Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Using semiotics to decode an image

‘Drive’ 2011 Writer, Director, Producer. Nicolas Winding Refn
Star Ryan Gosling

‘Drive Angry’ 2011 Patrick Lussier starring Nicolas Cage

After the communication theory lecture several people came to me and fed back that the semiotics section on how to de-code an image was perhaps the most useful. However the details of how to use semiotics to analyse an image were perhaps a little vague or brushed over as there were another 6 areas of communication theory to introduce. So, in order to help with an understanding of using semiotics as part of your tools for analysis I have decided to unpick the process a little further.

A film several students have mentioned recently in essays is ‘Drive’. It is a film that has generated much critical acclaim and perhaps this is partly because it is a good film to analyse.

Because this is a short blog post, I shall attempt to constrain the text by simply analysing the poster for the film; however points made should be directly applicable to the film itself. However this does mean that several areas that would normally accompany an analysis of a film are missing. In particular the codes associated with shot selection, mise en scene, editing, sound etc etc are not dealt with and you would be expected to include these things in an analysis. At some point I will go into these issues in more detail.

N.b I shall try and open out the issues surrounding this analysis by pointing out what I am doing as I go along. This will make for a quite clumsy bit of writing, but bear with it, as I’m trying to explain how and why you can do this sort of thing. I will also leave things open for exploration by the reader, suggesting where the analysis might go, rather than doing all the work.

I shall now undertake a semiotic analysis of the image used for the Cannes Festival poster for the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn film ‘Drive’.

When setting out on a visual analysis I would usually recommend undertaking a detailed compare and contrast of paired images dealing with a similar topic; this is a lot easier than trying to analyse a single image. Therefore I will use the poster image for a superficially similar film from the same year, 2011, ‘Drive Angry’ directed by Patrick Lussier starring Nicolas Cage. Note: If you are using this guide to help you through conducting an analysis and want to reference it, use Chandler’s much better supportive web-site and text as references. This blog is just an indication of what to do, Chandler is much more comprehensive. (See the reference section at the end of this post)

Identifying the ‘text’
As we are going to use semiotics as a tool, the first thing to do is to establish why we are using it. Semiotics as a discipline regards all the things human beings produce as being capable of establishing semiotic meaning and when we start examining these things, semiotics regards them as texts. (Chandler, 2007) This could be an analysis of a haircut or a pair of trainers, if so the haircut or trainers would become the text. In this case the text is a film poster. We should always include a copy of the text with our analysis of it, and explain any significant shortcomings of the copy. We should also describe the specific medium used, the genre to which the text belongs and the context in which it is found.

The first step is to consider why we are analysing the text. This will affect which questions seem important. Usually we would analyse a text to come to a deeper understanding of what is being communicated. In particular by using semiotics we can demonstrate that meaning can have several levels. By using the difference between ‘denotation’ (a literal meaning of the text) and ‘connotation’ (an association, emotional or logical which the text points towards and which provides us with a way into an understanding of the deeper meaning behind the text).
Why am I using Drive as a text? I think it is a film that is not only current and well reviewed (winner of the ‘prix de la mise en scene’ at Cannes) but that it uses very familiar film conventions in fresh ways, reinventing the action movie, it has several channels of reference to past classic films and styles, such as Film Noir, gangster movies, romance and car centered movies. Therefore before I set off I feel confident that it will be useful in developing a wider context for the use of a semiotic analysis. (I’m also hoping it will work as a learning tool or model for others to follow).

So what sort of sign is this poster?
Is it
Iconic -- a sign which resembles the signified (portrait, photo, diagram, map)
Symbolic -- a sign which does not resemble the signified but which is purely conventional (the word stop, a red traffic light, or a national flag)
Indexical -- a sign which is inherently connected in some way (existentially or causally) to the signified (e.g. smoke signifies fire; and all the little symbols you see on web pages -- mailboxes, envelopes, arrows etc).

The poster is a sign of the movie, therefore as it resembles the movie it is iconic. But where is the signifier? The whole picture? What does it signify? The movie? However within the poster the driver’s glove is an important sign as well. This is indexical, it signifies driving expertise. There is also some symbolic signage, the logo for the Cannes film festival for instance. The poster could therefore be seen as iconic, symbolic and indexical. This complexity could therefore be another reason for choosing it as something to analyse.

