Mise-en-scène

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 are also considered part of the mise-en-scène of a movie. In cinema, placing on the stage really means placing on the screen, and the director is in charge of deciding what goes where, when, and how.David  A. Cook, in his book A History of Narrative Film, points out how a mise-en-scène is formed by all the elements that appear “within the shot itself, as opposed to the effects created by cutting.” In other words, if it’s on the screen and if it’s a physical object recorded by the camera, then it’s part of the mise-en-scène.

Academically Speaking

Don’t be confused. Mise-en-scène isn’t a production term. Directors don’t walk around saying “Let’s change the mise-en-scène today.” Not at all.

From the craftsmen who build bookcases to the cinematographer who 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 talking 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 often used when the overall look and feel of a movie is under discussion. Students taking Film Analysis courses should be quite familiar with the term.

Even though many professionals are involved in its creation, the director is the one who 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.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01In some instances, the mise-en- scène is designed to evoke emotions that permeate the whole movie. For example in the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), distorted shapes and claustrophobic scenery are implemented to disturb the audience and enhance the horror.

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) has been praised by its amazing, colorful, 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.

Set Design

The set design refers to the decor of the the set, or how it’s dressed, comprising mainly of the furniture, props, and the set itself. Instead of just placing objects here and there, the director must be savvy to fathom how these elements may bear significance in a deeper level, while also emphasizing themes, creating meanings, and provoking thoughts.

To illustrate: 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 symbolically represents 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.

The Production Designer is the professional responsible for building and dressing the set. She works with the Art Director, the Set Designer, and the Prop Master to create and add these physical elements to the filmic space. The Production Designer reports to the Director, and together they conceptualize the look of the film well before cameras start rolling.

 In Rear Window (1954), an enlarged photograph placed in the living room offers exposition on the accident that made L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) handicap:

rear window photograph exposition racing accident

 

Lighting

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. In broad terms, the two 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 itself.

high-key lighting on Hero

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.

low-key lighting on casablanca

Note that this terminology is counter-intuitive as low-key lighting is high contrast and high-key lighting is low contrast.

Costume

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 dusts off his sleeve, his apparently gray uniform turns blue, making it obvious that our beloved protagonist was going into the shark’s mouth.

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 prey. Her coat bears a pattern that resembles the fur of a cheetah. Or could it be a cougar?

Mrs. Robison as a cougar in The Graduate

Location

In Witness (1985), on the day after rejecting Rachel’s (Kelly McGillis) seduction, John Book (Harrison Ford) explains to her why nothing could have happened between them the night before. Quite 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 physically 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 sprints to him, and they run away. When the couple is cornered by infuriated parents and relatives, Ben starts swinging a cross to avoid them. As they exit, Ben uses the cross to hold the church’s doors shut.

The prop (cross) and location (church) offer a comment on religious institutions, perhaps implying that Elaine’s parents are trapped by traditional believes and practices.

For the Future Directors, With Love

As you know, the director on a set has final word on all the creative elements, which means many of your crew members will stop you and ask for approval on this or that: Is the blond wig okay? Can we shoot on top of the building? Can we place the sofa under the window? Where’s is the restroom?

Some of these questions may or may not be the questions you are willing to answer at the time, but remember: everyone is just doing their job. The important thing is to not get overwhelmed and snap at your crew. They are all there for you, working on your film.

If you are on an well-oiled set, your Assistant Director (AD) will be the last barrier before people get to you. He or she will try to answer as many questions for you as they can. And if your AD doesn’t know the answer, at least he or she will be able to prioritize and let you know what needs immediate attention.

CHARACTER ARC: Because the Only Constant is Change

Definitely one of the most basic principles in screenwriting is character arc – the notion that characters must evolve, grow, learn, or change as the plot unfolds. The audience in general expects a character to finish the movie in a better position than that in which he started because that is what everyone strives for. Life sometimes allows that, but not always.

The arc doesn’t imply that characters will always be richer, smarter, or get the girl at the end. Perhaps a greedy person would end up in jail for embezzlement or an impulsive lover would end up murdered at the hands of an angry husband. Who knows. Shit happens in life and the movies.

Spoiler Alert: The following paragraphs contain spoilers.

