Your Film’s Flavor: the Importance of Tone in Filmmaking

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.

Many elements contribute to a film’s tone: camerawork, lighting, editing, the writing, the performances, the music, the color scheme, and so on.

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.

Summary

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! 🙂

9 thoughts on “Your Film’s Flavor: the Importance of Tone in Filmmaking

  1. I agree that “AI” went horribly wrong at the end. You just can’t play with the audience like that.

    Good post!

  2. You are absolutely right that changing a films tone really confuses the audience! It is like if you feel like eating a sweet orange and you take a bite and it turns out to be sour. Disappointment!

    I am curious if you have other examples of tones in films gone wrong. It is good to have those examples in mind.

    • Another good example is “Dirty Pretty Things:” its tone is mostly serious and heartfelt, but every time the immigration officers appear, it becomes farcical. A ludicrous tonal back-and-forth that ruined an otherwise excellent film.

  3. are there any horror,thriller genre movies which have been sidetracked the tone and failed?stanley kubrick is master in maintaining tones.

  4. Alejandro Kerdiseida says:

    DEAR:
    LAvideoFilmmaker:

    ANIME HAS A DIFFERENT STYLE REGARDING TONE, FOR INSTANCE IN SEVERAL ANIMES, NOT IN ALL OF THEM, THEY TEND TO MAKE A LOT OF COMIC RELIFS
    FOR INSTANCES SAMURAI X ANIME
    (THEY HAD MADE A LIVE ACTION FILM OF THIS ONE AND A SEQUEL IS IN PROCESS, HAVFENT SEEN IT YET)
    THEY MAKE JOKES EVEN IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF THE GREATEST DUELS, IN THE SOUJIRO SETA DUEL THEY MADE SEVERAL VERY FUNNY JOKES RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BATTLE

    IN MY OPINION THEY WERE NOT MEANT TO BE THERE AT THE VERY CORE OF THE BATTLE, AS IT WAS ALL A SERIOUS AND DRAMATIC MOMENTS , THEY SHOULD HAVE BETTER USED THEM IN OTHER MOMENTS, BUT STRANGELY ENOUGH ALL THAT PART IS ONE OF THE BEST SECUENCIES THAT EXIST ON ANIME IN MY OPINION

    SO, SOMETIMES IF YOU LOOSE TONE SLIGHTLY IT WONT DESTROY THE SUCCESS OF THE MOVIE, HOWEVER IF YOU OVER DO IT; LIKE A WHOLE THIRD ACT TOTALLY OUT OF CONTEXT AND TONE, WELL, THAT IS DIFFERENT, FOR INSTANCE I AM SURE I WOULD HAVE HATED THE GUN CHASE YOU REFERED IN TITANIC BUT IT WILL CERTAINLY WOULDN’T HAVE AFFECTED THE MOVIE’S SUCCESS THAT MUCH IN MY OPINION

    I WOULD HAVE FORGOTEN THAT MISTAKE, AS WHEN YOU BITE A ONE SINGLE LEMON SEED ON AN OTHERWISE SPLENDID LEMON PIE, BUT WHAT YOU THINK?
    AM FROM MEXICO BY THE WAY AND THANKS ALOT FOR THE ADVISES AM WORKING RIGHT NOW IN MY OPERA PRIMA AT THE LATE AGE OF 43!!!!!

  5. hi I just wanted to say THANK YOU for the amazing work you’re doing actually I can’t thank you enough for the amount of thought and effort and patience you put into writing these informative articles!
    Thank you again

  6. Cool blog, some good tips. Might be worth pointing out that in AI those are not aliens at the end, they’re the descendants of the robots, they’re even more advanced robots. Spielberg being Spielberg, it’s easy to confuse I suppose however one of them does say ‘we’re all that’s left.
    Also, to introduce aliens in a third act even if they were, isn’t really a shift of tone but of character. The tone of the movie remains ponderous and searching. It would be a change of tone if the robots / mecha or even aliens started to joke around and pretend nothing mattered anymore.

  7. thanks. it was very useful..

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