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Film as Literature... Mise en Scene

Mise en Scene is, essentially, the arrangement of a scene within the frame of the movie. This term also applies to plays, in which the staging from the arch above the stage, to its sides, to the front of the stage holds or frames the image as to what the audience sees. In film, this translates into how the director and cinematographer essentially stage the piece, how they light the scene, the types of cameras they use, the types of lenses they use and other elements, such as the actors and the props.

For cinema, the frame is essentially the outer border of the screen. Directors can use the wide expanse of a standard cinematic screen to accentuate their point. Adding a character on the edge of the screen indicates less importance for that character than a character at the center of the screen. Some directors even incorporate the dimensions or limitations of the screen in order to add perspective to the film... for example, framing the shot in such a way that the borders of the screen are also framed by some element within the scene, for example a window or a doorway. Likewise, what is implied outside of what the screen sees is also part of mise en scene, for especially in open framing, the implication that there is more going on outside of the frame than there is going on inside the frame indicates a realistic and complex world of which the characters are only part. Placing a character at the bottom of a frame indicates vulnerability or submissiveness, while placing a character at the top of the frame indicates dominance or threat.

The choice of shot also affects mise en scene since a long shot gives the director many choices as to where to place characters and other objects within the scene. Close-ups, however, create a dominating effect for one image and therefore mise en scene is less important for closer shots. Camera setup has a lot to do with how we perceive a character as well. If the character is full front, facing the camera, they are in essence looking at us and talking to us and somehow reveal some aspects of the character. With a quarter turn, we are shown the character's face, but she is not looking directly at us, and we are part of her world but not necessarily privy to her thoughts as much. With the profile, looking directly off left or right, we are merely observing what is going on, uninvolved personally. We can see his face, but we are not looking into his eyes. With the three quarter turn, the character is mostly with her back to the camera, and facial images and expressions are going to be obscured creating more mystery. And finally, back to camera can create a certain element of mystery and a threat to another character that is facing us, especially if the back to camera character is in the foreground.

Composition and design are also factors for mise en scene. Classical cinema usually dictates that there is some kind of harmonic balance within the frame of a shot... in other words, if there is an object on the left side of the frame that is prominent, there should be an equal object on the other side to balance out the shot. However, deliberately going against this particular type can have an effect on a shot and may even indicate a psychological or emotional state, used often in movies in which a character is emotionally unbalanced, and of course classically used in the live-action Batman television series in which every scene of the villain's lair was shot at a 45 angle, symbolically indicating their crookedness. The main focus of any scene is going to be the dominant contrast, or dominant, which is the area that immediately draws our attention. Subsidiary contrasts, conversely, are those that support the scene but are not necessarily the most important. When a general scene is presented and the audience is unaware of any individual character's importance, for example early in a film, the director will place the main character in such a way as to indicate the protagonist through his or her placement in the shot. Alternatively, Intrinsic interest is created when the audience instinctively knows what's important in a shot. That means an object, such as a building, may be the center of the shot, but the main character walking in from the side is the intrinsic interest because the audience already knows and identifies that character as the real point of the story, not the building itself. The use of movement in this case is important for the context of the framing of the shot. Of course, whether or not that shot is a longshot, which makes the character appear to be moving across a broad plain... or a close-up shot in which the character's environment is unclear, the movement itself gives us the interests within the story, as we anticipate either the journey's end or some subsequent action.

How characters and objects are arranged is also relevant. Overly balanced images are pleasing, but look artificial and staged. Chaos and lack of balance look less pleasing, but seem more realistic. Grouping and location within the frame of objects within the scene is also important. Cinematographers have tended to keep the majority of the objects on the lower half of the screen, lest the image feel oppressive. Going against that rule can help the film portray an ominous feel, such as impending doom. Big city scenes can use this effectively to show the oppressive nature of living in a large metropolis. Parallelism refers to creating patterns in a scene, like two characters both sitting or both standing to show their agreement in terms of a situation...they are in harmony. Certain shapes also indicate relationships and relative contexts. Common are the circle, used to show harmony within a group, and the triangle, used to show tension with a center person being the object of the other two characters' attention. Patterns can also be established through the placement of objects to create horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. A common image is a person behind bars in prison. The vertical lines push down on the character while also restraining him. Likewise, a child behind a wire fence of diagonal lines shows psychoanalytically her tension or turmoil, while of course the literal fence is a barrier to be overcome.

Another element is territorial space, often an element when there are two images dominating the screen. Characters in close proximity to each other can either indicate intimacy or aggression, depending on context. The more distance between the characters, the greater the emotional distance. When the characters are balanced within a frame of the shot, these rules especially apply. However, by placing a character within the territory of the other characters in half of the frame, there is now an element of invasion... aggression... threat. When a character is seen surrounded by others, whether or not that is seen as threatening or comforting often has to do with context... based of course on the audience's understanding of the context of the narrative. A character surrounded by her family is not threatened the way a character surrounded by hostile military figures would be. Composition also has to do with what is on the filmmaker's three visual planes... the foreground, the mid-ground, and the background. Characters are often placed in the mid-ground, with foreground elements commenting on the figure as we saw with the example of prison bars. Objects placed in the background do give context in setting, but do not have nearly as much impact on our evaluation of the character's situation. A cluttered background indicates chaos and imbalance, whereas a neutral or even barren background may indicate anything from serenity to isolation.

Mise en scene is a sometimes subtle but fundamentally important element to filmmaking, and the effect that an image has on an audience can be profound. The director and cinematographer's abilities to organize and present any given frame in a movie affects how the audience feels and perceives the characters and the plot developments within the storyline.

Works Cited

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Cinema. 11th ed. Pearson/Prentice Hall2008.


© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: August 5, 2008