What is Visual Metaphor in Film? (2023)

Science has it that the human mind tends to lean more towards visuals. It processes up to 60,000 times faster what it sees than what it reads. It’s no wonder filmmakers are tapping into the power of visual metaphors to captivate audiences.

In fact, ads these days are full of them in order to create strong reactions from viewers.

But what are visual metaphors?

We’ll illustrate with a few examples from popular movies.

Before we get to that though let’s start with a few fundamentals.

A metaphor is a manner of figuratively putting an idea across without necessarily saying or implying it directly. It passes a hidden meaning without revealing what is meant outright.

What is Visual Metaphor in Film? (1)

In this article, I espoused the importance of using subtext in screenplays. Audiences despise cliche plots and on-the-nose dialogue. They can smell that a mile away.

Instead, you need to challenge your viewers. Show them something they’ve never seen before. Challenge their biases and preconceptions about the world, the universe and morality.

Our perception of the world and ingrained beliefs allow us to understand visual metaphors.

A visual metaphor is a creative way of doing that through images using association, analogy, among other means. It can also be done with the application of color theory.

Filmmakers use visual metaphors in cinema to question reality, attack stereotypes, and incite the audience to question what they accept as the norm. It is a powerful tool that creatives use to get past the red tapes of censorship and connect with viewers.

In simpler terms, visual metaphors are used to pass messages to audiences in a disguised manner. The communicated information may not be obvious at first glance.

(Video) Visual Metaphor in Film

It takes a little bit of figuring out to understand what the writer was really trying to say.

1 Examples of visual metaphors in cinema

1.1 Visual metaphors in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

1.2 Godzilla, The Hiroshima Metaphor

(Video) 3 visual Metaphors you can use in ANY FILM

1.3 Visual metaphors in the Truman Show

2 It’s all about perception

Examples of visual metaphors in cinema

Visual metaphors in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

The Harry Potter films are a treasure trove of visual metaphors.

J.K. Rowling, the creative mind behind the award-winning books that inspired the movie franchise, is heralded as the “queen of symbolism.”

The Mirror of Erised and the protagonist’s glaring scar on his forehead, are the tip of the iceberg of visual metaphors.

All these elements are useful to the storyline. One would think nothing of them beyond what they mean or are needed for the story. However, a deeper look reveals there’s much more than meets the eye.

Let’s start with Harry’s Scar.

Lord Voldemort, the main antagonist of the franchise, tried to kill Harry when he was a baby. The failed attempt resulted in a scar, shaped like a little lightning bolt, at the top of his face.

The killing curse he used on baby Harry didn’t work because of his mother’s love and sacrifice. Some interpretations allude to the fact that his scar references Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods. The mark makes Harry stand out, clearly setting him apart from the rest.

(Video) Metaphors In Film

Like Zeus, Harry grows into a leadership role throughout the movies.

The scar is also a constant reminder of a parent’s love and the lengths one would go to for their children.

If someone gazes upon the Mirror of Erised they see their hearts most desperate and deepest desire. According to the words of Dumbledore. Harry, an orphan, sees his parents standing beside him.

As he explains what it does, the wizard further adds that the mirror offers neither truth or knowledge. He cautions young Harry that many have wasted away in its fantasies.

The mirror is a symbolism of the dangers of intense desire, and, in Harry’s case, how one can get stuck in the past. How we can get lost in it until we forget to live.

Godzilla, The Hiroshima Metaphor

Gojira first appeared on the big screen in 1954 to a Japanese audience. At a time when monster movies like King Kong were conquering cinemas in the US, Godzilla seemed like a cinematic reply to the growing niche.

But that was not the case. It is believed that the world’s most famous dinosaur (or overgrown lizard?) is actually a powerful metaphor for the catastrophic events of close to 8 decades ago.

In 1945, August 6th, Hiroshima woke up to a nuclear apocalypse. An atomic bomb brought devastating destruction to the city, claiming lives and cityscape in a never-seen-before chapter of warfare.

Countless died, a flourishing town was blasted back to its foundations, and the country was in a state of panic and desperation. The sight of the city afterward was harrowing beyond words.

Less than ten years after, in stepped Godzilla, a monster film about a kaiju with an atomic breath. It could harness nuclear power from within and channel it out as a radioactive beam.

The monster levels an entire city, leaving infernos and immense destruction in its wake. Many believe the 1954 Godzilla was a metaphor for the attacking forces and their unrivaled nuclear power.

