Which Cinematic Techniques Can You Use to Change the Tone of a Scene?

How do you set the tone for a scene, a sequence, or even an entire film?

The first few moments of a scene are some of the most crucial. Not only do you have to establish time and space so your audience can be well-oriented and informed, but you also have to set the tone, which will essentially tell your audience how to feel about the events that are about to unfold on screen. In the video below, filmmaker Peter McKinnon shows you several cinematic techniques and settings you can use to create the tone you need for your project, including using different frame rates, lighting, and music.

First things first: what is tone? Tone is basically the mood or atmosphere of a scene or film. It can be dramatic, scary, funny, romantic, whatever. This is why it's so important to know how to achieve the right tone, because it plays such a vital role in telling your audience how to feel.

So, what are some cinematic elements that influence tone? McKinnon names five in his video:

  • Frame rate
  • Sound
  • Music
  • Color
  • Lighting

Each one of these things can change the way an audience feels about what they're seeing on screen. A sequence filmed at 24 fps versus one filmed at a higher frame rate (slow motion) will make the action more fast paced and kinetic. A scene with classical music will produce different effects than one with death metal. A scene with washed out color might inspire feelings of depression or boredom while one with vibrant colors might inspire happiness and energy.

But perhaps one of the more difficult techniques to nail when trying to create a tone for a movie is lighting. For many beginners, simply lighting a scene so it's, at the very least, visible can be a daunting task, let alone lighting it with a specific tone in mind. However, there is a general rule of thumb you can go by when trying to light for tone: flat, even lighting is good for comedies and romance, high contrast lighting with lots of shadows is good for dramas and horror. (That is a super simplified "rule" and may not work for your specific project.)

So, play around with these elements to see how each of them affect the tone of your scene. You can also experiment with using elements that contradict the images on screen, as well as the the tone you're going for, like Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick have done in some of their work. For example, Tarantino uses what's called "contrapuntal music" in the bloody scene from Reservoir Dogs in which Mr. Blonde cuts off a cop's ear to the jaunty tune of ""Stuck in the Middle With You." It makes it eerily funny, doesn't it?     

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