How to Avoid Being “Tone-Deaf” in Your Filmmaking

We’ve all seen that poor American Idol singer who has the look, the attitude, but when they open their mouth to sing…disaster. These unfortunate souls are tone-deaf, and it’s something that we as filmmakers need to be aware of. But “tone” in film is perhaps a little more difficult to understand than in music.

So what is tone when it comes to film? You might call it mood or vibe or feel, but it’s that overarching quality from the sum of all the parts. I would suggest that tone is different than style. Style is really all about the creative choices that are used in a work. Tone is the feel that comes from the combination of style and story.

Now, a lot of attention has been given to story structure, and for good reason. A great story, pierces through all kinds of creative and technical shortcomings. To be sure, if your story is lacking, no matter what else you do, you’re gonna be in trouble. But tone can elevate and give life to the most mundane stories. A classic example is the work of Terrence Malick. Many of his storylines are unconventional and meandering, but it’s the tone that keeps you engaged and beckons you to inhabit the world on the screen. See also the work of David Gordon Green, Barry Jenkins, and Lynne Ramsey.

Knowing the overall tone for your work will go a long way in helping to make creative decisions. It will help define use of color, light, composition, performance, pace, sound, music, etc. Here are some ideas to think about to help you create a consistent and effective tone in your work.


One of the easiest ways to discern the tone you’re after, is to ask yourself is what you want viewers to feel. This will help guide you through the story and stylistic choices you make, while keeping your tone consistent. You’ll be tempted to make choices that seem exciting or interesting, but if they don’t reinforce or add to the tone you’re after, you can shoot yourself in the foot.



Another helpful idea is to think of work that has a similar tone to what you are hoping to create. Think through the elements that help create that tone. Think about work that left you with the feelings you are hoping to create. What elements added to the feeling? When you have that essence in mind, you can eliminate a whole host of ideas that work against your tone, and concentrate on ideas that enhance it.



Find music that conveys the tone you’re after. Music is probably the quickest and surest way to help communicate tone. Even if it’s a piece of music that you don’t end up using in the final piece, it’s helpful to have references that you can share with your collaborators. This will help everyone understand the energy, rhythm and feel you are after so that everyone can work together.



Find visual references that tap into your tone. Even if they are stylistically different than what you are after, if they can help you capture a mood, they can be invaluable.



In addition to your actual script of notes, find some poetry or a quote that captures the sprit of what you’re doing. It can be a touchstone to come back to in times of doubt.



When choosing B-roll or stock video, look for footage that not only communicates your subject matter literally, but also matches and enhances the mood. When cutting away from a speaker or action, use footage that echoes the feeling of the narration, or performance. You can also choose footage that contrasts what is happening in your story. For example, if you character feels isolated, you might choose to juxtapose that feeling with footage of a crowd. Just make sure that your music and audio help carry that tone through the contrast.


Don’t be discouraged if you struggle with this. Tone is a difficult thing to understand and even harder to put into words. That’s the beauty of filmmaking though, you can create your tone with so many different elements! As you create, you are constantly battling to find the truest essence of the work. It’s not easy, but when you find it, it’s magical.

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