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What Are the Key Elements of Mise En Scène?

What Are the Key Elements of Mise En Scène?

A great visual film is an amalgam of layers created by lighting, composition, art direction, costuming, makeup, and texture. These combined elements create what is known as Mise En Scène, which essentially means “visual theme.” Its creation begins with writing a screenplay that illustrates not only the action and dialogue, but also details (within reason) certain visual elements including the specific time period, essential descriptions of settings, and even character costumes and props. The explanation of these elements helps a Movie Director, Director of Photography, Art Director, Costume Designer, Makeup Artist, and Actors understand the tone of a film. Let’s dive into the essentials of Mise En Scène — an important and foundational part of film theory.

The key elements of Mise En Scène are:

  1. Composition
  2. Production Design
  3. Lighting
  4. Costuming
  5. Hair and Makeup
  6. Film Texture

Composition

One of the fundamentals of Mise En Scène is the framing of a shot and it can be determined during the storyboarding phase of a film. A Storyboard Artist will work closely with a Director and sometimes the Writer of a film to visually draw, illustrate, or graphically design storyboards of each scene in a screenplay. It is during this phase of pre-production that the framing, compositions, and camera movements can be determined before shooting. Some Directors like to work in very steady and traditional wide shots, medium shots, single shots, and close-ups. They want story to take the lead over style and don’t want the compositions to interfere with the acting and dialogue. However, some Directors prefer more kinetic and even frenetic shots and choose to shoot hand-held, Steadicam, or on jib and dolly. Perhaps shots with more movement are desired for a more fluid and active tale where style and story are equally expressed. Regardless of the style of the Mise En Scène, it can be determined during the storyboarding stage and then created on set with camera angles and moves.

How silly would Star Wars be if not for the original and historically inspired costumes of the Empire and the Jedi. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would not have the same visual impact if Gene Wilder were dressed in jeans and a T-shirt instead of his classic and recognizable purple velvet long coat, patterned silk vest, and his Bell Topper hat. These costume choices are all about adding to the value and mood of Mise En Scène.

Production Design

Think about the movies you’ve seen. Each one has its own visual merits partly created by the setting you see captured within the frame of each shot. If you’re watching a period piece like Gladiator, then the story can’t stand on the costuming, props, and lighting alone. It must also exist in the time period that showcases a believable backdrop — in this case, Ancient Rome, filled with gladiatorial training camps, the Colosseum, rural fields of grain, and ancient Roman architecture. It’s the art direction, scenery, and backdrops that give Gladiator its sense or realism and three-dimensional quality. When creating your own film, it’s important to ask yourself, where will my story take place? Does the setting, created by the art direction, strengthen the Mise En Scène? It’s important to producing a believable story that connects with viewers and you can do that with the proper locations and production design.

Lighting

Once your setting is determined, locations are locked in, and production design is constructed, all of that needs to be lit in a way that elevates your intended Mise En Scène. Let’s cite the aesthetic of the feature film Drive, lit by Newton Thomas Sigel. The night scenes are lit in what I like to think of as “Neon-Noir” (not to be confused with “Neo-Noir”). The night scenes feel like the dark and lonely inner world of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the Driver. That is the true depiction of smart Mise En Scène. The rich contrast and bleeding colors of Sigel’s cinematography represent not just the tone of the world in which the characters reside, but also the inner workings of the main character, who is somewhat of a lost soul trying to find peace and love in a chaotic Los Angeles. Mise En Scène represents the inside and outside of that world.

Costuming

Can you imagine how little sense the world of The Dark Knight would make if not for the elaborate, artistic, and comic-book-inspired costumes worn by Batman and the Joker? Or how silly would Star Wars be if not for the original and historically inspired costumes of the Empire and the Jedi. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would not have the same visual impact if Gene Wilder were dressed in jeans and a T-shirt instead of his classic and recognizable purple velvet long coat, patterned silk vest, and his Bell Topper hat. These costume choices are all about adding to the value and mood of Mise En Scène. Now, that’s not to say that the costuming for your film has to be as elaborate and theatrical. In fact, many straightforward stories that are less fantastic and more rooted in everyday reality still make sure that their characters are wearing costumes that strengthen the tone and quality of the film. In a film like Back to The Future, Marty still wears “character” costuming and his signature puffy red-orange vest, denim jacket, and patterned button-down shirt are now an iconic Halloween costume. His character starts in everyday clothes that became part of pop-culture zeitgeist. Regardless of the costuming you choose for your characters, just make sure that they make sense within the Mise En Scène of the world you’re creating on screen.

It doesn’t matter if a movie is some grandiose, science fiction blockbuster or some small, independent character piece that takes place in genuine locations – it’s about using compositions, production design, lighting, costuming, hair and makeup, and film and video textures to envelop the audience into a world that is believable, captivating, and fluid.