As this is a mass produced poster it is a ‘token’ as opposed to a ‘type’. It is one amongst many copies, rather than being an original, like a painting. How does this influence our interpretation? We might have to reflect upon film conventions as well as advertising conventions. We need to think about this image as belonging to mass culture. It is made to be widely distributed and used to attract audiences to the film itself.

What are the important signifiers and what do they signify?
During a seminar session there were several suggestions as to what the signifiers might be. Below were some of the ones picked out. Initially we were looking for denotation signifiers or the literal meaning of signifiers. As soon as denotation was established, it was apparent that connotation or the deeper meaning started to come through. For instance in this case the driving glove not only signified driving expertise (denotation) but also started to articulate a set of signifiers related to emotional detachment. (connotation)

The driving glove in 'Drive'

The driving glove is clearly prominent and signifies the status of the driver as someone who considers himself an expert. The steering wheel is controlled using one hand, not both hands as recommended by driving instructors, again suggesting that this driver is confident and easily in control. However there is a further connotation that could be developed and that is one of distancing and ‘coolness’. By wearing gloves the driver doesn’t touch anything, the physical sense ‘touch’ being something we echo when we say someone was ‘touched’ by something. We tend to call emotional people ‘touchy-feely’ and there is a secondary set of signifiers operating that all point to emotional detachment and ‘coolness’ that the driving glove reinforces. The glove itself is also ‘stylish’ and beautifully crafted in leather, the owner has taken pride in the choice of these gloves and is ‘cool’ in that other sense of being comfortably stylish. We can deduce from the above observation that there are two systems within which these signs make sense. The first is that of the world of the fast driver, the other is about emotional detachment and ‘coolness’.

The hand on the steering wheel 'Drive Angry'

In contrast, in the ‘Drive Angry’ poster Nicholas Cage’s naked hand grips the steering wheel, a steering wheel that is also clearly made of wood and metal, whilst the steering wheel in ‘Drive’ is covered on some anonymous black material. Cage’s character is, as the film’s title suggests, ‘angry’, clearly in touch with his emotions, to the extent that emotions are taking control.
In ‘Drive’ the distancing of the nameless lead character is further reinforced by the fact that in the poster he is clearly behind glass.

Light shining off the window screen. ‘Drive’

We are positioned as an audience in this car’s path, the driver being clearly behind the glass of the window screen. The duality of this situation is fascinating. On the one hand we as an audience are directly involved, but with the potential impact of the car, which is heading straight towards us. The driver gazes off to the right, light reflects across the wind screen, he is unaware of us, distant and cold.
In contrast the figures in ‘Drive Angry’ are seen through an open window, we are close to these people, they are sharply defined. The car itself passes across our line of vision, it is moving off to the right, we are not going to be involved directly with this car, we are invited to look at the woman’s breasts, appreciate her wind-blown hair and respect the focused maleness of the driver. She glances backwards worried, he stares forward, angry and focused. The dark blackness of the car’s interior is used as a backdrop to the brightly lit faces of the car’s occupants. (At this point we could start looking at male and female signifiers and how film conventions are used to establish stereotypical gender roles. The concept of the male gaze and the writings of Laura Mulvey could come into play). But in this case I’m trying to keep moving on in order to indicate where analysis might be undertaken. The construction of maleness, is an issue I would suggest someone could open out in relation to the lead character of ‘Drive’.

The couple in the car ‘Angry Driver’

In ‘Drive’ the car’s lone occupant’s face begins to blur into the rest of the image, the fact that he is a loner, thus reinforcing the image of the ‘cool’ outsider. In contrast the male lead in ‘Angry Driver’ needs to bolster his maleness by having a beautiful female companion; two essentially different approaches, which could be opened out in detail if we were to analyse the films themselves. In particular the complex relationship that is established between the ‘Drive’ male lead and the ‘heroine’ of the film, which could be used to illustrate a more complex understanding of male/female role models.
These posters are set within very different landscapes. The ‘Drive’ poster is a night scene, set in a city landscape. A car with its headlights on follows us, we see vague glimpses of the city and are reminded of a setting from a ‘film noir’ or the urban context of films such as ‘Taxi Driver’.

