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Aspects of Mise-en-Scene - Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson

by Stephen Prokow
Aspects of Mise-en-Scene - Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson by Stephen Prokow
“Aspects of Mise-en-Scene” What possibilities for selection and control does mise-en-scene offer the filmmaker? We can mark out four general areas: setting, costumes and makeup, lighting, and staging. “Setting” Since the earliest days of cinema, critics and audiences have understood that setting plays a more active role in cinema than it usually does in the theater. André Bazin writes, The human being is all-important in the theatre. The drama on the screen can exist without actors. A banging door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can heighten the dramatic effect. Some film masterpieces use man only as an accessory, like an… Read more

“Aspects of Mise-en-Scene”

What possibilities for selection and control does mise-en-scene offer the filmmaker? We can mark out four general areas: setting, costumes and makeup, lighting, and staging.


Since the earliest days of cinema, critics and audiences have understood that setting plays a more active role in cinema than it usually does in the theater. André Bazin writes,

The human being is all-important in the theatre. The drama on the screen can exist without actors. A banging door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can heighten the dramatic effect. Some film masterpieces use man only as an accessory, like an extra, or in counterpoint to nature, which is the true leading character.

Cinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action.
The filmmaker may control setting in many ways. One way is to select an already existing locale in which to stage the action, a practice stretching back to the earliest films. Louis Lumière shot his short comedy L’Arroseur arrosé (The Waterer Watered) in a garden, and Jean-Luc Godard filmed the exteriors for Contempt on the resort island of Capri, of the coast of Italy. At the close of World War II, Roberto Rossellini shot Germany Year Zero in the rubble of Berlin. Today filmmakers often go on location to shoot.

“The filmmakers constructed none of the setting in this shot from Contempt, but control of character placement and framing turn it into a nearly abstract composition.”

Germany Year Zero

Alternatively, the filmmaker may construct the setting. Méliès understood that shooting in a studio increased his control, and many filmmakers followed his lead. In France, Germany, and especially the United States, the possibility of creating a wholly artificial world on film led to several approaches to setting.

Some directors have emphasized authenticity. For example, Erich von Stroheim prided himself on meticulous research into details of locale for Greed. All the President’s Men (1976) took a similar tack, seeking to duplicate the Washington Post office on a soundstage. Even wastepaper from the actual office was scattered around the set. Other films have been less committed to historical accuracy. Though D. W. Griffith studied the various historical periods presented in Intolerance, his Babylon constitutes a personal image of that city. Similarly, in Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein freely stylized the décor of the czar’s palace to harmonize with the lighting, costume, and figure movement, so that characters crawl through doorways that resemble mouseholes and stand frozen before allegorical murals.

Setting can overwhelm the actors, as in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, or it can be reduced to nothing, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The overall design of a setting can shape how we understood story action. In Louis Feuillade’s silent crime serial The Vampires, a criminal gang has killed a courier on his way to a bank. The gang’s confederate, Irma Vep, is also a bank employee, and just as she tells her superior that the courier has vanished, an imposter, in a beard and bowler hat, strolls behind them. They turn away from us in surprise as he comes forward. Working in a period when cutting to closer shots was rare in a French film, Freuillade draws our attention to the man by centering him in the doorway.

When the filmmaker uses color to create parallels among elements of setting, a color motif may become associated with several props, as in Souleymane Cissé’s Finye (The Wind). In these and other scenes, the recurrent use of orange creates a cluster of nature motifs with the narrative. Later in this chapter, we shall examine in more detail how elements of setting can weave through a film to form motifs within the narrative.

“Costume and Makeup”

Like setting, costume can have specific functions in the total film, and the range of possibilities is huge. Erich von Stroheim, for instance, was as passionately committed to authenticity of dress as of setting, and he was said to have created underwear that would instill the proper mood in his actors even though it was never to be seen in the film. In Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a poignant moment occurs when the Little Sister decorates her dress with “ermine” made of cotton dotted spots of soot. The costume displays the poverty of the defeated Southerners at the end of the Civil War.

