We know it when we see it, but what is "tone" exactly and how do we use it to tell better stories?
How many times have your parents told you to watch your tone? If you were as boneheaded as I was when I was an adolescent troublemaker, 1.) it was probably a lot, and 2.) you probably quizzically replied, "What do you mean by "tone," even though you absolutely knew what they meant. In terms of filmmaking, tone is oftentimes easier to point out than it is to create. For instance, you know that there is something radically different about Christopher Reeve's Superman from 1978 and Henry Cavill's Superman from 2013—Reeve's is, if you will, the "Happy Superman" and Cavill's is the, I don't know, the "Emo Superman"—but recognizing what elements are at work to make them seem that way can be difficult.
In this video essay, the team over at StudioBinder breaks down how filmmakers establish tone in their films, from lighting to set the mood to tailoring sets to fit their vision. Check it out below:
Deciding on a tone for your film may be a decision you make subconsciously. You might want to tell a story about some hardboiled detective trying to solve a cold case, so your brain immediately goes toward dark colors, high-contrast lighting, a real film noir look. Conversely, you might want to tell a story about, I don't know, a happy puppy parade that goes awry when a gang of misfit cats escape the local pound, so your brain might go toward bright colors, low-contrast lighting, and a sunshine-and-rainbows look.
Even if the tone of your film clicks right away for you, there are a lot of things to think about and put into motion once production begins. According to StudioBinder, there are three key areas (the "Trident of Tone") that will help you zero in on how to establish the tone of your project.
How are you going to light your film? How bright will your scenes be? Are you going for low-contrast, even lighting that produces soft shadows with slow falloff or high-contrast, chiaroscuro lighting with hard shadows and fast falloff? I mean, the difference, again, is Superman 1978 and Superman 2013: 1978 Supe looks like a happy-go-lucky comic book hero, whereas 2013 Supe looks like he's on his way to play a show with his death metal band Demon of Steel.
How much light you let into your camera can play a big role in how your audience reads the tone of your film. If you underexpose a shot, I mean, depending on the context, it could be seen as gloomy, emotionally dark, and dangerous. The tone of that scene, the brightness, is both literally and figuratively "dark." Francis Ford Coppola and DP Gordon Willis used underexposure brilliantly in The Godfather to establish a tone that made everything and everyone within the story seem dangerous and untrustworthy.
What does your set look like? The props, the wardrobe, the set dressing, the locations? The tonal differences between all of these things can tell your audience a lot about how they should read the scene. So, if you're trying to establish a dark tone, you might want your characters to wear dark clothes, have dark-colored props lying around, and have the color of the walls and other room accents dark as well.
So, before you spring forth to make your next film, take some time to really decide on the tone you want your film to have, and then figure out how you can use lighting, exposure, and art direction to make it happen when production begins. If you need a little help fleshing it out, StudioBinder has made their nifty "Film Tone Worksheet" available for free on their website. Just head on over here to download it.