Mood Lighting

Benicio Del Toro in Traffic

When I think of mood, I usually think of music—the melody in a certain song, or whether a piece is upbeat, depressing, introspective, et cetera. But the idea of mood carries over to film, too. It’s difficult to do well, and not many writers are adept, but creating the right mood, no matter the subject of the movie, is one of the director’s foremost responsibilities. I’m not talking about adding an overcast sky in post to reflect your characters’ sadness, either. It’s something that has to be organic to the acting, the lighting, the set, the costumes, the dialogue, the soundtrack, the camera’s movement and, of course, the special effects. All of these elements have to go together to draw the audience’s attention into the reality of your world. Otherwise, it’s just a movie.
Here are some examples of my favorite moodiness in movies. Please add more in the comments.
Traffic (2000): Director Steven Soderbergh
I chose Traffic for a couple of reasons. Soderbergh is able to juggle so many stories, characters, and events and it feels almost seamless. He is able to do this because he treats every scene with equal care and attention to detail. For example, the movie begins in the desert outside Tijuana. It feels hot and dusty, the film is overexposed, even lead character Javier’s clothes look pretty worn. The words spoken are Spanish, not English, and all dialogue is punctuated by long silences. The soundtrack is non-existent. Every detail makes this scene feel realistic, lived in. Before the action of the scene even begins, Javier has captured my attention and sucked me into the story. This is terse storytelling at its best and an excellent entry into Javier’s storyline. By establishing Javier’s reality in the first few moments, I feel comfortable enough to engage in his story, too.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971): Director Norman Jewison
I have always remembered this one scene from Fiddler: “Sunrise, Sunset” since watching it in seventh grade humanities. Something about this song in particular captivated me; re-watching this I see Jewison pulls off his vision of wistful nostalgia brilliantly. For example, he uses the candles as metaphors for life. He juxtaposes images of both young and old, melding them into one community through quick cuts. The light orchestration provides a quiet backdrop to the inner machinations of the characters, which become sung lyrics. It feels like a dream, and not just because we can read their minds. The darkness, the many faces, the close-ups, all position the audience as floating observers, unseen to the attendees but very present. This scene feels quiet although it should feel loud, there is a hidden tension, a knowingness that this world will explode soon enough, symbolized by the crashing glass in the final seconds.

Nosferatu (1922): F.W. Murnau
This is not my favorite Murnau, Sunrise is, but I like how this movie creates a terrifying mood. From the very first scene to the last, there is a tension, a suspense dripping even in the opening credits. Murnau’s use of medium shots, clever cutaways of ancient spells, longer takes of his characters doing mundane things like walking, confuse and infuriate me as I watch. I want to know more. Like the master storyteller he is, Murnau will get to the good stuff eventually, but for most of the movie, I have to squirm, waiting for the chilling climax. Suspense is a mood, and Murnau does it brilliantly here. It is no wonder he proved a big influence on another master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. By not revealing certain details, a director can equally intrigue his or her audience. It’s as much about what Murnau puts into the movie as what he leaves out.

5 responses to “Mood Lighting

  1. Hmm, maybe Crash? Definitely Babel. The Graduate. All 3 had vastly different moods, but I felt each one pretty strongly.

  2. writer-at-heart

    Great choices. Also agree with The Graduate.
    On Golden Pond has beautiful lighting.

  3. I Am Sam… the court scenes are cold and blue. The home scenes are warm and orange.

  4. I can’t contribute any examples because I have never been that conscious of it. I will look for it more explicitly now. I can give book examples for days but I am at a loss right now….

    I get your examples though. I love Fiddler on the Roof.

  5. @ Kristan–Loved the Graduate’s sort of tongue-in-cheek representation of LA. It wasn’t just the exteriors it was the amazingly vapid conversations that took place.

    @ Sarah–Haven’t seen I Am Sam yet, but grew up listening to the soundtrack.

    @ Writer–Will have to watch that one sometime.

    @ Rebecca–I want to hear book examples! Do tell.

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