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Monday, 9 January 2017

Time, the Weather and the Mood

Weather conditions and scenery form a basic part of what makes each scene in a story. Be it nighttime, daytime, raining, scorching, snowing... Weather and time can help create an impression without the need for excessive exposition from characters or even the need for any kind of dialogue recap of events. This style is generally used within the visual arts, as books have the necessary leeway to have such descriptions from the narration, whether they're a third-person presence or one of the characters in first person.

The basic principle is simple. You want to communicate in the shortest space of time what the general mood is, either in the story or with the characters. This can lead to being liberal with the nature of weather and time, but that's something else entirely. It's a different element to camera angles, which can also be used to emphasise mood for characters and the general story. A basic example: it's a downer part of the story, and your characters are in a sour mood, or perhaps you're showing the villain's triumphant tirade - the most likely scenario would be that it's nighttime and probably raining, or at least clouded or threatening a storm.

Western films and television don't seem to use it as much as they used to, especially with the recent trend for an off-grey filter which is applied to stories that are prone to use these effects (melodramas, detective stories, fantasy/sci-fi). But where it is used, it's worth noting. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, the final scenes show the  Rome and the unhinged Commodus bathed in glorious sunlight in the Forum, contrasting directly with the tragic scenes which have unfolded so far and continue to do so. Something from the superhero genre that springs to mind is Spider Man 3. A key scene during the second half is when Parker realises he is being suborned by the symbiote, and sits on the spire of a church while a storm and rain surrounds him. As Parker struggles to tear off the symbiote, Eddie Brook comes for solace down below and becomes the symbiote's latest host. The surrounding storm emphasises the dark subject matter of this scene - however, this scene can feel gratuitous more than emotional if you're not invested in the film. Rain is a wonderful mood maker, and its use during the 1990s version of Godzilla creates an omnipresent dimness, and finally sorrow at the wondrous beast's ultimate fate. The blazing sun is also an inseparable element from Westerns ranging from The Magnificent Seven to , throwing into sharp relief everything that's happening.

One of the few singular masters of this in film is Akira Kurosawa, whose camera angles and juxtaposition of movement to stillness makes all of his movies contenders for being cinematic masterpieces in both Japan and internationally. From his black and white era, Yojimbo is the most entertaining and accessible of his movies from the period, but if you're willing there are other films such as Seven Samurai and  - Yojimbo's mood is exemplified by its setting of a dusty village torn apart by rival gangs, while nighttime scenes emphasise the darker or more covert parts of the story. Other parts of his work  also use weather to good effect (such as the swing scene from Ikiru or the rain falling around the Rajomon gate). One of the best examples, if not the best example of this from color pictures is Ran, which also plays with the concept of surroundings and contrast, adding further depth to Kurosawa's work. The burning sun exemplifies the fallen Daimyo's descent into madness and the growing animosity between his suns and the neighboring Daimyo.

In video games, weather and times of day are used similarly and perhaps more liberally to convey story and character mood. Dishonored uses weather as an indicator of the character's moral alignment and their effect on the world, while Heavy Rain uses rain in copious amounts as both a story device and indication of the sorrowful mood. A less well known but still effective use of rain and damp in darkness is the sixth level of Tomb Raider Legend. Darkened scenes illuminated by fire are more than frequent, and often accompany sombre scenes - the party resting in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV, the tense talk between Koudelka and Edward in Koudelka, and multiple scenes in Drakengard 3 and the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Fire can be used to greater effect than other weather effects. In fact, it's so interesting to see its wider scope and general use in storytelling that I think I'll make that the subject of my next post!

I couldn't possibly list every single use of these elements in every film and video game and book, but I've picked out the ones that stood out to me. I don't always think these tricks of scenery and weather - they can come off as cheap of cliche. But I think they're worth mentioning as something that form a part of every story's cinematic, imaginary and artistic DNA.

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