PhD Transcendental Images

birgitte moos chalcraft

Transcendental images and spiritual signs in the millennium epoch of Hollywood films - by Birgitte Moos, 2002

PhD Proposal for the Royal Academy of the Arts, Copenhagen


‘An inner constitution becomes a concrete outer'

-  Shakespeare       


During the change of époque and within the new century, significant changes appear in the visual media regarding filmmaking. Computer modeling techniques make it possible to generate images of until recently unseen characters. It is a newer tool in the toolbox of a Production Designer.         

The film is such a new art form, that at that time where movies appeared in, it automatically moved into an atheistic epoch; characterized by the belief in natural science and instruments. In newer films created in the years around the millennium, I see a tendency of expressing more spiritual content than ever before in that part of film history, which is tied to Hollywood. Perhaps that is because the transition to the year 2000 has in several hundred years stood out as an ultimate critical moment for manhood. That moment is built up through time with prophecies of Judgment Day simultaneously with visions of a better world. As a popular medium, the film is a credible measurement of consciousness within populations. One can also assume that film can have an effect on people as being a catalysator of change of consciousness.         

I am methodically researching on a number of films, with the focus on used religious and spiritual signs and symbols in these films.

The selected films are all created from 2000 until now. The selection and limitation of films are also decided out of criteria of high visual aesthetic, digital treatment, and being produced in Hollywood.         

Problem description

We are living in a dream society, where information technology and digital media feeds dreams and leaves space for self-forgetting and self-absorption. The entrance to film on the net is almost unlimited for every single up coupled human. Always on the highway to paradise. Here it seems that religion and remarkably spirituality get increased interests amongst present humans, and that seems to be reflected in filmmaking.

The two conceptions have a different meaning. Generally, I would nail that religiousness is about conducting oneself with the holy and powers: spirits, demons, gods, laws, and ideals. Identification with a set of man given parameters. In spirituality, it's considered that existence is of a character of completeness that transcends beyond human itself.   

Religion and spirituality have different signs and symbols. The symbol is for example an image of something familiar, but also the carrier of something vague, and universal truths. The spirit showed through the symbol, for example, Jesus Christ is the image, which makes the human grasp what lies beyond its ability for the understandable. During an investigation of the meaning of a symbol, transcendent imaginations appear and common sense must capitulate. The cognitive value of symbols lies beneath the rational sense of perception. The German word for symbol is ´sinnbild´, which means emblem. Has the picture the potency of revelation”?

I will try to categorize symbols out from different theoretical entrance angles. There are several definitions of what a symbol is and attempts of categorizations amongst others by Hegel, Goethe, and Jolande Jacoby. The Swiss Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s works about archetypes have created a fundament of interpretation of symbols in the West, while works of the contemporary American Philosopher Ken Wilbur does in my interpretation feed the ideas of that, there exist Jungian archetypes, but also transpersonal archetypes. The archetypes must in this context be used in the connection to symbols. Ken Wilbur is by C. G. Jung’s former assistant described as the Thomas Aquinas of our days. Thomas Aquinas has in `! Sent prolog 9.1.a.v`. 4, said that Theology ought to be expressed in a manner that is metaphorical, symbolic and parabolic”. What a beautiful picture. Ken Wilber works at developing a new kind of science; a spiritual science, where science and religion become integrated.

I will try to pursue these new thoughts and try to involve them in future research. Carl Gustav Jung is known for his re-interpretation of religion as symbolic, and his symbol interpretations include the world’s main religions and some esoteric traditions. In Jung’s symbol language is it not necessarily the symbol in itself, but also symbolic productions, which are expressions of religious and spiritual consciousness.         

Myth critique gives a third point of view to the studies of religious symbols. Myth critique defines religion broadly unlike what for example theologians do. Myth critique opens up for a broader study of religious symbols since a mythological approach reads symbols as transcending, cultural and individual traditions into universal symbols!

The analysis goes into and behind some of the Western culture's scientific world understandings and science results. Cosmology is the teaching about the universe and implicit that, has always been wondering about mankind’s placement in the universe. Especially the Western cultures´ materialistic and mental development, have possibly reached a point of the state where the spirit expands into a spiritual/religious cosmology. Detached from the scientific doctrines about the universe, exists an own mythic cosmology, which involves myths, gods, souls, intelligence, and a metaphysical God.


