Mise en scène encompasses the most recognizable attributes of a film – the setting and the actors; it includes costumes and make-up, props, and all the other natural and artificial details that characterize the spaces filmed. The term is borrowed from a French theatrical expression, meaning roughly “put into the scene”. In other words, mise-en-scène describes the stuff in the frame and the way it is shown and arranged. We have organized this page according to four general areas: setting, lighting, costume and staging. At the end we have also included some special effects that are closely related to mise-en-scène.
Setting creates both a sense of place and a mood and it may also reflect a character’s emotional state of mind. It can be entirely fabricated within a studio – either as an authentic re-construction of reality or as a whimsical fiction – but it may also be found and filmed on-location. In the following image, from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), the ornate décor evokes 17th century France and the castle of Versailles. But here the baroque detailing overwhelms the character, conveying her despair. The actress’s position in relation to the objects within the frame suggests that, as a pawn in the dynastic enterprise, Marie Antoinette is little more than a footstool.
The next shot, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Earth Seen From the Moon [La terra vista dalla luna, 1966], provides a good example of the many and various effects that can be achieved via mise-en-scène. Although the film was shot on-location, the director’s style is not altogether realist. While he wishes to depict a shanty town in the suburbs of Rome, the colorful rubble and freshly painted buildings underscore his playful, ironic approach to the subject matter. The vibrantly clad children have no active role in the film and, since Pasolini means to criticize romanticized visions of Italian poverty, they are to be seen as location details.
This arrangement of key, fill, and backlight provides even illumination of the scene and, as a result, is the most commonly used lighting scheme in typical narrative cinema. The light comes from three different directions to provide the subject with a sense of depth in the frame, but not dramatic enough to anything deeper than light shadows behind the subject.
Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) applied the three-point lighting technique to illuminate scenes. Though the subjects of the frame (Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard) are properly highlighted, faint shadows are visible in the background, adding to the depth of frame.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) also utilized the three-point scheme. There is enough contrast in the backlight and highlight that the people in the crowded scenes are distinguishable from one another.
High-key lighting involves the fill lighting (used in the three-point technique at a lower level) to be increased to near the same level as the key lighting. With this even illumination, the scene appears very bright and soft, with very few shadows in the frame. This style is used most commonly in musicals and comedies, especially of the classic Hollywood age.
Sofia Coppola took a soft, high-key approach to illumination in her film Marie Antoinette (2006).
An example of the common use of high-key lighting in musicals and comedies of the classic Hollywood era is its presence in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Low-key lighting is the technical opposite of the high-key arrangement, because in low-key the fill light is at a very low level, causing the frame to be cast with large shadows. This causes stark contrasts between the darker and lighter parts of the framed image, and for much of the subject of the shot to be hidden behind in the shadows. This lighting style is most effective in film noir productions and gangster films, as a very dark and mysterious atmosphere is created from this obscuring light.
One of the most noted for their use of low-key lighting in their films was Orson Welles. Used extensively throughout his film noir Touch of Evil (1958), Welles also featured low-key lighting in several scenes of Citizen Kane (1941).
Arguably the most easily noticeable aspect of mise-en-scene is costume. Costume can include both makeup or wardrobe choices used to convey a character’s personality or status, and to signify these differences between characters. Costume is an important part of signifying the era in which the film is set and advertising that era’s fashions.
In biographical films, costume is an important aspect of making an actor resemble a historical character. For example, in Frida, the actress Salma Hayek was not only dressed in Mexican garb contemporaneous with the 1940’s, she is also given a fake unibrow to more closely resemble the painter Frida Kahlo.
In My Fair Lady, changes in costume are essential in signifying the character Eliza Doolittle‘s transformation from a ragged street urchin to polished social queen. Before, she is dressed in rags and her face is dirty, but after receiving etiquette training she is dressed elegantly in order to signify her acceptance into upper class.
