How to communicate themes in a creative text using art direction

In this article, I’ll use “text” or “audiovisual work” to refer to various mediums of communication: movies, documentaries, music videos, music, art, etc. I specifically won’t be addressing advertising, since for publicity it’s more appropriate to talk about “concepts” than “themes.” — Image: Undertale, tobifox, 2015)
Exactly! The Nazis.

Symbolism

We talk about symbolism in art direction when an element can be read to include greater significance than its literal definition. Because symbols are culturally distinct, the better we understand a culture, the better we can interpret its symbols. Symbolism can be expressed through an infinite variety of elements: colors, objects, composition, religious elements, etc.

Metaphors

Similar to symbols, a metaphor is the use of an audiovisual element to explain or reinforce an idea. The difference is, simply, that the meaning of a symbol is cultural (e.g. the color black symbolizes mourning in the West, but in Japan, the symbol of death is the number 4) while metaphors allow us to understand their second meaning thanks to the context of the text itself.

References

A reference uses audiovisual elements pertaining to (or strongly inspired by) other texts. References often cross over to other formats and genres: a video game can make a reference to a movie, a YouTuber can make a reference to a music video, a public service announcement can make a reference to a meme, etc.

Kinder Malo uses various references in his video El Banquero de Dios (2017). First off, there’s an obvious reference to The Last Supper (notice that there are only 12 people at the table; Judas is represented by a snake). The golden make-up and the fact that he doesn’t touch the food could be a reference to the legend of King Midas. Finally, the model in underwear seems like a clear reference to Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013).
Hyper Light Drifter (Heart Machine, 2016) is an incredible allegory about the chronic heart condition of its author, Alx Preston. In this scene, we see an oversize heart beating next to a the cadaver of a giant, its decrepitude infecting the life force of the heart.

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is placing audiovisual elements next to each other in a way that it produces a new association of meaning and emotion. In cinema, this is called the Kuleshov Effect. It’s a very effective resource, especially in audiovisual language.

Aesthetics

Finally, the simplest tool to express a theme in a text is the use of a general aesthetic: a combination of elements that reinforces the theme of a text in a direct, literal way. It’s the most necessary tool in the toolbox: often, the aesthetic not only helps transmit the themes, but also determines the genre of a text — and, as such, who its target audience will be.

In No Lo Ves (2019), La Zowi talks about her success by demonstrating her acquisitive power. The aesthetic of the entire music video is flashy and opulent. This article explains it in much greater depth than I could.

How do we determine the themes of a text?

There’s no foolproof way to detect the themes of a text. Every artistic product is open to different interpretations. For example, I consider Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) to be unbearably misogynist, and its very own director says that “It’s a movie that shows different facets of femininity.” Ok, Denis, whatever you say…

What?

What are we seeing? What elements appear and how are they positioned? The first thing that we must do is focus on the details, identifying them as the author’s conscious choices. This includes everything from decorative background elements to camera angles to what instruments are playing in a musical composition. Everything communicates something.

Why?

What’s being communicated? What could it symbolize? What could it be making reference to? How are the elements we witness contributing to the development of the theme? There are (usually) no clearly right or wrong answers here. For example, I remember arguing that the song Felices los 4 (Maluma, 2017) was about polyamory — and I’ve heard the counterargument that it’s actually about infidelity. In the above video of Kinder Malo, the make-up could be a reference to King Midas, or it could be a reference to the legend of Icarus (since it looks like dripping wax).

To what end?

The hardest question: How do we understand the text’s theme within the logic of its zeitgeist? Is it reinforcing established ideas or calling them into question? It’s important to read cultural products with a critical eye, since everything has its own political charge. If we don’t do a deep reading of a text, we are, de facto, accepting the validity of its themes without questioning their ethics.

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