We have a guest post today from Michael Hall of ShoHawk. ShoHawk is a filmmaking education site and Michael writes for us today about a term any good filmmaker should know: mise-en-scene.
As filmmakers and directors, the purpose of our art is to tell a visual story to our audience. Many (if not most) people think that the message in the movie is either explicitly conveyed in the script/narration or at least implicitly delivered along the plot and conversations between the characters.
Although this isn’t entirely incorrect, the vast majority of viewers tend to neglect elaborate design aspects seen on the screen, including but not limited to lighting, location, costume, and props.
Just like in a novel in which the author has to create an atmosphere, which reflects characters’ state of mind, film production also requires the director to produce the exact same thing; the biggest difference is that the director needs to do this visually.
The result of this visual treatment is called mise-en-scene.
Mise-en-scene — a starting point
The term mise-en-scene comes from a French theatrical expression, which means ‘to put into the scene.’
The mise-en-scene covers the most noticeable attributes of a film — that includes the set up and the actors, which includes different costumes and make-up, props, and different natural or artificial details for the scenes to be filmed.
Mise-en-scene is an expression used to describe the theater or film production design aspects. It is usually used to refer to various single scenes inside the film to represent the whole film. This basically signifies the visual theme, both in visual artful ways through storyboarding and cinematography for the whole movie.
Mise-en-scene — historical significance
The mise-en-scene in a film shows the visuals in the frame and the way it appears and is organized. In many places, the term has pretty much survived into the present day in this shape.
Mise-en-scene was first applied to film by a number of French critics writing in the 1950s. This was at Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema). Mise-en-scene refers to the fullness of any given shot.
The visuals that were filmed, and also how it is framed are involved in mise-en-scene. This mise-en-scene was first acquired from French theater, where it referred to everything that appears on the stage.
The reasoning was that a film’s mise-en-scene comprised of everything that the camera sees: the setting, the lighting, the on-screen characters, their performances and acting with their outfits, makeups and props. It referred to how those components were arranged in the frames.
Andre Bazin, a notable French film scholar, portrays the mise-en-scene as highlighting choreographed movement inside the scene, rather than through editing.
The practical applications of Mise-en-scene
As a filmmaker and a director, it’s your responsibility to decide everything that goes on the screen, but mise-en-scene is the result of collaborative works between many professionals, such as costume designers, property master, make-up artists, location managers, camera crews, lighting crews, sound/music director, as well as actors and actresses.
Based on that, we understand that the mise-en-scene comprises not only all physical objects which appear on the screen, but also the intangible ones.
While the script alone can probably tell the story of a film, mise-en-scène enhances the narrative construction. Certain props and location may represent a period in history or important events currently happening in specific places or countries.
Added with proper on-screen composition, mise-en-scene becomes an inseparable background of the narration.
It also helps to eliminate unnecessarily lengthy description of when and where the story takes place. In the modern filmmaking industry, sometimes the entire mise-en-scene is created after the actual scene has been filmed, particularly in the biographical genre.
This means the location and all theatrical properties are essentially artificial, but necessary to add a dramatized background to the narration. The actual background in the original film is made up of a blank green, red, or blue screen; this technique is called chromakeying.
In this video, you can see how a detailed mise-en-scène is produced:
Examples of mise-en-scene
Sometimes mise en scene is the difference between authenticity and forced, cheap, or amateurish filmmaking because of the tone.
In some cases, complexity of design sends the right message about mise en scene:
Here, we see a busy space fraught with decrepit objects and potential threats. The primary threat is hiding in plain sight. The audience knows this, the protagonist does not, and therein lies the drama.
Then, there’s simplicity:
Simple as it gets: a room, a table, some chairs, a few characters, and a single light source. The drama is in the blocking of actors and stunning lighting. If you haven’t seen the film, you still get a good sense for tone, who holds power in the scene, and what is happening.
These are two powerful and very different uses of mise en scene. Cinematic language is created as a result of how the filmmakers laid out the scene.
And then, there’s a middle-ground:
This frame is, for lack of a better term, “lived-in.” It feels like a home you’ve likely been to, and tells us a great deal about those at the table.
The food is picked over, the furniture is inexpensive or secondhand, doors are open, and lights are on in other rooms. The drinks are at varying stages of completion, and Brad Pitt is the only one with a beer (PBR, no less).
But wait! here’s a different kind of middle-ground, from the same film:
It doesn’t get much simpler than a lone car on a road through the middle of nowhere. But isolation becomes claustrophobic when the road is densely lined with a forest of transmission towers.With this shot, David Fincher created two conflicting emotions simultaneously.
Your film’s mise en scene will dictate the story being told and the desired emotions you wish to insight—not just what seems cool or interesting, for its own sake, because it’s what is right for the film.
How to master mise-en-scene for your projects
The mise-en-scène, alongside the cinematography and editing of a film, impact the verisimilitude of a film according to its viewers.
Mise-en-scène additionally incorporates the arrangement, which comprises the positioning and movement of performing artists. The different components of design assist in expressing a film’s vision by creating a sense of time and space, and setting a mood, and infrequently suggesting a character’s state of mind.
These are all the areas sometimes supervised by the director. The important people amongst the individuals that teams up with the director is the production designer. The production designer is responsible for individual sets, areas, props, and costumes, among other things. The production designer is by and large in charge of the general look of the motion picture.
Mise-en-scène can be either realistic or artistic depending on how you, the director, wants to tell the story. When a scene calls for dramatic representation, it may require a lot of post-production editing.
Realistic mise-en-scène can be easier, but a good director will not take this filmmaking aspect for granted.
As a director, it’s important to remember that you have the final say about what your crew is working on. As we’ve covered, this includes every department from lighting to wardrobe to set design. Every element needs to be accounted for and your crew will come to you for final approval.
While filmmaking is a collaborative art form, you ultimately decide what your crew will be responsible for. It is a good idea to address as many of these questions in pre-production, so you do not become overwhelmed on set.
To help you in pre-production, we’ve put together a checklist in the form of an infographic to make sure no detail is left unturned. This infographic covers the 15 core principals of the mise-en-scène. If you go down this list for each of your scenes, you will have a great start to developing your mise-en-scène for the entire movie.
Michael Hall is one of the founders of ShoHawk, a filmmaking education site aimed at helping filmmakers create the art they want.
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