Motif In Film Explained (With Examples)


Definition: a motif in movies refers to a recurring element that is symbolic in a story. It can be a visual, verbal, or musical element that appears repeatedly throughout the film and contributes to the theme or mood. Motifs can be objects, colors, sounds, locations, or repeated lines of dialogue that help underscore the film’s central ideas.

Motifs are a great way to hide your thematic ideas by “showing, not telling,” while giving them more weight by making them a substantial part of the story. 

This article explains different motifs in movies and looks at famous examples from films you might know already and some you might have never heard of. 

First – what is a motif?

The conch and Piggy’s glasses in Lord of the Flies. Image source:

In narrative stories, a motif is a recurring symbol or metaphoric idea that appears throughout a work. 

Mostly, motifs are thematic metaphors that are represented in a visual or auditory way – think about the green light in The Great Gatsby or the conch shell in Lord of the Flies.

One key defining factor of a motif is that it occurs multiple times throughout a work.

While many writers use symbolism to describe complex ideas or feelings, a symbol becomes a motif when it happens multiple times throughout a story. 

Motifs show up in the form of a single object seen repeatedly, e.g., an old church that deteriorates over time (signifying a character losing their faith) or clocks (meaning time running out).

The Different Types of Motifs in Film

Motifs are a distinctly powerful creative tool when used in films as well. 

Where the theme of a particular story is more abstract, a motif can bring the abstract into focus with a repeating visual or auditory metaphor.

In movies, you find different types of motifs. For example:

  1. Visual Motif: A specific image, such as a broken mirror, may recur in various scenes, symbolizing a character’s fractured identity or a distorted reality.
  2. Sound Motif: A certain musical score or a recurring sound effect, like the ticking of a clock, could underscore the theme of time passing or the urgency of a situation.
  3. Color Motif: A color like red may consistently appear in a film, perhaps symbolizing love, danger, or violence, depending on the context.
  4. Conceptual Motif: Ideas such as solitude, freedom, or betrayal might be revisited throughout the narrative through dialogue or characters’ actions.
  5. Symbolic Motif: Objects like a key or a flower could hold symbolic weight and be used strategically in the story to represent concepts such as opportunity or fragility.
  6. Action Motif: A specific action, such as a character looking through a window, might occur multiple times, suggesting a longing for the outside world or a separation from it.

In this way, motifs can be used more to highlight the overall theme or can even be used to indicate specific thematic qualities of specific characters.

Famous examples of Motifs in Film

Here are some examples of brilliant directors and how they use different types of motifs in their films. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Motif: the Act of Eating

The eating in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey connects the apes at the film’s beginning and the human astronauts – drawing a correlation between them as they connect to the theme of evolution.

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(Image source:

Moonlight (2016). Motif: the use of Moonlight

One fantastic atmospheric motif in the film Moonlight by director Barry Jenkins is the use of moonlight to show where black men can be emotionally vulnerable. 

Moonlight is always present when the main character, Chiron, can honestly confront his vulnerable side.

Barry Jenkins’ unique and artistic visual aesthetic was cemented in this film and has defined his other work so far. 

Luckily, he’s early in his career, so he’ll be one director to watch. Check out these stills from the film below and watch the trailer (or even better – watch the movie) below.

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Image source:

The Godfather (1972). Motif: the use of Oranges

As you may have noticed, oranges often appear as a symbolic motif throughout Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, almost always right before someone dies. 

This motif of oranges likely represents Corleone’s old world, Sicily, with all its blood feuds and “honor code,” showing up in the new world of America.

That’s why you always see the Mediterranean fruit before someone dies.

You might enjoy these awesome quotes from The Godfather.

Image source:

Coen Brothers movies. Motif: the appearance of Desks

The Coens use recurring visual motifs throughout their filmography – in particular, the symbolism of a desk represents power or authority their protagonists need to overcome or as illusions of power.

There’s a great breakdown of this recurring motif throughout their work from StudioBinder here:

There’s even a website that tracks every character sitting behind a desk in the Coen Brothers’ filmography! Here are a few examples:

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Film: Raising Arizona (1987)
the big lebowski 00.12.25
Film: The Big Lebowski (1998)
a serious man 01.17.49
Film: A Serious Man (2009)
hail caesar 01.01.22
Film: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

American Honey (2016). Motif: the use of Animals

Andrea Arnold is an incredibly talented director who might be more well-known for her television directing (Big Little Lies, Transparent) than the feature films she directed. Still, her work American Honey is a film you should know. 

Throughout the film, there are images of the main character, Star, interacting with animals. 

She usually finds them trapped somehow, symbolizing her lack of connection and feelings of being trapped by different versions of society.

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Arnold is emotionally and physically separated from true human connection throughout the film. Image source:

All this culminates with her freeing a bee, following a turtle, and coming face to face with a live bear – accepting her free nature.

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The Matrix Quadrilogy (1999-2021). When Motifs drive Filmmaking

The Matrix quadrilogy is one big metaphor – and everything that recurs throughout the four films works to further that metaphor through motif. 

Whether it be the recurring dialogue about free will vs. destiny, the red and the blue pill, the character and ship names, the symbolism of replicating selves personified through Agent Smith, or the green filter overlaying everything inside the matrix world, The Matrix films, especially the first one, is a masterclass in motif. 

Oh, and here’s a fun twist – if you didn’t know, The Wachowski siblings also used identity-shifting motifs to hint at their trans-identities long before they transitioned publicly.

Read more on the best strong female characters in science fiction movies and TV series.

Closing Thoughts: How to use Motifs in your Filmmaking

When setting out to create your film, think about how you can hide the thematic ideas at play in your story with visual, sensory, or auditory motifs.

Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. In each scene, is there a way to show something meaningful to the story without saying it aloud? 
  2. Is there a recurring visual you can use to demonstrate character growth? 
  3. Is there an object you can hide in the frame or color in which you can drape the scene that will indicate something about the character’s subconscious journey or emotions driving the story?

I like to think about Ernest Hemmingway’s iceberg theory – think of your storytelling as showing only 10% of the story above the surface – just the details – while 90% is beneath the surface, told through imagery, symbolism, and motifs throughout the film. 

The implicit meaning behind your story can be told through the motifs you layer throughout your film, leaving the audience to do the work of putting it together. 

This makes great works so fun to rewatch – there’s so much under the surface just waiting to be discovered!


  • Grant Harvey

    Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.

2 thoughts on “Motif In Film Explained (With Examples)”

  1. There is no green lighthouse in The Great Gatsby. There is a green light at the end of a dock, but not an entire lighthouse. Just a simple light.


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