Audrey Hepburn transformed into Eliza Doolittle
SPACE (Lafauci, Macfarlane)
A movie uses deep space when there are important components in the frame located both close to and far from the camera. It is used to emphasize the distance between objects and/or characters, as well as any obstacles that exist between them. In Finding Nemo, there is an ongoing juxtaposition between the tank in the dentist’s office and the ocean. In this image, Nemo and Gill are discussing the possibility that Nemo’s father, Marlin, might be waiting for him in the harbor, which is visible in the distance. Deep space is used in this frame to stress how far away Nemo is from his father and the barriers separating them.
The opposite of deep space is shallow space. In shallow space, the image appears flat or two dimensional, because there is little or no depth. In this image from Finding Nemo, the whale is approaching Dory and Marlin from behind, which creates suspense for the viewer, because the fish are unaware of the whale’s presence. There is a loss of realism, but it enhances the viewing by emphasizing the close proximity of the whale to Dory and Marlin and creating concern in the viewers that they may soon be eaten.
Offscreen space is space in the diegesis that is not physically present in the frame. The viewer becomes aware of something outside of the frame through either a character’s response to a person, thing, or event offscreen, or offscreen sound. In this video clip from American Beauty, without seeing Ricky or his video camera, the viewer becomes aware that someone present in the room is videotaping Jane, who is onscreen. The noise from the video camera and Ricky’s response to Jane’s comments enlightens viewers as to what is going on. In using offscreen space, directors employ a more creative method of conveying information to the viewer.
Frontality is when the characters are directly facing the camera, providing viewers with the feeling that they are looking right at them. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the director often uses frontality as well as direct address (when the character speaks to the camera). This clip is one of many in which Ferris speaks to the audience directly. This allows him to inform the viewers of his thoughts by breaking the typical boundary between the audience and the characters onscreen.
STAGING AND ACTING
An actor or actress’s performance can make or break a movie regardless of how engaging the story is or how well the editing was done etc… It is the actor’s duty to bring his or her character to life within the framework of the story, and his emotional input dictates how strongly the audience feels about the film. Acting depends upon gesture and movement, expression and voice.
Russel Crowe as the lovable but fearsome Maximus in Gladiator (2000)
Two of the most common styles of performance in modern cinema are method and non-method acting (also known as naturalistic vs. stylized). The method actor’s job is to become one with the character’s mannerisms, dress, upbringing, etc. Essentially, he or she must be that character to the point where they are no longer distinguishable. Conversely, non-method or stylized acting relies on a more conspicuous approach to get the director’s point across. They will overact and hyperbolize certain characteristics in an effort to dramatize, or alternatively, to undercut for a comic effect.
Daniel Day Lewis, in his Oscar Award-winning portrayal of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2009). Day Lewis perfectly exemplifies method acting as the audience truly believes that he has quote “abandoned his boy” in this powerful scene.
Non-method acting is much more similar to acting on the stage, and it was more common in early, silent cinema. In the absence of sound and voice, meaning was conveyed, often in an exaggerated way, through gesture and expression.
John Cleese from the comedy troupe Monty Python. A perfect example of non-method or stylized acting.
The meaningful arrangement of the actors on the set is called blocking. The way in which the actors are positioned can show the dominance of one character over another, the importance of family or religion, and a myriad of other relationship possibilities.
As shown in this classic scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), blocking is used to show the supremacy of “The Godfather”, the submission of his “subjects”. His son is seen in the background, waiting for his chance to be in charge.
A matte shot is one in which two images are merged into one. This is a common process done to manipulate the scenery due to cost or impossibility. These images from The Wizard of Oz, demonstrate the process of creating a matte shot. The first is a frame from a live action shot of the group walking on the yellow brick road. The second is a painting of Emerald City and the surrounding scenery including the end of the yellow brick road. The third image combines these two components to create a matte shot, which gives the illusion that the actors are actually walking towards Emerald City, when in fact it does not even exist. It was clearly impossible in this case to build the scenery for this shot.
