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English 11-12

Film Techniques: Mise En Scene | How to Analyse Mise en Scene

Learn all about what mise en scene is, and how to identify, analyse and write it in a paragraph!

Have you been hearing about mise en scene in films but unsure of what it is or how to analyse it? Well, you came to the right place! In this article, we will go through the film technique, mise en scene, and show you what it is, how to identify it, and how to analyse it!

 

Film Techniques: Mise en Scene

 

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What is mise en scene?

Mise en scene is French for “putting in place/stage.” In films, it often refers to “what is put in a scene.” It is the intentional composition of different elements of the film to portray meaning and mood.

When film-makers and critics refer to mise en scene, they are often referring to these 4 main elements on the screen:

  • Setting including props and decor.
  • Lighting
  • Costume and make-up
  • Staging/blocking: movements and performance

Note: Mise en scene is independent of the camera work or editing. This means that you shouldn’t analyse camera angles, or editing transitions when examining mise en scene because they are not “put in the stage”.

Now we know what mise en scene includes, let’s take a look at these components in detail.

 

Setting

Setting refers to the surroundings of the scene; otherwise known as the backdrop. It often refers to the geographic location and time of the scene.

Some elements that can make up the setting include:

  • Location
  • Scenery
  • Time
  • Props
  • Environment (physical, social, or cultural)
  • Climate/weather

Setting can help set out the mood or even foreshadow events. For instance, rainy, gloomy weather with a scary Gothic castle may seem spooky and even foreshadow negative events. On the other hand, a sunny day on the beach has the opposite atmosphere; it’s much happier.

Maybe you’ll notice that a particular prop or a part of the setting is emphasised in the scene. This may be an important symbol that can hint at hidden meanings in the scene. For example, a bright red gift box placed on a table in the centre of the screen would immediately draw the audience’s attention. This can help foreshadow future events.

 

Lighting

Lighting refers to how the director uses lighting to guide the audience’s eyes, create texture and shapes, and allow legibility of what is happening.

Here are some elements of lighting that you can focus on:

  • Quality/intensity of the light: Intensity of the light
    • eg. Hard lighting (clear, sharp shadows and edges) or soft lighting (diffused, low contrast and shadows).
  • Direction of the light: The location of the light source in relation to the subject
    • eg. Frontal lighting (is neutral and lights up faces), side lighting (creates mystery), backlighting (creates a glowing silhouette to dramatise), top lighting (glamourises subject), underlighting (creates a monumental feel or distorts figures) etc.
  • Source of the light: Role of the lighting
    • eg. High-key lighting (creates low contrast which makes the scene seem dreamlike), low-key lighting (creates harsh contrasts – chiaroscuro – which seems much more ominous)
  • Colour: The colour or warmth of the lighting
    • eg. Warm lighting, cool lighting, red/greed/purple lighting etc.

We explain lighting in more detail in our Film Techniques: Lighting article, including examples for the different elements of lighting and their effects, and how to analyse lighting with an example.

 

Costume and make-up

Costume and make-up refer to the character’s appearances. Often, students overlook the important role of costume and make-up in film because it seems so ‘normal’ in the film set. However, directors are very particular about the character’s costume and make-up because they have the power to shape how the audience thinks about a character.

Costume and make-up gives the audience context about the character’s personalities and traits, and their relationships with each other. It even helps emphasise the character’s particular features.

For instance, if Darth Vader wore colourful disco clothes (like Austin Powers), he wouldn’t come off as the scary villain. So, the director’s decision to make him wear black armour with a long coat and a mask makes him much more evil and villainous.

blog-english-film-techniques-mise-en-scene-how-to-analyse-mise-en-scene-darth-vader

 

Staging/blocking

Staging or blocking refers to the actor’s movements and performance. Before filming, directors will ‘block out’ where the actors stand and their actions for the scene. This means that the characters are always meticulously placed in a scene to achieve a particular purpose, whether that is to create a particular mood or to forward the scene.

Directors will also discuss facial expressions or gestures with the actors to help carry the message across to the audience. Sometimes, particular actors are chosen for their typecasting, and other times actors are expected to have a realistic representation of a historical period.

So, when you are analysing staging/blocking, you should watch out for:

  • Actor’s position in the frame
    • Where are the actors standing in the frame or in relation to the other characters?
    • eg. If there is a big monster creeping up from behind a little boy, the audience will feel fear and suspense. Will the monster eat the boy? Will the boy turn around in time?
  • Actor’s performance
    • Pay attention to the facial expressions, gestures and/or their voice
  • Stylised acting for different genres
    • eg. It’s common to see exaggerated scared faces in horror films, and
  • Typecasting: assigning particular actors to conform to their stereotype
    • eg. Adam Sandler is known for his comedic, ‘dumb’ characters
  • Typage: actors portray a realistic representation of a character
    • eg. Women in historical England will act differently from a woman in the 21st century.
blog-english-film-techniques-mise-en-scene-how-to-analyse-mise-en-scene-blocking

 

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How does mise en scene work?

