Have you ever wondered why some films gel together so well while others go horribly wrong after a promising start?
Mistakes made in the management of tone in filmmaking often cause the spectacular failure of films at the box office.
This article is about the importance of your film’s tone. If you don’t get this right, you will feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment in your film, perhaps without even knowing why, and its marketability and commercial potential will be severely compromised. Establishing your film’s tone and then ensuring that your completed film is consistent with it is one of the most sublime skills a filmmaker can have. Very few are consciously aware of this issue.
What is tone?
Tone is difficult to define, but it will click eventually. It is related to mood and style, but there is more to it than that. The best way to describe it is by saying that a film’s tone is essentially its flavor. It is how it makes us feel, and how it achieves that effect on us.
The biggest tonal mistake to avoid in films
The typical mistake you can make with tone is to do something in your film that does not fit with the overall tone. An example is inserting a joke that is somehow tonally inappropriate, or a very serious and sentimental scene in a film that so far did not take that approach to the story.
Don’t get me wrong — comedies need serious moments, and tragedies need the occasional comic relief. You can (and indeed must) insert the occasional mood relief, but without compromising tone. Even “Schindler’s List” has a few jokes in it, but the jokes are fully consistent with the overall tone of the film.
The biggest mistake one can make is suddenly changing the tone of the film after it has been established.
The most egregious tonal failure I can think of is Steven Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence.” My regular readers know that I am a serious admirer of Steven Spielberg, but that film is a true disaster, because it starts with one tone and switches to a completely different tone in the third act, when the aliens appear. This switch in tone is jarring and disorienting, and it simply doesn’t work, leaving the audience confused and dissatisfied. It is not a coincidence that its box office performance was disappointing.
That said, I would encourage you to watch “Artificial Intelligence” — in addition to Spielberg’s characteristically brilliant camerawork and direction, you will also learn about the effect of switching tone late in the film, and the consequences of this mistake are serious enough to make it worth studying in detail.
James Cameron, that most wise and ingenious of directors, avoided making tonal mistakes in “Titanic” by testing the film with sample audiences before releasing it. Specifically, there was a scene in which Lovejoy (Hockley’s valet) chases Jack and Rose with a gun. It is a protracted scene in which Lovejoy pursues the couple while the ship is sinking, firing shots at them in the First Class dining room while seawater swirls around them. A gun chase on the Titanic? It was tonally incongruous, and the test audiences made it abundantly clear. Cameron cut the whole scene. Watch this scene in the DVD extras and see for yourself.
Mixing tones in a film is like putting icecream on meat. For better or for worse, most people do not appreciate this combination.
1. The tone of a film is its overall flavor, and many elements contribute to it.
2. Controlling tone is one of the most advanced skills a filmmaker can master.
3. You must understand the concept of tone and decide in advance what your film’s tone will be. You cannot begin pre-production on a film without envisioning its tone first, because it will affect every decision you make.
4. Having decided what tone you want for your film, you must stick to it and never do anything that doesn’t fit the tone. You must be especially careful about not switching tone drastically halfway through the film — a mistake that virtually guarantees the film’s failure.
5. Tonal consistency does not mean avoiding light moments in serious films and serious scenes in comedies — indeed, these mood variations are necessary. Have you noticed how mainstream comedies tend to have a “serious” scene near the end of the second act? They are serious, but they are tonally consistent with the rest of the film, despite the fact that they constitute a brief detour into a different register.
I see tone as the “silent killer” of many films: tonal mistakes cause spectacular failure, with almost no one understanding what went wrong — no one on the management side of the film business, that is!
I hope you find this useful. If this concept is new to you, give it some thought — it might make all the difference to your next project. It might also explain why you felt disappointed by films in the past without being able to say precisely why.
Good luck! 🙂