Loosely translated from French, mise en scène translated from French to mean the act of staging, or placing on stage. Mise en scène is basically everything that appears in the frame. It refers to the arrangement of the set and really anything that goes before the camera, including actors, sets, and props.
Mise en scène also entails other aspects such as stage design, lighting, and composition. A lot of different factors give the films’ visuals meaning and mood. Every little detail like makeup, costumes, décor, and even hair contribute to the Mise en scène. It adds to the lure of storytelling by conveying meaning without actually saying it (subtext). It gives films that something extra that most viewers don’t actively notice.
The French popularized the concept during the country’s new wave of the 1950s. Native film critics coined the term “metteur-en-scène,” referring to the direction and design of film.
Initially, the term had a negative meaning. It was later used positively by famous critics-turned-directors of the 1960s.
Over time, it came to be what we know today as mise en scène. Critics still use the term to describe or judge the visual appeal of a movie. If the camera movement is static and scenes rely a lot on dialogue rather than visuals to tell a story, critics may describe a film as lacking in mise en scène.
During its early days as an entertainment medium, movies didn’t have color or sound. It only had lighting, the choice of aspect ratio, and of course, mise en scène to manipulate how a viewer reacts to a film.
Mise en scène speaks to the subconscious mind. It offers subtle communication that the audience may not realize but is affected by it. The concept also aids to create a certain atmosphere or mood that the director intends. Auteurs use it as a tool to make their defining mark on a film.
Hence, a film connoisseur can tell in the first fifteen minutes if a film is French New Wave versus a Fellini film.
Composition refers to the framing of shots. Alternatively, it is the arrangement of the scene on camera. The same scene framed differently can pass different meanings each time.
It falls upon the director and his cinematography team to decide on this arrangement depending on the viewer experience they intend.
The composition is often worked on as the storyboard artist graphically represents the storyline. He works in close association with the writer or director to ensure proper framing depending on the prevailing plot circumstances. Other aspects that affect composition like camera movement may be established at this stage as well.
There are a couple of rules of composition. The most important and common among them is the rule of thirds. This theory has its basis in photography, which I cover in this article.
Since film consists of 24 photographs per second, then this theory applies to cinema.
It basically splits the frame into three equal horizontal and three equal vertical parts. To fulfill the rule, the subject is placed along the intersections of these lines on either side of the middle.
The point of this rule is to realize an asymmetrical effect, like in real life. Symmetrical images are not natural in the world we live in, the rule of thirds mimics this purity.
A director breaks the rule of the third for specific reasons. In certain instances, the subject can be perfectly symmetrical in the film. This serves to attract attention to him or illustrate the power dynamics at play.
A great example of that is the scene where Sergeant Hartman inspects his recruits, famously known as the jelly doughnut scene, in Full Metal Jacket.
He is the drill instructor. He is in a position of authority over the other characters in the film. The composition is manipulated to portray him as such. He is the center of attention in the frame, and viewers can feel this power.
In terms of the symmetry and balance rule, it’s often the norm that subjects in the frame look toward the opposite side. For instance, if a character is to the left of the frame, most of the time he’ll be staring right. It is not uncommon for characters to look to the same side of the frame. Doing so achieves a contemplative effect or entrapment.
Composition rules also recommend eye-level framing. Aside from establishing equality, this rule also realizes a feeling of kinship between the viewer and the character. Framing from below the subject makes the audience feel dominated.
Which may be the goal of the scene. Other aspects of composition include medium shots, which dictate the courtesy to leave visible a part of the background above your subject. The 180-degree rule meanwhile recommends switching frame sides for changing shots between two characters in conversation.
For example, back and forth camera movements putting one character to the right of the frame and the responding to the left. That maintains continuity of the scene.
Stage design refers to the preparation or arrangement of the location or setting to pass meaning or capture emotion. The placing of props or actors on the set constitutes an aspect of stage design. The stage is an important element of mise en scène.
It can tell the audience volumes about what’s going through a character’s mind and his overall mood. Stage design can manipulate audience emotion and amplify what the character is feeling. Locations can vary to depict a range of feelings. A sunny day at the beach can serve as backdrop for more joyous scenes. A rainy day with dull colors sets a somber mood for a sad event.
Beyond emotion, filmmakers may also use stage design to bring out historic periods and give a movie its unique tone and personality.
Period pieces such as Gladiator, for example, demonstrate the importance of stage design.
The set is tailored to represent a believable era in ancient Rome. The style around each backdrop conforms with the order of the century. Roman architecture, rural grain fields, the Colosseum, and gladiatorial training camps work to recreate that period in time. The stage work was enormous in the film, and it shows as the movie is a visually captivating story that reels you back in time.
Additionally, set design can offer character exposition. I’ve written already how you can adeptly and subtly add exposition in a screenplay in this article. When you’re at the stage of actually making your film, you’ll have another opportunity to show composition with set design.
