What the Heck is Mise en Scene & Why is it Important?
Working in the film business you hear many “inside” terms on a set like Apple box, MOS, montage don’t cross the line (to learn about the 180 degree line in a past article), etc. One such term is “Mise en Scene” or the translation “placing on stage.”
This is a French expression that refers to the design or the arrangement of everything as it appears in the framing of a film i.e. actors, décor, props, lighting, costumes and others. The term essentially means “telling a story” both in poetically artful ways and in visually artful ways through direction and storyboarding state design and cinematography.
It is also used to refer to the many single scenes that are within the film to represent the film. The term is broad, and it is also used among professional and experienced screenwriters to show descriptive or action paragraphs between the dialogs.
This is because of its relationship to shot blocking. The term mise-en-scene is called the film criticism grand undefined term. The term is so broad, and it defines and classifies a lot in the filming industry. The term roughly means to put into the scene or to place on stage.
Mise en scene is used to describe filmmaking and the process involved in the filmmaking process. In filmmaking, the first process is creating the ideas for the film. Here, the right books or plays are bought. These are the source of the initial ideas of the film.
The producer selects the story from the books or a novel or the idea can even be an original idea or based on a true story. The producer then takes the idea to the writers, and they work together to create a synopsis. They then break down the story into simple paragraph scenes or the step outline as it is called. The one paragraph scenes are the ones which concentrate on the most dramatic parts or structures.
After this, they prepare a good description of the story together with its moods and its characters. This stage has little conversations, but it mostly consists of drawings that help them to visualize all the key points. This is also the stage where the screenwriter comes up with a screenplay, and this takes a period of several months.
The screenwriter has all the time to rewrite the screenplay if need be to improve clarity, dramatization, character, structure and dialogue. At this stage, the film distributor can be contacted and informed of the project for him to assess the financial success of the movie and look for possible markets.
The producer and the screenwriter will then prepare the treatment or film pitch, and they present it to the financiers. The financiers will go through the movie and also assess the likelihood of the movie making any profit.
They will contact some known movie stars to get them to feature in the film for publicity purposes, and after this stage is successful, the film can now go to the preproduction stage.
This is the stage that determines if the film will continue or not because, without funds, there would be no cast or crew to work in the film production. The parties involved in the financing will draft the appropriate contracts and also sign them to make a deal.
After this, the preparations for the shoot are made. This is called pre-production where locations for the shoot are selected and prepared before time, the cast and the film crew is hired, and the sets are built.
Here, all the process in the production of the movie is carefully outlined to each and every involved party, and they are also carefully planned. Even with a lot of funding, if this process is not done carefully, the film production can halt or even fail.
The most critical crew positions are outlined and the people to take those positions are named before anything else goes on. The most crucial crew positions that must be there to make a good film are:
- Costume designer
- Film producer
- Assistant Director
- Unit production manager
- Production designer
- Location manager
- Director of photography
- Casting director
- Production and sound mixer
- Sound designer
These are crucial positions in the film production, and their roles cannot be ignored if there is to be a successful production of the film.
The production stage is the next one after preproduction. Here, the film is created and shot. There is the recruitment of more crew in this stage due to the complexities of some roles. This is the most complicated process of the film production.
Everyone involved in the film production has to take their roles seriously here for the production to be successful. A regular shooting day begins by the arrival of the crew at their call time. The actors usually have different call times, and the crew has to arrive early enough to prepare everything in advance before the actors come.
Set construction, setting, dressing and lighting is done before because it can take many hours and sometimes it can even take days. For efficiency purposes, the electric, grip and production design crews are always a step ahead of the sound and the camera departments.
When one scene is getting filmed, these crews are already preparing for the next one. This means that the filming process will face no problems, and if there are any, they will be easily solved ahead. After the crew prepares the equipment, the actors are already in their costumes, and they attend the makeup and hair departments.
The actors will then rehearse the script with the director, and the other departments make their final tries or tweaks. The assistant director then calls “picture is up” to let everyone know that the take is about to be recorded, a “quiet everyone” call then follows and once everyone is ready.
