Film semiotics is the study of how visual and audio function to construct meaning. Semiotics are messages communicated beyond what is seen or heard, using a system of signs set out by the film-maker.

Cinematic signs are a number of components that build a fuller understanding of a character, setting and story. As the audience we can draw an understanding of a character almost effortlessly through their physical features, bodily gestures and spoken words. Creative use of these elements will allow me as the film-maker to manipulate or psych my audience.

Film-makers can show a series of cues that craft and determine the reality of a scene. These signs, small or large, single out and create a specific meaning that feeds into the overall plot. Small details such as scars on a characters face can suggest either they have suffered an injury or they are actively violent.

Semiotics have two sides: a physical, the signifier i.e. a tear in the eye or the words 'quick! Get out of here'; and a conceptual, the signified i.e. the reaction it provokes in the viewers mind. The signifier is our interpretation (tears) and the signified is the meaning it has for us (sadness).

Conceptualising techniques

Metaphor and metonymy

When beginning to script my shot film I'll aim to make use of metaphors and metonymy. Metaphoric meaning establishes a relationship between two things based on a resemblance. They each share a common property which encourages comparison: 'as quick as a shot', 'as light as a feather'. A metaphor will often invite us to elaborate upon it. Metonymic meaning establishes a relationship based on association. Substituting one thing with another: 'the bottle' for drink, 'hands' for workers. The use of metonyms is important in film as what is seen replaces or substitutes what cannot be seen. For example, conveying the experience of power or love is represented by the trappings and rituals that surround them.

Power: Number 10 – a metonym for the UK Government


Love: Pride flag – a flag is a metonym, standing for a country or cause.

Denotation and connotation

We recognise a denotation as the primary 'given' meaning something has or what it is. A connotation is the secondary indirect meaning, a suggestive aspect or an under/overtone. The idea a connotation evokes will vary depending on cultural and social contexts or unique personal experiences.

Denotation: Military uniform
Connotation: Bravery, oppression, conformity


References: Edgar-Hunt, R., Marland, J. and Rawle, S. (2010). The language of film. AVA Publishing, pp.12-27.