Summary Review for The Film Experience Chapter 2: Mise-en-scène: Exploring a Material World

In Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012), a young man survives a disastrous shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean and is set adrift with a Bengal tiger through a series of fantastical episodes.
1. This sequence contrasts two spaces within its mise-en-scène, the small lifeboat and the vast ocean surrounding it. How does the sequence use these two spaces to generate its dramatic tensions and energies?
2. Would you describe this mise-en-scène, including its use of the tiger and the remarkable explosion of fish, as realistic in some ways? If so, how and why does it push the notion of realism in new directions?

In this climactic sequence from Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), the mise-en-scène of Sal’s pizzeria explodes with significance.
1. Which are the key features—props, costumes, lighting, or some other element—of this sequence, and why are they important?
2. Consider the significance of the photos on the "wall of fame." How would you describe their material relationship to Radio Raheem’s boom box? How does the showdown between the two utilize very different conceptions of space?

Mise-en-scène in Do the Right Thing





Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is a racially tense drama about living in a complex urban environment and about making difficult decisions. In this film, Lee reconstructs the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn inhabited by the film's many different characters. As Mookie, the main character played by Lee himself, delivers pizzas, he crosses between the often clearly delineated public and private spaces of the neighborhood. Mookie stands out as the central



focus within the energy and wear-and-tear of this urban mise-en-scène. Surrounding him is a community of distinctive characters, like Buggin Out and Radio Raheem, all sharing the same tight spaces, creating a cohesive but troubled community. The sidewalk acts as the border between the public street and the private homes behind hedges and front doors. The Bed-Stuy of Do the Right Thing is under constant construction. Quite literally these streets are being written over by protests, personal comments, and individual



personalities. In one scene, Mookie talks with his flamboyant sister Jade against a wall graffitied with "Tawana told the truth," a reference to a controversial racial incident in the 1980s.




Costumes and Props


As in most films, costumes or dress in Do the Right Thing identify and distinguish characters. For example, Da Mayor sports a crumpled suit that suggests the kind of beaten-down dignity of an elderly alcoholic, while Pino's white sleeveless T-shirt identifies him with a white working-class background. But costume in Do the Right Thing expresses more than an individual's sense



of self. It can speak to larger themes. Mookie's Brooklyn Dodgers shirt features Jackie Robinson's name, a significant reference to an African American baseball player who broke through the color barrier. In a similar way, props can be extremely meaningful. Look, for instance, at Radio Raheem's boom box and at the photograph that Smiley always carries and displays. The boom box is not only a way for Radio Raheem to assert his identity. It represents the power



of sound to cross borders and barriers, a power that Mister Senor Love Daddy's radio voice also demonstrates. And Smiley's photo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X not only encapsulates the central dialog in the film between racial love and hate, but it also acts as a counterpoint to Sal's photos of Italian celebrities on the wall of fame in his pizzeria. This is key. Both Smiley's photo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Sal's wall of fame represent their



respective claims to a particular racial identity.






Blocking is the physical arrangement of characters in a mise-en-scène, either in relation to other characters or in relation to other objects in the mise-en-scène. In Do the Right Thing blocking is especially important to the film's themes as it becomes about the politics of the block and how groups and individuals situate themselves in the neighborhood. One example is the way Mother Sister is



positioned or blocked in relation to the neighborhood and the other characters. She's typically shown sitting at her window high up, looking down at the goings-on in the neighborhood. Her blocking suggests her elevated and respected status in the community. Another dramatic example of blocking takes place during a conversation between Pino, Vito, and Mookie. As usual, the conversation pits one brother against the other regarding their relationship with Mookie. The blocking itself contributes to the tenseness of the conversation. As the characters move closer, that tension and discord becomes even more physically