He then calls “roll sound” if that particular take involves sound and then the “roll cameras “call is called by the assistant director who is answered by “speed” from the camera operator once he starts recording. The assistant directors then call “action” once he makes sure everyone is ready. The take is over when the director calls “cut” and the sound stops and the cameras stop recording.
In the film production process, we see mise en scene representing the film production in every step or every setting or arrangement. It, therefore, refers to the staging and acting where it is well known that an actor can make or break a move, and it doesn’t matter how captivating the story is. It also refers to the lighting and setting of the production stage.
The setting creates a mode and also a sense of place and it can also reflect the emotional state of mind of the character. Lighting is essential in the production of a film, and there are different types of lighting, but each depends on where the lighting is coming from and the kind of illumination it is providing to the stage setting.
Costumes are the only aspect of mise en scene that is easily noticeable by almost everybody. It includes makeup, hair, and clothes or wardrobe choices that are used to show the personality of the character. It is important that a costume designer chooses the costumes that will best convey the image, personality and emotional status of the character. Special effects are another aspect of mise en scene. They are used to make the film more interesting and captivating.
Mise-en-scène & Cinematography in American Beauty: Scene Analysis
This video uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty to show how elements of how cinematic techniques related to mise-en-scène and cinematography can be used to help visually tell a story.
This infograhic explains it all:
Courtesy of ShoHawk.com
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Transcription of Mise en Scene.
In the last video, we talked about how the placement of the camera can tell a story, but those are just the basic terms, the bread-and-butter shots. The true strength of a shot, its unique qualities comes through what’s called the mise en scène. This is a French term meaning placing on stage. It’s a broad term which describes the overall look of a film. So how do you place on a stage – let’s remove the camera from the scene and look at the decor. A director starts by setting a scene, by choosing a setting for the shot, whether it’s outdoors, indoors, a real place, a set or composited on a green screen. This is where the scene takes place. Once that location is chosen, it gets filled first with objects than with actors. The objects if they are not used by actors, are called set dressing. They can show place, like how this studio backlot was first done up as a modern setting and then redressed as itself is 30 years younger, or the objects can show character like how these photographs serve as exposition for the action that left this man in a cast. Sometimes they can just add texture to a scene like how the water in this dilapidated set indicates decay. If the objects are meant to be used by actors then they are called props. These can range from simple things like papers, or complex things like this ornate sword. They can also show character, like how these two characters choice of weapon emphasize their spiritual connection and ideological differences. Character can also be shown through costumeConsider how much you are being told about this character just by how they dress or this character, or this one under all that make up. These are all things that start telling a story even before the camera rolls.
Even before camera and action come the lights. It’s impossible to overstate how important lighting is for movies. Each frame is a photograph and each photograph is captured light bounced off its subject. One of the most common lighting setups is three point lighting, perfect for close-ups. There is a key light which serves as the main source of light in a scene, the fill light which fills in the shadows created by the key light, and the backlight which lights the back of the subject, separating them from the background. Most lighting setups use some variation on this basic triad of key, fill and back. Now there are many, many types of artificial lighting techniques with 1000 things to consider*that requires an explanation of F stops and aperture and focal length, but that’s only if you are lighting the scene yourself. If you are a moviegoer, it’s much easier to read the results than the process.
Aside from the standard three point style, there is high key lighting, bright lights, bright colors, strong key, stronger fill. Compare that with low key lighting. The lights are darker, the mood more somber. Weak key, weak fill, but a very strong backlight to emphasize the outline of the person. A contrasting mix of strong highlights with deep shadows creates a Baroque painterly effect, which in the Renaissance was called by the Italian name literally meaning light, dark, high contrast between the bright bits and the dark bits. This kind of look is the stuff of film noir, of moral ambiguity and melancholy. Films shot with a style generally take advantage of a technique called hard lighting; bright, harsh key lights that create hard shadows making the scene tough, angular and unflattering. Its opposite of course is soft lighting where the lights diffuse through a filter causing it to wrap around the subject, sculpting the subject without harming it. It’s a romantic kind of lighting. Most of the time lighting doesn’t draw attention to itself, simply serving to set the mood and let the camera and the subject speak for themselves. You can see this in ambient lighting which uses the light that’s there in the scene or in unmotivated lighting which simply shapes the scene without being an element of it, like how the light that hits the night and death*seem to be coming from two different suns, not realistic but still striking. Its opposite is of course motivated lighting where the light is an element of the scene itself as in this shot.
