A Quick Guide to Analysing Visual Style: Mise-en-scène

CinePunked’s mission is to engage with film fans and audiences and use film to have the big conversations about the issues that matter. We believe that film literacy is an essential component of navigating twenty-first century life. And we firmly believe that a deeper understanding of film shouldn’t be limited to academics and university students. 

So read on for CinePunked’s essential guide to the principles of understanding film…

In the last post, we looked at the elements that make up cinematography, one of the three components of a film’s visual style. This article will dive into the second component on the list: mise-en-scène. Let’s look at what we mean when we talk about mise-en-scène, and how we can use it to understand the visual language of film.

First off, here’s a graphic. Trust us, you’ll be glad of it later.

What is mise-en-scène?

As with many film theoretical terms, given that the founding fathers of film theory were from France, mise-en-scène is a French word. It literally means “placed in the scene,” and it refers to everything captured on screen that physically exists in front of the camera. Fundamentally, it’s the staging of the shot or the sequence.

The following elements are all aspects of mise-en-scène:

  • Lighting
  • Setting/Location
  • Props
  • Composition
  • Actors
  • Costume

And, just as we saw with cinematography, mise-en-scène has the capacity to communicate vast amounts of information, very often without you noticing. Take a look at this, for example:

Séraphine (2008), dir. Martin Provost

Whether or not you’ve seen the movie (don’t spoil it for the others if you have), you’ve worked out – just by looking at this image – rough information about time period, location, and character. If you watch this sequence from the movie itself, you’ll work out even more.

Séraphine (2008), dir. Martin Provost

Not a word of dialogue is spoken, but you’ve almost certainly developed your understanding of all of the above plus added information about genre, mood and style.

Mise-en-scène comes under the purview of the director, of course, but the responsibility for effecting it belongs largely to the production designer. Working closely with the director in order to match his or her vision for the movie, the production designer heads up the team responsible for securing the visual aesthetic of the movie. This includes the set designer and the set dresser, the props master, the locations manager, the wardrobe manager and so on. Basically, almost all aspects of mise-en-scène fall under the auspices of production design, except for the lighting arrangement and the actors and their performances. These are the responsibility of, respectively, the cinematographer and the director and his or her assistants.

This article will cover the first four elements of mise-en-scène, because they’re powerful sources of culturally constituted visual language. In other words, they’re giving you information in a way that’s often divorced from their literal, physical selves, and which relies on your learned – and, ultimately, unconscious – understanding of various film-linguistic cues.

On that note, let’s start with lighting.

Lighting

Film lighting effects have been used for some really visually arresting cinematic styles, so this particular element has probably got more of a prominent place in the collective consciousness than, say, shot size or camera movement. Some of the more memorable film movements to make full use of the aesthetic possibilities of lighting include…

German Expressionism

Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

…which famously uses very dramatic light and shadow effects to symbolically externalise interiority. This still from Nosferatu (1922) may be one of the most recognisable in film history. It’s certainly in close competition for that title with…

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene

…this one from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), another famous example of German Expressionism. If you’ve ever studied film anywhere, you’ve almost certainly studied one of these movies. We’ve podcasted on Caligari, by the way. Just saying…

Film noir

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

Film noir is of course heavily influenced by German Expressionism, given that many of the directors working on the classics of this cycle were German directors fleeing to Hollywood to escape Nazi Germany. Films noirs were often low-budget affairs and their striking visuals grew out of the necessity of being supplied with only the bare minimum in terms of lighting kit.

Horror

Halloween (1978), dir. John Carpenter

Horror also uses low-lighting effects, but in this case it’s less an aesthetic decision (though it can also be an aesthetic decision) than a pragmatic approach to withholding information in order to ratchet up the tension. You can’t protect yourself against something you can’t see, and you can’t see the bad guy lurking in the shadows. Yes, sure, it’s also a visual representation of the metaphorical darkness that exists in the heart of all men. It’s also a way to hide the monster with the axe.

Lighting set-ups

Achieving a lighting effect that’s consistent with the director’s vision relies on an understanding of how various lighting arrangements work. Most films – at least where they’re not trying to stylise the use of light and shadows – rely on 3-point lighting to create a clear, coherent image on camera.

Three-point lighting

Credit: artist unknown

Any time you’ve seen a film where nobody’s trying to catch your eye with dramatic chiaroscuro effects, you’ve seen three-point lighting. It’s designed to be invisible. The imaginative name comes from the fact that it uses three points of light.

