The role of the mood board in pre-production feature image

In a nutshell

  • Mood boards are essential tools in pre-production for visualizing and communicating a project’s aesthetic across various departments.
  • Digital mood board platforms like Go Moodboard, Mural and Adobe Express are good options for creating and sharing mood boards.
  • Mood boards can include color references, but also clothing and shot references as well.

Making a video requires many stylistic components, so much so that the pre-production phase can become overwhelmingly chaotic without careful planning. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to get lost when deciding on what visual style they want their video to have. One way filmmakers plan and keep track of their chosen aesthetic are mood boards.

You’ve likely heard the term before. Mood boards are used across various industries and for various reasons. But for filmmakers, they can be a huge help when working through pre-production. Let’s go over mood boards in filmmaking and how they can help your video’s visual style.

What are mood boards and why do they matter?

A mood board is a collage of images that helps you envision the aesthetic of your video. It’s a way of setting the look of your production for the creative team involved so they can keep it consistent throughout. Famous artists often used mood boards during the Renaissance to collect images and ideas for their paintings. They gained more popularity as a contemplating medium used by interior and fashion designers during the eighties. Usually, with one look at a mood board, the creative team can see what a project will look like. This is imperative when it comes to communicating ideas for the visual look of your project. The entire creative team sees the direction of the project in advance to change things along the way. This is what makes these boards essential to everyone in the pre-production stage of their project.

Who should use them?

Filmmakers and video creators have found mood boards valuable during the pre-production phase. They help artists conceptualize different aspects of production. They have proven to have a far more inspirational effect for filmmakers moving forward with developing their projects. Film and video department heads use these boards to convey color patterns and get ideas for sets and locations. Screenwriters can also use mood boards to visualize concepts and secure financing for their projects before writing their scripts. Most production creative teams use these boards for the lighting and wardrobe departments during pre-production.

Visual elements for the mood board in pre-production

When constructing a mood board, you have to think about all the departments that are going to use it — from production design to location scouting. Mood boards need to be able to communicate with each department with clear visual cues. Here’s an example of an effective mood board for production.

Image courtesy: Christopher Kensil

Now, let’s say, for another example, that you had a specific look for a character. A detailed mood board can capture the collage of images you need for the makeup department, like this mood board example of different faces and makeup created by Inversion:

A collage of different women's faces

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Mood boards can be used for any visual element of a film or video production design as well, such as wardrobe, as seen in the following example:

A collage of a person in different outfits

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Another vital visual element to any film or video project is framing and composition. A director usually devotes much time and thought to composition during pre-production. Crafting a mood board of shots from other works allows you and your crew to imagine shots for staging actors. A good example can be taken from Quentin Tarantino’s infamous POV shot used in the film Inglorious Basterds. This shot might be hard to visualize without an image of the shot. So, including it in a mood board helps communicate what shot you’re looking to shoot.

Two men posing for a selfie

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How to prepare your mood board for pre-production

Mood board types

There are two ways you can make a mood board: a physical board or a digital board.

Physical: This is the standard stick-photos-on-a-board method or pasting a collage of images to a scrapbook.

Digital: This mood board is assembled through websites or apps. Digital allows you to access sizable photo libraries that you can browse and select from with ease. You can even collaborate between creative teams during pre-production.

While both have their benefits, digital offers the most flexibility and options for collaboration. Larger productions will likely opt for digital mood boards, as it’s easier to share with multiple departments. Smaller productions may use physical mood boards if they don’t have the means to use the digital option effectively.

Crafting your board

The first thing you want to do when crafting a physical mood board is to look for physical sources, such as the internet or magazines. Take photographs with a digital camera or smartphone. Capture images that will inspire your imagination or that are relevant to your vision. After you have collected all the images suitable for your project, go through them and select the ones that work best for you without cluttering your board. You only want to create a collage of images that makes sense of your ideas and vision without overdoing it, like in the following example:

A black and white photo collage of different women's fashions

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Digital options

If you decide creating a mood board through the sticking photos on a board method is not for you, then you have a plethora of options by going digital. There are very popular apps that give you access to high-quality images to get started. Let’s look at some of those options.

Go Moodboard

Go Moodboard is one of the most popular online mood board apps that doesn’t require you to have an account. You can add images to your board by simply clicking and dragging images onto your project. It’s a user-friendly app outlined in a step-by-step process:

  1. Set the direction of your project.
  2. Collect existing material.
  3. Add inspiring imagery.
  4. Add examples of motion and sound.
  5. Incorporate color, fonts and files.

Mural

Mural comes with a variety of features that can help you create a mood board and share it with others in your team. You can either use its templates or start from scratch. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Create a Mural account and log in.
  2. Create a blank mural.
  3. Customize the mural to fit your needs. (For example, add a premade template to your mural.)
  4. Share the mural to collaborate with others.

Mural is free to use, but there are paid versions that offer unlimited murals (the free version is limited to three) and more collaboration tools.

Adobe Express

The Adobe Express creator is a great option if you’re used to the Adobe UI. And, unlike the Creative Cloud, Adobe Express is free to use. The software provides you with a range of customization options. You can resize your text, move it around the page, add special effects filters, make elements transparent and change border configuration. Also, the magic layout function can move your text as you experiment with different layouts, so you always see what your design will look like.

To start using Adobe Express:

  1. Go to adobe.com/express/create/mood-board.
  2. Click the Create now button.
  3. Add your elements to the board.
  4. Choose to either download or share.

Canva

Canva is a visual design software program with three tiers: free, pro and teams. With the pro tier, users get unlimited access to premium content and special tools to help them create and organize passion projects. The team tier gives you the ability to collaborate with creative teams both small and large.

To get started creating your board in Canva: 

  1. Open up Canva and search for Mood Boards to start a design.
  2. Browse templates.
  3. Design your board with your files.
  4. Save or share your project.

Other options

There are many other digital tools you can use to create your mood board, such as Google Docs or Google Slides. You can also use other Adobe applications, such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Pinterest is a free and easy-to-use tool, as well. Simply create a board and start pinning images. You can reorder the pins, and then print the page as a PDF or screenshot.

Staying organized with mood boards

Mood boards are a great way to start planning out the visuals for your video or film in pre-production. With the right light and color, you can clearly communicate to your crew what you want your video to ultimately look like.

Stephen Mandel Joseph is a published, professional writer and director of several Sci-Fi 3D animated shorts and a short drama film.