Godzilla was unstoppable. He was chaos incarnate. Just like the invading forces. The gigantic monster and the havoc it wrecks was the Japanese perspective of the nuclear holocaust.

(Video) Visual metaphor in Movies By Paul Schrader

Visual metaphors in the Truman Show

The Truman Show is about the scripted life of Truman Burbank. Unaware that the world around him is staged and broadcasted as a TV show to a global audience, Truman leads a life he believes to be his own.

The 1998 epic is filled with visual metaphors across the course of its plotline. One that stands out most is the exit door at the end.

When Truman realizes what’s going on, he wants out. A stairway connects his movie world with the outside one that he desires. As he reaches the top and the exit door, the director asks if he really wishes to leave.

The latter argues that he has nothing to fear in the fictional world, while the real one is rife with actual danger. Truman poses for a moment to consider, says his signature goodbye line on the show, and walks out the door amid great cheers from the viewers.

The door signifies a choice for the character: he can continue living in bliss, a life where everything is fake. Or he can take his chances and experience the authenticity of the world in its unadulterated form. Sometimes, it can seem easier to continue on a comfortable path.

Change can be unpredictable and frightening. The door is a visual metaphor for that. It symbolizes that the power to embrace change lies within all of us. We only need to be brave enough to open that door.

It’s all about perception

Several years ago there was an internet sensation about the color of a dress.

What is Visual Metaphor in Film? (2)

Some people saw the dress as white and gold, while others saw the dress as black and blue. Debating the colors seems so trivial, yet it sparked a viral conversation on the Internet on who’s right and who’s wrong.

As this Slate article points out, the color of the dress depends on the lighting. It played on people’s perceptions. People who saw the dress in shadow perceived the yellowish color. Others perceived the artificial light and saw it as a blue dress.

In summation, it was a matter of perception and then interpretation.

This phenomena can be applied to how people view metaphors. Audiences will interpret images in their own way.

They use their imaginations to make meaning out of visual images. It’s this very reason montages are often used to convey meaning, plot and character development.

(Video) The use of metaphor in stories

A good visual metaphor challenges a viewer’s perception of the world. It gets them excited. It gets them tweeting about it and debating about it endlessly.

Take for example the Sopranos ending. There were many visual clues used in the final scene and fans continued to debate about it long after the series finale.

At the end of the day, filmmakers and screenwriters are paid to entertain. And it’s this very reason visual metaphors will continue to be a staple in making movies in Hollywood.


How do you identify a visual metaphor? ›

A visual metaphor uses the pictorial representation of an object to suggest an association or similarity. Visual metaphors contain only images and are found in art, advertisements, film, and television. Visual metaphors use physical similarities or conceptual similarities to make something look like something else.

What is metaphor in film making? ›

Metaphor is present in film as a means of understanding and signification: a film can express itself metaphorically, or we can perceive a discourse, sequence, situation or character in the film as metaphorical, understanding them in terms of something else.

What is vision metaphor? ›

Since vision is a metaphor for the way we see the world, and related to personality, once the elements of a person's experience that relate to their impaired vision are identified, they can be released, and clear vision can be restored.

What makes a good visual metaphor? ›

In simpler terms you could say that an effective visual metaphor takes the familiar and ordinary, and transforms it into something that is extraordinary. Visual metaphors play on common belief systems and perceptions of the world.

What are visual metaphors called? ›

A visual metaphor is the representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by means of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity. It's also known as pictorial metaphor and analogical juxtaposition.

What is visual metaphor in advertising? ›

Visual metaphors are artistic representations that can help you design something different and make your brand's online advertising stand out at the same time. One thing is clear. They are a perfect choice if you want to engage your audience and make your message stick even after your campaign is over.

What are 5 examples of metaphor? ›

Common metaphor examples
  • Life is a highway.
  • Her eyes were diamonds.
  • He is a shining star.
  • The snow is a white blanket.
  • She is an early bird.
12 Jan 2021

What is the difference between a symbol and a visual metaphor? ›

The difference between a metaphor and a symbol is that a metaphor is a direct substitution of one idea or object for another, while a symbol is used to imply something else. Metaphors change their surface meanings, but the inner meaning is unchanging.

How do you use visual metaphor in a sentence? ›

I created a visual metaphor for the theme of my film using this poster.