The primary light source is known as the key light. The key light will have a very high luminous intensity, because a film camera needs a lot of light. The problem with this is that the high luminous intensity is extremely harsh, and it creates strong shadows. This means that, if you don’t want to create strong shadows (and most “naturalistic” lighting arrangements don’t), you need to soften them out with another, less strong, lighting source. This is known as the fill light, because it fills in the dark bits. 

Think of the camera as sitting on a horizontal line along the bottom of the image. The key light is on one end of that line. The fill light is on the other.

But then you have another issue, which is that the combination of a key light and a fill light evening out the shadows on an object will start to make that object appear two-dimensional. To counteract this effect, three-point lighting adds a backlight behind the subject. It’s also low-intensity – often lower than the fill light – and is designed to be unobtrusive; in fact, many set designers will add a diegetic (there you go, told you you’d need it) light source as part of the set dressing. It’s very unlikely that the diegetic light is actually working solely as the backlight – it’s there to reassure your unconscious thought processes that there’s a logical reason for the soft glow behind the guys on screen.

The backlight has the effect of separating the subject from the background. This de-flattens them, which is generally considered to be a good thing for humans.

Three-point lighting is fairly standard in Hollywood filmmaking. Variations on the general theme include using the sun as a key light in outdoor shoots, or bouncing the key light off a reflector (you know, the big silver circles you see photographers use) instead of using a physical fill light.

This still was shot using three-point lighting:

The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

See the minimisation of shadows? See the definition and separation from the background? You’ve got a strong key light, a fairly strong fill light (note that there’s virtually no shadow on the faces), and you’ve got a backlight behind them to give them that highlight and to pull them out of the background.

High-key lighting

Three-point lighting is used to produce what’s known as high-key lighting, which is also fairly standard. You might hear the two terms used interchangeably, but they’re not actually the same thing — you can absolutely use three-point lighting to produce low-key lighting. Three-point lighting tells you really just how many light sources are used and how they’re arranged. It doesn’t tell you how strong the lights are or what sort of shadows the cinematographer is trying to create with them. 

The confusion creeps in because you really do need three-point lighting to produce high-key lighting, whereas you can produce low-key lighting with just one light source if you really want to. 

This is 3-point lighting, and it’s also high-key lighting:

The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

And this is low-key lighting from the same film:

The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

Note the low-angle. In this instance, though, it’s in support of the lighting rather than to convey a sense of power on the subjects, because they are quite definitely not powerful here. Now, this is nothing like as pronounced as you’d get in a film noir or a German Expressionist film, but if you compare this still to the one above you can clearly see that they’ve dropped the strength of the key-light (and possibly also the fill light) to bring out the shadows on the faces of the subjects. 

The low-angle of the camera adds to the effect by emphasising the shadows below the chin. There are also chin shadows in the high-key lighting set-up, but the eye-level angle allows the chin to obscure the shadow beneath it. Shoot from below the chin, however, draws the eye to the shadow.

And this, of course, is one of the reasons why it’s not correct to use three-point lighting interchangeably with high-key lighting. Because this is low-key lighting, and it’s almost certainly also a three-point set-up. But such is life; it’s probably best to use high-key and low-key when talking about lighting and leave it at that.

Overlighting

We’ve talked a lot about shadows. Two paragraphs above, we’ve used the word “shadow” four times in three sentences. That’s probably enough of that, so let’s move to the other end of the spectrum and talk about what happens when you deliberately shine too much light onto your subject.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), dir. Steven Spielberg

This is a still from a sequence that has been overlit. You can see that the camera’s struggling to pick out detail and that it’s difficult to establish what’s happening in shot.

Given that overlighting is as bad for information flow as underlighting, you might imagine that it’s used for some very specific purposes. And you’d be right.

Overlighting can be and is used sometimes for the purposes of withholding information, just like the darkness caused by low-key lighting. But it’s much more common to see it used to connote a sense of “otherworldliness.” Mainstream filmmaking has invested a lot of time and effort into getting the viewing public to associate overlighting with heaven/the divine/aliens/supernatural occurrences and so on, and it’s damn well going to make the most of that now.

We present Exhibit A.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), dir. David Yates

Harry dies (or “dies”) and goes to wizard heaven. It is King’s Cross station in London – only white and absent any sign of shadow.