The audience can get a feel of what type of person a new character is from the arrangement of the stage. Picture an opening scene ushering us to a character asleep in bed. The room looks messy, there are clothes all over the place, and everything seems out of order.
Atop the headboard, rest pictures of dogs and cute animals. At first glance, viewers feel that the character is untidy but seems caring and loving because of the pictures on the wall.
The color theory is also a fundamental aspect of stage design. Directors select certain color schemes to set mood, tell the story, hint at character traits, or offer foreboding, among other purposes.
Leading lines are a common aspect of witty stage design. The lines may not be actual lines, sometimes imaginary guides to concentrate our focus, well. In some instances, leading lines in the set may be actual lines.
In the movie Nightcrawler, when Lou takes out his camera to film the accident, we see a straight line along the center of the frame. The vivid white lane sharply contrasts the dark tarmac beckoning viewers to the point of interest in the film.
As Lou slowly walks up this line to the point of conflict, the audience is slowly reeled into the unfolding as it draws closer.
How a scene makes us feel and our comprehension of the themes hinges on lighting and the various aspects of it. Namely, the quality, direction, intensity, shape, distance, and even texture, among others. Lighting may also serve the simple purpose of telling time or season. Cinematographers manipulate light to create a sense of day or night and thereby illustrate the passage of time.
Light also interacts with color to create themes and push certain concepts. Its absence inspires fear or mystery. Lighting is an element of mise en scène that toys with our emotions and views towards places or characters.
You’ll notice musicals or romantic comedies are typically full of light and bright, warm colors. Case in point, Wes Anderson’s 2014 comedy-drama The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The movie has a fairytale, almost cartoony feel to it. Full of rich shades that abundant lighting sparks to life, The Grand Budapest Hotel inspires safety and carefree fun. We feel an overwhelming sense of excitement when first entering the grandiose hotel. Everything feels warm and rosy.
Moreover, there are only a few shadows to alleviate that feeling of dread. Most films in the genre take this approach to cinematography. The mise en scène, and lighting particularly, paints a lighthearted theme.
Movies like Blade Runner 2049 inspire the opposite feelings. Set in an almost depressing world that basically pits cyborgs against humans, the director went for an understandably darker tone. The lighting feels like a separate character.
It’s continually tailored to bring out the mood, character, and place. It plays an important role in elevating the tension and revealing character personalities.
This brings us to another important role of lighting in film: establishing character traits and development.
For characters we can generally trust in a movie, the lighting usually brightens them up without shadows and dark spots. When they take a turn into evil, you may notice parts of their faces concealed in darkness from then on.
Consider Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight. After the murder of his girlfriend and getting half his face blown off, the once noble district attorney takes a turn for the worse. He becomes the evil he swore to fight. This significant character development is hinted at by the lighting.
From that point of change, Dent’s face, half of it specifically, is often engulfed in darkness. The strategic lighting depicts the character’s inner struggle with right and wrong, and that he is no longer trustworthy.
Lighting can also channel the audience’s focus to a particular direction or object in the frame. Perhaps the item will be of significance later on. Maybe it threatens to blend into the backdrop yet it is an important part of the shot. Outstanding highlights and lighting achieve this effect when necessary.
Costume refers to any garment that actors wear on set. The term also covers headgears like hats, and accessories such as bracelets, watches, etc. Despite seeming like an ordinary part of filmmaking, clothes bear much more meaning than audiences would imagine. Attires, and their colors especially, makes us feel different types of ways about various characters.
They tell a story that we may not even notice at first. The first fundamental function of costumes is to set apart characters from the rest. They help carve a unique identity. We subconsciously learn to associate characters with a particular look and dress code. Costumes may also come in handy when creating period pieces, and conveying historical accuracies.
Most films usually begin with established characters who already had a life before the audience’s introduction. Character costumes enable actors to transition into new characters.
Viewers are able to deduce habits and other important bits of exposition before anything is said. A police uniform, a company logo on clothes, etc reveals career details without breaking away from the flow of the story. Costumes may also reveal information about a character’s past. A framed cheerleading outfit or baseball shirt on the wall, for instance, tells us the character may have a history of sports.
Costumes can also show us the place of characters in a movie. More well-off characters are typically brought out by fancy suits and other high-end clothes and accessories like Rolex watches. More humble characters have a similar dress code to match.
In the 2014 historical drama Mr. Turner, Hanna Daby is a slave-like servant to famous British painter, J.M.W Turner. Hanna wears only one costume which deteriorates throughout the movie. Unlike her master who regularly dresses in fine silk and garments.
The costume is worn out and in a miserable state by the end of the movie. The filmmakers revealed that the clothes did much more than capture Hanna’s financial miseries. It also showed how she had suffered in an unhealthy relationship with the main character.
The color of those costumes may also hide deeper meaning. Characters who wear brighter colors usually appear fun and outgoing. Those with dull shades like beige may hint at someone whose life isn’t too interesting.
