Select a movie from AFI’s 10 Top 10 lists and explain how three cinematic techniques and/or design elements have helped establish a major theme in that film. Note: While you are allowed to choose a film that does not come from the AFI lists, you are strongly encouraged to email your professor to receive approval before doing so.
In 800 to 1200 words
- Describe a major theme of the movie you have selected using evidence from the movie itself as well as course resources and other scholarly sources to support your position.
- Identify at least three techniques (cinematography, lighting, acting style, or direction) and/or design elements (set design, costuming, or hair and makeup), and explain how these techniques and/or design elements contribute to the establishment of the theme. Reference particular scenes or sequences in your explanations.
- State your opinion regarding the mise en scène, including
- How the elements work together.
- How congruent the design elements are with the theme of the movie.
- Whether or not other techniques would be as effective (Explain your reasoning).
Note: Remember that a theme is an overarching idea that recurs throughout the plot of a film. It is the distilled essence of what the film is about, the main design which the specific scenes and actions lead a viewer to understand.
Your paper should be organized around a thesis statement that focuses on how the elements of your chosen feature-length film both establish and maintain one of its major themes.
The paper must be 800 to 1200 words in length and formatted according to APA style
You must use at least two scholarly sources other than the textbook to support your claiM
PART TWO ASSIGNMENT
Categories and Functions of Sound
As we have been discussing, the mise en scène of a film is the use of a variety of design elements to create the visual theme. Please look through Chapter 5 (Mise en Scene and Actors) for more information on this term.
consider different types of sound at work in film and assess how they contribute to the overall sense of meaning in a film.
There are many types of sound in a film. Some are diegetic (sounds that are represented as coming from within the world of the film); others are non-diegetic (sounds that come from outside the world of the film). Using specific examples from your chosen film, construct a blog post in which you
- Describe each of the three basic categories of sound (dialogue, sound effects, and music).
- Explain how the different categories of sound are being used in your chosen film.
- Assess the impact of sound in establishing the theme.
- How does the use of sound inform the mood of the scene, or the film overall?
- Can you identify specific sounds in your film that allow you to infer a particular genre?
- Since each category of sound may produce a range of effects, how might you characterize the effects in your film? For example, realistic and expected sound effects may have a different effect on a viewer than exaggerated or unexpected ones.
- Assess how the scene or sequence would play differently if you changed or removed a key category of sound.
You must use at least two outside sources, in any combination of embedded video clips, still photos, or scholarly sources. All sources should be documented in APA style 300 Words
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
•Identify what the details of what we see in a scene tell us about the characters and the story.
•Recognize the dramatic and narrative impact of elements of the mise en scène, such as costumes, makeup, props, lighting, and set design.
•Explain how filmmakers use actors within the setting to reinforce the story, whether realistically or artificially stylized, and have a working knowledge of the actor’s job and the sequence in which movies are shot.
•Recognize the difference between an actor and a character.
•Identify different types of acting methods and types of actors.
•Explain how casting shapes the outcome of a movie as well as audience expectations for it, and some of the processes involved in casting a film.
•Explain the collaboration between actors and directors.
5.1 What Is Mise en Scène?
Still of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.
Francois Duhamel/©Weinstein Company/courtesy Everett Collection
A still of Christoph Waltz as Nazi officer Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009). Critic Roger Ebert writes that Waltz and Tarantino created “a character unlike any Nazi—indeed, anyone at all—I’ve seen in a movie: evil, sardonic, ironic, mannered, absurd.”
The first few minutes or so of Inglourious Basterds, writer and director Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 reimagining of World War II, establish a situation in 1940 Nazi-occupied France by showing scenery, props, actors playing characters in specific costumes using specific body language, and those actors moving through the setting, all with very little dialogue. We get our initial feeling about the characters and what might happen by seeing where they are, what their belongings are, how they are dressed, how they are lit, and how they react. What colors things are may also draw our attention to certain objects and people, as well as setting an overall mood. All the things we are looking at in the scene have been carefully chosen and placed there by the filmmakers to help tell the story to the audience in ways that do not require dialogue to explain anything. What we see is called the mise en scène, a French term borrowed from the theater referring to what is “placed in the scene.” We will come back to this sometimes-misunderstood concept in more detail shortly. For many viewers, the most memorable parts of the mise en scène, and indeed what may be the reason they decided to watch a movie, are the actors and their performances.
