The Balance of Tone and Mood in Film

I think one of the most difficult things to balance in film is tone and mood. As audience members, we don’t much notice it while watching (unless it’s done poorly and even then we probably don’t understand why what we’re watching doesn’t ring true), but this balance is what really draws the viewer into the story. It’s how a writer and/or director decide both what they want to tell the viewer, and what they want the viewer to feel about that story. Technically mood and tone are separate things, but a truly genius director plays them off of each other so well, they become one compass pointing the viewer down his or her chosen path. When tone and mood are perfectly balanced and perfectly played, they allow the viewer to not only experience what the director wishes them to, but also to relate that to their own experience and pull something personal of their own from the film, perhaps even beyond what the director intends. The perfect execution of tone and mood in combination allows the message of the film to be delivered with razor sharp precision.

I think that this is an incredibly hard balance to achieve. A subtle message with an appropriate tone can be destroyed by too heavy of a mood, and the message will be lost in the emotion or will confuse the audience. At the same time, tone lacking appropriate mood will come off as wooden or disingenuous.

Let’s talk about District 9 since I mentioned it in my last post and I think the general audience this blog reaches will have seen it. In my opinion, the point of District 9 was to really make the viewer think about what humanity is and about what makes us human, as well as to consider some of the things that make us less human, like racism. Things are probably going to get pretty spoilerrific from this point on, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go rent it. (No really. It’s a great movie. Go.) Giving the film the guise of a documentary was a brilliant move by Blomkamp. It allowed the tone of the film to seem neutral and present what could have been a very preachy message in a way that allowed for the audience to decide what they felt for themselves. “Just the facts, ma’am.” It is the way that Blomkamp plays the mood of the film off of this tone that guides the viewer to see things in just the light he intends. I think because the documentary aspect makes the tone so very subtle, we can see Wikus as the completely flawed character that he is, but later still empathize with him instead of rooting for his downfall. And the reason we don’t root for his downfall is because of the way Blomkamp plays mood off of tone. We feel for Wikus, just as we feel for the prawn, Christopher. He makes both characters identifiable to us by using mood and gradually pulls us into the story. The documentary aspect gradually drops away, and the film becomes more intense as he, the writer/director, has more to say to us. Tone becomes stronger as the climax of the film descends on us and Christopher and his son escape. At the moment Wikus makes his choice to help them escape, he is presented through the use of tone as the most human he has been thus far, yet at this point he has physically become so alien that even alien technology recognizes him as such. As the climax of the film recedes, so does the tone. It goes back to more of a documentary feel, and again mood takes over as we see Wikus completely turned prawn as his wife speaks about him to the camera. It’s brilliant and it’s beautiful and it’s that perfect balance of tone and mood that makes it all possible.

So What’s the Deal With Sci Fi?

I happen to love post-apocalyptic science fiction. It is one of my favorite genres. I also love alien and monster movies, District 9 and Cloverfield being two of my favorites. And though there’s not much information out there about it yet, I’m really looking forward to Revolt coming out later this year. It got me thinking about what it is exactly about this genre that entices me so.

I don’t know why, but even as I kid I would imagine what we all would do if some catastrophic event made society come crashing down around us. And I’m not some sort of pessimistic nihilist. I’m actually an optimist at heart, and I certainly don’t think the world would be better if society as we know it ceased to exist. So why is it so fun to think about? What’s so attractive about movies and books in this genre?

I think as human beings we all have this sense of living on a knife’s edge. It’s mostly unconscious, but on some level we know we’re hurtling through life with the illusion of having full control over our destinies when there’s truly very little we can do to control what life throws at us. We have schedules and routines to order things and reinforce this notion, but really anything can happen at any time to disrupt the order in our lives. A car can be stolen, a job can be lost, a pipe can break and flood the entire house. Little, mundane things can and do throw our everyday lives into momentary chaos. Maybe watching aliens invade and throwing entire societies into bedlam makes us appreciate how insignificant the things that disrupt our daily lives really are, and how comparatively easy they are to overcome. I think that’s a reassurance we need as human beings. We need to know that everything’s okay, because hey, at least aliens aren’t trying to blow up the planet to make way for an intergalactic thruway. Or maybe that’s a stretch.

Inevitably sci fi forces us to consider the human condition by highlighting things that are completely outside of it. We bond emotionally with the people in the films because they are, well… people. They remind us of what it means to be human and what is important about being human. Often in sci fi, we are shown that the flaws of a human being are exactly what make him or her human, and that notion is celebrated. I suppose that’s what I like the most about the genre. As much as it is about cool special effects and scary situations, it’s also about us being us no matter what and surviving because of it.