Film-makers are very particular about what shows up on a screen and what doesn’t. So, by controlling the mise en scene of a scene, they are able to control the mood, atmosphere, and character development.

Remember, film is an art form; nothing is placed on the screen by mistake.

The 4 elements of mise en scene work together to set the mood and atmosphere of the film. Each element creates its own meaning. However, together (as mise en scene), the elements can complement each other or even contrast each other. It is your job to determine how this creates meaning and shapes the mood of the scene.

We briefly went through how each individual element creates meaning above. This will provide you with a foundational understanding of how mise en scene works. However, what separates mise en scene with lighting, costume, staging and setting is discussing the 4 elements together. So, you will need to examine how they work together to create meaning.

 

How to analyse mise en scene – Step-by-step process

Analysing mise en scene might sound intimidating because there are so many elements involved. However, you can make the job seem easier by following these steps:

  1. Watch the scene and figure out the main subject and mood/atmosphere
  2. Identify the 4 elements of mise en scene:
    1. What is the setting?
    2. What type of lighting is used?
    3. What is the costume/make-up?
    4. How is the staging/blocking?
  3. Consider how the elements help create the mood
    1. Think about the general effect of each element
    2. Think about the context of the scene/film
    3. Tie the effect to the specific details of the scene
    4. Link the four elements together
  4. Determine the mise en scene’s significance/purpose
    1. Link it to the themes/ideas of the film
    2. Think about the composer’s intentions
    3. Think about the audience feels
    4. Using the above findings, determine the meaning
  5. Write a T.E.E.L paragraph

Let’s go through these steps in more detail to help you figure out how to analyse mise en scene.

 

1. Watch the scene and identify the main subject and mood/atmosphere

The first thing you should do is watch the scene again. Get a good understanding of what is happening in the scene, and how it relates to the rest of the plot.

When you are watching it, pay attention to:

  • How you feel: This will help you think about the mood/atmosphere of the scene
  • The subject: What is important in this scene? What stands out to you? Is it a character, or a particular object?

Figuring out the atmosphere of the scene and the main subject will help you understand how and why the director shapes the elements in a particular way.

 

2. Identify the 4 elements of mise en scene:

Now that you’ve identified the mood and subject of the scene, it is time to break down the elements of mise en scene.

1. What is the setting?

Identify the setting, including:

  • Location
  • Scenery
  • Time
  • Props
  • Environment (physical, social, or cultural)
  • Climate/weather

2. What type of lighting is used?

See what type of lighting is used and consider the following:

  • Quality/intensity of the light
  • The direction of the light
  • Source of the light
  • Colour of the light

Remember, if you need a refresher about these aspects of lighting and how it creates meaning, refer to the above paragraph here, or read our Film Techniques: Lighting article.

3. What is the costume/make-up?

Take note of what the characters are wearing and what their make-up and hair look like, even if it seems mundane.

4. How is the staging/blocking?

Take note of the following:

  • Character’s positions on the screen
  • Their performances (including facial expressions, and gestures)
  • Any stylised acting
  • Any typecasting
  • Typage used for realism
blog-english-film-techniques-mise-en-scene-how-to-analyse-mise-en-scene-mood

 

3. Consider how the elements help create the mood

Now that you’ve identified the elements of mise en scene, it is time to analyse it. This means that you need to examine how each of the elements creates mood on its own before you collate your findings.

To do this, you should do the following:

  1. Think about the context of the scene/film
  2. Think about the general effect of each element
  3. Tie the effect of each of the elements to the specific details of the scene
  4. Link the four elements together

Let’s go through each step in more detail so you have a better understanding of what you need to do.

1. Context of scene/film

Understand what is happening in the scene and know its place in the plot/whole film.

There is no point analysing a scene if you don’t know what happens before or after it, and/or the scene’s role in the plotline. Is it part of the orientation or the climax? Is this a turning point that leads to a new discovery?

These clues help you find meaning and purpose in the scene, which will help you analyse the mise en scene.

2. General effect of each element 

By now you should know the general effects of the different techniques used for each element.

For instance, underlighting (light coming from under the subject) can create a monumental feel, especially for large museum sculptures, or it can create a spooky mood when it distorts a person’s face during ghost stories.

We went through most of these above in our explanation of What is Mise en Scene. However, you can always use your common sense or intuition to find the general effect of each technique!