‘Drive’ View through the rear window

The ‘Angry Driver’ poster is set within a romantic stormy landscape of swirling clouds, flickers of flame and sparks drift past, the raw energy of nature, explosive combinations of air and fire, all brought together to support the emotional intensity of the subject. The romantic landscape paradigm could be a starting point for a sub-set of connotations, which could be compared and contrasted to the urban. As Jaworski and Thurlow (2010) state, “mobility, and especially automobility,has undeniably altered rural and especially urban landscapes, with transport infrastructure (roads, car parks, railways), architecture (stations, out-of-town shopping centres, drive-through restaurants, petrol and service stations, motels, coach and train stations, and airports). As a sub-text to this analysis the semiotics of the two different landscapes as seen through the windows of the respective cars could be examined. This is another Paradigmatic analysis, (the paradigm here is landscape) The rural landscape has at times been used to signify the vitality of nature, (Tanner, 20011) this in contrast to the urban landscape that is often used to signify alienation from nature. This subtext can be used to reinforce a reading of the ‘Drive’ image as one that signifies emotional distance.

‘Drive Angry’ The landscape through the window.

The use of landscape as a sub-text for the ‘Drive Angry’ poster in contrast to the ‘Drive’ poster can be used to reinforce the sense of highly charged emotional vitality that is central to action movies. Landscape can be understood as an aspect of ‘mise en scene’. Therefore another starting point for analysis opens out which could be about the nature of city spaces in film as opposed to rural ones; environmental factors such as street lighting and urban furniture and how these signify certain aspects of the urban, (artificial light/sunlight, grime rather than dirt, waste rather than fertiliser etc)
In any flat image the formal elements that can be examined are composition, space and colour. You can further analyse these things in terms of linear direction, shape, tonal value, texture, and spatial implication. Concepts such as balance, contrast, harmony, emphasis, movement, proportion, variety or unity may be used to help develop an understanding of how these elements help develop signification.
The dominant colour in both images is blue. However there are subtle differences in how the blue is used.

Colour cross section 'Drive'

Colour cross section 'Drive Angry'

‘Drive’ establishes a blue dominant, with light white mainly generated by the driver’s white coat. ‘Drive Angry’ is again blue dominant but this is punctuated by flecks of red and because the skin tones are not mediated by being behind glass they provide a starker contrast. Again ‘Drive’ is cool throughout, whilst ‘Drive Angry’ has hot spots, suggesting a much wider emotional range. The driver in ‘Drive’ is particularly cold, his coat being suggestive of white ice, floating on cold blue sea. It could be argued that blue always represents the world of death or the spirit, however as Kress and Van Leeuwen, (2001) have argued signifiers, and therefore also colours, carry a set of possible meanings from which sign-makers and interpreters select according to their communicative needs and interests in a given context. In this context (the advertising poster) perhaps this issue could be opened out by discussing the use of blue within advertising posters in general.

Geometry/formalist issues

'Drive' is Portrait

Drive Angry' is landscape

The importance of structural/formal dynamics in still images often begins with a consideration of whether the image is portrait or landscape. Portrait as a format relates directly to us as human beings. The vertical format reflects our own bi-lateral symmetry and suggests that the relationship we have with the image is similar as to the one we have with another human being. Landscape format suggests that we are meant to enter into this space in the same way that we enter the open vistas of a real landscape.
Issues to discuss as a formal visual analysis develops would be whether or not the main focus is central or off centre, whether the image is stable (usually this would be ensured by a square format) or unstable (usually this would be due to an angular direction). For instance the ‘Drive’ image slopes off to the right, which is in the same direction as the driver’s gaze, whilst in ‘Drive Angry, the whole image seems to be directed downwards.
Other questions:
What does the Symbolic/written text signify? Typographic choice, use of caps, italics, font choice etc. Choice of text, ‘prix de la mise en scene’ as opposed to ‘Shot in 3D’. Text placement, such as actor’s and director’s names etc.
What are the reality claims? It could be argued that ‘Drive angry’ could be read as a fantasy. ‘Drive’ in contrast has more reality claims even though we know it is also a fiction. The issue here is plausibility. ‘Drive Angry’ is suggestive of a decent into hell, while ‘Drive’ suggests that the bad things that happen are simply the result of human nature.
Modality refers to the reality status accorded to or claimed by a sign, text or genre. More formally, Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress (1988) declare that 'modality refers to the status, authority and reliability of a message. In making sense of a text, its interpreters make 'modality judgements' about it, drawing on their knowledge of the world and of the medium. For instance, they assign it to fact or fiction, actuality or acting, live or recorded, and they assess the possibility or plausibility of the events depicted or the claims made in it.
If you were going to open out this area of analysis these are the main questions.
What reality claims are made by the text?
Does it allude to being fact or fiction?
What references are made to an everyday experiential world?
How do you make use of such markers to make judgements about the relationship between the text and the world?
Does the text operate within a realist representational code?
To whom might it appear realistic?
Paradigmatic analysis
Whereas syntagmatic analysis studies the 'surface structure' of a text, paradigmatic analysis seeks to identify the various paradigms (or pre-existing sets of signifiers) which underlie the texts. In the case of ‘Drive’ I would suggest that there is a set of cinematic signifiers that surround the idea of the young male ‘outsider’ and that these images can be traced back to the iconic ‘look’ developed by the way James Dean and other young male stars were presented during the 1950s. These 50s young men it could be argued came in two models, the cool James Dean type, a slightly confused outsider trying to find meaning in the world and the more angry, visceral, inarticulate figure such as that developed by Marlon Brando in the Wild One, which I would suggest is the distant model for the Nicholas Cage character.