These investigations are part of a Ph.D. proposal that I gave in to The National Danish College in Copenhagen in the year 2002. The Ph.D. was declined based on the assumption that the content lacked sufficient scientifically. The academic paradox is self-evident with reference to the subject matter: How to define and prove the numinous. I am still curious about the above-described subjects and will involve following methodic researches in a far deeper analysis of 'The Matrix' trilogy and other films. The field of problems lies within pinning down, defining and classifying the symbolic image language of the chosen films. What is interesting is also how the designer through methodic work, transforms soul full content into a filmic work. In other words the ability to vitalize a symbol into a scene through the use of images.

The plan is to analyze every single film, finding the religious/spiritual symbols. Then separate digital designed symbols from ´traditionally graphic and manually on set designed symbols. Categorizing common trades and differences. My intention is to research and analyze the topic if CG images give a greater opportunity for visualization of symbols, where the impression gives the viewer a stronger sensation of the old alchemistic principle “spirit in the matter”. In other words, Figuring out, if and how design, gives the ability to create symbols with intensified transcendental qualities.

In my consideration of how signs and symbols appear, I will try to point out and define religious and spiritual signs and symbols, and the term symbol has to be examined and clearly as possibly defined. For example by describing when is a symbol is a religious symbol. Where the symbol comes from, and what it means in a given film and in its original context.

The term deconstruction, defined in 1968, by Jaques Derrida, can perhaps be found as a parameter of measuring modern fusion symbols, where different religions and belief systems are mixed together, or up if one dares to say so. Describing different types of symbols, such as in which forms they are represented: Either graphicly designed or concrete beliefs objects such as statues, altarpieces, ikons, crosses, animals, plants, or when are the symbols hidden and subtle.

A discussion of the fundamental concept; the concrete, is essential in this context, in an attempt of organising a system.

In investigation parameters and methods, an attempt of narrowing the contempt arises through the use of shape definitions such as style, color, light, materiality, and immateriality. It would be interesting to typologize films in such genres as pluralism, mythological, Theological, violent, nonviolent (the good versus evil). Design tools applied; digitalization, hand-drawn, built-in reality, mixed media. Religious, phenomenological, psychological, and philosophic angles of viewpoints should be considered.

The research methods should implicitly reflect, that we are dealing with complex issues in a multifaceted time. Speculations of how modern media – film and computer – can bring about symbolic images, is also a question that is illuminated by questioning the viewer's experience of intensity in comparison to the image layers deeper content and in comparison to applied technologies.

I am analyzing different computer software used for image manipulation creating religious and spiritual symbols. My investigations will end up with new categorizations of religious sign and symbolic expressions within different film genres. I expect the new insights and content will be published in a compendium, which is addressed to design and film students, workers in the fields, and other interested readers. The compendium would hopefully be a valuable learning tool about design processes and the use of symbolic language, helping readers to work goal-oriented and consciously with image communication in films.

My intent is to be part-taking in what lies within the development of the field of Production Design, by uncovering different use of symbol visualization. On good and bad the film as a popular medium is both a measurement and creator of values and belief directions amongst the audience. Homogenic visual expressions, applied in complex contexts and abstract perception coupled to symbolic shapes, should at its best have mutual interaction. These are circumstances in which results show the level of conscious activity during the process of creation, reflected by the emotional level of involvement and resonance by an audience watching the film.        

Systematically the working method will consist of the following in the same order:

  • Examination of chosen films         
  • Scanning symbols in the films and reading literature         
  • Classification of films signs and symbols         
  • Development analysis parameters         
  • Grading films and symbols in categories

Temporary film list of interest         

  • 'The Fountain'. 2006. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, production design by James Chinlund          
  • 'The Matrix Trilogy.' 1999 - 2003. Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, production design by Omen Paters          
  • 'Solaris.' 2002. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, production design by Phil Messina          
  • 'Signs.' 2002. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, production design by Larry Fulton          
  • 'Minority Report.' 2002. Directed by Steven Spielberg, production design by Alex McDowell          
  • 'Starwars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.' 2002. Directed by George Lucas, production design by Doug Chiang          
  • 'Moulin Rouge.' 2000. Directed by Baz Luhrman, production design by Catherine Martin          
  • 'The Cell. 2000. Directed by Tarsem Singh, production design by Tom Foden

Amongst selected films, 'The Matrix' is an example of films with the content of religious, transcendent, and spiritual symbols. Just to mention one scene from the first 'Matrix' film: The main character Neo is consecrated through symbolic divinity. As he is poured over by gold, I mean there are references to the golden imaginations of the ancient Antique. This film is a technological masterpiece, studded with visual effects, aesthetics, and the use of CG. The visual effects percolate razor-sharp the abstract symbolic levels.

