The arrangement of everything that appears in the framing – actors, lighting, décor, props, costume – is called mise-en-scène, a French term that means “placing on stage.” The frame and camerawork also constitute the mise-en-scène of a movie.
The Film Scholar's Insight
Don't be confused. Mise-en-scène isn't a production term. Directors don't walk around saying “Let's create an elaborate mise-en-scène.” Not at all.
From the craftsman that builds fake bookcases to the cinematographer that chooses where the lights will go, the mise-en-scène is the result of the collaboration of many professionals. Thus in the production environment, the director is more specific with his requests and orders. Is he trying to talk to the prop master, the set designer, the actors, the make-up artists? All of them are part of different departments. But all of them, in the end, have influence in the mise-en-scène.
In the academic realm, the term mise-en-scène is always invoked when the overall look and feel of a movie is under discussion. Students taking Film Analysis should be quite familiar with the term.
Even though many professionals are involved in its creation, the director is the one that oversees the entire mise-en-scène and all of its elements. Not just that, but during the early stages of pre-production, the director or his AD sits down with set designers, prop masters, location managers, costume designers, and scenic artists to determine the look and feel intended.
In some instances, the mise-en- scène is used to evoke lasting feelings throughout the movie and not just for selected scenes. In the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), distorted shapes and claustrophobic scenery is implemented to disturb the audience and enhance the horror.
Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) has been praised by its amazing, exciting, and multi-layered visual design. For this reason, the following segments will shed light on many scenes from The Graduate but also from other pictures.
Décor refers to the decoration or decorative styles, comprising mainly of the set and props used in a movie. Instead of just dressing the set, the director must be savvy to fathom how objects may bear significance in a deeper level, while also emphasizing themes, creating meanings, and provoking thoughts.
An early scene from The Graduate (1967) opens with a close-up of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) alone on his bed. Behind him is a fish tank, which may symbolically represent Ben’s entrapment in a life that he doesn’t want. Later in the movie, Ben finds himself at the bottom of a swimming pool, thus further elaborating on that concept.
In Rear Window (1954), an enlarged photograph placed in the living room offers exposition on the accident that rendered L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) handicap:
Unarguably one of the film elements that has the greatest power to evoke emotions, lighting must be manipulated by the director to accommodate his or her desires for the movie. The two broad types of lighting approaches are: low-key lighting and high-key lighting.
High-key lighting is often seen in romantic comedies and musicals, encompassing an even lighting pattern and avoiding dark areas in the frame. Everything looks bright with little to no shadow at all. High-key lighting has little dramatic effect, and it is often used in a scene with no tension.
Low-key lighting is often seen in horror movies and thrillers, comprising of a lighting pattern that has both bright and dark areas in the frame. The chiaroscuro (Italian: bright-dark) technique, long used by painters, is characterized by strong contrast, often employed to unnerve the audience.
Note that this terminology is counterintuitive as low-key lighting is high contrast and high-key lighting is low contrast.
The obvious purpose of costuming is to dress an actor according to his character. Lawyers wear suits, nurses wear scrubs, and a drifter could wear worn out shoes, ragged shirt, and baggy pants.
But, more than that, costuming can also be used to establish someone’s hierarchic level. Regimentals, for instance, bear the status of the person who wears it. And even the color may distinguish an enemy from a friend. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), a comic situation arises when Blondie (Clint Eastwood) heads toward the enemy cavalry that was covered in dust. When the enemy general slaps his gloves on his sleeve, his apparently gray uniform changes to blue.
Costuming may also be used to emphasize a theme. In the first scene at the Taft Hotel in The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson wears a fur coat that makes her look like a predator hunting for her pray. Her coat bears a pattern that resembles the fur of a cheetah. Or could it be a cougar?
In Witness (1985), on the day after declining Rachel’s (Kelly McGillis) seduction, John Book (Harrison Ford) explains to her why nothing could have happened between them the night before. Quiet conveniently, the confrontation takes place in a barn, while Rachel is collecting eggs. The location emphasizes Rachel’s responsibilities as a woman. If they had made love and Rachel gotten pregnant, she would have to carry the baby and eventually give birth. Also, during the conversation, John stands outside the barn, thus being separated from Rachel by the barn’s door. In this case, the door functions as a metaphor of the social and cultural barriers that keeps them a part.
The final confrontation in The Graduate takes place in a church. Ben tries to prevent Elaine (Katherine Ross) from getting married, but he arrives too late. Nonetheless, when Elaine sees him, she runs to him, and they run away. When the couple is cornered by infuriated parents and relatives, Ben starts swinging a cross to avoid them. Stepping out, Ben uses the cross to hold the church’s doors shut.
The prop (cross) and location (church) impose a comment on religious institutions, perhaps implying that Elaine’s parents are trapped by traditional believes and practices.
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