In the world of filmmaking, the term “mood” has various meanings. To some, it refers to visual appeal. Others see it as an emotional trigger that influences how an audience should feel about the story. Still, many would liken mood to the overall atmosphere captured within the camera frame.

While there is no universally accepted meaning for the word, the mood is still a critical component of any film, whether it is a big-budget production or a short documentary.

At any rate, mood-setting is a process that involves putting together different creative elements in a way that complements a filmmaker’s stylistic choices. The best part about this process is the fact that you don’t need a large budget to pull it off.

As a matter of fact, indie filmmakers have the right amount of artistic freedom when it comes to setting the mood for their creations.

setting the mood

Whether it’s a passion project or an official entry to Sundance or Tribeca, you can make your indie film compelling by following these nine basic tips:

1. Start With a Story Concept

For the most part, you can’t get anything done without having a good idea of what it is you want your film to achieve.

For this, you can brainstorm for ideas coming from personal experiences, anecdotes, childhood memories, or daydreams.

Once you have picked an idea worth expounding, you may want to follow through by identifying the kind of mood you will want to set for your film.

Story concepts are only the thumbnails that describe the final product, so give yourself time at the outset to develop your concepts and visualize how they will end up to form the first draft of a screenplay.

Indie Filmmaking Tips for Setting the Mood

2. Experiment With Different Conventions

Often, it is the genre that sets the mood of a film. Romance films are characterized by certain elements that are almost exclusive to the genre. Horror is another example of a genre that maintains its own set of stylistic rules.

Still, when it comes to creating something that’s fresh out of the box, you have the liberty to mix up different styles in order to evoke a sense of irony or false security, as in the case of setting a romantic mood for a horror film.

After all, as an indie filmmaker, you can play around with your audience’s expectations by turning genre conventions upside down.

setting the mood

3. Write Quotable Dialogue

In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, Hans Landa asks a French dairy farmer about the whereabouts of a Jewish family.

Landa starts off as civil and friendly as he talks about the nature of his task — hunting down Jews. He asks for a glass of milk to signify the sincerity of his visit.

Eventually, the scene becomes increasingly tense as Landa discusses the consequences of “sheltering enemies of the state.” The farmer gives in to Landa’s intimidating lecture and confirms that a Jewish family is indeed hiding under the floorboards of his house.

This scene (and many others in the movie) is a great example of how great dialogue writing allows emotions to build up.

It sets a mood that compels the audience to feel what a character feels during a certain moment, whether it brings out a feeling of ecstasy or anxiety.


4. Make Action Speak Louder Than Words

In some cases, the mood of any film can be characterized by the actions contained in each sequence. Think about how Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh only has a few speaking parts in “No Country for Old Men”.

Then again, the calculating brutality that underscores the way he disposes of his victims adds to the danger that Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss finds himself in.

Not only do actions move the plot forward, but they also inform how the audience should feel from beginning to end.

setting the mood

5. Use the Location to Your Advantage

Another way you can set the town of your film is to pick a location that aligns with the narrative.

Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is a perfect example of how location becomes a character within the film itself as Tokyo functions as a sprawling metropolis and, at the same time, a desert and lonely island.

Even if you cannot afford to set your film somewhere in another country, it is still possible to achieve your artistic vision. You only need to take your time scouting for the perfect location that perfectly captures the mood of your film.

While big-budget films have all the resources to hire a film location agency to help with scouting for the perfect place to shoot a scene, you can always consider building an entire set from scratch.

6. Leverage The Frame Rate

The frame rate refers to the speed at which images are displayed. How does this affect the mood of your film? In sequences that evoke a sense of urgency, a lower frame rate is often required to create the illusion of speed.

This is often the case with action films with plenty of chase sequences where characters move around quickly within the frame, creating a blurry effect that brings out that “edge of your seat” excitement from the audience.

On the other hand, you can underscore drama by increasing the frame rate on characters that are grieving. This technique allows you to highlight the intense emotional suffering that the characters are feeling.

7. Pick the Right Color and Gradient

This may sound like very basic film school advice, but much of a film’s mood depends on the color palette you have chosen for your film. You can only look towards films such as 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.

Much like David Fincher’s other films, this rendition of Stieg Larsson’s most successful book in a Nordic thriller is underscored by its subdued lighting and the dominance of blues and greens which add to the suspenseful atmosphere of Stockholm.

You can create the same effect if you want your film to evoke a sense of fear and paranoia.

8. Play With the Sound Design and Music

When it comes to mood, visual elements compose a part of the formula. You can also accomplish certain effects by playing with the sound design.

For instance, you can add the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards and telephones constantly ringing to describe the hectic life of a print journalist.

If the location is a barren desert, whistling wind and the distant call of an eagle creates space and a feeling of hopelessness, as if the character is forced to wander the vast expanse of rock and sand alone.

Moreover, music (or the absence of it) can also play a big part in setting the mood of a scene.

setting the mood

9. Make Your Compositions Stand Out

The way you compose a shot triggers a certain emotion. In this sense, the way you arrange objects and characters inside a frame is as important as the objects and characters themselves.

Wes Anderson’s iconic whimsical style of filmmaking is underscored by his clever use of symmetry and depth.

On the other hand, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used composition so well that each frame resembles a work of fine art.

With perfect cinematography and arrangement, you will be able to set the kind of mood that you want your audience to take hold of.

Setting The Mood – Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, filmmaking remains an art form that informs how your audience should feel. Regardless of your experience or the number of resources you have, you can achieve great things just by making a film that plays into the emotions of the crowd.