It’s not just the lighting contributing to the colour palette of this sequence, of course. The otherworldly feel is supported by a lot of other aspects of the mise-en-scène: the costumes, for one, but especially the setting.

And on that seamless segue, let’s talk some more about setting.

Setting

Setting can actually be one of the most important aspects of a film. Consider the western, for example — setting is actually integral to the genre. Setting doesn’t need to be simply a container for the events that are happening on screen — though it absolutely can be, of course, and often is. It can also enter the narrative action and actively shape how the narrative plays out. 

Setting is one of the ways that the director seeks to control the flow of information on the screen and it can be absolutely critical at certain moments in the story. There are two ways to do this. You might choose to set up in an already existing setting and have this physical location be the site in which narrative action plays out. Alternatively, you can construct a setting, either physically or in CGI. 

Of course, the ability to create a setting from scratch has led to the development of several distinct aesthetic approaches. Several schools of filmmaking exist that emphasise very stylistic, very symbolic settings. This can be an artistic choice, part of a particular philosophical approach to filmmaking…

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene

…as in this guy again, in which German Expressionism seeks to evoke an impression, a sensation, an emotional response through very stylised imagery. Note the overtly non-realistic imagery. German Expressionism wants to convey a sense of subjective inner experience rather than an attempt to directly capture a sense of objective realism.

Stylised setting can also be a narrative choice…

Spellbound (1945), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

… such as in Spellbound (1945), which uses a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali his surrealist self, designed to evoke a sense of the chaos and symbolism of the dreaming mind. This is a film about psychoanalysis, so access to the character’s dreamscape is a narrative device. But it’s being explicitly situated as outside of the normal, experiential reality, and the setting is designed to convey that.

On the other hand, some movies go out of their way to mimic the appearance of objective reality as closely as possible. It’s something that does tend to crop up quite often in historical epics — the marketing team make a huge song and dance about the meticulous research that they’ve done, while the reality is every single historical film ever made looks like the decade in which it was made. But close attention to matching objective reality is something that you see in, for example…

All The President’s Men (1976), dir. Alan J. Pakula

All the President’s Men (1976), in which the director and the production designer worked very closely to recreate the offices of the Washington Post as accurately as possible on a Hollywood sound stage — to the extent that they had waste paper from the actual office scattered around the set.

And then you have films which make the decision to use setting to draw attention to the artificiality of the medium. Here’s a famous example….

Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

Dogville (2003) actively seeks to use the absence of any physical, constructed set to draw attention to the artifice of trying to mimic “realism” on screen, when “realism” can never be more than artifice masquerading as something experiential. 

And of course within that setting, you are most likely going to have some props.

Props

The word “prop” comes from “property” and refers to anything on screen that can move or be carried, and isn’t an actor, their clothes, or a piece of the actual set.

Props can be decoration, they can be information-carriers, or they can be used to carry all kinds of symbolic meaning in order to help you, the viewer, understand more deeply the message that the film is attempting to convey. This, for example, is a prop:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), dir. Peter Jackson

It’s also a symbol of the danger presented by Sauron and the armies of Mordor, and, more broadly, for the ancient powers of darkness against which we must be eternally vigilant.

Where a prop is used symbolically and repeatedly throughout the film, it becomes a motif. This is a motif:

Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott

This is a motif:

The Godfather (1972), dir. Francis Ford Coppola

… in which oranges are repeatedly associated with the Corleone family and frequently with impending death. 

A motif doesn’t have to be a prop, though. Here’s a particularly heartbreaking example of a motif that’s comprised of costume and colour:

Schindler’s List (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg

It’s outside the scope of visual style, but it’s worth noting that film music is regularly used to create aural motifs. So regularly, in fact, that this device has its own special name: leitmotif.

The point about props is that if something has been elevated to the status of being explicitly used in the scene, it’s not there by accident. 

Now, on a soundstage, absolutely everything in front of the camera is there on purpose. Everything you see on screen has been placed there as the result of a specific decision somewhere down the line. On location, the ability to completely control what’s in front of the camera is not so absolute, but, regardless, it’s all there because a decision was made to point the camera in that specific direction, including that specific car, and that specific overflowing bin. Turn the camera 90 degrees and you have a different image. That wasn’t the image the director wanted you to see, though.

