Establishing Atmosphere with the Visual Mindscape

No, I haven’t disappeared. Due to time constraints I have decided to cut back to a monthly column rather than every two weeks.

The two primary screenwriting devices that are most often ignored are narrative pacing, which I discussed in an earlier posting, and Atmosphere.

Atmosphere is the visceral experience created by the ambiance of a scene.  It is established by going beyond the basic, the obvious, and the shallow to the evocative, the unique, and the intentional.

Atmosphere through Location

Location can play a huge part in creating atmosphere.  The dark, foreboding ambiance in the opening scene of Citizen Kane clearly expresses sadness and regret.

FADE IN:
EXT. XANADU - FAINT DAWN - 1940 (MINIATURE)
Window, very small in the distance, illuminated.
All around this is an almost totally black screen.  Now, as the camera moves slowly towards the window which is almost a postage stamp in the frame, other forms 
appear; barbed wire, cyclone fencing, and now, looming up against an 
early morning sky, enormous iron grille work.  

Camera travels up what is
now shown to be a gateway of gigantic proportions and holds on the top 
of it - a huge initial "K" showing darker and darker against the dawn 
sky.  Through this and beyond we see the fairy-tale mountaintop of 
Xanadu, the great castle a silhouette as its summit, the little window a
distant accent in the darkness.

Xanadu Gates Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane – The foreboding and desolate Xanadu

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard, written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman, Jr., establishes the atmosphere of its story through the setting.

Norma Desmond’s Mansion exudes loneliness, desolation, and despair. It is caught in the same illusion as the woman herself; the opulence of old Hollywood strangled by age. Note the parallel that is made between the decaying house and the empty glitter of the silent picture days of old Hollywood.

INT. NORMA DESMOND'S ENTRANCE HALL
It is grandiose and grim.  The whole place is one of those abortions of silent-picture days, with bowling alleys in the cellar and a built-in pipe organ, and beams imported from Italy, with California termites at work on them.
Portieres are drawn before all the windows, and only thin slits of sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.

Atmosphere through Natural Elements

Both weather and the time of day can enhance atmosphere. It could be a relentless rainstorm, or dust devils swirling in a parched land, or the blustering blizzard of a winter storm, or an inescapable, sweltering heat wave. Your scene can establish atmosphere by the time of day in which it takes place, be it day or night, dusk or dawn.

Insomnia Insomnia_2

In Hillary Seitz’s screenplay Insomnia, she has a very interesting take on time of day in establishing the atmosphere.  The story takes place in a little town in Northern Alaska called Nightmute (very appropriate). In Nightmute, the sun never sets.  The night is simply a muted, grayish tinge, and it is relentless. What an intriguing atmosphere in which to set a murder mystery, especially when the protagonist also suffers from insomnia.

Insomnia – The Grey Muted Night

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader, establishes both the mood and atmosphere of Manhattan by using both time of day and the weather.

"CREDITS appear over scenes from MANHATTAN NIGHTLIFE. The snow has melted, it is spring.

A rainy, slick, wet miserable night in Manhattan's theater district.

Cabs and umbrellas are congested everywhere; well-dressed pedestrians are pushing, running, waving down taxis. The high-class theatre patrons crowding out of the midtown shows are shocked to find that the same rain that falls on the poor and common is also falling on them.

The unremitting SOUNDS of HONKING and SHOUTING play against the dull pitter-patter of rain. The glare of yellow, red and green lights reflects off the pavements and autos."

Mission Impossible IIIGhost Protocol

Using natural elements to establish atmosphere is nowhere more apparent than in Mission Impossible III – Ghost Protocol.

In this film, the entire floor of the desert lifts up and smacks us in the face.  In a place where there are few places to hide, a sandstorm can add a whole new level to a chase scene. Sand storm

Atmosphere through Source Music

First, let me explain what Source Music is.  Source Music is any form of music that has been inserted into the story and can be heard by the characters.

As it is part of the scene and the overall story, it is also part of the screenwriter’s jurisdiction.

M is for murder

One of the first examples of using source music to create atmosphere is Fritz Lang’s M is for Murder.  In this film, a tune ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ whistled by the Murderer (Peter Lorre), serves as a guiding motif.

It is the murderer’s calling card and, once established, the mere sound of it warns us that he may not be on screen but he is nearby.

M is for Murder is one of the first times a guiding motif or leitmotif was used in film and has since become a very popular film technique.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Another film that uses a guiding motif to establish a haunting atmosphere is Once Upon a Time in the West. Harmonica

The first time the mysterious gunman (Charles Bronson) is seen, he is playing a haunting, piercing melody on a harmonica.  It is a shrill series of notes that send a chill up your spine.

It speaks to a burning need for retribution that consumes Bronson’s character.  It is his leitmotif and, when the harmonica is heard, we know that he is nearby.

Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick’s brilliance is again apparent in this horrific, atmospheric juxtaposition: the troops sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song as they march, silhouetted by the flames that ravage the village behind them.

Full Metal Jacket It speaks to the journey from boys to men as well as invoking the camaraderie that exists amongst the platoon soldiers.

Using Descriptors to Establish Atmosphere

Descriptors can be the screenwriter’s greatest tool in establishing atmosphere. With a single, carefully chosen word or phrase, the writer can illuminate an image, viscerally express an action, reveal the inner workings of a character, and invoke a palpable atmosphere to the story.

An essential element of screenwriting is the ability to tell the story in a succinct, near haiku style.  This form of brevity allows the story to flow, and the writer to remain in the present tense.

Descriptors are invaluable in accomplishing this and still establishing a visceral connection with the reader. When I am writing, I always have www.thesaurus.com running in the background. I also use descriptor software called Script Master.  It is rare that I write a page in my script without referring to them in my constant search for the word that is just right.  I reference both programs consistently as I write.

Usually, the first word that comes to mind is the more common, more generic choice, but this is not always the best choice.

Atmosphere is affected by your choices of location, colors, textures, landscapes, nature, weather, and mood.  Each of these elements has copious ways of being expressed.

Let’s say that in your scene there is an old house.  Old is pretty generic. What is it about the personality of this house that you want to evoke in the reader?  What kind of atmosphere do you want to convey with it? Is it the grand, old lady that has seen better days?  Then rinky-dink, seedy or dingy are not going to be as appropriate as exhausted, venerable, or tottering.

If the atmosphere you want to create is menacing, then rickety, run-down or frail will not be as effective as haggard, ominous, sinister, murky, morose, grim, gloomy, ghastly, sour, or surly.

"On the hill sits a grim, sour-looking, old house."

Next to the story itself, atmosphere is arguably the primary means of capturing the imagination of the reader/viewer.  It is critical to the kind of reception your script will receive as it enters the market place.

You will find in the Appendix of my book, The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay,  several different lists of descriptors;

  • Colors
  • Textures
  • Locations
  • Character traits
  • Character flaws
  • Active and Visceral adverbs

SCARS Update  For those of you who are following the progression of my project SCARS at present the Director is attached, A Producer and Production Company and lead actor are also attached. Now the script budgeting is being set. Once that is done, the financing begins. More next month.

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One thought on “Establishing Atmosphere with the Visual Mindscape

  1. Nina

    Dear Bill, I found your article very nice and helpful. Thank you for writing. I am now dealing with the dilemma of source music for/in the script and how it can be used, so as to avoid suggesting music and soundtracks, which is clearly not the scriptwriter’s job. Could you suggest some further reading on this specific issue?

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