Actors and Performance


A film's mise-en-scène is often held together by the performances of the actors. In Do the Right Thing the central character is unmistakably Mookie. All actors are, of course, performers, but in Do the Right Thing Mookie is a more self-conscious performer than most. His power and attraction comes in some ways from his ability to identify with other characters across generation and neighborhood borders and perform like a mirror, showing the other characters their true selves. In some ways he acts as



the truth teller of the film. For example, in this scene Pino and Mookie face off about the celebrities they identify with. Despite his overt racism, as Mookie points out, Pino's favorite celebrities are in fact African American. While Mookie is able to work the streets with style and sympathy, adapting himself to everyone and every situation, in his home life Mookie is a less successful performer. His partner, Tina, constantly berates him for never taking



responsibility. How would you define Mookie as the central performer? As simply self-serving and therefore hypocritical? As a peacemaker? Or as someone who eventually learns that to perform means to be responsible? Performance is at the heart of the mise-en-scène of Do the Right Thing, the performance of sympathy, the performance of difference, and in one of the most dramatic sequences in the film, the performance of racial rage and hatred. In this montage, various members of the neighborhood unleash a series of disturbing and stinging racial slurs about




blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians. Running through the film's various performances is a common concern, one that is echoed in the title. What exactly is the right thing to do?




The Climactic Sequence


The climactic sequence at the end of Do the Right Thing dynamically draws together many of the key elements and strategies of the film's mise-en-scène: the dynamics and differences between public and private spaces, the blocking of different



groups in communities, and the performances within those spaces. The sequence begins with Buggin Out, Radio Raheem, and Smiley bursting into Sal's pizzeria and demanding that photos of African Americans be added to the wall of fame. As the crowd goads them on, the space of the mise-en-scène seems to contract in, adding to the rising emotional intensity. In the heat of the moment, Sal takes his baseball bat to Radio Raheem's boombox and destroys it. After a silent,



tense moment where the onlookers and Radio Raheem process what has just happened, a brawl erupts in the pizzeria and wrestling bodies chaotically spill into the street in a fight that destroys the tense blocking of the previous scene. Sal and his sons are on one side, and a line of angry neighbors are on the other. Here the blocking and spatial organization of the mise-en-scène crystallizes the central tension in the film as not only between two groups but also between the private space of the pizzeria and the public space



of the streets. It's at this point that the film's most ambiguous, important, and controversial action takes place. Mookie calmly picks up a garbage can and throws it through the window of the pizzeria, breaking apart the thin line between Sal's private world and the streets. Is this an act of anger and hatred, or might there be another motivation for Mookie's decision? Against the backdrop of littered streets and the burned-out pizzeria window, Sal and Mookie meet



the morning after the brawl and argue about Mookie's pay, money being one of the key props and themes of the film. Sal throws Mookie's pay on the ground, and after Mookie picks it up, he turns and walks down the street. In the light of morning the mise-en-scène has not changed much, but perhaps Mookie has. He's going home to take responsibility for his son.

In Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), the animals living underground are under siege by a group of farmers.
1. How do characters and objects complement each other in the mise-en-scène? Are there aspects of the setting that tell the story?
2. How do other elements of film language like editing and camerawork work to foreground mise-en-scène in this clip?

Mise-en-scène in Fantastic Mr. Fox





Narrator: Animation is an especially rich form of cinema to consider in any discussion of mise-en-scène, because in animation, everything is placed there so deliberately, and placement in a scene or on stage is the literal translation of the French term "mise-en-scène." Wes Anderson's 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's novel Fantastic Mr. Fox is an impressive



example of stop-motion animation. In stop-motion animation, each frame of a scene is filmed individually and the figures are manipulated between frames to create the illusion of movement. The backgrounds must remain consistent from frame to frame. In Fantastic Mr. Fox there are richly detailed golden-hued settings inhabited by the foxes, other whimsical animal characters and by their human



antagonists, the farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.








Narrator: Props play a significant role in Fantastic Mr. Fox. For instance, they are used quite effectively to establish character. The farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean are all styled differently. They are each shown against a specific backdrop with a distinct set of props, creating a unique iconography for each farmer.



The film's plot even revolves around the fate of a key prop: Mr. Fox's tail. While emerging from his tree for a late-night thieving mission, Fox is ambushed by the three farmers, but they only manage to shoot off his tail before he disappears back down into the tree. Bean retrieves Fox's tail, fashions it into a tie and wears it as a trophy around his neck, baiting Fox's son, Ash, who vows to retrieve it.



