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assess how an understanding of the communicative aspect of motion pictures as sign systems can assist the production personnel in creating influential meaning to the audience

Semiotics is a modern discipline invented by Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure through Course in General Linguistics (1916). Semiotics is the study of signs. Filmmaking is choosing the precise images for the story, and every picture tells a story. It is therefore critical to understand semiotics before embarking on a film project as this will help the filmmaker in packaging and delivering the intended message with minimum or no adverse noise. A single picture can have multiple readingas was discovered by Stuart Hall in his Encoding/Decoding theory. Hall realised that audiences have the independence to formulate own conclusions from any text. According to Hall, a text can therefore have three distinct readings; there can be dominant reading in which the audience perceives the intended and obvious meaning of the text, there could be a negative reading in which the audience fails to comprehend the intended meaning and therefore decodes otherwise and finally a film text can be read in opposition. While the producer intends to display love by using red colour another culture can interpret the use of red as denoting blood or death.

Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Its origins lie in the academic study of how signs and symbols (visual and linguistic) create meaning.It is a way of seeing the world, and of understanding how the landscape and culture in which we live has a massive impact on all of us unconsciously.Our actions and thoughts are often governed by a complex set of cultural messages and conventions, and dependent upon our ability to interpret them instinctively and instantly.For instance, when we see the different colours of a traffic light, we automatically know how to react to them. We know this without even thinking about it. But this is a sign which has been established by cultural convention over a long period of time and which we learn as children and requires a deal of unconscious cultural knowledge to understand its meaning. Viewing and interpreting (or decoding) this sign enables us to navigate the landscape of our streets and society.

Everyone is a semiotician, because everyone is constantly unconsciously interpreting the meaning of signs around them – from traffic lights to colours of flags, the shapes of cars, the architecture of buildings, and the design of cereal packaging.And signs don’t only need to be visual – they can be aural or sonic signs such as the sound of a police siren, usually heard before the vehicle is seen.

Since a sign can have numerous meanings it is therefore imperative to carefully study semiotics. According to Peirce, there are multiple types of sign which are worth discussion; icon, index and symbol. The icon is a sign which is like what it signifies, the index is a sign which is affected by what it represents, and the symbol is a sign that is connected to what it signifies by a law or convention. Film makes use of sign in all these forms and audiences have become accustomed without necessarily paying attention to each usage of semiotics. Thus, this essay will therefore explain semiotics in film.

Film is the art of visual abbreviation. Cinema is synesthetic as it arouses senses. Roland Barthes, the French semiotician, states in Mythologies, “trivial aspects of everyday life can be filled with meaning”, and this includes even a character’s hairstyle.The basic tenet of semiotics is that a sign has two parts: the physical, or the sign-as-object and the psychological, or the sign as concept. A filmmaker’s job is to show while the audience understand visual signs such as smiles, scars,guns, badges, hairstyle and much more. It is crucial for the filmmaker to understand the different signs at play in order to employ the perfect sign to communicate. It is advisable too to first research on the signs used by a society at a point in time as failure to do may ruin the film. Symbols used in a place or culture can differ greatly with those used in another. It can be gestures, body language, colours and manners – they are distinct and unique.

Film makers should also be aware of is synecdoche; a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa (Meriam Webster dictionary). A typical example is that the crown represents the king or the queen, the badge symbolizes law and order and the heart represents love.These little things fill our everyday lives with meaning,and they are therefore replete in films. A careful look at Zimbabwean film characters would surely showcase how sign has been employed to emblazon the characters onto our minds; Gringo and his trademark three quarter trousers, vest and dreadlocks, Kapfupi with his coffee attire, Parafin with his beret and jacket. Their costumes have become so meaningful and impactful in the films they feature. Do their dressing, hairstyles and gaiety say anything about their characters? Film poster and other publicity materials send signals that telling about the genre of the film.

Semiotics is a broader field which encompasses text either literature, film, or even a piece of music.Films construct meaning through signs which two parts, the signifier and the signified.The signifier is the physical part; or the tangible thing we see or hear. The Signified, on the other hand, is the psychological part, the reaction to the object, the mental picture a signifier evokes; the internal response to the signifier. Signified could mean different things to different people.The signifier is the vehicle and the signified meaning.

An appreciation of semiotics increases the producer’s empathy for other cultures, beliefs and institutions. Understanding the processes by which meaning is created and distributed makes producers realise how much of audience’s behaviour is based upon arbitrary symbolism. Such behaviour is open to ridicule or distrust from those who prescribe to a different set of symbols. Semiotic awareness shows how audiences are essentially swimming in sea of meaning trying to find their way to an understanding. The study of semiotics also helps producers and audiences see through overwhelming mass of messages surrounding us daily. The purpose of any film is to communicate and therefore the usage of any imagery, text or signs must therefore further the narrative as well as exposing the intended messages. No part of a film message should be lost in translation and to avoid doubt there is need to properly utilise the right symbol for the right message.

Semiotics is also a great tool for stimulating creativity. Understanding how meaning is created and communicated can inform and inspire a wide variety of creative pursuits. For example, a large amount of creative endeavour can be considered as efforts to translate meanings from one sign system to another, for example the experience of visually seeing ones loved ones after an enforced absence might be translated into audible signs with music.

Reference

  1. Berger, Arthur Asa. Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism Accessed from: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~engl5vr/Berger.html
  2. Brady and Marshall Cohen (eds). NY & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Dyer, Richard. Seven. London: BFI, 1999.
  1. Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.
  2. Metz, Christian “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism. 5th ed. Leo
  3. synecdochehttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synecdoche

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