Do you know the feeling you have after an especially vivid dream—the kind of dream you want to hold on to and relive again and again? It’s more than a waking memory of love or adventure; it’s a sensation. It’s an emotional reaction that has tapped into all of your senses. Truly great films don’t just tell a story, they create a mood—not unlike a dream—that draws audience members into an experience they are able to feel with their entire being. It’s a mood that lingers long after they’ve left the theater; a mood that lies dormant only to return whenever the film is brought back to mind.
A master of creating mood is David Lynch. His films don’t contain the level of graphic violence employed by many other directors, yet his films are far more disturbing. He achieves this partially by creating an ambiance that gets under a viewer’s skin.
Mulholland Drive contains one of Lynch’s masterpiece scenes in the form of a late night performance at a once-opulent French Renaissance-style theater that has become a seedy, rundown, decaying skeleton of its former self. In this theater, the Club Silencio, "there is no band … it is an illusion." More accurately, it is tape-recorded music that is lip-synced. Lynch uses the color blue symbolically in the film. In the Club Silencio scene, it is in the form of smoke and the hair of a lone woman in the balcony. In the hands of a less talented director, this haunting scene could be ludicrous, if not downright comical. In Mulholland Drive, it’s dark. It’s creepy. It’s mesmerizing.
In American Beauty, director Sam Mendes takes us into the fantasy world of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) whenever he fantasizes about the object of his obsession, his daughter’s best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Sitting in the bleachers of the high school gym, Lester watches Angela perform with her dance team as the school band plays "On Broadway." As Lester’s fantasy begins, the lighting changes—the bright lights of the gym become dark, and one lone spotlight caresses Angela—the music shifts dramatically from the upbeat tempo of the amateur band to an unsettling, echo-loaded score that is more reminiscent of sound effects than music; and a series of jump cuts underscore Angela’s movements. The gym now contains no one but Lester and Angela, and she dances for him alone. The climax of the scene is the famous shot where she slowly unzips her sweater, and pulling it open releases hundreds of floating blood-red rose petals.
On a lighter note, the film Sideways contains a sequence where the four main characters, Miles, Jack, Maya, and Stephanie meet for a day of wine country touring. Director Alexander Payne wanted the cinematography in his film to have a warm softness like films produced in the 1970s. He achieved this beautifully, and nowhere more effectively than in this sequence. Golden, tangerine, and green hues permeate the screen as the two couples drive past the vineyards. Long dissolves of orange-glow lens flares lead from one shot to the next. The characters meander inside a winemaking room; they are talking, connecting, but the dialogue is inaudible.
Meanwhile, the score is no longer in the background—it becomes predominant. The sequence closes with the friends indulging in a vineyard picnic silhouetted by the warm, nepenthean glow of a setting sun.
Each of these films succeeds at creating a mood that lingers. They reach beyond the intellectual to a much deeper, primal, emotional level. The three scenes discussed, though very different, have common elements that help them achieve an unforgettable ambiance: colors, lighting, music, and sound. These are elements that communicate to and directly stimulate the senses.
Event filmmakers, though working within restricted parameters that don’t allow directorial control, can nevertheless draw upon these elements of filmmaking to touch the soul of a viewer. We can create a color palette by adjusting camera settings and manipulating our images in postproduction. Available light can be modified through filter and aperture settings; off-camera lighting can be used to create shadows and depth; on-camera lighting can be reduced or eliminated, for example, at a candlelit reception to capture the room’s romantic atmosphere.
Sound is paramount to creating a mood. While dialogue and visual images are processed logically, music and sound make a beeline directly to the part of the brain that controls emotion. To create a definitive mood, all these components must work together and "click" to become a whole of greater value than the sum of its parts.
In postproduction, build upon the foundation of your footage. Use sound effects to help tell the story of the environment. Use color to help define a setting or emotional climate. Choose music that works in tandem with the images and predominant emotions; or carefully juxtapose contrapuntal elements for impact. Effective blending of the familiar with the unexpected can result in a film moment being seared into the minds of an audience.
The cantina scene in Star Wars was unforgettable, due in part to the contrast between the appearance of the band and the sound of the band. George Lucas gave the audience decidedly bizarre-looking aliens, yet he had them playing a silly little jazz number, rather than some esoteric, cosmic-sounding composition.
Mood equals magic. By finding the mood of your film, elevating it, and giving it meaning, you will be on track to leaving an indelible mark on your audience.
Laura Moses (info at vppvideo.com) is half of Vantage Point Productions of San Dimas, Calif. She and her husband, Steve, are winners of multiple international awards--including a 2008 Gold WEVA Creative Excellence Award in the Wedding Demo Category--and were selected to the 2006 and 2007 EventDV 25.