The film 'The Cell' includes a series of tableaux that depict captivating surrealist landscapes and spectacular imagery depicting the fantasy worlds. A truth-seeking white angel, a boat in the sand, and a serial killer in a cellar with many rooms. The room of the self is golden. An 8th victim in a glass water tank, that slowly fills with water. The number 8 has different religious meanings, for example corresponding to baptism, the water, and new birth. 'Moulin Rouge' is a film, telling the merciless separation between spirituality and desire, the cabaret is transformed into a golden Hinduistic, sacred space. 'Star wars: episode II Attack of the Clones 2002' contains symbolism in abundance. For example dark dry landscapes with Anakins anger facing a setting sun. The disappearing sun leaving behind spiritual darkness. 'Minority Report' is an SFX visually stunning film, with integrated elaborate examples of computer effects that are rich in spiritual content.

My own background and qualifications

My professional and personal interests have to a considerable extent circled about symbols and accomplishment of knowledge about complicated designing processes, meanings, and expressions. During my studies at Roskilde University, I worked at a project about creative processes of creation, with the focus on religious symbols. My thesis from The National Design School of Denmark was on The 'Hamletmachine', written by Heiner Muller in 1979. The text lets Hamlet become interlaced with European culture and thrown from the past out through the future through time epochs and intertextual references, gaining awareness on the journey.

Furthermore during my studies at The University of Arts in Berlin, by Professor Achim Freyer, I worked on the play 'Oedipus', transforming the textual content to images of ramshackle abstract ruins and heavenly openings. In Berlin, I also worked, as a part of my investigation of Oedipus, as a Set Designer Assistant for my professor, at Deutsches Theatre. On the side, designing alternative

set design concepts with the focus on the spiral symbol as a mental image of primeval processes and development. Also working with Bertolt Brecht's play 'The Holy Johanna of the Slaughterhouse', where my set design turned out as a huge horizontal cross, which had the function of bridges between different horizontal movable spaces. The shape of the cross also appears in the performance 'Agnes of God'. In this variant vertically placed.

In my earlier work, 2000-2001, as a Lead Designer for the media concern Tristone, I developed designs for virtual worlds for computer games and interactive entertainment for television and created universes strongly inspired by Greek mythology, Chinese religions, and Greenlandic rituals.

In 2003, as an Artist in Residence at the University of Southern California, Department of Film and TV at the Division of Animation and Digital Arts. The stay let me execute my own design projects, participate in Lectures and screenings of relevant films and workshops connected to courses in computer software such as Alias/Wavefront Maya, Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects as well as Macromedia, Director, and Dreamweaver. Including interactive animation, stereoscopic animation, and virtual reality. That postgraduate research was a natural follow up on my intent of writing a Ph.D. and interest in new digital media and their usability regarding design for film.

Literature list          

Barry Taylor: Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. Cultural Exegesis, 2008         

C.G. Jung: Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton University Press. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953-78         

John R. May (Editor): New Image of Religious Film. Sheed & Ward, 1997         

Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (Editors): Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1997         

Don Tapscott: Growing up digital, The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: MacGraw-Hill, 1998         

Martin Esslin: The Field of Drama: How the Signs of Drama create meaning on Stage and Screen. London: Methuen, 1987         

Michael Paul Gallagher: Clashing Symbols. Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 2003         

Rolf Jensen: Dream Society. McGraw-Hill, 2001         

Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations. University of Michigan Press, 1995         

Hegel: Science of wisdom. St. Augustines Press, 2000         

Eugene C. Kennedy (Editor): Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor by Joseph Campbell. New World  Library, 2001         

Caroline W. Bynum: Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols. Beacon Pr., 1988         

James Bonnet: Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Dynamic New Story Model for Writers and Filmmakers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1999         

Hillel Schwartz: Century's End. Barnes and Noble, 1999         

Joseph Campbell: The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton University Press; 2nd edition,1972         

Pia Skogemann: Religion og symbol – C.G. Jungs religionspsykologi. Borgens Forlag, 1988.         

Brenda Laurel. Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley Professional, 1993         

Lars Bo Kimergård og Lars Mathiasen: Manuskript og dramaturgi. Av-kompendium # 3,3 udg. Institut for Film–og Medievidenskab, 2000         

Ken Wilbur: Eye to eye - The quest for the new paradigm. Shambhala; 3 Revised edition, 2001