Mood and Tone

How to analyze the atmosphere of a film and its impact on the audience.

Steven Spielberg's ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) employs the use of color discordance to heighten the emotional landscape of the scene and draw a juxtaposition between the violence in black and white and the naivety and innocence of youth (copyrighted under Universal Pictures) Steven Spielberg's ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) employs the use of color discordance to heighten the emotional landscape of the scene and draw a juxtaposition between the violence in black and white and the naivety and innocence of youth (copyrighted under Universal Pictures)

Introduction To Atmosphere

Film theory and analysis is the art of understanding the technical and creative aspects of film and analyzing how these elements create an atmosphere and emotional experience for the audience. 

To understand the atmosphere within a film and how filmmakers create it along with how that atmosphere affects the audience’s experience, it is important to understand the concept of tone and mood. 

While tone describes the atmosphere, or emotional landscape, of the characters within the movie, mood describes how the audience feels about the movie. The atmosphere of a film is a key element in the audience’s experience of it. These 2 key concepts highlight the interplay of art and technical skills coming together.

Leave A Message At The Tone

The tone of a film is the atmosphere created for the characters on the screen or what the movie’s attitude is toward the subject it is depicting. 

Take for example a film about war. In a war film, despite the scenes of violence and danger, it may still be able to show the self-sacrifice and heroism found in times of war. This means that, despite the depiction of the horror of war,  the tone of the film will be hopeful and optimistic, such as in Saving Private Ryan. This film is about a band of soldiers coming together to save a lost comrade. It has scenes of violence and doesn’t shy away from the gravity of war, but its overall tone is hopeful and heroic. 

On the other hand, in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, another movie about war, while there are moments of heroism and sacrifice, the overall tone of the movie is desolate. It shows the destruction of the individual and the misery that comes with war, even despite moments of heroism. 

The tone of a film, or the film’s atmosphere and attitude toward the subject, is important to analyze when trying to understand what message a director is trying to convey to the audience through the tone.

What Mood Are You In?

While the tone of a film is the atmosphere within the movie or the attitude of the filmmaker toward the subject, the mood of the movie is what the audience is meant to feel based on what they’re seeing.

Oftentimes, the mood and the tone go hand in hand. Watching a girl go down into the haunted basement or being chased by a serial killer, both the tone and the mood of the movie are bleak and frightening. 

The mood of a movie is how you feel while you’re watching it, whether you’re frightened or sitting at the edge of your seat, or falling in love along with the protagonist. The mood is created by specific choices a filmmaker utilizes in the film’s production, such as color and lighting. 

Sometimes, there can be a contradiction between the mood of the film and the tone. On these occasions, dramatic irony is drawn in that what the audience is feeling doesn’t necessarily match the onscreen atmosphere or emotional landscape. 

For example, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard the final moments present a tone of triumph for Norma, an aged movie actress. This triumph comes after the death of the protagonist, Joe, who the audience sympathized with, so the mood, or what the audience feels, is bleak. This disunity between the tone and mood creates a dramatic irony for the audience.

Identifying Tone And Mood

In order to practice your skills in film theory and analysis, practice some of these techniques to identify the tone and mood of any movie you watch. 

Before watching a movie, reflect on what you expect to feel while watching it based on the movie’s trailer and advertising material. Does the trailer promise suspense or terror? Maybe lightheartedness or romance? 

During a movie, take time to check in with your emotions. At what points do you notice your heart racing or your eyes welling up? Once you’ve taken note of your emotional response during a film, try to watch the movie critically–even on the first viewing. Try to notice the techniques the filmmaker is using, such as lighting, color, and sound and if they have any effect on the emotions you’re feeling. 

During the conclusion of a movie, try to notice how the characters have changed after living through the action of the plot. Do you feel differently about the characters now than you did at the beginning? After your viewing, did the film meet the expectations you initially had for it?

Why Does Tone Matter? 

Analyzing a film’s tone and mood means teaching yourself to notice not only the technical aspects of the film, such as the lighting, color, and sound that create atmosphere, but also noticing your own emotional reactions to it. 

A filmmaker is trying to tell you a message or convey an idea to you, and they do that through the use of the plot along with the camera, lighting, color, and sound. To identify and understand these messages being relayed, try to identify the tone and mood of a film. 

The tone and mood of a film are extremely important in identifying and understanding the hidden or deeper layers of meaning in a film. Not only is an analysis of the film’s plot important, but the mood and tone, or the movie’s attitude toward the subject and what the audience is meant to feel regarding that subject, will add a deeper layer of meaning to be extracted from a film.

Coloring In The Mood

The mood of a film is how the audience is being made to feel about the plot and characters. The unique way that each filmmaker chooses to unfold the film’s plot and the many emotions of the characters within those plots all contribute to a type of landscape of mood being presented to the audience. 

Color, just like lighting, goes a long way in creating an emotional landscape for the audience to step into. The first movies were shot in black and white, so the interplay of shadows and lighting was used to create a dramatic effect and emotional engagement. 

Now, filmmakers employ the use of color to create the mood of a film. Color can heighten the emotion an audience is feeling. A film with saturated, bright colors can create a bright or happy mood within the audience just as a desaturated, dim movie can create a depressed or uneasy mood. 

Within the use of color, there are 2 important aspects to consider and that is the symbolism of color and color theory.

Introduction To Color Theory

Color theory is the study of specific colors and the emotions or moods they can evoke in the viewer. This theory is one commonly employed by filmmakers, in fact, color palettes are often chosen for a film long before production even starts. 