The rest of the 20-minute opening sequence in Inglourious Basterds consists mostly of one actor talking to another at a table inside a small farmhouse. The actor doing most of the talking is Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi officer known as “the Jew hunter.” He arrives at a dairy farm in France to talk with its owner, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), whom he suspects is hiding a Jewish family. Landa is not physically threatening. Instead, he is charming, intelligent, and relentless, wearing the increasingly nervous LaPadite down until he confesses that the family is hiding beneath the floorboards. (Landa immediately has them shot.) He is alternately complimentary and repulsive; his one consistent quality is that he is compulsively interesting. His mannerisms as he speaks, the wry smile, the overwhelming confidence that he has the upper hand here and will get what he wants—he exudes that power. It is chilling, fascinating, scary, brilliant. The audience may be horrified by his behavior, but they are at the same time engaged, compelled—they simply can’t look away. Col. Hans Landa is in no way a sympathetic character—the person Waltz is playing in the movie whose traits are created by the writer to help tell the story—yet we want to see more of him. That is no easy trick, but for a good actor, it is a necessary skill. Waltz won a well-deserved best-supporting actor Oscar for the role. But simply handing him a trophy doesn’t really capture the magic going on here. Waltz’s performance encapsulates what is in many ways the true magic of movies: He isn’t just pretending to be someone else. He becomes someone else. And this is the magic of effective acting.
Still from Prometheus of characters exploring a new planet.
TM & ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved/courtesy Everett Collection
This scene from Prometheus depicts the mysterious surroundings of a new planet and reflects the feelings of the characters as they explore their unknown, likely dangerous, environment. Mise en scène includes all the elements that film has in common with theater, such as setting, costumes, props, and blocking.
Acting can set the tone of a film and goes a long way toward establishing whether or not we will like it. Oddly enough, while this may sound contradictory, acting is also the last thing an actor wants to think about in the middle of a performance. The best actors inhabit their roles, as Waltz does in Basterds. Sir Ben Kingsley, himself an Oscar winner, talked about this while discussing working with Martin Scorsese in Shutter Island:
The sinking feeling is if I do something between “action” and “cut” and I know I’m going to have to exaggerate this and demonstrate it, because I don’t trust this director is seeing what I’m doing. And then you know what creeps in? Acting. I hate acting. It’s marvelous to throw all the acting out on a film set and allow the director to film the behavior of the character, not me acting. (Goodykoontz, 2009a)
Acting is, to be sure, an inexact science. It is as much technique as feeling, Kingsley’s protestations notwithstanding. Different actors use different methods, demand different things from directors, get to the emotional core of their characters in different ways. Performances are as unique as the people who give them. The best actors invite us into films, allow us to accompany them on their journey, while, like any good magician, never letting us see how they perform their tricks.
(A reminder about word choice: We will use the word actor to refer to both men and women. This is not gender discrimination. Instead, it has long been the preferred term when talking about the craft for both genders.)
5.2 Telling the Story Through Setting, Props, and Costumes
If we have established that actors are often what bring audiences to a film, we must also ask, what do they do once they have us there? Where does the director put them, and what does he ask them to do? Actors are critical in bringing a character to life for the audience by interpreting the intentions of the writer and director. But an actor is also a tool of the director, just one more part of the scene that helps to tell the story to the audience. A character’s relationship to the story’s themes, the plot developments, and the other characters can be suggested, emphasized, and intensified for the audience by the use of certain costumes, makeup, props (short for “properties”), and even position on the set (the placing of actors is referred to as blocking). These are all key elements of the mise en scène (see Behind the Scenes: Mise en Scène).
The Vocabulary of Film and TV: Mise en Scène
Mise en scène, French for “that which is put into the scene,” includes costumes, set design, and lighting, which creates mood and atmosphere. Alterations to the mise en scène alter the viewer’s perception of the narrative.
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Critical Thinking Questions
1.How does the idea that film is a “visual language” relate to the importance of mise en scène?
2.Name three components that make up part of a film’s mise en scène.
Put simply, mise en scène is what the audience sees in a scene, and this includes the actors. The way characters are dressed, their physical appearance and the way they carry themselves, and the things they use and the spaces they inhabit all tell us something about their personalities and function in the story before the actors even say or do anything. Without a single line of dialogue, or any actions on the part of the actors, the mise en scène can convey a great deal of story information about the plot or character that might take pages to describe in a novel. The setting, the basic environment, with all its textures and attributes, patterns of lighting, props that are visible, even the weather—all contribute to what is going on in the plot at that moment, whether it’s establishing the general mood, time of day, place in the world, era of history, or a character’s current situation in life or state of mind.
