We've covered the ideas of the theme in writing, but I wanted to talk about something that commonly gets confused with the theme; the idea of a motif in film. Motif covers all genres. It's that little something special that adds to the depth and meaning in your film. It's the thing that film scholars will talk about for ages.

And it can set your work apart from the crowd.

Today we're going to go over motif in film history, look at a few examples of motifs and leitmotifs, and talk about some spectacular films.

Let's begin with a question...

What is a motif in film?

Motif in film definition

The motif refers to the recurring thematic elements in a film. These elements must be repeated in a significant way or a way that conveys a purposeful pattern.


Examples of Kinds of Motifs in Film:

Symbols, stylistic devices, images, objects, words, phrases, lines, or even a sentence that points toward the theme of a film.

Theme vs. Motif in Film

As you read above, a motif can be an image, sound, action, or figure that has a symbolic significance and highlights the theme. Motif and theme will always be linked because they feed off of one another. So if a motif is a recurring image, then a theme is the central idea behind those recurring images (and other examples).


What about a motif in music?

We call motifs in music a leitmotif.

Leitmotif definition

Leitmotifs are intentionally-repeated, recurring aural themes associated with a particular person, idea, or action.

What are some kinds of leitmotif examples?

These elements present themselves as a repeated sound, shot, dialogue, or piece of music. So when Harry Potter shows up and we hear Hedwig's theme, that's a leitmotif. Or how every Indiana Jones movie opens with the Paramount logo dissolving into a mountain near Indy, or the iconic James Bond opening of him shooting toward the camera as the music kicks in.

Let's look at motifs across film and talk about them.

Motif in film examples

Motifs are common across our favorite films. Images like a child's doll, birds, mirrors, trees, skulls, and even things like the letter "X" showing up all over the X-men movies are motif examples. Many of your favorite directors loved playing with motifs in the film.

Alfred Hitchcock was known to use mirrors in all of his works to show a person's split personality. In fact, he used mirrors and bird in The Birds to show both sides of Melanie Daniels' personality, her penchant for mischief, and what it's like when you let the birds out of the cage.

Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels being attacked by birds in 'The Birds'

Aside from Hitchcock, Christopher Nolan loved using birds in The Prestige. SPOILER ALERT: These birds looked like clones, they had to be identical to make the trick work. But also, one bird had to give its life for the other. Birds and the image of doubles can be found all over The Prestige.


Other motifs in movies are prevalent. Even Pixar gets in on it. Vox ran an article dictating all the motifs and themes of the Pixar world.

Pixar_themes_gridCredit: Vox analysis

Perhaps one of the most famous modern motifs in cinema is the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction, which is full of motifs. from bathrooms being bad luck (sorry Jules) to breakfast being the most important meal of the day. The movie is full of symbolism. Still, the one that stands out the most is the briefcase.

Its glow shows us the importance of a promise, of being a man of your word. It's one of the best Maguffins in cinema history...driving the plot forward but serving as a reminder that we all serve somebody...

What is a 'Mexican Standoff'? Showdowns in Film & TV

What's next? Learn theme in movies and TV!

Your script theme needs to carry both the weight of the story and a connection to the audience. That's a significant burden to bear. So how can you tell if your theme is coming across, or if you even have one?

Click the link to learn more!