Directors can get creative with motivated lighting is in this scene. A woman above turns on her light revealing a key character. The light goes out and the character disappears. Creative lighting were two of the primary tools early directors used which would change drastically as film technology improved and directors could start experimenting with color. For decades, the default for film color was black and white. The camera takes in light and records everything just by luminosity, whether it’s light or dark. For about half a film history, movies were quite happy to use this, not only because it has a certain simplicity to it but because color processing used to have a hefty price tag. Now it’s just another creative option for filmmakers with classic taste.
There are a few examples of early color films where each frame was hand-painted for a fake color film effect, but the most common early color effect was tinting, where the entire scene is bathed in a certain color. You don’t see this much outside of the old silence or the more experimental corners of the avant-garde. One of the most famous forms of tinting is sepia tone. This was one of the most common colors to tint film in the monochrome area which gave it a dusty look. In this famous use of film tinting, Sepia is used for the drudgery of Kansas, but once Dorothy goes to Oz, the fantasy world is in bright, vivid color. Now it would be easy to list color film as its own term, but color is a complicated process which filmmakers can control the same way they can control their lights and not just through costuming and production design, but through a process called color grading where a film’s color is selectively adjusted for a distinctive look for each scene. Grading can involve adjustments to everything black-and-white filmmakers did, but it can also do interesting things with color like adjusting saturation, the intensity of a color in a scene.
A highly saturated scene can feel bright and exciting while a lowly saturated scene can feel washed out and desolate, but if it’s done in post or composed in frame, this makes up a film’s overall color palette. Like a painter’s palette, these are the dominant colors in a shot. The palette can be broad, taking in the entire spectrum or selective, drawing attention to a single color that dominates the others, deep erotic reds, cold and unfeeling whites, rich emotional blues, digitized unnatural greens, stately browns, reds and golds to make it feel antique. De-saturated reds, blacks, and golds to make it feel in ancient. Saturated blues and oranges to make it feel modern, whites and steely cyan to make it feel futuristic. Blacks and blues for a dark night, yellows, reds, and greens for a bright new day. There are an infinite number of combinations and each one can vary by context. Still, it’s an important thing to look for.
And finally, let’s look at how things are composed in the frame. The final thing that makes a shot a shot, space. We’ve already covered the basic types of shots, but it’s the use of space within the frame that makes a scene unique. There are thousands of ways to talk about space since there are thousands of ways to set up a shot. But to simplify things, let’s define some basic terms for looking at some creative examples. There is balance which gives weight to the frame. This shot emphasizes the symmetry between the man and the woman with the child in the middle as a fulcrum, but that’s a very controlled a shot. Even a wild shot like this has asymmetrical balance; the man with the mask in the foreground is balanced by the man on the chair in the background with the radial pattern below for added texture. This shot has a sense of balance staged in deep space, where the scene places elements both far and near to the camera, drawing attention to the distance between them from the people in the front of the scene who are talking about the child, all the way back to the child in the window whom the scene is about.
Scenes can also be staged in shallow space. This scene is staged flatly, emphasizing the closeness of the subject and the background objects, or even implying no depth at all. There is also one of the most important spaces, the offscreen space where a scene draws attention to something out of the frame. This shot uses a mirror to expand the space that this man is sitting in. This shot uses a look and an actor’s performance to imply something huge out of the frame. An actor’s performance can sometimes to be enough to set a scene and create space within the frame. All the movements an actor makes in the scene are called blocking. Though it may look freeform much like a dance, the actor’s movements are heavily choreographed, whether they are actually dancing or just doing a simple, powerful gesture. All of these things, all of them create a space within the frame. They create mise en scène. That space can be symmetrical, asymmetrical, round, linear, expensive, cramped, busy or deceptively simple – everything that makes a shot unique like creating something within the frame and without the frame. If the type of shot can indicate a word, the mise en scène can be the tone in which the word is said, harshly or softly, jokingly or majestically. But if you’re going to learn to speak a language, you can learn all the words in the dictionary and still be lost if you don’t know how to put them together.