MICRO ELEMENTS OF FILM : Part 4What is Mise-En-Scene?Mise-en-scene is a French term which literally means everything that is ‘put into the scene’. Imagine afreeze-frame – all the elements that have been placed in front of the camera in that freeze-frame areelements of mise-en-scene.Mise-en-scene includes : SETTINGS DÉCOR PROPS LIGHTING COSTUME MAKE-UP COLOUR BODY LANGUAGE AND MOVEMENTThe use of mise-en-scene elements encourages the viewer to ‘read’ a scene in a particular way. Yourchosen film sequence will use these micro elements in order to generate specific meanings. Mise-en-scenecan offer the viewer information and meanings connected to character, genre, atmosphere, mood,place, space and time. Elements of mise-en-scene may be repeated within a film; they may also change.You should identify carefully the elements that are constant and those that change and consider why thechanges occur.READING A SCENEThe mise en scene is vital in conveying information through ‘visual signifiers’ (things we see on screen). It isthrough the visual elements of the scene that we extract such meaning. Even when the film is mute(without sound) the setting, costume, props and body movement or gestures of the actors will tell us a lot.In silent cinema it was vital, with much emphasis on one particular aspect: body language. As a result, theperformances in early cinema may seem over dramatic when compared to today’s filmmaking.MISE EN SCENE : ANALYSISTo analyse mise en scene, it helps to break it down into its component parts and to consider not only thesurface information but also the deeper ‘symbolism’ of the imagery in the film.SettingThe setting of a scene is crucial to our understanding of time and place. We canlocate ourselves in a certain place, town, country, planet or even galaxy! Thesetting will convey basic information like time and date (present day or historic)and perhaps whether the characters are urban or rural (city ‘slickers’ or country‘innocents’). It may convey isolation (horror) or claustrophobia (thriller) or itmay indicate wealth, poverty or class as well as many other things. Theinformation about the physical setting, which in a novel would be very detailed,with perhaps several pages being devoted to its description, has to, in film, beconveyed very quickly in visual language by skilled set designers and prop buyerswho work alongside the director.
Settings within a film can evoke many kinds of responses. They can mirror the emotions of a character,establish place and time, and offer information about themes within a film. The bright picket fences, well-kept lawns and neat houses of the setting for Sam Mendes’s American Beauty are too perfect and providea picture-book surface for the dissatisfaction of the characters.DecorThe room in which a scene occurs can add meaning to theevent shown. The décor of a room (wallpaper, furniture andlayout) can mirror a character’s psychological state. NormanBates’s study in Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of old furnitureand stuffed birds, the décor has no vitality, the room isalmost mummified. In James Cameron’s Titanic, thedifferent decks present the class differences between thepassengers: the upper decks are opulent and expensivelyfurnished while the rooms of the lower-deck passengers aresimple and without luxury.PropsThe objects included in a scene are essential in the generation of meaning, givinginformation about genre, historical period or character. One of the ways in which wecan identify the genre of a film is through the props used: in The Matrix (Wachowskibrothers, 1999) space ships, futuristic weaponry and advanced computer systems allindicate that the genre is science fiction. Think about the props in the scene you havechosen and analyse what you can deduce from them.In a living room scene, the props could be anything from pictures on walls to flowersor curtains. These things can be cleverly used to convey elements of story orcharacter. For instance, subtle props like dying flowers or fading curtains may fit with the theme of changewithin a story or a state of mind of the character.It is important to understand that with mise en scene, nothing in the scene is accidental. Everything in thescene is deliberate and relevant. Therefore in an analysis of settings and props, careful attention to detail isnecessary. Furthermore, always think how the details of the mise en scene add ‘depth’ to the film bysymbolising that which is often not outwardly expressed; the themes.Body Language and MovementBody language, movement, posture and poise of the actors can give us a significant amount of information.We can read from this much about the character without any dialogue. The way the character walks,stands and performs facial expressions are all relevant. Even the physical stature of a character will besignificant. Q. How is body language being used to give us information about the characters ?
Costume (including hair and make-up)The way a character is dressed is one of the most important signifiers for the audience. As in real life, thereare associations made with different kinds of dress and these areutilised both stereotypically and atypically in filmmaking. Not only cancostume indicate time period but certain ‘uniforms’ are also indicatorsof character. The geek, the office worker, the tramp, the gangster, thepolice officer, even the alien will all have identifiable ‘costume’. Thelevel to which these costumes are customised to fit the individual roleis varied and hence each film has to be considered on its own merit.There may be a key element of costume, which is synonymous with the character, such as a certain hat ora jacket, or there may be certain colours that are associated with that character or characters (in westernsit was typical for the good cowboy to wear white and the villain to wear black).Hair and make-up are also significant in defining a character. Apart from taking a great deal of time castinga part, film-makers will often then ask that actor to change their hair according to the role. This can rangefrom Demi Moore actually shaving her head in GI Jane (Scott, 1997) or dying hair a different colour, towearing wigs to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes the hairstyle of the character will changethroughout the course of a film to indicate the development of a character, and along with setting andcostume can indicate the era or the passing of time. Make up is used in most filmmaking but is more significant in certain types of films than others. For example, horror films, fantasy and science fiction utilise it a lot to create imaginary characters. The use of prosthetics to utterly change the look of an actor into an alien, zombie or superhero is commonplace. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Jackson, 2001) has many examples of this and along with a diverse range of costumes succeeds in creating a whole new world for us. The mise en scene in a film like this (fantasy) istherefore not only creative but also vital in the film’s success, as we have no culturalreferences to relate to unless you have ever been to Middle Earth or met hobbits! The costumes are important in the creation of historical time, characters’ state of mind and status, and in the generation of place. The different clothes worn in each of the stories within Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, for example, clearly define the time periods as the 1920s, the 1940s and the 1990s. Changes in costume for a particular character during a film can indicate anything from a change in fortunes to a shift in political affiliations. Julia Robert’s costume shift in Pretty Woman, for example, carries particular meanings and signals her character’s transition from street-hustling prostitute to tycoon’s girlfriend. Within this kind of Cinderella story, the shedding of one set of clothes for another signals a change in social status and, perhaps, of attitude. Comedy often also makes good use of make-up along with visual special effects (asubsidiary of cinematography and editing), and this can succeed in making characters likeable or funny. Anexample of creative make up in comedy may be Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (Shadyac, 1996), orJim Carrey in The Mask (Russell, 1994), where much of the comedy is visual and relies on a skilled make-updepartment in conjunction with special effects. Make-up is an essential tool for all actors but it can also beused to generate particular meanings. Tom Hank’s make-up in Philadelphia shows us the physical ravagesof AIDS and adds to our sympathy for his plight. The make-up and prosthetics worn by Willem Defoe as the
Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman are grotesque and frightening: we are left in no doubt that he isthe villain within this narrative.Only when all the elements of mise en scene are considered and combined with the other cinematic codescan we gain a full and in-depth analysis of the meanings created by the filmmaker.