The Handcrafted Details





Narrator: The handcrafted look of Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which more than 4,000 props were created, contrasts deliberately with the smooth surfaces of a lot of contemporary computer-generated animation. Nowhere in the film is this more obvious than in the final exciting sequence. The animals hatch an elaborate plan to rescue Kristofferson from the clutches of the farmers. In a way, the use of handcrafted technology in their mission pays tribute to the film's artisanal aesthetic. After the animals



set off a firebomb made from pinecones in the sewer, Fox and Possum pop out of a manhole cover in a puff of smoke, smoke that is quite clearly made out of cotton wool. The shaking background as Fox and Possum speed through the countryside, though diegetically motivated by the antiquated motorbike, pays homage to the trickiness of vintage stop-motion. And the news helicopter tracking the animals' progress is shown



flying over fields, obviously made from stitched-together textiles. Because creating the world of Fantastic Mr. Fox is so reliant on mise-en-scène and so labor-intensive, montage is downplayed. Instead, camera movements like tracking shots give us time to feast our eyes on detail and the animation technique of the movie. In this sequence, the animals are gathered for a communal meal in their makeshift but



convivial lodgings in Badger's flint mine. The camera starts on Mole playing the piano and tracks right, taking in the characters' movements as the kids set the table and as Rabbit prepares the meal. The camera speeds up to follow Fox and Badger as they talk about Fox's injury. The camera pauses just as Ash appears on camera. Overhearing his father's words prompts his



bold plan to get the tail back. Now tracking backward, the camera watches as Ash approaches his cousin, Kristofferson, with his idea. Of course, this virtuoso single-take is simulated, as the models are manipulated between each frame to create all the delightful on-screen activity we witness. The plot of Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to echo this careful, even obsessive, attention to setting. Much of the plot is



about rearranging mise-en-scène. For example, Fox initially provokes the farmers by moving into the root system under a vacant tree. Ash's model railroad shows his interest for staging props and settings, and the outraged farmers rearrange the mise-en-scène by forcibly moving the animals around. First, the farmers use earth-movers to try and dig the animals out,



forcing them underground into tighter and tighter spaces. Later, the farmers use cider to flush the animals out into the sewer system. Wes Anderson fans will find much in this film that is consistent with the director's body of work, from the flawed father figure to the idiosyncratic, athletic clothing. Yet, as an animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains



unique in Anderson's body of work, and it is exemplary in its remarkable visual consistency of characters, props and sets.

In this clip from Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948), Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), accompanied by his friends and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), tries to recover his stolen bicycle.
1. Describe elements of the naturalistic mise-en-scène of postwar Rome in this clip. What are some of the effects of shooting on location in the crowded marketplace?
2. How do editing and the score contribute to the emotional resonance of the objects onscreen?

Mise-en-scène refers to those elements of a movie scene that are put in position before filming actually begins and that are employed in certain ways once filming does begin. These include the scenic elements of a movie, such as actors, lighting, sets and settings, costumes, make-up, and other features of the image that exist independent of the camera and the processes of filming and editing.

A Short History of Mise-en-Scène
The heritage of mise-en-scène lies in the evolving Western theatrical tradition beginning with the Greek theater around 500 B.C.E. and continuing through the medieval mystery plays, the secular stage plays of the Renaissance and William Shakespeare, and the technological advances (such as lighting) introduced in the nineteenth century.
Early movies were limited by their dependency on natural light, but the introduction of artificial lighting allowed filmmakers to move a large portion of film production into studios, offering them a more controlled environment.
In the 1910s and 1920s, feature films became the norm and the movie industry expanded rapidly, in part due to the rise of the studio system. The introduction of sound at the end of the 1920s was also facilitated by the stability of the studio system. Studios had the capital for large soundstages that housed elaborate sets, which were often accompanied by lavish costumes, lights, and props.
A greater emphasis on realism, and therefore on-location shooting, came to prominence around World War II and was most evident in Italian neorealist films and documentary-influenced Hollywood crime dramas such as The Naked City (1948).
Since the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI), sets, costumes, and even actors can be created digitally after actual filming has occurred, making mise-en-scène as much a part of postproduction as it is of production.