Those WERE the thoughts we were looking for!

Living with ADD is a bizarre thing. I don’t have it severely or anything, but I have it enough that I do have to strategize around it, and do my best to not forget that it’s going to affect my thought processes. But really I don’t want to get into all of that here. I like to laugh about the ridiculous situations my silly brain will put me in because it just doesn’t quite connect right at times. Recently, I’ve equated it to having a bunch of storm troopers operating my brain. Shots get fired, but they often don’t hit the mark. I can know I’m about to connect with a thought, but will watch it pew pew into nothing. I’ve even come to think of it as my brain misfiring. Most of the time I can combat it by being hyper organized and recording everything on my calendar. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that Google runs my life. I probably couldn’t cope without my calendar telling me what to do, when. Well, I could cope, but the lights would be off and my house would be foreclosed on because I’d forget that I didn’t pay the mortgage already.

And then there’s the other aspect of it. If my thoughts are fired by storm troopers, my focus bounces between that of Jar Jar Binks and that of a Sith Lord. If I’m not interested in what I’m doing, or if I really don’t want to do it I’m in the realm of “Mesa cause one, two-y little bitty accidentes, huh?”. There are times when it feels like nothing will keep me from being a bumbling idiot who can’t find her tea cup because she forgot that she already made tea and it’s waiting for her in the microwave. But once I do focus, I am so hyper focused there is little that can be done to pull me away. “Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side.”

Anyway, apparently my brain is a bad Star Wars metaphor. Laugh it up, Fuzzball!

Writing and Design

I noticed as I started writing again, how similar writing is for me to design work. In the simplest sense, it’s about getting all my ideas down in one place and then refining them down to a finished product, but I think any creative endeavor can be boiled down to that. What really struck me when considering the similarities of the two, is that writing is also a very visual thing for me. When I’m writing a piece, I can see all the pieces and how they connect, and through wordsmithing, I can pick them up and turn them, putting the elements exactly where they need to be to create the desired effect. That’s what makes it so much like design for me. It’s about playing with all the little parts and making them dance together as a whole. I tend to see even literal concepts visually in my head. I see a piece of writing much like the inner workings of a clock; much like a cluster of interconnected gears that connect to form a whole. Each individual piece must be turned and adjusted in exactly the right way to get the whole thing to tick and function as one single entity. This also applies to design, though less figuratively I suppose, as elements in a design often need to be actually physically rotated and moved to exactly the right place so that the piece achieves its function with minimal distractions from the message it must convey. And writing, like design, must convey the correct tone for the piece. Writing is painting a picture with words so that the reader will see what the writer wants to be seen, and feel what should be felt. What is achieved with color choice and visual tone in a graphic piece is the same as what is achieved with word choice and vocal tone in a written piece. In a well written piece, you are hearing the message the writer wants you to hear with minimal distraction. In a design piece, you are seeing this message. When I write, I am trying to paint a picture. I want you to see what I see, feel what I feel, then understand and take something of your own away from it. I want the exact same thing when I create a graphic piece. See it, understand the message, come to your own conclusions, and above all else, I hope it makes you think or feel something new. I want this even for my simplest designs. I feel that design, much like writing, should evoke not only the intended message, but new thoughts and feelings. New ideas. In this way they should be lasting. If a piece, whether literary or visual, can make you consider something in a new light, it changes you on however small and subconscious a level. To me, that’s the true beauty of both mediums and perhaps how they are most similar. They both have the same power to affect.

Movie Review: The Fall

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I watched The Fall today. I was in an indie film kind of mood and having recently seen The Battle of the Five Armies, Lee Pace has been back on my radar. His Thranduil is brilliant and I’ve liked almost everything I’ve seen him in. I’ve read about him being proud of this one, so it seemed like a good way to spend the afternoon.

The Fall is set in the early 1920s I believe, and is about a stunt man who is in the hospital after a severe injury on set, and a five year old girl who is recovering from a badly broken arm she received from falling while picking oranges. He tells the young girl a fabulous fairy tale which very much parallels his struggle with the real world. I don’t want to spoiler this one too much, so I don’t want to get into any more plot details than that, but I will say that the fairy tale sequences are incredibly beautiful and very visually powerful. So much of this movie was powerful in so many ways. Every character in the movie is nuanced in some way, but subtly. You feel for all the characters, but what you feel for each is a little bit different. The movie pulls intense emotions from you at perfect moments and really makes you feel.