Hair and Makeup

Hair and Makeup are essential in a movie and when you think of a film like Grease, the hair and makeup echoes the look and feel of the 1950s. Pomade-greased hair for the men and hyperbolic rouge and eye makeup for the women were part and parcel to bringing those characters’ looks to life and showcasing them in the hair and makeup styles of the era. The same goes for the fictional, politically charged world of a film like The Hunger Games. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has a look that can be considered gaudy, filled with bravado and flare. Her character dons the look of cotton candy hair and burlesque-style makeup. Her look is ironic in a world where children are forced to fight to the death. In contrast, Katniss Everdeen’s hair and makeup are often subdued, basic, and rural. Her look represents the life she leads: that of a country girl who hunts and lives off the land. However, when she is put on display by the totalitarian Capitol of Panem, she is made to look theatric and warrior-like. Her hair and make-up transform with her character development through different phases of her arc in the film. That is a pure personification of Mise En Scène.

Film Texture

Movies can have any number of final looks that can start with the type of film stock or video camera selected and end with the post-production effects and filters used before a final movie is screened. Traditional Directors of Photography who may still shoot on film will select different film stocks that offer fine, contrasty, or grainy textures. In the world of video, it’s best to shoot the best quality video you can afford and then choose a fine or grainy look in post-production. Take, for example, a movie like filmmaker Michael Mann’s Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron shot that feature on the CineAlta HDW-F900. According to a quote by Cameron from an article written by Jay Holben called “Hell on Wheels” for The American Society of Cinematographers, “Using HD was something Michael (Mann) had already settled on by the time I came aboard,” recalls Director of Photography Paul Cameron, who prepped Collateral and shot the first three weeks of principal photography. “He wanted to use the format to create a kind of glowing urban environment; the goal was to make the LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were.” Often, the latitude (or the array of sensitivity of film stocks or HD cameras) is taken into consideration when shooting a film or video. How film or video reacts to light is important and should be considered before shooting.

The point of understanding all of this is to note that Mise En Scène embodies almost everything that appears before the camera. It includes all of the ingredients necessary to help audiences willfully suspend their disbelief so they can enjoy a film. It doesn’t matter if a movie is some grandiose, science fiction blockbuster or some small, independent character piece that takes place in genuine locations – it’s about using compositions, production design, lighting, costuming, hair and makeup, and film and video textures to envelop the audience into a world that is believable, captivating, and fluid.


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Who Does What on a Film Crew?

Who Does What on a Film Crew?

On a movie set, the film crew keeps the machine we call production running smoothly. The crew is a well-oiled machine that follows traditions as old as cinema itself, and for a newcomer, it might be hard to distinguish who all these people are and where one might fit in. Examining the credits at the end of a film helps, but it doesn’t necessarily explain it all.

Though everyone may not be familiar with the terms “above the line” and “below the line,” most people are definitely more familiarized with the “above the line” crew – the Writer, the Director, the Producer, the Actors…. But the busy factory of a movie set is made up of so many more important people that have been categorized as “below the line.” Though the term may suggest that “below the line” may be less important, that is the farthest thing from the truth. A film set can’t run without everyone you see running around and everyone down to the PA is important.

Understanding what makes up a film crew can help you not only figure out where you might fit in at the start of your career but even as a filmmaker, it will help you understand the team you will need to execute your vision. Let’s break down the departments to help you understand more.

A film crew consists of:

  1. Production Office
  2. Assistant Director(s)
  3. Art Department
  4. Camera Department
  5. Grip and Electric
  6. Sound
  7. Costume Department
  8. Editorial

Production Office

Let’s start with the production office. The ruler of the roost in the production office is the Line Producer. Under the Line Producer, you have the Unit Production Manager (UPM), who works with a Production Coordinator (POC) and the Assistant Production Coordinator (APOC) to make sure that the production runs smoothly. The Line Producer is the “on the ground” Producer who manages the budget, while the UPM, the POC, and the APOC are administrative positions that get the job done. There are other positions in the production office, but these folks are the backbone.

Assistant Director (The AD)

The Assistant Director is probably the most misnamed crew member. Though the AD does “assist” the Director, the real role of the AD is to run the set. The AD has the responsibility to keep the crew on task and on schedule and is the link between the Producers and the Director. “Making the day” or completing everything that’s on the schedule falls on the AD. The AD is also very much a part of creating the schedule and is the one in charge of getting call sheets out and wrangling all departments. You need something from the Director during production? You’ll have to go through the AD to get to her!

Safety is also a top priority for the AD, so if there is a safety hazard on set, the AD should know about it. Luckily the AD has a team to get the job done. Depending on the size of the production, there is a Second or Third AD (sometimes called the 2nd 2nd) as well as PAs. The First PA that many PAs report to is usually poised to be an AD, himself. It’s an intense gig.