Positive and Negative Arcs

Here’s a positive change or arc: in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) starts out as a student in the FBI who’s assigned a special mission. At the movie’s resolution, Clarice has improved her investigation skills and gun technique, both of which allow her to complete her mission and graduate from the FBI Academy.

An elaborate arc will present growth in many aspects of a character’s life. In The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) starts as an awkward, introverted, 20-year-old young man who lives by his parent’s rules and wishes. As the story unfolds, Benjamin begins making his own choices, often against his parents’. Furthermore, through an early exposition, it is implied that Benjamin is a virgin, which changes after his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And by the movie’s end, he also gets the girl he wanted, already wearing a wedding gown.

This is not the norm, but one powerful version of the character arc is when the arc goes “down the hill.” In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) never accepts Rhett’s (Clark Gabble) unrelenting courtship. Rhett, in the other hand, arcs as he realizes Scarlet will never want him, so he leaves her, saying the famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” In her despair, Scarlet denies her fate and utters: “Tara. Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

A character arc can also be dark or somber. In the highly acclaimed Billy Wilder picture Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the two main characters die, and the other one is arrested.

What Drives Change?

Take a second to think about the question above: what makes people change? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Think of the last time you or a friend or a relative experienced a big change. What was responsible for such change?

Although everyone wants to better themselves and improve their lives, change is not necessarily easy. Usually, people will take small steps towards a major goal, but big changes usually require a catalyst.

What do you think would make a sports-averse 40-year-old man start running daily after decades of a sedentary lifestyle? How about a heart attack? That sure would take most people off their butts and the cheesecake diet if it meant more health.

In storytelling lingo, we would call the heart attack conflict because that’s what it is. Like in life, conflict is really good at making people change and change quickly.

Movies are no different. Sometimes a character wakes up one day and decides to pursue their dreams. But often they need life to club them in the heads and say “You’ve been doing this all wrong. Try this other alternative instead.”

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom was writing greeting cards while his dream really was architecture. The catalyst in this plot was Summer. Tom was too comfortable in his day job to chase anything else until the girl of his dreams encouraged him to do it. And if you saw the movie, you know how hard this was for Tom.

To mention The Silence of the Lambs again: do you think Clarice was excited when, as a young FBI student, she was an invited for a special mission? You bet! But that special mission really involved a lot of  life-threatening moments (AKA conflict).

As Seen at the Movies…

Positive arcs

In Matrix (1999), after learning that he’s the One, Neo uses his recent-acquired skills to vanquish Agent Smith. Neo’s arc is both internal (as he believes in himself and accepts his responsibility) and external (as he develops his fighting skills and uses them to combat the enemy).

In Rocky (1976), small-time boxer Rocky Balboa trains hard and “goes the distance” with heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror #8 convinces his fellow  members or the jury that the case they are debating has room for “reasonable doubt.”

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne escapes from the Shawshank Prison and unveils the corrupt warden’s money laundry operation to the authorities.

Negative or “Down-the-hill” arcs

In Shattered Glass (2003), journalist Stephen Glass’s lies are uncovered and he gets fired from the newspaper.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch and Sundance are cornered by the Bolivian army and ultimately shot down.

It’s important to note that characters (like humans) are complex creatures and their transitions are never clean or black-and-white. Sometimes only one aspect of the character evolves, while others remain the same. With that in mind, don’t always (if ever) write characters who change from wholly evil to wholly good or vice versa because that rarely happens. A subtle transition is sometimes more identifiable for the audience.

Character arc alone will not save a terrible screenplay, but it will make a bad story better. Keep in mind that the audience expects this in all narrative films. There’s no magic formula to it. A fantastic a plot built in a solid structure with enough conflict will bring about the character arc.

What about you? What are some of your favorite arcs in film history?

 

MAIN CHARACTER: How Many Protagonists Should My Story Have?

Movies tell stories about people. In every script, the writer has to create one character (or a set of characters) that the audience will root for or hate. This special character is known as the main character, often referred to as the protagonist. He or she will be the character with most obstacles to overcome and normally the one with most screen time.

