Mise en scene is a cinema studies term that refers to what’s put in the scene. It refers to the overall effect of lighting, make up, costume, props and colour within the frame. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007) includes a fun example of how visual composition can be used to establish character. As Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is being introduced to his new colleagues, Sergeant Tony Fisher is shown sitting in front of a whiteboard scrawled with a mind-map. The bubbles that point towards his head are labeled with words like ‘DISLOYAL’, ‘RUDE’, ‘INEFFICIENT’ and ‘UNFIT’.
During the opening of Disturbia, director David Caruso uses mise-en-scene to show how the Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is affected by the death of his father. During the opening scene of the film, when Kale is spending time with his father, the shots have been adjusted in post-produciton to accentuate the golden hues of the landscape. After his father’s death, when Kale is sitting in a classroom at school, the image is dull and desaturated. This stark shift in mise-en-scene is used to convey how the death of Kale’s father has affected him.
THINKING ABOUT MISE-EN-SCENE
Mise-en-scene is used purposefully throughout films to contribute to the narrative. Identify a scene in the film you’re studying in which you think mise-en-scene makes a contribution to the narrative. Play the scene through several times, noting how the use of lighting, make up, costume, props and colour contributes to the narrative or engages audiences. When you’re writing about mise-en-scene, don’t make generalisations about the use of mise-en-scene. Focus on the use of costumes, make up, lighting, colour and props within a single scene, explaining how these elements contribute to the narrative.
In X2 (2003) mise-en-scene contributes significantly to character development during the scene in which Williams Stryker (Brian Cox) interrogates Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). At the beginning of the scene, the audience only sees a silhouette of Stryker as he talks to Xavier. The mise-en-scene makes him appear particularly ominous, sinister-looking instruments hang from the ceiling, the shot is filled with shadows and there is a discoloured concrete wall in the background. This use of mise-en-scene makes Stryker seem particularly sinister and evil.
In Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock uses mise-en-scene to subtly contribute to character development in the film. During the conversation, Marion and Norman are framed separately. Norman is surrounded by menacing looking birds. In the top left hand corner of the frame, there is an owl – its wings outstretched as if descending on its prey. Towards the bottom of the frame, there is the shadow of a crow. Both of these birds are extremely sinister and clearly foreshadow the discovery that Norman is murderer. On the wall in the background, there are two paintings. Both of these paintings are medieval paintings of women being attacked. The shadow that divides Norman’s face is a clear reference to his split personality. In the background of this shot, the frame is filled with straight lines. In contrast, Marion is more generously lit than Norman. She is surrounded by curved lines: the milk jug, Tiffany lamp, a rounded picture frame. By itself, this use of visual composition doesn’t tell the audience much about her character. Nevertheless, it creates a contrast between Norman and Marion, between murderer and victim. There are birds in this shot, too. There are several small, stuffed finches perched beneath the lamp. Whereas Norman is surrounded by sinister looking birds of prey, Marion is framed with harmless, ‘passive’ birds. Throughout the parlour scene, Hitchcock is clearly using visual composition to tell the audience about the characters. Norman – surrounded by sinister birds – is clearly characterised as a murderer. Marion – generously lit and framed with small, stuffed finches – is clearly going to become his victim. Although many people don’t recognise this on first viewing the film, when you watch the movie again, it is clear what Hitchcock was conveying through his use of visual composition.
In Equilibrium (2002) mise-en-scene and visual composition are used to create the impression that the characters inhabit live in a world controlled by a repressive totalitarian government which has outlawed emotion. In the opening sequence of the film, The camera tilts up to reveal a cityscape. The buildings are a drab, uniform shade of grey. The sky, too, is dominated by grey clouds which contribute to the sense that this society is completely emotionless. Throughout this sequence, the shots of the city are largely symmetrical which contributes to the sense that, devoid of emotion, the city has reached a state of equilibrium. In one shot, a large zeppelin flies between two almost identical buildings. The people walking in the foreground are all dressed in shades of grey and black. The camera dollies in on rows of people dressed in identical grey uniforms listening to a speech by their leader. Both the symmetry of this shot and they grey costumes contribute to the sense that they live in a repressive and emotionless society. Throughout this scene, the use of colour and composition of shots contribute to the sense that the characters inhabit an emotionless world ruled by a totalitarian regime.