3. Link general effect to specific details 

Now that you’ve figured out the general effect of each element, you should link it to the specifics of the film. Think about the plot, the character’s personality, and the themes in the film and ensure that the effect makes sense in the film world. Think about how the techniques affect the film and the audience’s mood.

Also, remember, sometimes the general effect doesn’t always work for particular films.

Composers can always use common techniques to subvert conventions or create new meaning.

For instance, in Edward Scissorhands, Edward wears a black costume and has scary scissor hands. Normally, this will imply that he’s the villain and a scary character. However, Tim Burton subverts this by making Edward very nice and naive to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

So, it’s important that you link your understanding of a technique’s general effect to the film to have an accurate analysis.

4. Link the effects of the different elements

Once you’ve figured the effects of each technique and tied it to specific details of the film, you will need to collate your findings.

Remember, analysing mise en scene means that you need to examine how all the elements work together, not individually. So, take this chance to draw links between the different elements and how it helps create a particular mood.

blog-english-film-techniques-mise-en-scene how to analyse mise en scene edward scissorhands picture

 

4. Determine the mise en scene’s significance/purpose

The difference between a Band 5 and a Band 6 analysis is the “critical” aspect of your writing. This means that you need to examine the mise en scene’s purpose and significance within the whole film.

To do this, you will need to complete the following:

  1. Link your analysis to the themes/ideas of the film
  2. Relate it to the composer’s intentions/purpose (think about the main message)
  3. Think about the audience feels
  4. Collate the above findings to determine the meaning

 

5. Write  T.E.E.L paragraph

Once you’ve analysed the mise en scene, it is time to put your findings into a TEEL paragraph.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: The example
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English Students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses). Let’s use this T.E.E.L to write about this example of imagery.

 

Mise En Scene examples

Now that you know how to analyse mise en scene, let’s go through an example to help you put your knowledge into practice! We will be examining a scene from George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck where journalist, Ed Murrow,  investigates the Radulovich report. Here Ed questions the validity of the government capturing Radulovich based on a “closed” letter.

 

To provide a little bit of context for you to better understand what is happening, Good Night and Good Luck is a historical drama film set in 1953 during the Cold War. It follows the story of a TV journalist, Edward Murrow, and his team investigating and criticising Senator McCarthy’s unjust hunt for Communists.

 

1. Watch the scene and identify the mood/atmosphere and subject

Step 1. The subject of the film: 

  • The main subject is Ed Murrow speaking about the Radulovich report through the TV screens
  • Other subjects include the other workers who are broadcasting Ed Murrow

Step 2. Mood/atmosphere of the film:

  • Very high tension/on edge
  • Feels dangerous
  • Very mysterious

 

2. Identify the 4 elements of mise en scene:

Step 1. What is the setting?

  • 1953 during the Cold War
  • This scene is set inside the TV broadcasting station. There are TV screens, buttons, headphones, desks, seats… All items you might find in a TV broadcasting studio.

Step 2. What type of lighting is used?

  • Quality:
    • Hard lighting that creates lots of contrast and shadow
  • Direction:
    • Front and top lighting are used on Ed Murrow’s face. It is very clear and legible. However, since he is facing the camera side-on, it seems like the side of his face is hidden in the shadows.
    • Side-lighting and backlighting are used on most of the other characters who appear in this scene. This hides their face away in the shadows.
  • Source:
    • Low-key, chiaroscuro lighting – lots of shadows
  • Colour:
    • Everything is black and white

Step 3. What is the costume/make-up?

  • Clothes:
    • Ed Murrow and his crew are all wearing smart suits
    • Everyone is wearing clothes that are appropriate during the 1950s
  • Make-up/hair:
    • Ed has his hair combed back in a sleek look
    • Ed’s eyebrows are also quick thick and straight, creating a more serious look
    • He also has noticeable wrinkles and eyebags which make him look tired and worn out

Step 4. How is the staging/blocking?

  • Blocking:
    • When Ed is presenting, he is always slightly off-centre, and to the left of the screen, even when he is shown through the TV screen. His body is slightly facing the right.
    • The other characters tend to be more symmetrical: either in the centre or if there are two characters, both are placed on either end of the screen.
  • Performance:
    • Ed Murrow’s facial expression is very serious and critical
    • He also speaks in a very serious but clear manner.
    • The others look very concentrated, nervous, or invested in what Ed says.