The performances are excellent and the dialogue between the stunt man and the girl was so natural that I’m still wondering if she had much of a script at all. It felt like they were just ad libbing the whole thing, or more accurately, just interacting as a young girl and an adult would. If that little girl really did have a script, she’s about the most amazing young actress I’ve ever seen. There was just a little girl who was playing and wanted to hear a story. It wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t forced. You hardly ever see children this well written. Really every character was natural from the stunt man to the little old man to the actor. The fairy tale scenes were quite the opposite, but they were intended to be. They were very contrived, very staged and they were meant to be. They were the story being told by the stunt man bit by bit.

Lee Pace’s performance was amazing. He never fails to wow me with pretty much everything that he does. He’s definitely a true talent; one of those actors that you just kind of have to sit back in awe of.

So yeah, this is one of the better movies I’ve seen. It is a tad eclectic, but that’s right up my alley. I highly recommend it. It’s incredibly moving. If you’ve seen it and want to talk about it, I think it’ll be okay to get into a more spoilerrific conversation in the comments section here about plot and more specific things. If you haven’t seen it, rent it, or pick it up on Google play or something. It’s worth it, and probably one of those movies that gets better if you see it more than once.

Image swiped from IMdB.com.

Image swiped from IMdB.com.

Acting! *jazz hands*

Many people that know me now are surprised to learn that I was a theatre brat in high school. I was never a boisterous, in your face, look at me kind of actor. A lot of what I did was behind the scenes. I was queen of the prop department for a few moments in time, but I also had some stage time. Because I’m more reserved, I didn’t get a ton of roles, but that was okay with me. Auditions were hard for me. I was a bit self-conscious and I had trouble getting into a role until I was actually on the stage. I don’t really have stage fright, but that’s because once I get out there, I just become the character. And I love that feeling. I love having who I am just vanish, and I love turning into that other person. I love being able to explore the inner workings of another individual and to be able to understand how they tick. I love feeling what they feel. It’s a mixture of both escapism and psychology for me. I can be someone else for a time, but it also provides me with the benefit of being able to really pick apart this other person and understand all the inner workings of their soul. I love analyzing things and coming to understand them. To me, information is a vast tapestry of interconnecting pieces, and I want to see every part of it so that I can truly understand and appreciate the whole. It’s even more interesting to me when that information is a person. I want to do that character justice, and more than anything, I think I really want to learn something new from them. I want to learn about the human condition, and maybe even gain some insight into myself at the same time. That’s what acting has always done for me.

I didn’t act after high school though I always, always have an intense desire to go back to the theatre; but life and my own fears have kept me from it. What I did find was role playing. I discovered it early on in college. I have never actually played a table top role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire: the Masquerade, but I’ve done plenty of my share of playing characters in online chatrooms, and eventually in MMO video games. I’ve found that role playing scratches a very similar itch to acting, and that it allows me to explore a character in very much the same way. I suppose the difference is that in role playing, it’s a character of my own creation, so I am the one choosing what aspect of humanity I’m going to explore. I suppose it also scratches the writing bug as much as it does the acting one because I get to wordsmith in order to really get my point and character across, but still, for me, it’s more about the acting. It’s again that momentary escapism combined with the chance to really learn something new about emotion. A lot of times my characters will do or say things I would not have expected. They will go down paths I would not have imagined taking them on when they were just a mere concept in my head. But I love that. I love simply coming up with a character concept and watching where the character decides to go when I really become that character. Acting is like that for me as well. There are obviously more constraints with a written script, which makes it a lot harder to do, but acting is still about letting a character take me somewhere while doing justice to that character. For me, role playing is the exact same thing. Find a character, play it with my soul, and see where we go together. I love it, and I also love watching other role players do the same thing. It’s a window into them for me as well. I love observing brilliantly written role play as much as I love watching brilliant acting. I love to see it, and to be it.

Me with the other cast members of Anne Frank meeting Miep Gies.

Me in high school with the other cast members of Anne Frank meeting Miep Gies.

Grief and Back Again

I lost my best friend Jaime almost 6 years ago. She was one of those people who was more than a friend, and was a true soul mate. There has never been another person on this earth that has known more about me or truly understood me on the level or to the extent that she did. I’m a pretty shy person and I don’t make a ton of friends. I am a lot more outgoing on the web than I am in my real life, and I find it hard to connect with people a lot of the time. I want friends, but most of the time I feel awkward around other people. It probably doesn’t help that I’m a homebody who doesn’t like clubbing or dancing or parties or any of those things, so I just don’t make friends easily. She and I met on the internet (of course), but we did all we could to visit each other and hang out in the real world. As we got older, we grew apart some. Our lives went in different directions. I had a child in my early twenties, and she was still out having fun and living a different life. That was fine. We had the kind of relationship where I knew she would always be there, and that however many times we might drift apart over the years, eventually our paths would meander together once again. And then she passed away.