In the 2004 horror-thriller The Village, a section of people live in a remote outskirt whose boundaries are patrolled by a strange creature.
The nameless, and mysterious humanoid wears red robes, which symbolize the danger it poses. Ivy, a blind girl who ventures out into the dangerous woods in search of medicine, wears yellow to deter the beast.
The use of two primary colors to represent either side is no coincidence. Ivy is a kind-hearted character and a force of good. The beast is the exact opposite and the contrasting costumes emphasize that in a world strategically devoid of color.
Makeup complements the costumes that characters wear. It makes actors appealing to the frame and picture-friendly. Makeup covers up scars, amplifies natural features, hides a bad case of acne, and does the skin a whole lot of good.
That said, it serves much more purpose beyond making characters look good on set. Makeup takes on an especially important role in science fiction and horror movies. With the right makeup, this vital element of mise en scene aids to create a convincing zombie or a believable alien that’ll scare you right out of your seat.
One movie that harnessed the power of makeup to dreadful effect is 2017’s nightmarish sci-fi It. The movie preyss on childhood fears, as an extraterrestrial clown abducts children who end up on his dinner table.
Comprehensive makeup was used to create Pennywise’s terrifying look. The pale white powder gives him that eerie, out worldly feel. The crimson streaks running up over his shadowed eyes from the edges of his mouth create a compelling look that stares right into your soul.
Pennywise has an unsettling face and the crimson lipstick that caps off his menacing smile only fuels the dread. Beyond the superficial, the red hints were a not-so-subtle giveaway that Pennywise is the incarnation of danger itself. All these little details illustrate the power of makeup in creating a character’s personality and traits.
Hair can also add detail to a story and prove to have much more meaning than aesthetics.
As an example, we’ll analyze the use of hair and makeup in the Pirate of the Caribbean movies. The star of the show, witty pirate Jack Sparrow has a fondness for eyeliner, and it wasn’t just because it made him look cool.
Back in the old days, when pirates would spend days out at sea, they used eyeliner to protect themselves from the sun. The same goes for the hat that Sparrow rarely takes off his head.
One objective of hairstyling in film is to create looks that conform to the patterns of the day. Hair cements that illusion of traveling back in time when that is needed to accurately portray the past. For example, the British soldiers depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean were distinct for the white wigs they wore.
The accessory was a common courtesy of the 18th century, and the hairstyling matches the movie period. The hair was a nod to the British culture of the century. The soldiers wore white wigs as an emblem of the class and sophistication, as did British royals.
Additionally, Jack Sparrow’s beaded dreadlocks are also perfectly in line with what pirates considered cool back then.
Color grading features in the post-production stage of filmmaking. After every scene is captured, the editorial team goes to work to brush up visual appeal using digital software. Grading entails the blending of images and color effects.
It involves mixing and matching shades, alteration of brightness, saturation, etc to create a desired effect or theme. Often an afterthought in the past century, color grading has gained increased importance today. Films are even outsourcing their color grading needs or have an entire department dedicated to it.
Well, color grading aids to set the mood and maintain the tonal atmosphere of a movie. Films are shot in different locations, during different seasons and times of day. The lighting conditions may not be consistent throughout the filmmaking process.
Other environmental factors are bound to change as well. Yet it remains necessary to uphold the director’s desired theme to avoid breaking the illusion of the fictional world. Through coloring and grading, a movie is able to maintain its tonal consistency.
Additionally, grading adds life and color to dull scenes. When shooting, it’s not uncommon for scenes to appear dull, off-color, and lifeless. Via grading, you can inject a bit of life and vivid emphasis to powerfully capture each scene.
It can also do the opposite for film if that’s the tone the director is going for. Perhaps he wants to create a sense of fear, desperation, or showcase boring aspects of life. Color grading enables filmmakers to accurately capture each scene.
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is proof of the importance of color grading in terms of injecting life and tone. Fabien Napoli was in charge of the color grading for the romantic comedy. He was able to give the movie that light-hearted flair and adventurous color that the genre is typically associated with.
Color grading is especially vital in live-action movies. It’s hard to bring together real-life characters and animated ones into a shared and seamless word. Color grading bridges that gap and sets a stage that is believable from either perspective.
Sonic the Hedgehog, a 2020 live-action adaption of the popular Sega video game by the same name, employs a lot of color grading. It wonderfully brings out the character’s blue hues, with blue often associated with extraordinary power, to make him into the cute and cuddly character that he is.
Most of the scenes featuring Sonic, are heavily color graded. The balance of color allows him to blend harmoniously into the very real world he lives in and interacts with.
Anyone who’s ever filmed a full narrative movie understands the work and sweat required to go from pre production to post production. Hence, quite often filmmakers consider their finished products (their movies) as their “babies.”
They want to leave their unique mark and put their personal stamp on their works of art. The clever use of mise en scène allows them to do just that.
So when you’re making your next film, consider the various elements mentioned in this mise en scène guide for filmmakers. Good luck on your next project!
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