 

3. Consider how the elements help create the mood

Step 1: Context of scene/film

  • What is happening:
    • Ed Murrow is giving a live TV broadcast, criticising the Senator’s methods of capturing Milo Radulovich for “Communist ties”.
  • Where is this scene situated in the film?
    • This scene is at the beginning half of the film.
    • It is the first time Ed Murrow and his team are questioning the government’s actions.
    • This can be a major

Step 2 and 3: Find the general effect of each element and link it to the details of the film

  • Setting:
    • The Cold War was a time period where everyone was highly suspicious of each other due to the Communist threat; there was a lack of truth and clarity. As such, by setting this film during the 1950s Cold War era, Clooney was able to recreate the suspicious and highly tense atmosphere.
    • Being set in the TV broadcasting station provided context for what Murrow is doing.
  • Lighting:
    • The harsh chiaroscuro lighting and use of side and top lighting create lots of shadows which adds to the mysterious feel of the film.
    • The front and top lighting on Murrow’s face makes him seem much more honest because his face is clear and legible. However, even then, there were some shadows emphasised on his eye bags and wrinkles which continues to add to the mysterious and tense atmosphere.
  • Costume/make-up:
    • The 1950s clothing made the film much more realistic and believable.
    • Clooney’s wrinkles and eyebags were emphasised to make him look tired and worn out. It appears as though he is working very hard to fight for justice.
    • The men’s suits also show that they are serious about their jobs and what they are doing (criticising the government).
  • Staging/blocking:
    • Ed Murrow is situated on the centre-left with his body slightly facing the right side of the screen. This is a psychological play on the audience as it makes them feel as though Ed Murrow is “leading” or moving everyone forward instead of “regressing”. This is because we write from left to right, so we associate left to right movements or postures as moving forward, and vice versa.
    • Ed’s serious facial expressions highlight that he is serious about finding the truth about the Radulovich case and investigating it. This creates a sense of trust and admiration.

 

Step 4: Link the effects of the different elements

All four elements work together to create an overall sense of mystery and tension, which works well to contrast Ed Murrow’s trustworthy and admirable character.

In the above analyses, you will find that mentions of other elements are evident. This is because you can’t simply analyse one element without touching on the other elements.

 

4. Determine the mise en scene’s significance/purpose

Step 1. Link it to the themes/ideas of the film

  • Truth vs secrecy
  • Media responsibility
  • Government corruption
  • Private vs public
  • Justice

Step 2. Composer’s intentions

  • Clooney wanted to highlight the importance of searching for the truth and fighting for justice
  • He also criticises the government’s censorship, whilst highlighting the media’s responsibility to report facts, not fiction

Step 3. Audience feelings

  • The audience feels very tense during the whole scene because they know that Ed Murrow and his team are doing something very dangerous when they openly criticise Senator McCarthy.
  • However, they also feel admirable that the team is searching for the truth.

Step 4. Determine the meaning

The mise en scene of the scene highlights the importance of searching for the truth and questioning the government’s censorship.

 

5. Write  T.E.E.L paragraph

To write in the T.E.E.L paragraph, we need to firstly collate our findings for the following:

  • Technique
  • Example
  • Effect
  • Link

Now, let’s put it in a paragraph:

George Clooney highlights the importance of media in always reporting the truth, especially during times of uncertainty and mistrust. The mise en scene during the Radulovich investigation broadcast scene creates a highly tense and mysterious atmosphere that symbolises how the government often censors important information and keeps society in the dark. This is created through the setting, lighting, make-up and the character’s performance in this scene. This film is set during the 1950s Cold War, an era of heightened mistrust and suspicion. This atmosphere is perfectly captured through the use of chiaroscuro lighting that creates harsh shadows; many of the workers in the TV studio are lit with top or backlighting that masks their faces in shadows. This creates a sense of mystery as it feels as though people are hiding secrets from each other due to the mistrust. However, Clooney highlights the importance of media in helping society overcome this sense of distrust through the character of Ed Murrow, the journalist. When Murrow appears on the screen, the mise en scene contrasts the mise en scene of the rest of the workers. Frontal and top lighting is used to light up Murrow’s face, making it legible and clear. This creates a sense of truthfulness, which mirrors his investigation into the truth about the Radulovich case. Here, Murrow has a serious expression that is complemented by his emphasised wrinkles and eye bags. This conveys to the audience that Murrow has worked hard and tirelessly to fight for truth and justice which encourages the audience to do the same. Clooney also places Murrow on the centre-left with his body slightly facing the right side of the screen, which makes it seem as though Murrowis progressing his society as opposed to regressing it like Senator McCarthy. This is due to a psychological play where humans associate left to right as moving forward and right to left as moving backwards because humans write from left to right. As such, through the mise en scene created in this scene -the setting, lighting, make-up and the character’s blocking and performance – Clooney highlights the important role of the Media in always reporting and fighting for the truth.

 

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Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a lawyer in the future while continuing to run her art business.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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