I think it hit me more deeply than I can really understand even now. When I got the call I responded with an “Oh. Okay. Thank you for telling me.” It took me a full 24 hours to cry at all, and I really don’t think I cried enough. I told myself at the time that because we had drifted apart, I had already mourned her. It bothered me that the last time we spoke, I had gotten upset with her because she had called me very late at night and was not entirely sober. I had a child she might have woken up, after all, and I had outgrown my college drinking days. We got off the phone, and the next night she called again, a little earlier, but still after nine o’clock. I didn’t answer. I listened to the message she left, but she was again a bit inebriated. I never called her back. Months passed. And then she died. I told myself that even though she was gone, she knew that I cared about her and she still understood me well enough that she wouldn’t be angry with me for not returning that call. I had several vivid dreams where she spoke to me and I cried, and she told me everything was fine and I believed her. I committed myself to trying to call and comfort her partner who was of course in a much worse state of grief than I was. I’m the kind of person who has to do something about uncomfortable situations, and this was the only thing I could do. I also realize now that I felt like what she would have wanted me to do was to try to take care of her wife for her. All would be forgiven if I could do that. I guess really I felt like I could only forgive myself if I did what I thought she would require of me. Eventually the immediate grief passed. I thought I was pretty much done with it. I see now that I was not.

What I began to do was to slowly take that grief brick by brick and build a wall between me and the rest of the world. I have trust issues. I’ve been hurt. Jaime was the one person on the Earth that I thought would always understand me and be there no matter what. Her death seeded the notion in me that no matter how perfect a relationship with another human being might be, no matter how much they will always be there or want to be there, death can still take them away. This really damaged me. I just pulled away from everyone. I was terrified of having friends. Though somewhat shy and at times self-conscious, I never really had social anxiety before she died. I didn’t bond closely with everyone I met, but I was able to make and keep friends. After that wall started going up I didn’t make any new friends at all. I shut myself away from a lot of the online friends I had, and didn’t really make much effort to hang out with my real life ones. The brick wall was becoming more like a suit of armor. It was easier to move around in, but it was still pretty damned heavy. But I was okay with it. I liked it. It kept me safe. I can see now that as the years went on it unfortunately began to press ever inward and began to cut me off even from myself. I stopped writing and creating until I went back to school to get my graphic design degree. Even then I really found it hard to work on anything that wasn’t an assignment. I still read my books and had my wild fantasies. I still gamed. But slowly everything started to fade to grey.

I’ve always been a fairly vibrant person with a strong personality. I don’t always choose to share that personality with everyone, but I love literature and art and theatre and acting. A lot of that faded away as my grief armor pulled inward. I had no desire to touch the emotions that give birth to creative things; I was too busy protecting myself from those emotions. In some ways that made me lose myself, and looking back now I can see that I was actually even pushing me away from, well, me. I had some perception that I was pushing other people away, but I don’t think I saw what I was doing to myself. I just had this feeling that I was safe and better off alone.

Earlier this year one of my very closest friends from high school also passed away unexpectedly. He and I had also drifted apart, but more naturally than I had with Jaime. We just grew up after high school like people do and went our separate ways. We reconnected on Facebook, but hadn’t gotten around to reconnecting in real life. There’s always time, right?

My first reaction to losing him was fear. I knew that losing Jaime had messed me up. I thought for sure that losing yet another friend that was far too young to die was going to make me shut off even further from everyone. I thought, though not with too much seriousness, that being close to me was something of a curse. I think, though, that actually having the conscious thought that I might get worse and pull away from people more kept me from doing so. I think I cried more for him than I did for Jaime. Some of that was because I was able to attend his funeral. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years. I hugged people I probably never hugged before, and I liked it. It made me feel better. I had that connection again with other people even if it was a bit fleeting. I was still unable to attend the gathering everyone had after. I still needed to keep people at arm’s length and was too afraid to really talk to anyone.

Part of my problem is that I’m a “tough guy”. I’m a strong, fiercely independent woman who doesn’t want to need anything from anyone. I can do it all myself and watch out if you stand in my way. I don’t want to need people. I pride myself on being able to take care of myself. I never, ever want to admit weakness, and to me, grief was a weakness. So I cried at the funeral, I hugged my old friends, I hugged the mother of the friend that had passed, and I walked out and went home. I think it was less that I didn’t want other people to see me grieve than it was that I just wasn’t in an emotional state where I really wanted people to see me anymore at all. I experienced a strange mix of warmth toward other people in having a mutual love for a friend that had passed, and coldness of that damned suit of armor I was wearing.