In other films, costumes may be quite stylized, calling attention to their purely graphic qualities. Throughout Ivan the Terrible, costumes are carefully orchestrated with one another in their colors, their textures, and even their movements. One shot of Ivan and his adversary gives their robes a plastic sweep and dynamism. In Freak Orlando, Ulrike Ottinger (herself a costume designer) boldly uses costumes to display the spectrum’s primary colors in maximum intensity.

“Stylized costumes in Freak Orlando

Costumes can play important motivic and casual roles in narratives. The film director Guido in Fellini’s 8 ½ persistently uses his dark glasses to shield himself from the world. To think of Dracula is to recall how his billowing cape enwraps his victims. When Hildy Johnson, in His Girl Friday, switches from her role of aspiring housewife to that of reporter, her hats change as well. In the runaway bus section of Speed, during a phone conversation with Jack, the villain Howard refers to Annie as a “Wildcat”; Jack sees Annie’s University of Arizona sweater and realizes that Howard has hidden a video camera aboard the bus. A costume provides the clue that allows Jack to outwit Howard.

“In 8 1/2, sunglasses shield Marcello from the world.”

Today makeup usually tries to pass unnoticed, but it also accentuates expressive qualities of the actor’s face. Since the camera may record cruel details that would pass unnoticed in ordinary life, any unsuitable blemishes, wrinkles, and sagging skin with have to be hidden. The makeup artist can sculpt the face, making it seem narrower or broader by applying blush and shadow. Viewers expect that female performers will wear lipstick and other cosmetics, but the male actors are often wearing makeup, too.

Film actors rely on their eyes to a very great extent, and makeup artists can often enhance eye behavior. Eyeliner and mascara can draw attention to the eyes and emphasize the direction of a glance. Nearly every actor will also have expressively shaped eyebrows. Lengthened eyebrows can enlarge the face, while shorter brows make it seems more compact. Eyebrows plucked in a slightly rising curve add gaiety to the face, while slightly sloping ones hint at sadness. Thick, straight brows, commonly applied to men, reinforce the impression of a hard, serious gaze. Thus eye makeup can assist the actor’s performance.

In recent decades, the craft of makeup has developed in response to the popularity of horror and science fiction genres. Rubber and plasticine compounds create bumps, bulges, extra organs, and layers of artificial skin in such films as David Cronenberg’s The Fly. In such contexts, the makeup, like costume, becomes important in creating character traits or motivating plot action.

“Jeff Goldblum, nearly unrecognizable under grotesque makeup, during his transformation into The Fly


Much of the impact of an image comes from its manipulation of lighting. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create overall composition of each shot and thus guide our attention to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our eye to a key gesture, while a shadow may conceal a detail or build up suspense about what may be present. Lighting can also articulate textures: the curve of the face, the grain of a piece of wood, the tracery of a spider’s web, the sheen of glass, the sparkle of a gem.

Lighting shapes objects by creating highlights and shadows. A highlight is a patch of relative brightness on a surface. Highlights provide important cues to the texture of the surface. If the surface is smooth, like glass or chrome, the highlights tend to gleam or sparkle; a rougher surface, like a coarse stone facing, yields more diffuse highlights.

There are two basic types of shadows, each of which is important in film composition: “attached” shadows, or “shading”, and “cast” shadows. An attached shadow occurs when light fails to illuminate part of an object because of an object’s shape or surface features. If a person sits by a candle in a darkened room, patches of the face and body will fall into darkness. Most obviously, the nose often creates a patch of darkness on an adjoining cheek. This phenomenon is shading, or attached shadow. But the candle also projects a shadow on the wall behind. This is a cast shadow, because the body blocks out the light.

“Attached shadows on faces create a dramatic composition in John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle

“In this shot from Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito , softer lighting blurs contours and textures and makes for more diffusion and gentler contrasts between light and shade.”

The “direction” of lighting in a shot refers to the path of light from its source or sources of the object lit. Every light wrote von Sternberg _has a point where it is brightest and a point toward which it wanders to lose itself completely…The journey of rays from that central core to the outposts of blackness is the adventure and drama of light _. For convenience we can distinguish among frontal lighting, sidelighting, backlighting, underlighting, and top lighting.