REAR PROJECTION (Manrodt)
Rear projection is a special effects technique used to give the illusion of filming a scene on location. The technique combines pre-filmed background footage with present foreground action. Rear projection was most popularized in driving sequences, when actors would sit inside a prop vehicle rigged up to a projector, which would cast the pre-filmed footage behind on a screen. This would give the illusion that the scene was occurring inside of a moving car, despite the fact that most instances of the rear projection technique looked quite amateur. While the foreground action would be keyed with the proper lighting and focus, the projected footage oftentimes appeared washed-out and weak.
The romantic comedy Down With Love (2003) uses a deliberately unrealistic-looking technique of rear projection to capture the look of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of the early 1960s.
The aim of this video is to demonstrate how cinematic techniques are used to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.
It uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty (American Beauty IMDb Page) —the two office scenes featuring Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Brad (Barry Del Sherman). I’ve kept the video short and simple, so it should be suitable for anyone interested in learning about movie making.
The cinematic techniques discussed in the video are related to mise-en-scène collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2, which is the term used to describe everything ‘put into the scene’. In this video, I focus on décor, lighting and props, costumes, body language (e.g., posture, gestures and facial expressions) and composition. I also look at how these elements are framed in terms of camera height, camera angle and camera distance, all of which fall under the category of cinematography (classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/cinematography.htm).
1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Lester)
1st Meeting: Lester
The scene appears early on the movie. At the beginning of American Beauty, the protagonist, Lester Burnham is disillusioned with his life. At home he and his materialistic, ambitious wife can barely stand each other, and his sullen teenage daughter cannot stand either of them. At work, he is going nowhere, trapped in a thankless and meaningless job writing for a media magazine.
In this scene, Lester is having his performance reviewed by Brad, his company’s recently hired efficiency expert. Brad tells him that his work is not up to standard and that if he wants to keep his job, he will have to start performing. What’s interesting in this scene is how differently the two men are presented visually.
Let’s look at Lester first. As this is a wide shot, Lester occupies a small portion of the frame, which makes him look rather small. This shot is also a high angle shot, which makes him look even smaller. He is in the middle of a mostly empty room, totally exposed. His body language&mdash:slouched in his chair, legs spread—gives off an aura of weakness and resignation, and his facial expression shows his exasperation and frustration. He can’t even keep his tie straight. He looks powerless and vulnerable.
This shot is a like a point-of-view shot, as if we are looking at Lester from Brad’s position. However, the downward angle is exaggerated. Rather than looking at Lester strictly from Brad’s physical point of view, we seem to be looking at him from Brad’s mental and emotional point of view. We are looking at a small and unimportant man.
In terms of décor and lighting. the room itself is ugly, utilitarian, dimly lit, poorly decorated and is horribly dull and grey. Behind Lester, there is just a dying plant stuck in a corner and a painting that is too small for the wall. The décor reveals what kind of organization Lester works for—one that sucks the life and light out of its employees.
In terms of composition, the framing of the shot is ugly as well. Lester is positioned in the centre bottom of the frame, which is a strange place to put the main subject. There is far too much headroom above him, his feet seem to be cut off, a ceiling light juts down into the top of the frame. It’s an ugly shot in a dark, ugly room; it serves as a visual manifestation of Lester’s discontent and unease.
1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Brad)
The following image shows how Brad is presented in the same scene.
1st Meeting: Brad
Here the shot is a mid-shot, and Brad occupies a large portion of the frame. The low angle mid shot emphasizes his power, especially when juxtaposed with the high angle wide shot of Lester that we just looked at. When Brad stands up, the low angle shot is further emphasized.
Visually, Brad is presented as being dominant. His posture his straight, he is younger, he is dressed more fashionably and his facial expressions reveal smugness and contempt.
Behind him, the vertical Venetian blinds create a visual pattern that brings to mind the bars of a jail cell or cage. To Lester, his job is like a prison.
Note the furniture and props positioned around Brad: his desk, his brightly shining nameplate, the gold pens, the paper holder, the portrait behind him, the Venetian blinds. Almost everything is straight edges, angles and points. Everything is hard and sharp. You can think of this scene as a battle: Brad is protected by his desk and is surrounded by his sharp edged weapons; Lester has..a dying plant. There will only be one winner in this battle.