Films from the silent era may use the mise en scène especially densely, not having recorded dialogue, narration, or sound effects to fall back upon, but the best sound era films use sound to reinforce and supplement what they show, not just as a substitute for showing information to the audience visually. Extended sequences may require close audience attention to the surroundings while actors are doing things without saying anything. The science-fiction thriller Prometheus and the original Alien films that inspired it are good examples of tension built simply by the viewer following a character through eerie and unfamiliar surroundings with the threat of danger around every corner. Even cartoons, such as Despicable Me, Rango, Up, Ratatouille, and others, make extensive and careful use of their mise en scène to help viewers understand the characters and the events of the plot, independent of the dialogue and the actions.
Many elements of the mise en scène may be symbolic, whether representing story themes or character attributes or social metaphors. The set decoration of a character’s apartment, for example, can explain a complicated backstory and set up the present situation, as in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The camera looks out the window of Jeff’s apartment and then slowly pulls back to track and pan across various things in the room, from a thermometer showing a very hot temperature and the leg cast that has Jeff currently incapacitated in a wheelchair, to photographs on the wall and magazine covers (including one of his fashion-model girlfriend) that show he’s a professional photographer who’s been around the world on exciting assignments, to a spectacular racecar crash photo and a broken camera that imply how he got the broken leg. The leisurely lingering over the setting before any dialogue or action begins also reinforces how bored Jeff is at being cooped up and why he spends his time spying on his neighbors through his telephoto lens, trying to find something interesting to see.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Mise en Scène (What Is “Placed in the Scene”)
Everything in the mise en scène is controlled, chosen, or at least approved by the director. The mise en scène is everything visible in the scene used for telling the story, before the camera is even brought onto the set. The mise en scène may be natural, semi-realistic, or heavily artificial and stylized. Mise en scène includes
•settings and sets (whether actual locations or custom-built in a studio)
•actors (including their positioning and movements)
Still from Winter’s Bone of a woman and a little girl hanging laundry on a line outside a wood cabin.
© Roadside Attractions/courtesy Everett Collection
The cold, desolate Ozark setting in Winter’s Bone is so palpable that it almost establishes itself as a character.
In Debra Granik’s Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone (2010), Jennifer Lawrence gives an intensely powerful performance as Ree Dolly, a teenage girl searching for her missing meth-cooking father so the family home will not be forfeited for the jail bond. But just as intense as her determined character, almost a character in itself, is the rural Ozark environment in which she lives. The film uses dialogue sparingly, mainly when the audience needs to know critical information, and what dialogue there is has a very low-key, matter-of-fact delivery. The surroundings we see provide at least as many details about the plot and characters as any lines of dialogue. This independent production was shot on location in rural Missouri using a number of local nonprofessional actors, as well as a hand-built private home that served as Ree’s house, actual former meth-lab locations, and numerous small props that give a rich textural detail to the scenes (see Neda Ulaby’s 2011 National Public Radio feature “On Location: The Frozen Ozarks of ‘Winter’s Bone,’” http://www.npr.org/2011/08/18/139753185/on-location-the-frozen-ozarks-of-winters-bone (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/18/139753185/on-location-the-frozen-ozarks-of-winters-bone) ). Cool bluish colors and drab earth tones contribute to the mood. We can almost feel the poverty and isolation these characters live with every day in their struggle to survive, and that drives them to act the way they do. Yet we also feel their neighborly compassion in those same surroundings as they share food and music performances together.
A film like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) relies heavily on its dialogue to define its characters and further its plot, yet it uses the mise en scène just as intensely to reinforce characters and plot symbolically. The film takes place on the hottest day of the year from morning until night and the next morning. The lighting not only reflects the time of day by the position of the shadows, but its warm colors, combined with the choice of bright reds, oranges, and yellows that decorate the setting, emphasize the heat—of both the weather and the characters’ emotions. The positions of characters in the scene also reflect their position of respect in the community. The woman known as “Mother-Sister” is seen up in her apartment window, while the alcoholic old ex-baseball player known as “Da Mayor” is always seen below her, both literally and figuratively, until the end of the film, when they are on the same level for the first time.
Still from Girl With a Pearl Earring in which Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) and his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) examine jars of different colors.
© Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection
The inspiration for the mise en scène in Girl With a Pearl Earring can be attributed to Vermeer himself, a painter who reveled in depicting women in domestic scenes working in beautiful opalescent light.
Some films employ extremely understated acting, preferring to favor the mise en scène over extensive dialogue or action to tell much of the story. Even more reliant upon mise en scène to convey story information than either Do the Right Thing or Winter’s Bone is Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003). The opening shots show a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) slicing vegetables in a room dimly lit by indirect sunlight with unlit candles on the table, establishing for the viewer through the costumes and setting that this is a working-class girl in a past period (17th-century Holland, as it turns out). The pale bluish daylight gives a melancholy mood, contrasting sharply with the warm yellows and oranges and more natural colors seen later in the plot in a richer, happier setting. The girl’s obvious care in arranging the food on the plate suggests both her diligence at her work and her innate artistic sense, foreshadowing what is to come when she leaves her home to work as a servant-girl for the famous painter Vermeer (Colin Firth). The director’s use of the scenery, and staging of her moves through it, again reinforces what is going on in the character’s mind as she is literally and figuratively looking for a new direction in her life (at one point near the beginning she even pauses on a large compass pattern painted on the pavement). In this film, much of the movie’s action is going on inside the characters’ heads rather than happening as a series of obvious events or explained through dialogue. In this case, the viewer may need to work to infer all that is happening, paying close attention to how the film packs information into careful and significant dramatic use of the mise en scène—setting, lighting, color, props, costumes, makeup, and actors’ movements, instead of relying on what the actors are saying.
Each of these films just discussed has a generally realistic mise en scène, yet each is controlled by the filmmakers to serve the needs of the story. The location where Winter’s Bone was shot is the most naturalistic of the group. The carefully reconstructed period settings of Girl With a Pearl Earring are also very realistic. In Rear Window, the apartment and view outside were constructed on a studio soundstage, and while they give the sense of surface realism, they have an underlying, somewhat larger-than-life artificiality. Do the Right Thing was shot on an actual city block, again presenting a surface impression of realism, yet the extreme control over the colors, traffic, extras, and cleanliness of the streets presents a stylized portrait of the neighborhood, eliminating certain natural details (e.g., litter, street people, or drug dealers) that might distract from the specific themes of the story. Other films may take stylization to an extreme, such as the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the films of Tim Burton (heavily influenced by Caligari), or most digital cartoons, which make no pretense at presenting reality. Still others might reserve extremely stylized settings and acting performances for dreams or flashbacks, helping differentiate them from a more naturalistic main plot.
5.3 The Actor as Part of the Mise en Scène
Actors portray the characters who live out the story presented for the viewer through the plot. Those characters are written by an author. They are placed into the film’s sets by the director, who also guides the actors’ performances. So what do the actors actually bring to their roles? When we see a character move away from another character and look out a window during a line of dialogue, this action might well have been written into the script by the screenwriter (or have been part of the original story as a novel). However, the script might just as well have had no action indicated during the dialogue. The movement might have been the director’s decision, whether to help convey character relationships or simply to add some action to the scene. On the other hand, it might equally as easily have been a movement the actor came up with intuitively when interpreting how the character should respond in a given situation. It may even have been improvised during rehearsals, and the director decided that the movement was the best choice for that scene. The director, usually working closely with the actors and following the demands of the script, determines what the actors will be doing, how and when, and where in the scene they will be at any given time. The director (and sometimes the actor) also gives approval on costumes, makeup, and props used by the actor. A strong director has final say on the performance, not only guiding it during shooting but manipulating it through editing (as will be noted later) or deleting it altogether. Again then, what does an actor really do?
On its face, what an actor does is simple: act. That is, he or she pretends to be someone else—the character he or she is playing in the movie. The actor brings a written character to life. In practice, it’s much more complex. Perhaps it’s easiest to start with what an actor doesn’t do, or most of them, anyway. The actor does not write the script nor direct the film. Thus, even though the actor can influence the film, a role we will discuss in more detail later, he or she does not create it. Ask a television actor what the following season holds for his or her character, and you will likely be greeted with a look of puzzled bemusement: “I have no idea.” This is typically followed by, “Ask the writers.” Many fans are stunned to learn that their favorite characters are as in the dark as they are about what the future holds.
