Details matter. The difference between chartreuse and lime makes little difference in our everyday lives. But in filmmaking, there are incredible subtleties that mostly go consciously unnoticed, but subconsciously affect how we see a film or commercial dramatically.
Take Breaking Bad, for example. Everyone that watches notices that as Walt “breaks bad” in the first season, he gradually looks more and more like a villian. He loses the hair on his head while growing a goatee. But did you notice the wardrobe changes as well? His pants get slimmer and his shirts get darker. During a scene when Walt begins to show his true colors (pun intended), he removes a dark red shirt only to be wearing a much darker one underneath, revealing to the viewer that underneath the evil is only a darker evil. His wife, ostensibly one of the good guys, wears white. In the background, constrasting with Walt’s almost demonic presense is an angel hanging on the wall. The yellow of the room is ever-so-slightly green, nearly the green of fluorescent lights, helping to put the viewer on edge.
In The Dark Knight, when the Joker is being interrogated his makeup has been partially wiped from his forehead, and a misplaced dark smudge has been added. This, paired with flat, non-menacing (or less menacing) lighting, implys that not everything is going according to the Joker’s plan. This leads the viewer into a false sense of security for when things start to fall apart for the good guys.
In a Budweiser commercial aired during the 2015 Super Bowl (watch here), a puppy gets lost, but finds his way home. To convey this visually, the commercial begins in bright, vibrant colors. When the dog is accidentally locked in the trailer, his fear is shown by the abrupt darkness of the shot. Both the man’s and puppy’s sadness is then portrayed by rain. And the longer the puppy is gone, the darker and bluer the shots get, losing both contrast and vibrance. The darkness is wiped away by the dawn when the puppy returns (the darkness and light shown in the same shot using shadows) before the commercial returns to the brighter, more vibrant, colors at the beginning of the commercial.
Filmmaking isn’t about telling the viewer something, and it’s not just about showing them. Maya Angelou said that people will forget what you said, forget what you did, but never forget how you made them feel. That’s what filmmaking is about. The Budweiser commercial uses the story of a dog to show the companionship that can be formed over a round of drinks, but it’s also a moving and emotional story that sticks in your head, creating a lasting impression. The rain, the color, even the bit of mud on the puppy all let you feel his sadness, not just see it.
Details matter. They matter in lighting, composition, pacing, sound, music, color, and—of course—story.