This takes us to composition.

Composition

Composition refers to the way in which elements of mise-en-scène are arranged in front of the camera. Basically, in order to draw attention to certain aspects of a shot — or to make implicit meaning from some aspect of the shot — a filmmaker will seek to manipulate the composition of a shot in certain ways. Let’s consider them in turn.

Movement

Our eyes are naturally drawn to movement within the frame. We’re instinctively likely to notice movement over stasis. When a director wants to draw specific attention to an element in an otherwise static composition, movement – where available – is an easy win. But consider this sequence, for example, in which everything is moving:

The Fisher King (1991), dir. Terry Gilliam

Gilliam’s issue in this scene is that it’s full of people, all of them in motion, and he needs to keep your attention focussed on two of them in particular, often from afar. Notice how, in certain shots, Robin Williams’ Perry is the only person not moving, and that makes him stand out from the crowd.

That only works so far, though, so for the most part Gilliam chooses that second important tool in the compositional arsenal to keep our eyes directed on his stars: colour.

Colour

Consider, again, the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and how vividly that one colour detail brought home the horror of the Holocaust. In the sequence from The Fisher King, though, colour is deployed in the service of much more utilitarian ends: Perry’s hat, with its red ear flaps, stands out against a sea of black and white costume, as does Lydia’s all-beige ensemble. Everyone is moving and so are Perry and Lydia. Colour is what sets them apart and keeps them fixed in the viewer’s field of vision.

Here’s another strategic use of colour in order to make sure we’re looking in the right place:

Duel (1971), dir. Steven Spielberg

The majority of Duel takes place in the bleached out yellows and browns of the southern Californian wilderness. It involves a stonking great big truck and a little bitty car, both of which – again – spend most of their time moving on screen. So, in order to keep David Mann’s car visible, given that it’s smaller than the stonking great big truck, Spielberg made the decision to use a red vehicle. Not a lot of red out there in the desert, so it stands out.

Duel is also the source of history’s greatest example (fight us) of that compositional technique known as frame-within-a-frame.

Duel (1971), dir. Steven Spielberg

All right, this one’s quite famous too:

The Searchers (1956), dir. John Ford

Frame-within-a-frame is an arrangement of elements inside the mise-en-scène so that it appears to “frame” a specific element within the composition. So, you’ve got the compositional frame created by the elements of mise-en-scène inside the frame of the film image. Frame-within-a-frame.

It’s quite a flashy technique and tends to be used very strategically. Any time you see frame-within-a-frame, you’d be well served looking for deeper layers of meaning. Yes, it’s drawing your attention to something, but do feel free to have a look at what is being used to draw your attention to what

In the case of Duel, the film functions on a deeper, symbolic level as an interrogation of (then) modern masculinity. The protagonist’s name is Mann, for heaven’s sake. And in this particular scene, he’s in a telephone argument with his wife about not defending her from his chauvinist boss’s unwanted advances at a work do the night before. Mann’s masculinity is being challenged from multiple angles: the aggressive, bestial masculine energy of the truck that’s chasing him, the (losing) argument with his wife, the attempted cuckolding by his boss… and he’s framed by that classic symbol of domesticity, the washing machine. Specifically, its door. Considered in light of 1970s gender norms, the symbolic meaning of this frame-within-a-frame is pretty clear: man up, David Mann. Conquer yourself a truck, guy.

In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards symbolises the tension between the advance of civilisation and the rugged individualism of the untamed west. The family’s homestead is the apotheosis of this struggle made manifest: domesticity is the antithesis of the chaos that the west represents. Ethan’s tragedy is that he’s a man caught between two worlds: he values family, yearns (in some way) for a home, but is, fundamentally, of the wilderness and can’t be “tamed” into domestic life. The closing shot, then, finds him caught on the threshold of civilisation – the homestead – with the wilderness laid out behind him. He turns, and the door closes him outside, barring entry to the domestic space for good.

That is, of course, a lot of visual communication going on in one ostensibly very simple set-up: man at door, man turns, door closes. But… that’s mise-en-scène. It provides phenomenal amounts of information, often without us even realising on a conscious level that we’ve received and understood it. And that’s part of the task of breaking down the visual language of cinema — becoming aware of it in the first place.

Come back again next month where we’ll be looking at the final element of visual style: montage.

No, not that kind of montage. Just… come back next month, okay?


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