• Owen R. Horton

Mise en scène

Below, we will discuss the major concepts behind staging in film.

Mise en scène is the "staging" of a scene. It includes everything that makes it onto the camera screen: costumes, props, actors, makeup, etc. We can most easily imagine staging by imagining the stage of a theatrical production-- anything you would see on the stage itself would be considered mise en scène in a film.

Mise en scène has two stages: design and composition. Design is the look of the setting, props, lighting, and characters; Composition is the organization, distribution, and balance of those objects.

Design and Composition are controlled by two principle artists (and their staff): the director and the production designer. Typically, the production designer worries more about the design, and is responsible for crafting the look and feel of a film; the director, on the other hand, typically works on composition and organization of shots in the camera's frame. Remember that these are reductive stances-- the director will also contribute to the look of a film and the production designer will offer opinions on balance and framing.

Most importantly, it is crucial to understand that every object that makes its way onto the screen has been intentionally and carefully chosen for its contribution to the look and feel of that particular shot. Nothing is accidental, so everything is readable.

Design. Above all else, design should be appropriate for the movie. If a movie is attempting to be realistic, then every component of the staging needs to be carefully chosen for accuracy; if a film is fantastic, then the staging should give us insight into that different world. Here, we consider verisimilitude.

Elements of Design:

  • Setting, decor, and prop(ertie)s. Where is the scene shot-- on location or on set? How is the scene decorated-- what is the color of the set, what furniture exists, and are there major objects in the frame? Props are smaller objects that interact with the decor: paintings, silverware, guns, lamps. Designers must also consider how something lights or catches light.

  • Lighting. We will cover this more next week, when we discuss Cinematography, but for staging purposes, light must be considered in a few ways: (1) are we using natural light or artificial light? (2) Where is the light source coming from vis-a-vis our characters? (3) Will the light change during the shot?

  • Costume. What does the costume tell us about the character? About the time period or location the film takes place in? About the current society's understanding of beauty ideals?

  • Makeup & Hairstyle. Are we using "natural" or costuming makeup? Which characters wear makeup? Are we attempting to capture realism or fantasy? Are we transforming our actors' looks?

Composition. Here, the director and director of photography work together to consider how the design elements interact with characters through the processes of framing and kinesis.

Framing. What we see on the screen. Imagine the borders of the camera to be like the edges of a canvas-- we can only see what happens in that location, everything else is (intentionally) excluded. Framing always considers a Point-of-view (POV): either that of a specific character or that of an omniscient narrator-- this framing can sometimes shift several times in one scene.

  • On-screen and Off-screen space. Always remember that the frame is dynamic-- because the camera can move (unlike a painting) what is on-screen and what is off-screen can change instantly. Both spaces are important: what we can see (obviously) and what we are being prevented from seeing.

  • Open and closed framing. An "open" frame is one in which characters can move freely in and out of the camera's frame. A "closed" frame is the exact opposite: characters cannot break the "wall" of the frame. Open frames are used to depict situations (or characters) where movement is free and easy; closed frames signify a feeling of being trapped or constrained. In an open frame, characters are more important than design; in a closed frame, we begin to notice how objects serve as roadblocks or hazards to our characters.

Kinesis. Movement on screen. Are characters or objects moving around the screen? How does the framing work to allow or constrict movement? How does editing work to allow or constrict movement?

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