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How to Describe the Tone of a Film

When someone says a film was great but it had a particularly sad or somber tone, what do they mean? Learning how to describe the tone of a film and the overall mood that is produced by the film is important both for the cinematographer and for others such as the audience. In fact, members of the camera crew really should know how to describe the tone of a film and what it means because much of their work is going to rely on the underlying tone that is set forth either by the screenwriter or the film’s Director.

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What is Tone?

When we talk about tone, the context in which the term is used can make all the difference in the meaning, particularly in the film industry. That’s because the term “tone” can actually have different meanings depending on the context and how the word is used. For example, if we’re talking about “Room tone” then we’re talking about the subtle, underlying sounds that occur in a room whether or not you realize they are there. When it comes to filmmaking, room tone is important because these low volume sounds are required in order to create a realistic film, and it’s also important for the cinematographer to be aware of the room tone because these sounds could interfere with a particularly low-volume scene in which absolute silence is desired.

You can see our entire post about room tone here. That’s actually not what we’re discussing in this post, because when someone says that a film was great but it had a sad tone, they’re not talking about room tone, they’re talking about the overall tone of the film which is the mood or attitude that is created by the choice of words used in the screenplay and various other elements that come together during the filmmaking to form a particular “mood” or to elicit a particular emotion among the audience.

When we look at the idea of tone in a film we’re more thinking about how various elements of the film evoke a particular mood. Thus, a film that has a sad or somber tone, there’s likely a lot of elements within the movie that are upsetting, depressing, or otherwise hard to swallow. As another example, a film might be ruthless. A ruthless film might include drug cartels, murder, and crime. The tone of the film is essentially how it makes your audience feel when they watch it and it sets the mood.

Different Types of Tones in Film

You might be wondering what the different types of tones are in filmmaking? Think about your own moods and how many different moods you might have. You could be excited, happy, depressed, sad, etc. Some of the most popular tones include:

  • Scary
  • Smart
  • Somber or sad
  • Candid
  • Honest
  • Intimate
  • Comedic or funny
  • Playful
  • Dreadful
  • Sinister
  • Ruthless
  • Indifferent
  • Foolish
  • Exciting
  • Ironic
  • Sympathetic

The list is actually very long as there are a lot of different ways that you could make your audience potentially feel with your film based on the dialogue, narrative, and various other elements that come together to form the production.

How to Describe Tone in Film

As we look at the many different potential tones or moods that could result from a film, it’s important consider how the tone is described as well as how it is actually conveyed within your film. There are typically three very strong methods of conveying a particular tone in film. They are:  through the character, the word choice in the dialogue or the narrative, and the setting or location elements. 

When characters are used to describe the tone of a room, it’s typically about more than WHO the character is, it’s their choices and the ways in which they interact within the script to drive the story in a particular manner. Are the main characters friendly and loving? This sets the tone for the film. Does the wife poison the husband’s dinner in the first act? This sets a sinister tone of betrayal. Does some die right away but the characters come together to support one another? This sets a tone of sympathy but could also be somber, too.

While the location and the dialogue or narrative will also work to set the tone of the film, it doesn’t matter where the film takes place or what people say, if the character’s don’t “mean it” or if you put sinister characters in a beautiful place, the tone will still be carried through by what the character does more so than where the film is set or what is said – remember that a film is all about showing the audience what you want them to feel and to know therefore what a character does sets the tone over anything else.

Now that’s not to say that dialogue and the narrative don’t mean anything or that they too don’t work to set the tone of the film. The dialogue is in fact very important, particularly though it’s how the dialogue is delivered that will go the extra mile in setting the desired tone.

Do characters speak aggressively? Are they yelling at one another or using very short words and sentences?  Shorter words set a tone for something that’s more ruthless or indifferent. Longer words and sentences can set the tone for something more candid, intimate, or particularly intelligent.

Finally, the tone can be established by the setting or location in which the film takes place. Are characters set in a haunted house? This would create a scary or sinister tone. If you notice the setting is a coffee shop, you might expect a more ironic, romantic, or intimate tone. 

Overall, when it comes to learning how to describe the tone of a film it’s all about the feelings that are created when the film is watched. The mood that develops among the audience when they view the film represents the underlying tone of the movie. So what kind of steps will you take with your next script to set the tone of your film?