Understanding the importance of symbols, colours, decoration and props in indicating character

In order for viewers to follow the story of a film, they need a lot of information about the film characters and their development during the course of the plot. Character traits, motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses can be conveyed in many different ways and can be shown through a variety of cinematic means. Often the viewer already learns a lot about the character through the colours in which a person is dressed and with which he or she surrounds himself or herself and through objects that can identified with the person.

Colours in film create moods and guide the interpretation of a shot in a certain direction. Because of their similarity to reality, colour images can reinforce the impression that a film is naturalistic or realistic. However, they can also take on symbolic functions or be used as a dramatic element and thus, as abstract signs, be part of the overall artistic design of a film.

The psychological effect of colours can refer to associations that we have with certain ideas. But they can also evoke feelings that are shaped by the subjective perception of the viewer. Associations and feelings that colours create in the viewer are both culturally determined and individually different. They might include:

RED blood, life, fire, destruction, death, power, war, aggression, love, desire
YELLOW     lemon – freshness; joy of life – optimism; hatred, jealousy, bright, clear, free
GREEN nature, growth, as face colour: illness, peace, signal colour for ‘go ahead’
BLUE water, sky, cold, melancholy, faithfulness, resistance, passive, calming
White innocence, purity, medicine, in China: mourning
BLACK ashes, death, mourning, power
Props are all the objects with which the characters interact. This could be, for example, a book that a character reads, or a rope thrown over a wall for climbing.
Objects that are in the frame but with which the actors do not interact directly are part of the decoration. This includes furniture as well as things like pictures on walls or lamps.

Task 1

  1. Have a look at the stills in the gallery. First of all, pay special attention to objects in the pictures that say something about Lola and her personality.
  2. Take the appropriate pictures from the gallery and arrange them on the workspace. Tap the camera icon in the gallery to bring a still image to the desktop. Change the size of the still image as desired. You can then use the lasso tool to cut out specific elements.
  3. Label the elements with note cards.
  4. Take out colour cards with the pipette to collect typical colours from Lola's room.
Lasso tool
Note cards
Colour pipette
  1. What do you learn about the young woman by looking at Lola's room? Write a short characterisation of this person based on the picture elements and colours you have chosen.

Signs in film - icon, index and symbol

In most cases we form an opinion about the plot and characters of a film without having to think about it for a long time. As soon as we begin to substantiate our convictions and reflect on what we have seen and heard, we are actually starting to analyse the film.
In the series of different film analytical approaches, semiotics deals with the relationship of different signs in film. Charles Sanders Peirce has proposed a helpful classification with a distinction between icon, index and symbol.

An Icon (Greek for ‘picture’)
is a sign which bears a figurative similarity to the object to which they refer. Due to the (normally) naturalistic or realistic nature of film, we interpret most of the pictures in the film as iconic signs and experience them as (cinematic) reality.

An index (Latin for ‘reference’)
Peirce describes as a sign that is supposed to provide clues and information that goes beyond the purely naturalistic reproduction. In film, for example, the areas of film language such as camera angle, movement and perspective, as well as costumes and lighting or even editing and montage, are among the index signs and give us numerous hints for interpretation.

The symbol (Greek for ‘token, mark or watchword’)
is based on tradition and is an image used to stand for something else. The meaning of symbols must be learned. Symbols include letters, road signs and even the dials of clocks and watches.*
Index, Ikon und Symbol am Beispiel

*Cf. Klant, Michael; Spielmann, Raphael (2008). Grundkurs Film. Materialien für den Sekundarbereich I und II. Braunschweig: Schrödel

Task 2

Individual objects in Lola's room can be interpreted as icons, indexes and symbols.
  1. Grab still pictures by tapping the camera icon in the gallery. With the lasso tool you can cut out essential elements of the picture.
  2. Decide for yourself how you want to evaluate your selected object and place it at the appropriate position in the triangle.
Lasso tool
Note cards
  1. Research the possible meanings of the symbols you have identified and interpret them in the context of the film plot.