While mathematicians have their formulas and scientists have hypotheses, filmmakers have what is known as ‘mise en scène’. From choosing a recurring colour for costumes to the placement of props or shooting from specific camera angles; these elements help evoke an intended effect on the audience. In this blog, by introducing the concept of ‘Mise en scène’ we will see how cinema is so much more than what meets the eye and hopefully, enrich your movie watching (and making) experience.
Whether you’re a filmmaker or even just an avid movie watcher, I’m sure you are familiar with the three magical words — “Lights, Camera, Action!”
These, along with costumes, décor and setting (to name a few), form mise en scène. A pretty jazzy term, right?
Pronounced as meez-on-sen, mise en scène is a French term that literally translates to ‘to put on stage’. Over several decades the term has acquired various suggestive meanings, especially in film analysis where it can be very simply understood as— the presence and organization of contents in a frame. While this definition is easier stated than understood, mise en scène is integral in visually communicating meanings, character’s feelings, thematic concerns and so much more; by combining different components in a frame.
Following are the five most commonly observed elements that makeup mise en scène:
The foremost element which is the easiest to manipulate by the filmmaker and easiest to interpret for the audience is lighting. Lighting can be used for various purposes: to build the scene's overall atmosphere or give cues about the character’s feelings. It has the power to communicate what is overtly unsaid. It can generally be characterized by its:
Intensity – Hard light is bright and focused; it creates strong shadows or silhouettes —emphasizing a serious tone. Contrastingly, soft light is much softer and lighter, the light is diffused and creates a warm, natural tone. Here’s an example of the use of hard and soft light in La La Land:
Source – As the name suggests, the source of light can either be practical (lamps, candles, bulbs etc.) or natural (sun, moon, sunset, dawn, essentially available light at the location). The source can help create the visual mood of the shot and should be used efficiently.
High-key – Minimum contrast, overexposed, bright, no shadows or Lowkey – less highlight, more shadows, deep contrasts.
Colour – Specific filters can be used to attain a certain colour or tint which in turn may express an overall mood or the psychology of characters.
SETTING & DÉCOR
Moving onto the next element of mise en scene is the setting and décor. The backdrop of every frame, where the characters are located, and which supports (or contradicts) their action constitutes the setting and décor. While in books the authors have a lot more leeway in describing the setting in great detail and metaphors, filmmakers within the bounds of two-dimensional space must convey a lot more by portraying a lot less.
The setting can help the audience visualize: historical time of the film, the character’s state of mind or the narrative points of the story.
On the other hand, the décor can help indicate information about the characters, their thoughts, mood or genre and atmosphere.
Although challenging, with the help of props, colours and set design, the audiences are pulled into the world and minds of the characters.
To compose a shot is to arrange elements in a camera frame, for a scene. The making of a shot can be very lucrative, and filmmakers put a lot of thought into visually indicating the thematic concerns or messages. While composing a frame, the filmmaker must consider the:
Blocking and staging: Blocking is the positioning of the characters, their movements and body language. Typically shot-blocking delineates the status of characters and their relationship with the audience or each other. Staging focuses on the objects – their placement and movement within a frame as well as concerning the performance blocking.
Framing: Very simply, the framing is the positioning of the camera. It would take into account the characters in the frame, their interaction with the settings and elements in the frame.
Due to a lot of conflicting views of different theorists, framing is one element that blurs the line between mise-en-scene and cinematography — which more specifically looks at how camera movements achieve an intended effect.
Examples of camera framing are: Single shot, double shot, over-the-shoulder shot, POV shot and insert shot. Let’s see how these shots are used in the movie, Promising Young Woman (cinematography by Benjamin Kracun):
The positioning of the camera can be further extended into the type of angle and whether the frame is static or in motion.
Camera angle: This refers to the placement of the camera and how the viewers are perceiving the characters in the scene. They can help elucidate the power dynamics not just between the characters but with the audience as well.
Example: High angle shots can typically convey the vulnerability of the characters as the camera points down at them, low angle shots can make them appear powerful as we “look up” to them.
An interesting choice could be the Dutch angle shot where the camera is tilted to one side: breaking the norm and conveying disorientation.
Camera movement: ‘Movie’ has come to be from the phrase ‘moving pictures’, therefore the camera, along with the subjects must be set in motion. The camera is usually assumed to be the eye of the audience and with specific movements, it controls their view. Some of the typical camera movements include —
Static: The camera remains still with no moment and the frame being untouched. Contents within the frame, however, can move.
Pan: The camera moves along a horizontal axis.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019)
Dolly: Uses the ‘dolly’ machine, a mechanized pushcart running on rails.
Good time (2017)
Tracking shots: The camera follows along with the subject. A dolly or steadi cam can be used.
The Shining (1980)
Zoom: The lens of the camera focuses in or out.
Hot Summer Nights (2017)
It is the distance between the characters (to each other) or with the camera, surroundings or props.
Deep space allows the camera to capture subjects closer to the camera (which might be in focus), as well as those at a distance. This creates an illusion of three-dimensionality, making the shot appear more realistic.
By contrast, the shallow space can be used to create two-dimensionality by having all subjects on one plane.
COSTUMES & MAKEUP
While the aforementioned elements can take a while for one to recognize, costumes and makeup are without a doubt, the easiest to notice and also the most important.
Costume designers work in collaboration with writers and directors to express what is covert but necessary. Be it colours, specific designers, cultural or historical pieces, costumes correspond to not just the characterization of actors but also the time and space they belong to.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films are known for their exuberant costumes, that closely recreate the historical essence.
Speaking of characterization, for a movie like Zombieland imagine if all the zombies simply looked like you or me, it would not allow the audience’s suspension of disbelief. From over-the-top prosthetics to more subdued cosmetics, make-up helps in concretizing the visual storytelling. Therefore, to pull the audiences into the world of the characters, no matter how bizarre it may be, costumes and makeup are without a doubt, an essential mise en scène element.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom won the Oscars for the Best Hair and Makeup.
Now that we know each element of mise en scène, let’s see how they interact with each other to create meaning, with an example from one of my favourite films, Wake Up Sid:
We catch our protagonists Aisha and Sid watching the sunset at Marine Drive with their backs turned to the camera in a medium angle shot. This immediately separates us from them, allowing the characters to have a moment simply with each other – even amidst the hustle of the city. With the contrast of the wide sea in focus and the cityscape faintly visible, the use of deep space allows a spectacle of contemplation. The sincerity of the moment and by extension, Sid and Aisha’s friendship, is communicated with the soft lighting and an overall mellow but warm tint. As these elements interact with each other, we partake in the sublime experience of philosophizing over life while watching the sunset by the sea with someone we love or as Aisha puts it more beautifully,
“Is sheher mei jahan har waqt sab kuchh badalta rehta hai, bas ek samundar hi jo nahi badalta. Humesha yahin rehta hai.”
Now that, is mise en scène.
If you’re still reading this article without being scared off by the book-ish technicalities, kudos to you! (on the bright side, you can now subtly flex your film vocab). With so many intricate decisions and thoughts that go behind every scene, filmmakers try and express the most with the smallest details in a scene.
You can elevate your movie watching experience by recognizing these mise-en-scène elements and I can assure you the joy of piecing it all together is euphoric! Until then, happy watching!