Is a metaphor an example of visual language? ›

As we pointed out above, metaphors can be found in visual forms of communication and art. Therefore, we would expect to find them in visual languages too.

What are the 20 examples of metaphor? ›

Other examples of common metaphors are “night owl”, “cold feet”, “beat a dead horse”, “early bird”, “couch potato”, “eyes were fireflies”, “apple of my eye”, “heart of stone”, “heart of a lion”, “roller coaster of emotions”, and “heart of gold.”

What's a metaphor examples? ›

If you're a black sheep, you get cold feet, or you think love is a highway, then you're probably thinking metaphorically.

What are the three elements of a metaphor? ›

  • Tenor. The tenor in a metaphor is the original subject. ...
  • Vehicle. The vehicle in a metaphor is both the words and concepts that are invoked by the words.
  • Connecting verb. The tenor and the vehicle are generally connected by a verb that somehow equates them. ...
  • Dimension.

Can metaphors create imagery? ›

Metaphor, which allows writers to convey vivid imagery that transcends literal meanings, creates images that are easier to understand and respond to than literal language. Metaphorical language activates the imagination, and the writer is more able to convey emotions and impressions through metaphor.

What are the 7 deep metaphors? ›

According to the Zaltmans, there are seven deep metaphors: balance, journey, transformation/change, container, connection, resource, and control.

How would you describe visual imagery? ›

mental imagery that involves the sense of having “pictures” in the mind. Such images may be memories of earlier visual experiences or syntheses produced by the imagination (e.g., visualizing a pink kangaroo).

How is a metaphor used in advertising? ›

Marketers use metaphors extensively in their persuasive communications to consumers. These metaphors make implicit or explicit statements or suggestions that a product, service, brand, or company is some unique idea or concept. Marketing metaphors can have linguistic, visual, and/or symbolic components.

What is visual advertising and examples? ›

Images, videos, infographics, and even memes are examples of visual media that fit with several different kinds of businesses. All that you need to do is learn which works best with your brand, target audience, and goals.

What is a simple metaphor? ›

Simple metaphors

A simple metaphor has a single link between the subject and the metaphoric vehicle. The vehicle thus has a single meaning which is transferred directly to the subject.

Is a metaphor the same as imagery? ›

Understanding Metaphors. A metaphor is another form of imagery. A metaphor is a less direct way of comparing two things. Instead of using like or as, a metaphor says that one thing is another.

What are visuals symbols? ›

Visual symbols are representations of direct reality, which comes in the form of signs and symbols. The following is a detailed discussion on the different kinds of visual symbols, which are drawings, sketches, cartoons, comics or strip drawing, diagrams, charts and graphs, maps, and posters.

What is the difference between image and metaphor? ›

Imagery and metaphor are two different ways in which things can be described or illuminated upon. The term "imagery" refers to the description of a person, place or item using the five senses. The term "metaphor" refers to the comparison of two unlike elements without using “like” or “as,” which are used in similes.

What are the 5 examples of visual? ›

As a rule of thumb, visual media includes visual images, movies, paintings, written texts, videos, photographs, and interactive media.

What are some examples of visual language? ›

A diagram, a map, and a painting are all examples of uses of visual language. Its structural units include line, shape, colour, form, motion, texture, pattern, direction, orientation, scale, angle, space and proportion.

What are some visual examples? ›

Examples of visual arts works:
  • Advertisements, commercial prints, labels.
  • Artificial flowers and plants.
  • Artwork applied to clothing or to other useful articles.
  • Bumper stickers, decals, stickers.
  • Cartographic works, such as maps, globes, relief models.
  • Cartoons, comic strips.
  • Collages.
  • Dolls, toys.

Is apple of my eye a metaphor? ›

Originally, the apple of one's eye referred to the pupil of the human eye. It was believed that the pupil was a round, solid object. In a time without proper eye care, sight was a precious commodity. It wasn't long before the apple of one's eye became a metaphor for something precious.

Why are metaphors important? ›

But aside from injecting colour and imagery into language, metaphors serve a functional purpose; they can explain complex concepts we may not be familiar with, help us to connect with each other, and can even shape our thought processes. They help us better understand our world.

What are the 8 metaphors? ›

In his book, Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan lays out eight metaphors for an organization: machines, organisms, brains, cultural systems, political systems, psychic prisons, instruments of domination, and flux and transformation.