Art Department

The Art Department is in charge of all the set design and dressing. The head of the department is the Production Designer, who collaborates with the Director and the DP to fulfill the Director’s vision of what the sets will be and how they will be decorated. The Art Director is the person who is in charge of executing this plan like a Contractor, and the Set Decorator is the one who takes either the built set or the location set and adds all the necessary set dressing, from furniture down to the details of the story, such as tossed clothes in a messy room or the aftermath of a crazy party. Think about that hotel room in The Hangover!

Another member of this department is props. The Prop Master is in charge of all the props in the script – a gun, fake wine, or even jewelry if it is crucial to the story. The Prop Master has a team to both construct them and keep track of them during production. The Art Department must work closely with the Camera Department; Camera communicates to Art what they are actually going to be getting in a shot, because if the camera isn’t going to point somewhere, no need to decorate that space.

The Assistant Director is probably the most misnamed crew member. Though the AD does “assist” the Director, the real role of the AD is to run the set. The AD has the responsibility to keep the crew on task and on schedule and is the link between the Producers and the Director.

Camera Department

In the Camera Department, you have the Director of Photography (DP) who works with the Director to establish the look of the film and how it will be shot.

The Camera Operator operates the camera under the DP’s guidance, actually getting the shots, while the 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC) pulls focus. The 1st AC also runs the department. He works with a 2nd AC who keeps track of the footage, recording things in camera reports and slating each take, as well as swapping out the camera cards. A Data Wrangler is in charge of offloading and backing up the footage. In some cases, this is done by a Data Image Technician (DIT), who will color the footage to the DP’s specs so it can be viewed on set. Sometimes, the Director and DP will want shots with a Steadicam. This requires a Steadicam Operator, who operates the camera with a special rig. This particular rig allows the Camera Operator to move the camera smoothly – almost like a dolly. Most Steadicam Operators come with their own rig, unlike other camera or lighting equipment.

Grip and Electric
Within the Camera Department is the Grip and Electric Department (G & E). This is the crew that lights the set and harnesses the electricity to run those lights – this can be hard wired or through a generator. The Gaffer is the head electrician that is in charge of lighting design under the direction of the DP. The Gaffer’s Key Grip executes the lighting design and the Best Boy assists. The Dolly Grip is the one who attaches the camera to the dolly (and pushes it) and a Swing can bounce between Camera and Electric.

Script Supervisor
The Script Supervisor appears to be a lone wolf, but he is part of the Camera Department. The Script Supervisor, endearingly known as “ the Scripty” has a huge responsibility. During pre-production, he will make sure there are no inconsistencies in the script as well as give estimates of the film’s timing. During the shoot, the Script Supervisor is still keeping track of timing but is also keeping track of coverage — ensuring that there are enough pieces to cut the film together, making sure there is continuity between takes, and keeping track of stage direction, all while taking copious notes and generating daily reports.

Most of what the Scripty does is for the Editorial Department. Because the Editor is not on set, the Script Supervisor is the one who communicates all the details from the day to the Editorial Department — what the Director intended or any problems that arose while shooting (bad sound, etc). It’s all about keeping the Editor in the loop. For example, large scenes are often covered in more than one day, so the Scripty makes sure the Editor knows that more footage is coming so he doesn’t start cutting without all the material.

A supportive PA is every department’s dream. Many people often get a general PA position right off the bat, but if you want to move up the ladder, it’s a good idea to target a department that strikes your fancy.

Sound

The Sound Mixer records all the sounds from a scene, the obvious being the dialog. However, every production sound needs to be recorded – the door opening, the engine of a car starting, the glass slammed down on a bar, etc. A Sound Mixer will put microphones on the Actors and a Boom Operator will hold a microphone above the Actors’ heads as they speak. They record wild lines and room tone, which are are useful tools for post-production.

Costume Department

The Costume Designer is a department head, like the Production Designer, who is brought onto a project early on. She works closely with the Director and the Production Designer to design the costumes and has them made or purchased. On set, there is usually a Wardrobe Supervisor who has a crew that keeps track of the costumes and has them ready and organized for each Actor and each scene.

Editorial

Tucked away in a dark room, usually far away from set, you will find the Editor and her team. At the very least there will be an Editor and Assistant Editor. The more footage and the tighter the deadline, the bigger the team is. The Assistant Editor organizes the notes from the Script Supervisor as well as the footage in the editing system, making sure that all the scenes shot have made it into the project (which includes checking a lot of paperwork). As soon as the footage is ready, the Editor starts editing, making sure everything the production team is getting is working.

Finding Your Home on a Set

With all these people on set operating in a military fashion to keep the production on track, film crews always feel like they never have enough time or people to get the job done. A supportive PA is every department’s dream. Many people often get a general PA position right off the bat, but if you want to move up the ladder, it’s a good idea to target a department that strikes your fancy. If you get to a department and you don’t like it, stay positive, do a good job and try another one on the next gig. If you do a good job, people are happy to refer you.

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