Out of Order
The same thing is true of film actors. While many stage plays may occur in a single set over a continuous time period, most movies are made up of numerous scenes—portions of the plot occurring in a single location for a single length of time—taking place at many different points in time. Movies are seldom shot in sequence; that is, they aren’t made in chronological order. Because of scheduling demands, quirks of weather, illness, or any number of other reasons, a wrenching death scene might be shot on Tuesday afternoon. Then, on Wednesday morning, the same character will be very much alive, having dinner with his family and offering a toast to a happy, robust future. Also, various shots such as close-ups, medium shots, and long shots are typically filmed separately with the same camera rather than simultaneously with multiple cameras. Thus in a scene where first there is a close-up of one character, then a faraway shot of the character including scenery and other actors, then a medium shot of two characters, each part was probably filmed separately but edited to appear as if it is continuous.
Still from Timecode showing a man holding a video camera.
© Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection
Almost all movies are shot out of sequence. This saves time and money. Timecode is truly an exception. Director Mike Figgis shoots with four cameras in four locations operating simultaneously and continuously for 90 minutes. The four stories are shown in split screen to dizzying effect.
Because of this, screen acting tends to be compartmentalized. Although an actor must keep the arc, or the overall story, in mind, for an effective performance he must remain in the moment, concentrating on whatever task is at hand for the character. On rare occasions, a director (or star) may have the power and the budget to shoot a film in sequence. A recent example is Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a stage play and starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet. The plot unfolds in real time on the screen in a single set, a rarity in itself, so Polanski’s choice to rehearse and film the script in sequence was a great aid to the actors in developing their character arcs. Sequential shooting is especially helpful when a plot chronicles emotional psychological character shifts as it progresses (A Beautiful Mind is another example), but shooting in sequence is highly unusual in film production.
Besides shooting scenes in a different order than they appear in the script, directors typically shoot several versions of a given scene, then construct the final film from the best of these elements. Good actors will offer variations on their performance, giving the director several options from which to choose. In some ways, this takes incredible skill. Imagine what it must have been like to perform the harrowing scenes in Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire in which first-time actor Gabourey Sidibe is physically and verbally abused by her mother, played by Mo’Nique. At one point, Mo’Nique’s character throws a television at Sidibe. Now imagine working through that and the director yelling, “Cut!” and then asking you to do the same thing again, only a little different this time from the last four or five times.
Understanding how actors must act out of order makes it easier to understand how making a movie works—a series of scenes will be put together in coherent form later by the director in an editing room. Yet this also shows how isolated a part of filmmaking acting can be. In an interview, Robert De Niro was asked about some of his more famous roles, such as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Surely in such iconic performances he could tell that he was doing great work in great films, right? Wrong, De Niro said—he was concentrating on his performance, offering the directors as many good options as possible. Beyond that, everything else was out of his control, he said. “I really don’t think you can tell how it’s going to be received. You just never know. If you think it’s going to be received well, you’re deceiving yourself” (Goodykoontz, 2009c).
But if actors like De Niro aren’t the ones putting the building blocks together (though De Niro has directed), they are the ones who provide the raw materials. That’s the actor’s job.
Learning Your Lines
The most basic skill an actor must possess is a good memory. He or she must learn a character’s lines, and remember when who says what—all while making the words they’re reciting sound like natural conversation. Stories abound of shortcuts—George Clooney writing out his lines on scraps of paper and taping them to sheets and pillows when working on E.R. and the like. But for the most part actors do indeed memorize their lines, so that they might deliver them as genuinely as possible. This may mean taking a few liberties with the script, not delivering the lines word for word, but interpreting them in their own words while still getting the main point across.
Photograph of John Cassavetes.
Courtesy Everett Collection
John Cassavetes is the father of independent American filmmaking. His ensemble films, such as Shadows and Opening Night, were created in an atmosphere that depended on improvisation to create and sustain an impression of reality caught on the fly.
However, most directors insist upon a fairly close reading. That is, unless the director is open to improvisation, coming up with your own lines that capture the spirit of what the writer and director are trying to accomplish in a particular scene. Even though this can lead to creative performances (especially in films featuring talented stand-up comedians accustomed to ad-libbing before live audiences, from Bob Hope to Chevy Chase to Jack Black), the director must strike a difficult balance between allowing actors to improvise and maintaining control of the set and the scene. Improvisation during the actual shooting can also complicate the editing process later on. Because of this, some directors encourage improvisation only during rehearsals so that an agreed-upon version of a scene is finally “locked down” before shooting.
Certain directors are famous for their use of improvisation. Robert Altman, who directed such classic films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts, allowed his a