Symbolic Elements in Cinematography: Michael Mann's Heat

Symbolic Elements in Cinematography: Michael Mann's Heat
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Symbolism in Cinematography

The cinematographer’s art can seem an arcane and ill-defined one to even film-savvy audiences. Their job is to use light, shadow, camera placement and onscreen positioning to communicate meaning through shots, helping to tell the story while creating visually interesting images. Many cinematographers see their job as similar to a painter’s, creating shots that present a narrative while presenting audiences with symbolic details that tell the story further. A sophisticated cinematographer can do several things with one shot: on first glance, they may simply be presenting the onscreen action, but on closer examination they can use light, visual allusion and the framing of a shot to convey a greater symbolic depth. Here we’ll look at several notable shots and discuss the symbolic elements in cinematography which they employ.

Heat - Lighting the Pieta


A cinematographer working with a picture set in the “real world” often cannot stray too far from the kinds of lighting that could be found in that world, except for dreams or stylized sequences. In this shot from Michael Mann’s “Heat,” cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights the statue outside a Los Angeles hospital - a replica of Renaissance artist Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” - in a way that’s suggestive of how it would really be lit, so we’re given no reason to doubt that we’re still in the gritty, profoundly concrete world of the movie’s cops-and-robbers chases. However look closely at the lights being used. While the hospital in background is lit in earthy tones from below, anchoring it, the foreground statue is lit from an almost impossible high angle, bathing it in pure white light. This suggests a divine intrusion into the movie’s gritty events or a moment of spiritual contemplation. When planting a visual motif in the minds of the audience, it’s important to render the image in the way you wish them to remember it, which Spinotti does by placing the statue within that heavenly light. When we return to the visual motif, we’ll associate it with that same mythic quality.

Al Pacino and Natalie Portman in Heat

Here’s the movie’s hero, played by Al Pacino, carrying his step-daughter out of the bathroom after a failed suicide attempt. The characters’ poses mimic the poses of Mary and Christ in the Pieta statue seen above. The symbolic elements of Spinotti’s cinematography allow this pose - and a similar one at the end of the movie - to take on the same themes of holiness and sacrifice bestowed on the Pieta statue we saw elsewhere.

Citizen Kane: Framing a God Among Men

No discussion of the symbolic elements of cinematography would be complete without mention of Orson Welles’ timeless classic, “Citizen Kane.” The film invented or popularized many of the techniques now seen as standard cinematographers’ tricks, and any budding directors of photography (DOPs) or filmmakers would be wise to study it closely.


Here’s one of the movie’s best-known scenes, Charles Foster Kane’s political rally. Kane, played by Welles, stands front and center in the foreground, before a group of supporters and a huge portrait of himself. Note that while there’s no explicit “spotlight” for Kane to stand in, subtle but powerful lighting directed onto the character causes him to glow much brighter than any other character in the shot. The shot is framed so that the portrait, a larger-than-life representation of the Kane political juggernaut, dominates the frame, dwarfing the man it honors. Placing a subject in the center of the frame can give them a grandeur that more subtle, off-center framing can’t equal, and this framing not only creates the link between Kane the man and what he has become — an image, an idea that transcends one man — but also echoes the majesty and menace of a Hitler rally.

Schindler’s List: The Color of Sacrifice

From a shot that echoes the Hitler rallies, we move to a movie that dramatizes the Holocaust itself. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture for its somber depictions of that period, rendered in stark black and white photography. The one notable exception is the nameless “red girl,” a young child never featured as a prominent plot character but made to stand out by making her red coat the sole colored item in the film.

schindlers list red dress

Every color carries emotional associations, none more so than red. It’s the color of lifeblood and vitality, a color of passion often associated with love. By singling out a background character for this colorization, Speilberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński remind us that even characters who we never pay attention to in a film have their own lives and passions every bit as vital as the protagonists’. But red is also a color of warning and violence.


When we last see the red girl, her little body lies limp on a pile of corpses. We never knew her, and already she is a victim of the Holocaust’s brutality. Her red coat becomes the color of spilled blood. It’s a powerful way of reminding us that, while the Holocaust was the time of stories like Oskar Schindler’s, it was also a time for stories that would never be told, because their subjects died before they could finish the tale.