Inspiration, Pro Tips

Hidden Meaning: How to Compose a Shot That Conveys a Theme


On the most basic level, a shot is meant to convey visual information to an audience so that, piece by piece, a larger story unfolds. But for some directors and cinematographers, it can be much more — not just an element of something being recorded, but a way of creating meanings that go far deeper than what we immediately see. How a shot is composed can tell a secret visual story, full of added themes and symbolism. Read on for a few things to keep in mind when approaching shots in the same way as the world’s greatest filmmakers.

Related Post Everything in Its Place: How Shot Composition Tells a Secret Story

Determine what you want your shot to accomplish

When you’re setting out to create a shot infused with meaning, the first question you have to ask yourself is: “What do I want to accomplish?” Think beyond aesthetics and plot, and dig deeper to determine the secret story you want to tell. Do you want to define a character or the relationship between several of them? Maybe you want to spotlight a character’s state of mind or establish their place in the world? A great shot delves further into the essence of something, and it’s up to you to figure out what that is. So, before you ever put your eye to a camera, determine your goal and intended effect. Once you have that, you can start work toward realizing them.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Know the theme of your work inside and out

Remember in high-school English class, when you learned how it wasn’t just plot and dialogue that make up a novel’s theme, but individual words and phrasing too? Filmmaking is no different, except that instead of words, we’re dealing with shots. When you’re trying to create a meaningful composition, it should always be directly tied to theme. That means you have to take the time to really know what your project’s themes are — theme is meaning, and your shot can’t have the latter without the former. But, more importantly, you need to have a grasp on theme because, as you may remember from English class, theme is often built on symbolism, and you can’t create great shot composition without symbolism.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in "The Dark Knight"

The Dark Knight (2008)

Study your location to determine how it can be used for thematic effect

One of your first opportunities for introducing symbolism to a shoot is your location. Take a good look around with theme in mind and see how you can use the environment to add meaning to your shot. For example, if your character is in a metaphorically claustrophobic situation (such as being blackmailed), and you’re shooting indoors, you could place them in a doorframe to illustrate their entrapment. Or if you’re crafting a story about someone lost in the desert, you could symbolize the danger by shooting your character from so far away that he or she becomes dwarfed — almost swallowed — by the natural environment. Whether you’re shooting in a factory, on a mountaintop, or in a basement TV room, always scan the location to see what you can use to bring symbolic meaning to your shot.

Josh Brolin in "No Country For Old Men"

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Pick a place for your characters

One of the most pivotal parts of shot composition is where you put characters in the frame. For one, where you place them can be very symbolic in its own right — for example, off-center characters can symbolize internal disorientation or marginalization in the face of overwhelming forces. For another, if you’re more interested in using the space around characters to symbolize something, you need to know where they’ll be, so you know how much room you have to work with. That will be especially key for the additional steps below. You can’t figure out lighting or set-dressing without first having a sense of where your characters will be in the shot.

Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler"

The Wrestler (2008)

Consider what you can add with props, set-dressing, or lighting

Creating meaningful shot composition isn’t just about using what’s already around you, but also considering what you can add — specifically with props, set dressing, and lighting. If you want to convey a character’s delicate existential state, you could bring in a common visual motif, like a mirror, and shoot the character’s reflection. If you want to portray a descent into despair, you could either shroud the character’s face in shadows or bathe them in melancholy blue light. If a shot is like a sentence, then elements like these are like words — you have to pick the right ones to form the line that best captures what you’re trying to say.

Laura Harring in "Mullholland Drive"

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Finish your shot and let go of it

This last bit of advice is going to sound counterintuitive: Accept that most audiences won’t pick up on any of the above. Chances are that the meaning you’ve built into your shot composition won’t register with most viewers. However, while many may not consciously notice what you’ve done, they will feel it subconsciously. Film is a visual language, and what you show — whether it’s on the surface or not — is perceived and felt. If you have any doubt, pick any major cinematic classic; chances are, it has many shots built on the principles above. So, while you may not have viewers eagerly telling you, “Great thematic use of a mirror!” don’t underestimate the power of the effect.

Roy Scheider in "Jaws"

Above: Jaws (1975); Top Image: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

What else do you do to compose a shot that helps it stand out? Tell us in the comments below!