“Frontal lighting” can be recognized by its tendency to eliminate shadows. In Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, the result of such frontal lighting is a fairly flat-looking image. Contrast from Touch of Evil, in which Orson Welles uses a hard sidelight (also called a “crosslight”) to sculpt the character’s features.

“Backlighting”, as the name suggests, comes from behind the subject filmed. It can be positioned at many angles: high above the figure, at various angles off to the side, pointing straight at the camera, or from below. Used with no other sources of light, backlighting tends to create silhouettes, as in Godard’s Passion. Combined with more frontal sources of light, the technique can create an unobtrusively illuminated contour. This use of backlighting is called “edge lighting” or “rim lighting”.

As its name implies, “underlighting” suggests that the light comes from below the subject. In The Sixth Sense, the underlighting suggests an offscreen flashlight. Since underlighting tends to distort features, it is often used to create dramatic horror effects, but can also simply indicate a realistic light source, such as a fireplace. As usual, a particular technique can function differently according to context.

“Top lighting” is exemplified in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, where the spotlight shines down from almost directly above Marlene Dietrich’s face. Von Sternberg frequently used such a high frontal light to bring out the line of his star’s cheekbones.

“Top lighting in Sternberg’s Shanghai Express

Directors and cinematographers manipulating the lighting of the scene will start from the assumption that any subject normally requires two light sources: a “key light” and a “fill light”. The key light is the primary source, providing the dominant illumination and casting the strongest shadows. The key light is the most directional light, and is usually corresponds to the motivating light source in the setting. A fill light is a less intense illumination that “fills in”, softening or eliminating shadows cast by the key light. By combining key and fill, and by adding other sources, lighting can be controlled quite exactly.

Classical Hollywood filmmaking developed the custom of using at least three light sources per shot: key light, fill light, and backlight. The most basic arrangement of these lights on a single figure is shown below. The backlight comes from behind and above the figure, the key light comes diagonally from the front, and a fill light comes from a position near the camera. The key will usually be closer to the figure or brighter than the fill. Typically, each major character in a scene will have his or her own key, fill, and backlight. If another actor is added, the key light for one can be altered slightly to form the backlight for the other, and vice versa, with a fill light on either side of the camera.

“Three-point lighting, one of the basic techniques of Hollywood cinema”

Most film lighting is applied during shooting, but computer-generated imagery allows filmmakers to create virtual lighting designs. Powerful 3D programs enable filmmakers to add broad overall illumination or strongly directional effects. Spotlights can sprinkle highlights on shiny metal, while “shader” tools model objects with attached shadows. In normal filming, filmmakers must reduce the vast amount of visual information in front of the camera, using lighting to clarify and simplify the space. In contrast, digital lighting is built up little by little from simple elements. For this reason, it is very time-consuming; a program may need a day and a night to render moving cast shadows in a single shot. Still, new software and faster computers are likely to accelerate the work process.

We are used to ignoring illumination of our everyday surroundings, so film lighting is also easy to take for granted. Yet the look of a shot is centrally controlled by light quality, direction, source, and color. The filmmaker can manipulate and combine these factors to shape the viewer’s experience in a great many ways. No component of mise-en-scene is more important than “the drama and adventure of light”.

“Staging: Movement and Performance”

The director may also control the behavior of various figures in the mise-en-scene. Here the word “figures” covers a wide range of possibilities, since the figure may represent a person but could also be an animal (Lassie, the donkey Balthasar, Donald Duck), robot (R2D2 and CP3O), an object (clicking balls in The Hudsucker Proxy), or even a pure shape (abstract film Parabola). Mise-en-scene allows such figures to express feelings and thoughts; it can also dynamize them to create various kinetic patterns.

In cinema, facial expression and movement are not restricted to human figures. For example, in science fiction and fantasy films, monsters and robots may be given expressions and gestures through the technique of “stop-action” (also called “stop motion”). Typically, a small-scale model is made with articulated parts. In filming, it is posed as desired, and a frame or two is shot. Then the figure is adjusted slightly and another frame or two is exposed, and so on. The result on screen is a continuous, if sometimes jerky, movement. The horrendous onslaught of ED-209, the crime-fighting robot in Robocop, was created by means of a 12-inch miniature filmed in stop-action. (A full scale but unmoving model was also built for long shots.) Stop-action can be also used for more abstract and unrealistic purposes, as in Jan Švankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue.