What is the best metaphor? ›

Famous metaphors
  • “The Big Bang.” ...
  • “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ...
  • “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ...
  • “I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep.” ...
  • “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” ...
  • “Chaos is a friend of mine.”

What keywords are in a metaphor? ›

Metaphor - Metaphors use the keywords "is" or "are" if they are comparing two nouns in the present tense or "was" or "were" when comparing them in the past tense.

What is the structure of a metaphor? ›

The fundamental structure of metaphors is “A is B.” Borrowing terminology from cognitive linguistics, A is the target of the metaphor and B is its source. Thus, the squirrel is the target; the rat in a cuter outfit is the source. The bank is the target; the perfidious umbrella lender is the source.

What are the key elements of metaphors? ›

Metaphors consist of three components: the topic is subject of the metaphor, the vehicle is the term used metaphorically, and the ground is the relationship between the topic and the vehicle. The meaning of the metaphor is derived from the ground.

What effect does a metaphor have on the reader? ›

One effect of metaphors on the reader is that it creates connection and empathy because they deliver more than literal significance and let understand something at a deeper level than any literal description.

How do you use metaphors effectively? ›

Metaphors work best when they're simple, unexpected, and concrete:
  1. Create a quick picture rather than a lengthy story. You lose your reader, if you need to do a lot of explaining.
  2. Surprise your readers. Present a fresh angle on an old topic.
  3. Try making your metaphors sensory, so readers can experience your words.

What are examples of imagery? ›

Literal imagery uses descriptive words that mean exactly what they say. For example: “The grass was green, and the flowers were red.” Figurative imagery uses descriptive language that means something different than or goes beyond the literal definition of the words, often through exaggeration, comparison, or symbolism.

How do you identify a figure of speech metaphor? ›

A metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to make a comparison, but in a way different from a simile. Instead, it makes the comparison as if it was literally true. In other words, it can be said that a metaphor is an implied comparison. It makes a comparison between things or ideas that are generally unlike.

How do you identify a metaphor poetic device? ›

Metaphor is a common poetic device where an object in, or the subject of, a poem is described as being the same as another otherwise unrelated object. A beautiful example can be seen in the first stanza of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, in the line: The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…

What are the 5 examples of metaphor? ›

Common metaphor examples
  • Life is a highway.
  • Her eyes were diamonds.
  • He is a shining star.
  • The snow is a white blanket.
  • She is an early bird.
12 Jan 2021

Can a picture be a metaphor? ›

Pictures can be literal or metaphoric. Metaphoric pictures involve intended violations of standard modes of depiction that are universally recognizable. The types of metaphoric pictures correspond to major groups of verbal metaphors, with the addition of a class of pictorial runes.

What are 10 common metaphors? ›

Other examples of common metaphors are “night owl”, “cold feet”, “beat a dead horse”, “early bird”, “couch potato”, “eyes were fireflies”, “apple of my eye”, “heart of stone”, “heart of a lion”, “roller coaster of emotions”, and “heart of gold.”

What is a metaphor examples easy? ›

A metaphor is a comparison which is not literally true. It suggests what something is like by comparing it with something else with similar characteristics. For example: 'My brother' is a piglet is a metaphor.

Is metaphor a visual device? ›

Film is primarily a visual medium. Filmmakers have various tools to create meaning through visual elements, one of which is the visual metaphor. Visual metaphors are often subtle, but are incredibly important for filmmakers in communicating and resonating with an audience.

How do you know if a sentence is a metaphor? ›

See if the sentence uses a word such as “as” or “like” as a preposition. That is, it is comparing things explicitly. If it compares things without using prepositions such as “like” or “as” it is a metaphor. See what the metaphor is comparing.

What is a metaphor example in a sentence? ›

Metaphor exampleMetaphorical sense
I'm not an angel, but I wouldn't behave like that.exemplary person
America is a melting pot.place where different peoples, styles and cultures are mixed together
John is a real pig when he eats.greedy person
My father is a rock.very strong or reliable person
2 more rows


1. Visual Metaphors in Film - [Documentary]
(Emily Blegvad)
2. Visual Narratives and Metaphors in Film
(Dr. Michael J. Berntsen)
3. DREAM // Visual Metaphor // NYFA Continuity Film
4. Always (1989): How Spielberg Uses Landmarks As Visual Metaphors
5. Parasite: A Metaphorical Masterpiece
6. Movie Metaphors
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