How to Create Subtext in Film (Including Examples)

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Creating subtext in film involves conveying underlying themes, emotions, or messages that are not explicitly stated or shown on the surface.

Creating subtext requires careful planning and attention to detail.

It is essential to engage the audience’s intelligence and allow them to interpret and discover the hidden layers of meaning within your film.

Here are some techniques to help you achieve this and some examples of movies that employ this technique well:

Scriptwriting

Start by developing a layered and nuanced script. Write dialogue that has multiple interpretations or hidden meanings.

Use subtext to convey character motivations, conflicts, or desires without explicitly stating them.

Example

One movie that conveys subtext through scriptwriting exceptionally well is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), written by Charlie Kaufman.

The film explores the themes of memory, identity, and the complexities of human relationships.

It uses a nonlinear narrative structure, fragmented dialogue, and clever wordplay to convey the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters.

The subtext is skillfully crafted through metaphorical language and subtle hints, allowing the audience to delve deeper into the character’s subconscious.

Visual storytelling

Utilize the power of visuals to convey subtext. Use symbolism, metaphors, or visual motifs to suggest deeper meanings.

For example, a character constantly seen in front of a mirror may symbolize self-reflection or inner struggle.

Example

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), directed by Wes Anderson, is an excellent example of a film that conveys subtext through visual storytelling.

Anderson’s meticulous attention to detail, symmetrical compositions, and vibrant color palettes contribute to the film’s whimsical and nostalgic atmosphere.

Through visual cues, such as different aspect ratios, camera movements, and mise-en-scène, the film subtly explores themes of nostalgia, loss, and the passage of time.

The visual subtext enhances the narrative, allowing the audience to interpret deeper meanings beyond the surface level.

Read more on symbolism in film with examples.

Cinematography

Work closely with your cinematographer to create visual compositions that support the subtext.

Play with lighting, framing, and camera angles to evoke certain emotions or convey hidden messages.

For instance, low lighting can suggest secrecy or darkness within a character.

Example

“Birdman” (2014), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, is a prime example of a film that effectively conveys subtext through cinematography.

The entire movie is designed to appear as one continuous shot, creating a sense of immediacy and intensity.

This technique enhances the film’s narrative and serves as a metaphor for the protagonist’s struggle to regain his artistic relevance and personal identity.

The long takes, and fluid camera movements allow the audience to experience the character’s internal conflicts and emotions in real-time, adding depth and subtext to the story.

Acting

Work with your actors to explore the subtext of their characters. Encourage them to convey emotions or thoughts through non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, or pauses.

Subtle actions or reactions can speak volumes without the need for explicit dialogue.

Example

“There Will Be Blood” (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, features a remarkable performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, which conveys subtext through his nuanced acting.

Day-Lewis portrays the complex character of Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil prospector driven by greed and ambition.

Day-Lewis skillfully communicates the character’s underlying motivations, fears, and moral decay through his physicality, facial expressions, and vocal delivery.

The subtext is conveyed through subtle gestures and intense gazes, allowing the audience to delve into the character’s psyche and understand the deeper layers of the story.

Sound design

Use music, sound effects, and silence to enhance the subtext.

The choice of music (fx diegetic or non-diegetic) and sound can evoke specific emotions or create tension that reflects the underlying themes.

Silence can also be powerful in conveying subtext, allowing the audience to interpret the scene.

Example

“No Country for Old Men” (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, utilizes sound design to convey subtext effectively.

The film relies heavily on ambient sounds, silence, and minimalist musical score to create a tense and atmospheric environment.

The absence of a traditional score enhances the sense of unease and adds subtext to the narrative. The sound design becomes a character, reflecting the moral ambiguity and existential themes explored in the film.

Sound allows the audience to engage with the story deeper, deciphering the hidden meanings and emotions within the scenes.

You might like this interview with Danish Sound Designer Peter Albrechtsen.

Editing

Consider the pacing and rhythm of your film during the editing process.

Use strategic cuts, transitions, or juxtapositions to emphasize or contrast the subtext.

Editing can help create a sense of tension, ambiguity, or emotional resonance.

Check out these video editing online courses.

Example

“Inception” (2010), directed by Christopher Nolan, showcases exceptional editing that conveys subtext.

The film employs parallel editing and cross-cutting techniques to transition between multiple dream layers and storylines seamlessly.

This editing style enhances the film’s non-linear narrative structure and serves as a metaphor for the characters’ subconscious thoughts and desires.

The subtext is conveyed through the precise timing of cuts, creating tension and adding depth to the story.

The editing in “Inception” contributes to the complex and layered nature of the film, allowing the audience to interpret deeper meanings and engage with the subtext.

Production design

Pay attention to the visual details in your film’s set design, costumes, and props. Subtle choices in these elements can contribute to the subtext.

For example, a cluttered and chaotic environment can reflect inner turmoil.

Example

“Blade Runner” (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is known for its stunning production design that conveys subtext.

The film presents a dystopian future filled with elaborate sets, futuristic architecture, and neon-lit streets.

The production design reflects the themes of existentialism, identity, and the blurred line between humans and replicants.

The visual subtext is achieved through the contrast between the grandeur of the cityscape and the decaying urban environments, highlighting the moral decay of society.

The production design in “Blade Runner” immerses the audience in a visually rich and thought-provoking world, allowing for deeper interpretations and understanding of the film’s subtext.

Summing Up

Creating subtext in film involves carefully crafting visual and auditory elements, performances, and dialogue to convey underlying themes, emotions, and messages.

Key aspects include visual composition, colors, costumes, set design, sound design, music, actor performances, and dialogue.

Subtext adds depth and richness to the story, inviting viewers to interpret the meaning behind the scenes actively.

When effectively executed, subtext enhances the storytelling experience and resonates with the audience.

Up Next: What is Setting in Film?

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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