Color theory in film supposes that the manipulation of colors can be used to guide the audience toward the intended message of the filmmaker, contrasted against one another to send a message or highlight importance, or subverted to create dramatic irony and suspense.  

For example, the color red is generally considered a hot color. It’s associated with war, violence, and passion. This is usually why characters such as the Devil or Cupid are dressed in red. Understanding the emotional associates that colors can have will help you as a viewer understand what meaning a filmmaker is trying to convey.  

What colors a director chooses to use will help them to create an atmosphere on screen and manipulate the audience’s emotional experience of a film. Take, for example, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Scorsese employs the color red to color much of the movie to heighten the emotional landscape of increasing passion and violence.

Saturation Matters

Color goes a long way in creating an emotional landscape for the audience. An aspect of color to consider when watching a movie is saturation, which is defined as the intensity and vibrancy of the colors onscreen. 

A film that uses highly saturated and bright colors conveys a mood of grandiosity. Saturated movies are generally positive, such as romantic movies or superhero movies. The intensity of colors creates a heightened sense of reality for the audience, which, in turn, heightens an audience’s emotional response. 

On the other hand, filmmakers may choose to desaturate a film’s colors. Desaturated colors in film create a sense of despair or depression. These colors are generally used in dystopic movies or movies meant to convey a sense of gritty realism such as in John Hillcoat’s The Road.

John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’ (2009) shows a desaturated color palette to convey the bleakness of the scene (image copyrighted under The Weinstein Company) John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’ (2009) shows a desaturated color palette to convey the bleakness of the scene (image copyrighted under The Weinstein Company)

Color Discordance

A technique that filmmakers use to create a specific tone within the movie and evoke an emotional response in the audience through the film’s mood is the use of discordant colors and symbolic colors. 

Color discordance is when one color juxtaposes or clashes with the overall color palette of a scene. The clash of colors is meant to emphasize a subject and draw the audience’s attention and emotions to it. 

A fantastic example of exaggerated color discordance is in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The camera tracks a young girl wearing a bright red dress in a black and white scene to highlight the juxtaposition of her innocence with the violence and despair embodied in the background in black and white. 

The use of color discordance to manipulate mood is a technique filmmakers may choose to employ. Color has the unique ability to present information to our subconscious minds that our conscious minds may not even understand. Filmmakers understand this concept. Understanding it yourself provides you the ability to extract a deeper layer of meaning out of a film and analyze exactly how discordant colors evoked specific emotions from the audience.

Steven Spielberg's ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) employs the use of color discordance to heighten the emotional landscape of the scene and draw a juxtaposition between the violence in black and white and the naivety and innocence of youth (copyrighted under Universal Pictures) Steven Spielberg's ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) employs the use of color discordance to heighten the emotional landscape of the scene and draw a juxtaposition between the violence in black and white and the naivety and innocence of youth (copyrighted under Universal Pictures)

The Symbolism Of Color

Color symbolism is the use of color to embody a theme or motif. A common example of the symbolism of specific colors is seen in the color red. Red subconsciously denotes to the audience passion of some kind whether it is love or violence. In fact, the color red has been shown to have actual physiological effects on the viewer such as increasing heart rate or blood pressure. 

These physiological changes in the viewer help the audience to engage emotionally in the film and help the filmmakers manipulate what emotions the audience will experience. 

This color can be used to demonstrate lust, passion, or the desire for violence or blood in film, as seen in Sam Mendes’ film American Beauty and the use of red roses to symbolize the protagonist’s association of his own lust with a young girl.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) uses colour symbolism - the color red to denote the growing violence and intensity of the plot and characters (image copyrighted under Columbia Pictures). Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) uses colour symbolism - the color red to denote the growing violence and intensity of the plot and characters (image copyrighted under Columbia Pictures).

Coloring In The Scene

A trick that filmmakers have used from the dawn of colored-image cinema is the use of color symbolism. This specific technique uses a single color to express a theme or idea. 

While red commonly symbolizes passion and violence, the color blue can symbolize peace and serenity or melancholy, emotional exhaustion, and isolation. 

Blue is seen as a more tranquil color, such as the ocean or the sky. However, just as the ocean or the sky can be calming and awe-inspiring, it can also be vast and dangerous- a seemingly limitless expanse. Drawing on these expressions of color in nature and the physiological effects they may have on the viewer, filmmakers can utilize color symbolism to help convey a message to the audience. 

Next time you are watching a film, try to notice how the director has chosen a color palette to extract emotion and meaning from a film. Ask yourself how those colors affect your experience of a film and evoke emotions. How would the movie change if the color palette or colors chosen were different?

Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) deliberately uses the color blue to denote isolation, exhaustion, and depression (image copyrighted under Paramount Pictures). Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) deliberately uses the color blue to denote isolation, exhaustion, and depression (image copyrighted under Paramount Pictures).
Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) contrastingly uses the color red to symbolize lust and passion to the audience (image copyrighted under Cohen Company). Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) contrastingly uses the color red to symbolize lust and passion to the audience (image copyrighted under Cohen Company).
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Sound and Lighting;

Visual and auditory techniques used on film to create a story for our senses.

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The artistry of filmmaking comes in turning something technical, such as the shots used in a film and the camera angles, into a work of art.

Character and Acting;

The mind-blowing plot twists, heart-wrenching moments, and intense action are made more powerful when experienced by characters that we as audience members care about. 

Genre/Setting;

A film’s genre is determined by the plot of the movie, the type of character and their actions, the setting and time period, as well as the theme. All of these elements form cohesive and identifiable categories of films.

Theme;

The theme transcends the story because the theme is the aspect of the story that resonates with the audience on a deeper, more personal level and conveys a message about human nature or reality.

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