Brando in the Wild One

James Dean in Rebel without a cause

Fake poster, as if James Dean had been in 'Drive'

'Paradigmatic relations' are the oppositions and contrasts between the signifiers that belong to the same set from which those used in the text were drawn. So what we have to do is at this point chose a stance to take. In this case I am choosing to develop an argument that signifiers taken from a particular film history are most important
Some more questions
To which class of paradigms (medium; genre; theme) does the whole text belong? To look at James Dean and film’s young men as outsiders. To look at clothes worn, the open neck look, hair cut etc
How might a change of medium affect the meanings generated? If these images were not film posters, what else could they be?
What might the text have been like if it had formed part of a different genre?
What paradigm sets do each of the signifiers used belong to? For example, in photographic, televisual and filmic media, one paradigm might be shot size.
Why do you think each signifier was chosen from the possible alternatives within the same paradigm set? What values does the choice of each particular signifier connote?
What signifiers from the same paradigm set are noticeably absent?
What contrasted pairs seem to be involved (e.g. nature/culture)?
Apply the commutation test in order to identify distinctive signifiers and to define their significance. This involves an imagined substitution of one signifier for another of your own, and assessing the effect.
What is the syntagmatic structure of the text?
Identify and describe syntagmatic structures in the text which take forms such as narrative, argument or montage. As a film poster photographic montage is the structure. This would be compared to the narrative elements in the film. See Drive" What If... Poster © 2012 by Peter Stults
How does one signifier relate to the others used (do some carry more weight than others)?
How does the sequential or spatial arrangement of the elements influence meaning?
Are there formulaic features that have shaped the text?
How far does identifying the paradigms and syntagms help you to understand the text?

Rhetorical tropes
What tropes (e.g. metaphors and metonyms) are involved?
How are they used to influence the preferred reading? You might want to revisit the Communication lecture to remind yourself what these were.


Does it allude to other genres?
Does it allude to or compare with other texts within the genre?
How does it compare with treatments of similar themes within other genres?
Does one code within the text (such as a linguistic caption to an advertisement or news photograph) serve to 'anchor' another (such as an image)? If so, how?
What semiotic codes are used?
Do the codes have double, single or no articulation?
Which codes are specific to the medium?
Which codes are shared with other media?
How do the codes involved relate to each other (e.g. words and images)?
Which codes are notable by their absence?
What relationships does the text seek to establish with its readers?
How direct is the mode of address and what is the significance of this?
What cultural assumptions are called upon?
What seems to be the preferred reading?
How far does this reflect or depart from dominant cultural values?
How 'open' to interpretation does the sign seem to be?

Social semiotics
What does a purely structural analysis of the text downplay or ignore?
Who created the sign? Try to consider all of those involved in the process.
Whose realities does it represent and whose does it exclude?
For whom was it intended? Look carefully at the clues and try to be as detailed as you can.
How do people differ in their interpretation of the sign? Clearly this needs direct investigation.
On what do their interpretations seem to depend?
Illustrate, where possible, dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings.
How might a change of context influence interpretation?

You don’t have to develop answers for all these questions, they are simply there to stimulate questions and help you say things that perhaps you would not be able to without a bit of prompting.

Some references

Chandler, D (2007) Semiotics the basics London: Routledge
An on line version of Chandler’s text is available at:
Jaworski A and Thurlow, C (2010) Introducing Semiotic Landscapes In Adam Jaworski and Crispin Thurlow (eds.) Semiotic Landscapes: Language, Image, Space. London: Continuum.

Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse – The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Mulvey, L (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Tanner, K (2001) Spirit in the cities: searching for soul in the urban landscape New York: Augsburg Fortress
Mercer, J (2012) Semiology and Film Theory Film Reference available at:


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