I think this might have been part of the turning point for me. I actually wanted to not be afraid of people anymore. I had also been in my new job that exposed me to a lot more people on a regular basis and had me surrounded by a lot of other artists, designers, and writers every day. I was beginning to make friends, which still scared me mind you, but it also thrilled me a little bit. I was starting to come out of my Tin man like state, but not completely. I think the face plate of my armor opened some, and when I was able to peek out at the world, I realized I wanted to be a part of it again. That armor was still pretty damned heavy to move around in, though.

I’m not sure exactly why it happened, but that armor got a lot lighter over the last month or two. I think part of the reason was that I had really settled into my new career. I felt like a success again and not like a bumbling idiot. I felt like I had ideas and talents to contribute. I was making actual real friends again. I felt like other artists and writers could get me. I was still petrified of people on an emotional level that I couldn’t control, but I was determined to fight through. I was forcing myself to work through it and form relationships. The armor was still keeping me from myself, though.

My grandmother died shortly before Christmas. She was quite elderly and although it happened fairly swiftly, it was not entirely unexpected. Most of my family lives in New York, far away from me. My parents went back there for the funeral of course, and I stayed behind and helped to look after things here. I kind of wanted to go, but it all happened so quickly. I don’t have a lot of money, though I do have credit cards reserved for such an emergency and I could have afforded it that way. Ultimately I felt like I was of more use looking after things here. I also think I was still a little bit afraid of being around so many people and not being able to express my grief properly. I feared being judged even though I know my family is not like that and would never do that. I love them and they love me and I do know that. Regardless, I felt like there was too much here to do for me to be able to travel. I was at least able to take some time off from work this time. When each of my friends had died, I was back at work the next day. This time I took several days. Really I think I allowed myself the time this time because I was ready to actually work through my grief and begin to understand it. I had time to sit with my feelings and think about them. I had time to consider it, and ignore it when it was too much, then get back to it again later. Like always, I had to do something, so I spent hours finding the perfect florist that could live up to my ever snobbish design standards. I found one, and that made me feel a little better. I eventually came to the stark realization that I was the only one of my family that wasn’t in New York at the funeral, and that I somehow had to make myself okay with this. I wasn’t really okay with it, but I did feel like I was needed here across country at home and not so much back in New York. I stumble in social situations and I was worried I would do just that at the wrong time. I decided that it was okay that I wasn’t there even though I wanted to be. I let myself be okay with it. I think I realized when I let myself be okay with it, that if I could make conscious decisions to be okay with an uncomfortable situation I couldn’t do much about, that maybe I could make the decision to get out of the uncomfortable armor I’d put myself in all those years ago. I’m not sure exactly what tweaked it or why it happened, but after my grandmother’s death, I decided to be happy again. I decided I could let Jaime go and be happy and enjoy the things I enjoy without having to miss her sharing them with me. I realized that I wanted to be me again and for whatever reason, the armor mostly fell to pieces around me. I feel like myself again. I feel alive again. I still have some lasting trepidation and anxieties, but I’m able to try to work through them and be okay with it when I can’t, knowing that the next time I try, I will likely succeed. Maybe it’s because I finally allowed myself not to be perfect. Likely it’s more because I decided I didn’t care if anyone else thought I was perfect. I decided to be okay with myself again. Whatever it was that happened felt like a bubble around me popped and disappeared. (Yeah, I’m mixing metaphors, but that’s what it felt like. It was almost audible to me.) I’m back to being me again. I want to create and write. I have a burning need to do so again. It’s odd. I feel like I’m bouncing off the walls and everything that was trapped inside for so long is just trying to explode out. I’m happy with being me. I’m happy being who I am and I want to share me with people again.

And that was my experience with grief. I wanted to write about it because it is such an odd and intangible thing. It’s something that society tells you you should feel and understand, but I don’t think that’s really true. Grief can be silent. It certainly was for me. It’s different for everyone, but it’s never what you think it will be before you’ve experienced it. It does things you can’t comprehend. I think that’s why I want so badly to put it into words. I’ve always had a burning need to understand everything that I feel, and to be able to rationalize and fix it. I know that I still can’t do that when it comes to understanding grief, but writing this has at least made the experience slightly more tangible for me.

This turned out to be far longer than I intended. Thank you for sticking with me through this until the end and for sharing this experience with me.

jaime

juniorprom

Grandma2