The Elements of Mise-en-Scène

Settings and sets contribute to a film’s mise-en-scène by establishing scenic realism and atmosphere. In addition to creating realism – an accurate and truthful depiction of a society, people, or some other aspect of life – the mise-en-scène of a film creates atmosphere and connotations, those feelings or meanings associated with particular sets or settings. For example, a kitchen might connote warmth and domesticity.
Props (shorthand for “property”) are objects that function as parts of the set or tools used by the actors. Props are integral elements not only of storytelling, but also of genre conventions—what’s a gangster movie without machine guns or a Western without horses?
A film’s staging refers to the actors’ performances and to blocking. Performance describes the actor’s use of language, physical expression, and gesture to bring a character to life and to communicate important dimensions of that character to the audience. Leading actors play the central characters in a film, while supporting actors play secondary characters in a film, serving as foils or companions to the central characters. Blocking is the arrangement and movement of actors in relation to each other within the single physical space of a mise-en-scène.
An actor’s make-up and costume can play a central part in a movie – it can support scenic realism, highlight an important part of a character’s personality, act as a narrative marker, or signify genre. Costumes are the clothing and related accessories that define specific characters. They can range from common fashions, like a dark suit or a dress, to more fantastic costumes. Make-up refers to cosmetics applied to the actors’ faces and bodies that highlight or distort certain features and attributes to contribute to the mise-en- scène of the film.
Lighting is one of the more subtle aspects of mise-en-scène, and also one of the most important. Lighting can be natural or directional and can range from hard to soft. Naturallighting is derived from a natural source in a scene or setting, such as the illumination of the daylight sun or firelight. Directional lighting may appear to emanate from a natural source and defines and shapes the object, area, or person being illuminated. Three-pointlighting is a common style that uses three sources: a key light to illuminate the object, backlighting to pick out the object from the background, and fill lighting that minimizes shadows. High-key lighting is diffused, low-contrast lighting that reduces or eliminates hard edges and shadows and can be more flattering when filming people. Low-key lighting is a high-contrast style that creates hard edges, distinctive shadows, and a harsh effect, especially when filming people.
All the various elements of mise-en-scène are brought together in the space and composition of a scene, which is put together by the design team.

Making Sense of Mise-en-Scène

Whether mise-en-scène presents authentic places or ingeniously fabricates new worlds, audiences look for and find particular meanings in sets, props, acting styles, blocking, lighting, and other elements. A film’s mise-en-scène has always been the site where viewers measure human, aesthetic, and social values, recognize significant cinematic traditions, and, in those interactions, identify and assign meaning to the changing places of films.
Mise-en-scène as an external condition indicates surfaces, objects, and exteriors that define the material possibilities or limits in a place or space. Mise-en-scène as a measure of character dramatizes how an individual or group establishes an identity through interaction with (or control of) the surrounding setting and sets.
There are two prominent traditions of cinematic mise-en-scène—naturalistic and theatrical. Naturalistic mise-en-scène is a realistic style that appears to correspond to the real world and is recognizable to viewers. Two specific traditions of naturalistic mise-en-scène are historical mise-en-scène and everyday mise-en-scène. In contrast, theatrical mise-en-scène denaturalizes locations and other elements so that they appear unfamiliar, exaggerated, or artificial, like the fantastical settings of Willy Wonka’s factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Two types of theatrical mise-en-scène are expressive mise-en-scène and constructive mise-en-scène.
Movie spectaculars are films in which the magnitude and intricacy of the mise-en-scène share equal emphasis with or even outshine the story, the actors, and other traditional focal points for a movie. If low-budget independent films usually concentrate on the complexity of character, imagistic style, and narrative, movie spectaculars attend to the stunning effects of sets, lighting, props, costumes, and casts of thousands.