Creating interesting, realistic characters is an art in itself. Finding the right amount of realism and uniqueness to form an exciting, plausible character ranks as one of the hardest tasks in screenwriting.

Traditionally (if not statistically), the norm is that  main characters be good guys on the right side of the law, heroes like James Bond or regular citizens with big dreams like Rocky. Nowadays, however, as the industry breaks barriers, writers have enormous freedom to use anti-heroes or even bad guys as their main characters. Ocean’s Eleven (1960, 2001), for instance, romanticizes criminals and turns them into the protagonists.

Scripts and stories can be categorized by the number of main characters they present. The next section examines the most common possibilities.

Yes, you got it right, the following contains story spoilers!

A Single Main Character

Although most screenplays have dozens of characters, as a general rule, the story revolves around only one person. Even romances, in which the story wouldn’t exist without the significant other, have just one main character. Love Story (1970), for instance, opens with Oliver Barrett IV, alone, mourning the loss of his loved one. He is the character who faces more physical and psychological challenges throughout the movie.

In some films, the main character is quickly noticeable, such as in The Graduate (1967). Both the title of the movie and the first sequences leave no doubt that Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is the main character in that picture. He is the one returning to LA, dealing with his parents, worrying about his future, and avoiding Mrs. Robison (Anne Bancroft). The story is told from his perspective, and every scene links to him or his objectives or his problems.

In other movies, the true main character is overshadowed by secondary characters until the time comes for the protagonist to reach his intended purpose. This happens in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which opens with a frantic pledge to Don Corleone ( Marlon Brandon), one of the heads of the Italian mafia in New York. At the movie’s very beginning, his son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) seems like a minor role. In fact, he is considered by other mafia families as a “civilian” disinterest in mob business. Only when Don is murdered, is Michael dragged into his dad’s affairs as a mobster.

Killing the Main Character: A Good Idea?

I have always found this to be an interesting topic of  discussion: can you kill your protagonist? In Godfather, that kind of happens if you consider that Marlon Brandon’s character was the protagonist of the story during the first half of the movie.

A more interesting example, in my opinion, happens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960), in which the main protagonist is murdered around halfway through the movie.

What is the risk of killing off your main character? The main problem is that usually audiences hold the protagonist’s hand to follow the plot. So when they are dead, your spectators may not be hooked enough to follow the story without the main character.

Psycho is a great of example of how to keep the audience intrigued through the loss of the main character. Two techniques used in the film are:

  1. Introduce a second main character, the protagonist’s sister.
  2. Create a mystery that drives the remaining of the film: who is the killer?

 

Two Main Characters

“Buddy” movies are the ones mostly likely to contain equally important characters. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is the classic example that tells the story of two outlaws that live, work, run, and die together. They complete and contrast each other. Whereas Sundance is deadly with guns, Butch has never shot anyone. Whereas Butch is sociable and talkative, Sundance is unfriendly and laconic. But in spite of their differences, they both share sheer pleasure in breaking into vaults.

Thelma and Louise (1991), labeled by some a modern version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is also another great example of a “buddy” movie with two main characters that roughly share the same amount of screen time and story relevance.

Other examples of 2-main character movies are: Lethal Weapon (1987), Midnight Cowboy(1969), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).

Ensemble Cast

Rare movies successfully manage to have more than two main characters. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) is a great exception to the rule, and one that excels with refreshing artfulness and humor. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family forced together into the family RV as they travel to Redondo Beach for a beauty pageant. The characters are so meticulously elaborated that each one has their own arc. Unity is supplied by the RV bus that takes them to California and family ties.

A similar structure is found in Network (1976). Although Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the character that sets the story in motion, he hardly has enough screen time to earn him a main character status. He is indeed very prominent, but he functions more as a plot device. His colleagues Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Max Schumacher (William Holden), and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) are the real main characters. Unity is supplied by the TV network where they work.

Word of Caution

Movies with ensemble casts can be beautiful masterpieces, as the two titles above illustrate, but if you are just starting out as a screenwriter, I would recommend focusing on writing stories with one main character because an ensemble piece has too many protagonists who have to share screen time, exposition arc, and more. This can be daunting enough for one character, imagine doing for two or three or five.

(This just a piece of advice. If you have a strong story, then go for it!)