A Filmmaker's Guide to: Atmosphere

Film Studies (Pt.19)

A Filmmaker's Guide to: Atmosphere

In this chapter of ‘the filmmaker’s guide’ we’re actually going to be learning about literature and film together. I understand that many of you are sitting in university during difficult times and finding it increasingly hard to study and I understand that many of you who are not at university or not planning on it are possibly stuck of what to do, need a break or even need to catch up on learning film before you get to the next level. This guide will be brief but will also contain: new vocabulary, concepts and theories, films to watch and we will be exploring something taboo until now in the ‘filmmaker’s guide’ - academia (abyss opens). Each article will explore a different concept of film, philosophy, literature or bibliography/filmography etc. in order to give you something new to learn each time we see each other. You can use some of the words amongst family and friends to sound clever or you can get back to me (email in bio) and tell me how you’re doing. So, strap in and prepare for the filmmaker’s guide to film studies because it is going to be one wild ride.

Atmosphere

What is it?

The pervading tone or mood of a place in a piece of art/literature/film.

An atmosphere can be determined by a lot of things. If you remember in one of the previous parts to 'the filmmaker's guide to film studies' you will have seen our article on pathetic fallacy. Let's just remind ourselves of what a pathetic fallacy means so that we can go smoothly into atmosphere.

Pathetic Fallacy = the attribution of feelings to inanimate things that are normally weather conditions, architecture and/or the experience of a particular time.

So, an atmosphere can include pathetic fallacy and still require more stuff crammed into it to be able to create the atmosphere thoroughly enough so that the audience/reader understands exactly what the emotions are going to be like.

What about in film?

Well, in film it is a little easier to see since we have a medium of sight as opposed to description written in literature. It is not only easier but faster to make out what the atmosphere is supposed to be upon first sight...

Actually, let me explain this by using a bit of a quiz...

Questions

Question 1:

If my atmosphere has jagged architecture, rain and lots of forest areas with the only light source being natural moonlight - then which of the following genres is my creative work for this mostly likely to fall under?

A. Romance

B. Horror

C. Adventure

Question 2:

If my atmosphere had architecture clearly from the Renaissance and most of the work was set during the evening hours with neutral weather forecasts then which of the genres here would my work most likely fall under?

A. Horror

B. Historical

C. Comedy

Question 3:

If the weather was harsh and unforgiving and my work was set at sea then which of the following genres is my piece of work most likely to fall under?

A. Adventure

B. Romance

C. Crime/Mystery

So, what did you get?

Let's now have a look at the answers and see exactly what is most likely the genre for each of the pieces and why.

Answers

Question 1:

The answer to the first question is B (Horror). The reason being that the forest area provides a good amount of spatial atmosphere for the piece, giving the feeling of getting lost easily is a great way to scare your audience before you've even started the plot line. Rain is also a great way of obscuring sight and sensory obscurity is maybe the best way to get your audience looking closer at your work (especially in film). The jagged architecture creates a gothic feel since it is the gothic architecture that tends to have spikes and sharp edges, giving the feeling of danger that is imminent. Finally, natural moonlight establishes that the time of day is not only nighttime but it also provides the audience with the knowledge that this moon is the only source of light around and therefore, everywhere else will be coated in darkness. This question was inspired by the film "Nosferatu" (1922).

Question 2:

The answer to question two is B (Historical). The reason for this is because we first have the Renaissance architecture which is a dead giveaway. Renaissance architecture is uncommon around the world nowadays with the disappearance of a lot of the 15th and 16th century world and very few things are set within these structures unless directly related to the architecture themselves because of their decoration and complexity. They have the ability to distract the viewer and so, you won't find them unless you're looking for them! Next we have the evening hours in which a lot of historical drama takes pathetic fallacy. Evening and sunset are very dramatic times. Not only are large dining experiences in rich households done at this time but also the colour of the evening gives a beautiful backdrop for dramatic tension. The neutral weather makes it easier to see the way in which the evening and night circumstances compliment what is actually happening in the story. The inspiration for this question came from Derek Jarman's "Caravaggio" (1986).

Question 3:

The answer to question three is A (Adventure). The reason for this is because the pathetic fallacy suggests some sort of turmoil of the human character in which vision and other senses may be impaired and obscured. The weather being harsh and unforgiving means not only are the character's senses in peril but most like the character is fighting for their lives - a common trope of adventure stories. The next thing we have to look at is that the work is set at sea and it is common for an adventure story to use each mode of land, sea and sky in order to make the journey of the hero more interesting and also more dangerous, keeping the interest of the viewer/reader for longer and creating better tension when things go wrong. In this case, it seems that the weather mixed with the unpredictability of the sea may obscure much of our character's ability to reason, see or even solve the problem at hand (whatever that may be).

Conclusion:

I know this was different to the other articles on 'the filmmaker's guide to film studies' but I hope you now understand the different things that can go into making atmosphere. It does not just need to be the weather, it does not just need to be the setting - in fact, it is everything within the scene (mise-en-scene, if you remember what that means from one of the previous articles of ours!) put together to create the viewing experience. I'm going to leave some novels with great atmosphere in the further reading list so that you can learn more about creating atmosphere through writing and try to imagine what it would be like on the screen (or watch the films and compare if they have adaptations!).

Further Reading:

  • Austen, J (1992). Northanger Abbey. 2nd ed. UK: Wordsworth Classics.
  • Capote, T (2000). In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. 2nd ed. UK: Penguin Modern Classics.
  • Melville, H (1992). Moby-Dick. UK: Wordsworth Classics.
  • Shelley, M (2003). Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus . 2nd ed. UK: Penguin.
  • Waugh, E (2000). Brideshead Revisited. 2nd ed. UK: Penguin Modern Classics.

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Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
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Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Focus in Film: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Author of: "The Filmmaker's Guide" series

Email: [email protected]

Interests: Film, Literature and Bob Dylan

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