In possibly the vaguest definition of anything ever, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his opinion on the case of “Jacobellis v Ohio” that while he was unable to define exactly what would make a movie obscene and therefore not protected under the First Amendment, “I know it when I see it.” This shoulder-shrugging definition has kept lawyers in business and artists pushing the sides of an envelope nobody knows the exact dimensions of for nearly 50 years.
Likewise, and only a few years later (perhaps there was something in the air), film studies professor Brian Henderson said in his essay, “The Long Take,” that mise-en-scène is “cinema's grand undefined term.” He begins by listing directors who are masters at it, including Murnau and Orson Welles, but then goes on to say “one does not lightly venture a definition of mise-en-scène… of which each person, when examined, reveals a different sense and meaning….”
Technically — and literally — mise-en-scène means “placing on stage” and refers, in its most blunt form, to the things that movies have in common with plays: props, lighting, wardrobe, blocking — that is, where the actors go and when they go there — and the number of layers in the scene (foreground, middle ground, background plus possibly other things in betwixt). It also includes a few things that stage plays don't really have because movies have moveable cameras to represent the otherwise fixed audience of a play, which is to say the aspect ratio of the frame, the camera angles, focus, lens focal length and any color treatments to the film or video. You may notice while watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO that everything at Castle Black looks very blue, including the snow and the people. This is part of the mise-en-scène.
But, also like a play, critic Brian Henderson adds that mise-en-scène “requires the duration of the long take” — that once you add a cut you've jangled the mise-en-scène, reshuffled the deck, he wants things to be given time, he’s a fan of 10-minute continuous shots.
Stanley Kubrick was a master of beautiful mise-en-scène and he loved long takes. One place where this is particularly apparent is the penultimate scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where astronaut Dave Bowman lives out his life in a mysterious glowing room, watched over by the monolith. The furniture, the colors, the light, the placement of objects, the symmetry and the asymmetry are all done to create a particular beauty, replace one chair with a yard sale discovery and the whole frame is hit with a hammer and knocked askew.
Mise-en-scène represents your overarching goal as a filmmaker — your style, your personal artistry.
Do some videos have this and others not? Oscar Wilde, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Mise-en-scène is like this, all movies have it, but in some it's very good and in others it's not very good and sometimes this matters, and sometimes it doesn't. A great deal of thought went into the mise-en-scène that makes up Lawrence of Arabia; camera angles, placement of actors and props were very carefully considered in each frame by director David Lean, cinematographer Freddie Young and a host of other people including costumers and stylists. Contrast this with a corporate fire safety video whose only duty is to inform office workers of how to properly evacuate a building in case of an emergency and to cost less than $400 to produce. In this case, the videographer may be considering some aspects of lighting and camera placement but most likely won't trade a static shot for a dolly shot simply because the dolly shot is more attractive. The mise-en-scène may be beautiful in one and pragmatic, or even ignored in the other, but they both have it.
Mise-en-scène represents your overarching goal as a filmmaker — your style, your personal artistry. It wraps up many of the elements of videomaking that you've already learned about, from composition to focal length to the use of negative space. The way in which you put these things together will create your own particular mise-en-scène. Your homework for this month is to pay attention to the way all of these elements come together in movies and television you watch. Pick out scenes that speak to you and watch them several times so that you can deconstruct each of the elements and understand what they add to the final piece and how they work in concert with one another. Are there things you would do differently? Also, pay attention the next time you're setting up a shot. What are you including, where are you including it and why? How does it help propel your story along?
Kyle Cassidy lives in a zoo exhibit with a pack of ring-tailed lemurs and thrives on pretzels tourists throw to him. He’s not sure if anyone at Videomaker reads what he writes in his bio section.