many of Charlie Kaufman’s films, it plays with philosophical ideas, confusion and existentialism.


“I’m thinking of ending things”Recognition: Netflix


“I’m thinking of ending things”Recognition: Netflix

At that moment “Lucy” (Jessie Buckley) notices something unusual about their dinner with Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). As “Lucy” tries to understand whether the impossibilities she sees are real or whether she is imagining them, Kaufman frames her with an extremely large amount of headroom, reflecting the kind of intense cerebral experience she – and the audience – will go through.

Judas and the black messiah (2021)to you. Shaka King

Pay attention to the words that you use to metaphorically describe a moment or character as they can be the key to your movie selection.


“Judas and the Black Messiah”Recognition: Warner Bros.


“Judas and the Black Messiah”Recognition: Warner Bros.

In this case, director Shaka King frames Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a character who hides his true subjects from those around him, with compositions that obscure him from view. It visually communicates that the character is mysterious, shady, and potentially dangerous.

Words like mysterious, shady, obscure, unrecognizable, shady, veiled, and distant might come to mind when describing O’Neal and are enhanced by the power of visual storytelling.

The assistant (2020)to you. Kitty Green

The blocking and visual distance between characters can tell an audience a lot about how these characters relate to one another.


‘The assistant’Recognition: Bleecker Strasse


‘The assistant’Recognition: Bleecker Strasse

Notice in this picture of The assistant How there are multiple visual barriers between Jane (Julia Garner) and the young woman she suspects is in danger (Kristine Froseth). Director Kitty Green makes it clear that Jane wants to know more about the new girl and her situation, but unspoken rules of her job prevent her from getting involved. This invisible tension is conveyed by the space between the two characters, as well as the vertical lines that act as visual barriers between them.

Also, check out how the production designer selected movie posters that have a creepy impact on women who are nervous or fading.

The father (2020)to you. Florian Zeller

We tend to rely on the basic setup of the shot – wide, medium, medium, close-up, inverted close-up – but creatively conceptualizing a shot can make your storytelling both deeper and more efficient.


‘The father’Recognition: Lionsgate


‘The father’Recognition: Lionsgate

This shot of an interaction with Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his new caretaker (Imogen Poots) shows Anthony’s daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) in the background. Director Florian Zeller uses this opportunity to create a framework that communicates several things to us at the same time.

First, we can clearly see that Anthony is purposely excluding her from the conversation by framing Anne in the shot instead of leaving her out entirely. She is relegated to the background of the frame and continues to express Anthony’s feelings for her. The careful positioning of Anne in the small gap between Anthony and his new confidante shows how Anthony feels that Anne is between them. And finally, because she is clearly framed behind them, we can see her drop her previous act of courtesy and reveal her true feelings at a moment when the other characters can no longer see her.

By shaping this moment this way, we can stay with Anthony through his experience without having to resort to Anne to communicate each of these ideas and maintain the integrity of the tempo.

Without sacrificing this powerful emotional information, which may not be required for the plot, it adds layers to the audience’s experience and understanding of the story.

Since 5 Bloods (2020), you. Spike Lee

The joining of two objects or characters in a shot invites an audience to compare and contrast them, especially two objects or characters that are visually reflecting.


‘Da 5 Bloods’Recognition: Netflix


‘Da 5 Bloods’Recognition: Netflix

In this picture by Since 5 BloodsDirector Spike Lee mirrored the poses of Otis (Clarke Peters) and Desroche (Jean Reno) to draw special attention to the similarities and differences between the two characters. The overhead shot has strong visual symmetry and encourages the audience to compare themselves.

Their distance from the camera gradually fades their faces, making them appear as symbols rather than signs, highlighting the symbolism of what they each stood for in their final confrontation.

The invisible man (2020)to you. Leigh Whannell

Horror movies often use the excess negative space tool because it’s perfect for building tension and anxiety. The unconscious focus on the negative space alarms the audience and causes their brains to accept the presence of something they cannot yet see. After all, why should the filmmakers choose not to show us anything?


‘The Invisible Man’Recognition: Universal images


‘The Invisible Man’Recognition: Universal images

In this frame we only see a strip of our protagonist Cee (Elizabeth Moss) and a hatch to the apparently empty hallway below. In fact, we almost don’t even know what we’re seeing, which is unsettling.

This frame creates a sense of anticipation by implying the presence of something or someone … maybe like an invisible man?

The Queen’s Gambit (2020), created by Scott Frank & Allan Scottto you. Scott Frank

Where a filmmaker relates his camera to his characters, it can tell us whether or not we should see the scene objectively or subjectively.


“The Queen’s Game”Recognition: Netflix


“The Queen’s Game”Recognition: Netflix

in the The Queen’s GambitDirector Scott Frank places the camera behind Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) so that the audience can see this scene with their eyes. Using one point perspective, the shot stretches like a road ahead of her, showing us the journey she is about to take: a long line of world class players, all of their opponents, all of the men. A one-point perspective is useful for showing length or volume, and this is where it alerts us to the fact that there are many opponents (and many men watching in the audience).

Yeah we know The Queen’s Gambit is not a movie. But aren’t you glad we recorded it?

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