In terms of lighting, the room is brighter where Brad is. Brad’ career at this moment in time is certainly outshining Lester’s.
In short, the visual elements in this scene work together to emphasize Brad’s dominance over Lester, the soul-destroying nature of Lester’ workplace and Lester’s sense of hopelessness and disappointment.
Beware of Oversimplification
Before moving on to discussing the next scene, I would like to clarify one point. The use of a single film technique in isolation doesn’t carry a specific meaning. A good example would be the low angle shot of Brad. A low angle shot does not necessarily imply power; it could also be used to establish a point of view (e.g., from the point of view of a character lying down and looking up at someone or from the point of view of a shorter person or creature), to create a comical, grotesque and/or ironic effect or to exaggerate a physical action such as jumping or hurdling.
In the scene from American Beauty, the low angle shot works TOGETHER with a variety of different elements to create the effect of dominance:
- The plot (Brad is threatening Lester’s career)
- The acting (Brad and Lester’s body language, their words their intonation)
- The elements of mise-en-scène mentioned above (lighting, decor, props, wardrobe)
- The contrasting shots of Lester (high angle wide shots, dim lighting, ugly decor, etc.) that precede and follow it
If you are analyzing cinematic techniques, it is important to consider them in context.
2nd Scene: Lester Quits
Mid-way through the film, the two men meet again. By this point in the movie. Lester has decided he needs to make a change. In this scene, Lester is quitting his dead-end job AND blackmailing the company into paying him off. Emotionally, he is in a very different place.
When the camera is looking over Lester’s shoulders at Brad, Lester‘s head dominates the screen.
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits): Brad
When we go to the reverse angle shot looking over Brad’s shoulder, Brad’s head is out-of-focus and slightly off-screen.
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits)
Lester dominates the screen in both shots. Brad is no longer so important, no longer so powerful. And all those sharp edges, the pointy gold pens, the massive nameplate—those have become small, unnoticeable, unremarkable pieces of stationery.
Lester’s posture is now relaxed and confident. He is in control.
The room is brighter. Lester is no longer trapped in gloomy darkness.
The shots are now more aesthetically pleasing in terms of composition and framing. For example, the shots of Lester are composed so as to follow the rule of thirds. This more attractive (and more conventional) composition reflects Lester’s newly found feelings of being at ease.
Everything has changed. The whole look is different.
In a commentary by the director Sam Mendes and the cinematographer Conrad Hall, the two men discuss how they tried to show Lester’s emotional growth by making him look bigger on screen as the film progresses. And we can see that growth clearly in the two examples. In the first scene, the cinematic techniques that were discussed reveal the power differential between Brad and Lester and show Lester’s disappointment, frustration and vulnerability. In the second scene, they show how Lester has become emotionally stronger and more hopeful.
In this video, I have only touched on a few cinematic elements related to mise-en-scène and cinematography and have not touched upon things like dialogue, editing, sound or music. I have also left out things like blocking , cameras level, depth of field, film stock, keying (e.g., high key versus low key lighting) aspect ratio, tonality, camera movement (e.g., zoom, pan. tilt, tracking shots, etc), shot duration and editing.
There is a lot more to discuss when interpreting a scene , but hopefully this video can give you an idea how different visual elements can work together to help tell a story.
Why American Beauty?
I chose to use American Beauty, because the director (Sam Mendes) and cinematographer (Conrad Hall), who both won Academy Awards for their work on this movie, did an amazing job visually presenting the story and its themes. You can see that each shot has been set up, framed and shot to bring out a plot and/or thematic element. The only problem with using this film as a teaching aid is that many of the scenes contain swearing or coarse language (which is why I didn’t show the entire meetings in this film analysis video)
This is the second video in my film analysis series. You can view the first one here:
Fight Scene Cinematography in Hero and The Bourne Identity.
This features an analysis of the different ways filmmakers strive to capture a sense of realism in action sequences.
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