Although abstract shapes and animated figures can become important in the mise-en-scene, the most intuitively familiar cases of figure expression and movement are actors playing roles. Like other aspects of mise-en-scene, the performance is created in order to be filmed. An actor’s performance consists of visual elements (appearance, gestures, facial expressions) and sound (voice, effects). At times, of course, an actor may contribute only visual aspects, as in the silent era. Similarly, an actor’s performance may sometimes exist only on the sound track of the film; in A Letter to Three Wives, Celeste Holm’s character, Addie Ross, speaks a narration over the images but never appears on screen.
We can consider performance along two dimensions. A performance will be more or less “individualized”, and it will be more or less “stylized”. Often we have both in mind when we think of a realistic performance; it creates a unique character, and it does not seems too exaggerated or too underplayed. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather is quite individualized. Brando gives the Godfather a complex psychology, a distinctive appearance and voice, and a string of facial expressions and gestures that make him significantly different from the standard image of a gang boss. As for stylization, Brando keeps Don Vito in the middle range. His performance is neither flat or flamboyant; he isn’t impassive, but he doesn’t chew the scenery either.

But this middle range, which we often identify with realistic performance, isn’t the only option. On the individuality scale, films may create broader, more anonymous “types”. Classical Hollywood narrative was built on ideologically stereotyped roles: the Irish cop on the boat, the black servant, the Jewish pawnbroker, the wisecracking waitress or showgirl. Through “typecasting”, actors were selected and directed to conform to type. Often, however, skillful performers gave these conventions a freshness and vividness. In the Soviet cinema of the 1920’s, several directors used a similar principle, called “typage”. Here the actor was expected to portray a typical representative of a social class or historical movement.
By examining how an actor’s performance functions in the context of the overall film, we can also notice how acting cooperates with other film techniques. For instance, the actor is always a graphic element in the film, but some films underline this fact. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt’s dancelike portrayal of the somnambulist Cesare makes him blend in with the graphic elements of the setting. As we shall see in our examination of the history of film styles, the graphic design of this scene in Caligari typifies the systematic distortion characteristics of German Expressionism.

“In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Cesare’s body echoes the tilted tree trunks, his arms and hands their branches and leaves”

Camera techniques also create a controlling context for acting. Film acting, as most viewers know, differs from theatrical acting. At first glance, that suggests that cinema always call for more underplaying, since the camera can closely approach the actor. But cinema actually calls for a stronger interplay between restraint and emphasis.

As with every element of a film, acting offers an unlimited range of distinct possibilities. It cannot be judged on a universal scale that is separate from the concrete context of the entire film’s form.

(*Note: The following is excerpts from a passage of the book Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I have changed the images because the ones used from the book are hard to find. Below is a list of films mentioned throughout the entire passage of the book, not directly the excerpt I took out. Some are on The Auteurs, some are not. I have included a full list of all the films directly below this.)


L’Arroseur arrose (not on The Auteurs)
Germany Year Zero
All the Presiden’s Men
Ivan the Terrible Part 2
Wings of Desire
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Les Vampires
The Fifth Element
Groundhog Day

Costume and Makeup

The Birth of a Nation
Freak Orlando
8 1/2
His Girl Friday
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Fellini’s Casanova
THX 1138
Women in Love
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Ivan the Terrible Part 1
The Godfather Part III
The Fly


The Cheat
Asphalt Jungle
La Chinoise
Touch of Evil
Godard’s Passion
The Sixth Sense
Shanghai Express
The Miracle Worker
The Bodyguard
Bezhin Meadow (not on The Auteurs)
Catch Me If You Can
Back to the Future
Mauvais sang
El Sur
Nights of Cabiria
The Green Room
The Hudsucker Proxy

Staging: Movement and Performace

Parabola (not on The Auteurs)
Seven Samurai
White Heat
Dimension of Dialogue
Jerry Maguire
City Lights
Tigre Reale (not on The Auteurs)
Hannah and Her Sisters
Winchester 73
Trouble in Paradise
Au Hasard Balthasar
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Spider’s Strategem
The Mascot

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