Rings, watches, pens, jewels, photographs, lighsabers…Objects, big and small, are your friends in making the invisible visible.
In semiotic terms, objects are both Iconic Signs — they resemble exactly what they are; but filmmakers and comics artists can use them as Symbolic Signs too.
To state the obvious, objects are great because we can see them. They are usually something characters can carry or hold in their hands. We can take any object and give it any association — a connotation — and the audience will automatically make that association when whenever they see the object.
And I mean any object. Even a stick.
A fantastic example of this is David Lynch’s quiet journey film The Straight Story about an old man who travels across the US on his lawnmower to see his dying brother.
One night on the road he meets a teenage girl; pregnant and scared, she’s running away from her family.
The old man tells her a story, using some sticks as props. A single stick can easily break, he says, but tie a bunch of sticks together and they are strong.
The following morning the girl has gone. What was her decision? Did she carry on alone or did she return to her family? Watch how David Lynch uses the object connotation he has just established to make an invisible decision visible.
As Francis Glebas points out in Directing The Story, the bundle of sticks she leaves reveals that she has decided to return to the strength of her family. But wrapped as it is, the bundle also says “thank you for your help”.
Objects don’t just have to deliver emotional subtext or reveal character; they can also be used very simply to ensure clarity of plot, without the need for dialogue.
In Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, there are a couple of silent scenes where the hero Michael and his dad (played by Tom Hanks) are on the run from a hired hitman. They stop in a church and Michael — for no real reason — picks up a small statue of the Virgin Mary.
A couple of scenes later, we are with Jude Law’s greasy hitman who is hot on their trail. How hot? Well, he enters an empty hotel room and what does he find on the dresser?
Mendes used the collection, carrying and abandoning of an object to tell the audience the hitman is close behind the heroes - without using a single word of dialogue. That’s good visual storytelling.1
This is all achieved using the simple ying and yang of narrative: set-up and pay-off.
As well as the connotation we give an object, we can also create meaning in the transfer of those objects.
Owning an object means something. So does giving it to someone, or losing it.2
When you start looking for it, you see characters giving objects to each other all the time in movies, often accompanied by the phrase “Here, I want you to have this”. The object becomes a gift and artists can use the meaning associated with this to move the story forward.
Twitches and Touchstones
Screenwriter William Martell defines two extra categories of objects which storytellers can use to visually layer in emotion.
A twitch is an object which represents the protagonists inner conflict, and appears whenever they are battling demons. In the original Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick holds onto the dogtags of his best friend Goose, a reminder of his guilt for his death. At the end of the movie, he throws them into the ocean, reliquishing himself of his guilt in a way we can see.
A touchstone is an object which centres a character on happier times and reveals what’s at stake. The cliché version of this is the photograph of the lover waiting back home seen in every war movie, ever.
So, if you’re ever stuck for how to express an abstract emotion in a way your audience can see, think up an object and find a way to load it with meaning!
Until another Sunday soon,