How Geometry Subconsciously Shapes Cinematic Narrative

By  · Published on October 31st, 2016

A square is never just a square.

The human brain is the most marvelous and fascinating thing biology has ever created. It is wired beyond our understanding and even using a mere fraction of its abilities, as we do, it is powerful and advanced enough to elevate us above every other species in the history of our planet. The brain works in ways we don’t even realize, pulling connections we didn’t know needed to be made and sniffing out inferences we weren’t seeking. In fact, it can be argued that there’s more going on behind the scenes of our brains, in the subconscious, than there is on the front burner. That’s how smart the brain is: it does the heavy lifting without you even realizing it.

As such, there are ample ways the hidden powers of our brains can be manipulated, or rather harnessed, tricks and tools that when applied to, say, works of art like film, can add a layer of subconscious meaning to what we are seeing and actively processing. This might sound like an insidious tactic and maybe it is, but it’s also shockingly simple. Take as a case in point shapes.

The mind attaches attributes to shapes ‐ squares are rigid, triangles are sharp, circles are fluid— and through those attributes emotional and anthropomorphic meaning is created: squared things are hard, formal and inflexible, triangles are harsh, dangerous and evil, while circular shapes are more forgiving, softer and more playful. This is why, particularly in regards to animation, the bad guys are built of triangular and square shapes and the good guys have rounder features; it’s why you know Jafar from Aladdin is the big bad before it’s revealed narratively, and it’s a concept perfectly summed up by the femme fatale in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jessica Rabbit, who as a combination of circles and plunging triangles isn’t bad, she’s “just drawn that way.”


In the following essay from Now You See It, the secret meaning of shapes is explored in far more erudite detail than I’ve provided, revealing how some films start creating their narrative worlds from the most basic perspective, that of the rudimentary physicality of a character or setting.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist