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Creating atmosphere through color and sound

University Paper written by Sebastian Bos on 10th of July 2019 for Dongguk International Summer School 2019 module: Introduction to Korean Film DISS 2019 teached by Jae Soh

An analysis on the utilization of color and sound to create atmosphere in selected Korean films from 1960 to current titles. The movies covered in this paper include “The Housemaid” (1960), “Deep Blue Night” (1985), “The Housemaid” (2010), “Joint Security Area” (2000) and “Memories of Murder” (2003).

When analyzing movies from different periods of time it is important to always keep the shift of technology during the last years in mind. Visual effects and digital video have evolved a lot in the past which makes it difficult to compare a movie from 1960 to a movie from 2019 in terms of quality. However it is still possible to look at how directors are approaching the usage of color and sound to fulfill their intentions.

The first movie this paper is going to analyze is “The Housemaid” from 1960 by director Kim Ki Young. Since this movie is a black-white-movie it may seem odd to include it in an analysis which partly focuses on color. Nevertheless it’s interesting to see the decisions the director has chosen to create atmosphere when not having the ability to use color as we know it from todays movies. The movie still uses a lot of techniques which we can also find in today’s movies. In terms of color the movie is generally set in a darker setting. In the movie many scenes take place in interior which always has a dark and claustrophobic impression. Also the lighting is chosen to support this mood, by using small lights in the houses which provide a lot of artificial light instead of using a lot of natural light. This general approach itself already creates an atmosphere that fits the story and mood of the movie quite well.  This effect is amplified by a great use of sound. An important motive for the movie is rain, which always comes with visual and audible elements that work towards the mood and atmosphere. Also the movie uses a technique that nowadays is mostly references to as “Jump-scare” which describes a pattern to scare the viewer by rapidly changing the image accompanied by a usually high pitched sound effect. While watching the movie this pattern can be observed several times, for example when the image cuts to the housemaid staring through the window. However soundtracks similar to those high pitched scaring sounds are used to accentuate certain scenes which thereby also gain excitement but also discomfort. This discomfort is also enhanced by adding piano noises as the housemaid sometimes uses the piano without knowing how to play properly (This is also an example for “Source-Music” which is explained later in this paper). All these elements together help the movie to tell its story with the mood and atmosphere it needs.

The movie “Deep Blue Night” from 1985 by director Bae Changho already marks another chapter in cinema development. This movie is a color-movie like its known today. However also in this movie it’s obviously still observable that editing and visual post production still has a long way of development to go. Even though the story and main character is driven by bad intentions, the colors in this movie seem to stand out and are quite colorful. There are a lot of reasons that could explain this phenomenon. First of all this movie covers the life in America which at that time was very appealing and a dream for many Koreans. Using a lot of colors might have been used to show how many people imagine the life in America, although the movie wants to show that this imagination is not the case. Also the movies location is almost completely in southern California which is a pretty warm place, so warmer colors fit the atmosphere of the location. Furthermore this movie is considered very artistic, which is additionally an indicator for why the color correction seems to be off in the first place, but if analyzed in detail its a completely comprehensible approach. In terms of sound the movie uses a lot of music that is very fitting to the color and story and the ambient noises help to strengthen the feeling of immersion while watching the movie. The overall picture is very harmonious yet unexpected.

“The Housemaid” from 2010 by director Im Sangsoo is a remake of the original one that has already been discussed above. It is also the newest movie this paper covers. Even though the story of the remake does not really have a lot of similarities with the original story, a lot of the mood and atmosphere is achieved by similar techniques. The movie takes place in a rather light and white house, however ironically a dark atmosphere is created by the plain and sterile looking walls and interior. This effect is amplified by removing a lot of saturation and vibrance to create an almost into black-white going look that makes the viewer feel cold while watching the movie. A similar effect can be observed in “Memories of Murder” which will be covered later. The audio really accompanies this mood by adding a lot of piano music (This motive is also used a lot in the original movie from 1960). Many times we can only hear the piano which is a very fitting instrumentalization for the surrounding area. It sounds relatively plain and cold when consumed together with the image. Other soundtracks which feature more classical instruments can be heard in certain scenes to work towards thrill and excitement. Interesting to mention here is the difference between “Source-music” and “Score-music”. While the piano is hearable by characters in the film as well as the viewer due to the source being in the environment a whole other effect is achieved (There is also an impact on storytelling). “Score-music” which can only be heard by the film viewer is also existent, but has another impact than the “Source-music”. The movies atmosphere is achieved really well and fits into the story well.

“Joint Security Area” was released in 2000 and was directed by Park Chanwook who is known for above-average usage of editing. This movie is a really good example for strong usage of editing and color correction, which also shows that the director has a big influence on the outcome of color and sound elements. A really important motive of this movie is rain. Also the movie is using color to code certain time periods, situations or characters to emotions of the viewer. This pattern is very unambiguous when the investigator talks to the soldiers and shows him the bullets found at the crime scene. The scene starts in a very brownish color while she talks. As the soldier suddenly starts to remember and a flashback starts to happen, the color quickly shifts to a very blueish and dark color. In following flashbacks during the movie the same kind of color grading is used, so the viewer can quickly adapt to the new situation and already subconscious know that he is in a flashback again. This technique is very well used together with the rain motive. This also includes the sound component of the rain. It helps the coding of the scene and shifts the mood of the viewer very good into a new state.

The last film this paper will analyze is “Memories of Murder” from 2003 by director Bong Joonho. The general color correction is in a similar pattern to the remake of “The Housemaid” from 2010. Nearly the whole movie had a reduced saturation and vibrance, however the contrast is very harsh, which creates a fitting look to the story. However really important in this movie is the introduction scene and the ending scene which really stand out color wise. The main-character can be seen on a large field. This field is color-graded very warm with a lot of yellow colors. This yellow color is sticking out a lot in this scene, however it is only observable again in the ending scene, which is at the same place. This pattern is also used to code this color to the specific location and store this in the viewers brain. When the viewer suddenly sees the color in the ending scene again, he is reminded of the introduction shot, which sets a great border and circle for the story. Also this film is another example for rain as a motive. It’s accompanied by dark and blueish shots, which together also have a great impact on the mood of the movie. Also the sound and audio usage in “Memories of Murder” is outstanding. The composed music fits the atmosphere of the visuals very well and the background music is working well for the visuals.

In conclusion it can be stated that the directors have understood that color as well as audio are incredibly powerful tools to create atmosphere. It’s possible to see rain as a popular motive in the selected movies. Also rain itself is an atmospheric element, since it always has an impact on the visual (we can see raindrops, reflections, wet objects, etc.) as well as the audio (rain sounds, sometimes even thunder sounds). It’s interesting to see that already 1960 color and atmosphere were important elements to consider. Also it’s possible to see a certain trend through the different periods of time. While 1960 the director had no possibility to control colors, he had to rely on dark and light to create the mood. After the possibility of color-editing was available, it was used a lot in 80s movie “Deep Blue Night” but also later a strong use of it can be seen in “JSA”. Nevertheless the most recent movies “Memories of Murder” as well as the remake of “The Housemaid” are still using techniques from earlier times, but they don’t exaggerate the effect and use it very smart. Also its possible to see how color-grading evolved and that color-coding has developed to a very popular pattern in film-making (A famous example in TV-shows is probably “Stranger Things” which does a great job in color-coding the “Upside-down” world in contrast to the normal world). It’s interesting to see where Korean Cinema will develop in the future and how the use of audio and color might change in the future or if influences on or from movies from other cultures can be observed in the future.

Of course this paper covers only very basic and few examples of color and sound usage in these movies, however personally I see those as the most important and interesting applications of the explained techniques. Furthermore I personally see color and sound as very powerful instrument and I also think that the directors and their team are also aware of their incredible influence on the movie. In retrospect I can say that this course really helped me enlarge my movie-knowledge and Im sure I can use a lot of this knowledge in future-projects, since the movies inspired me a lot.

Grade: A+

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