Saturday, August 17, 2013

Project: Mise-en-scène

I have been watching a variety of films (and a lot of Breaking Bad) and shorter sequences, paying special attention to the mise-en-scène. The course notes suggest that “every item on screen has been considered and placed, every area of space has been adjusted to give the best composition.”  I am not convinced that this is always 100% true as I am sure there are scenarios where a director or DoP just go on hunch or are restricted by time, money and the physical environment so I am not going to get too obsessed about the meaning of everything.

Mise-en-scène generally seems to be considered in the general areas of setting, costumes and makeup, lighting, and staging.  Overall this amounts to how a movie comes across visually.

I have put together a Pinterest board of some striking examples of m-e-n – I have included work by directors who have a very distinctive style such as Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Almodovar but also some general examples of effective mise-en-scène.

I also came across this during my searches but I am not sure how accurate it is:
Interesting idea though.

Notes from a couple of recently-watched movies

Possession (1981, dir Andrzej Zulawski)

  • Use of electric knife and meat grinder as props to add tension (and gore)
  • Placement of actors in café when they meet to discuss the future – sitting at different tables, angled away from each other
  • Indications of distraction/insanity – putting laundry into the fridge
  • Symbolism – milk bottles and eggs get broken while Anna has a seizure (and miscarriage?) in the subway
  • Placement of the camera in the centre of the overacted fights creates very uncomfortable viewing – sense of not being able to escape
  • Lots of phone calls – shows problems of communication and how isolated the characters are, emotional detachment
  • Mark looks at the Berlin Wall frequently – Cold War/links with the fractured marriage?
  • Scenes in the apartment are very claustrophobic (especially the kitchen) and cold décor; often messy floors showing disintegration of normality into chaos
  • Shallow depth of field to stress how the characters are not on the same plane, often framed in doorways
  • Use of flat white walls as background to show the characters are trapped
  • Motif of gripping naked torso (Mark with Bob, Mark with Anna, Anna with Mark) – shows possession?
  • Anna wearing same dress throughout the movie?
  • Why is the phone orange?

Synecdoche, New York (2008, dir Charlie Kaufman)

  • Opening scene – lots of mirrors as we learn about Caden’s self-obsession and concerns with his health and mortality
  • Home with Adele and Olive is very claustrophobic, dirty and ramshackled
  • Atmosphere in the car scene after Caden has had his head stitched, very dark with dapples of light from the streetlamps adds to sense of discomfort and the disconnects within the family
  • Clues about the passage of time are given through clocks, calendars, newspapers, the radio and TV
  • Medical consultants all seem dodgy, down in basements
  • Psychologist/counsellor goes up very tall ladder to get her book for him
  • Adele’s paintings get smaller and smaller as the movie progresses while the physical scale of Caden’s work becomes massive
  • Large gap between Caden and Adele at the counseling session – seated on a green sofa with Adele collapsed to one side as if the marriage is destroying her
  • References to disease/conditions (eg Capgras syndrome via the name next to the apartment buzzer and Cotard disorder)

Scene Analysis

My chosen scene for analysis as part of this project is the beginning of the train robbery sequence in the The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007 dir Andrew Dominik).

The film story covers the months leading to the disintegration of the James gang as Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) becomes increasingly isolated and paranoid.  This particular scene is one of the most haunting moments in the film (helped by the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score), designed to show powerfully how such crimes were executed.

Shot 1: The gang is waiting in the woods with just oil lamps casting yellowy lights on their faces. The dominant in this shot is Frank James (Sam Shephard), establishing him as a key presence. 

Shot 2: Possibly the focus of the gaze of the men in Shot 1 is a member of the gang singing as the light from the lamps flickers.

Shot 3: A close up of a pocket watch being checked in the bright lamp light and then closed in a hand (presumably Jesse’s).

Shot 4: Entering the right side of the frame, Jesse takes a lamp up to the edge of the train track in profile and kicks at the wooden sleeper before stepping into the middle of the track and crouching down with his back to the camera looking down towards the lights of the other men.

Shot 5: The camera is now in front of him as he settles his cheek on the track. This shot is almost completely black except for some soft light on his face, the white of his shirt beneath his jacket and, to balance the triangle, light on the stones to the left of the frame.  The camera pans in close to build the tension as Jesse ‘listens’ for the train and then stops abruptly as Jesse jumps up out of the frame.

Shot 6: We are back with the men as Jesse shouts that the train is “right on schedule” with an OTS view.

Shot 7: Back to Frank, still leaning against the tree, in dramatic shadow, looking controlled and authoritative.

Shot 8: View from behind Frank as he orders the men to snuff the lanterns before turning his head to the right for us to see him pull his black mask up.

Shot 9: Jess is centre of the frame facing the camera with a lamp over his arm while he pulls his mask up – his eyes staring intensely towards the direction of the train.

Shot 10: We see Jesse put his boot up on the track, feet slightly angled towards the train, with light coming from above and to the right.

Shot 11: Back up to Jesse’s face looking ahead and then turning to the right and down to look at the track.

Shot 12: Similar to shot 10 but now the stones tumble away from the track slightly and the camera moves in a little to build the expectation of the train.

Shot 13: A close up of Jesse’s face looking just to the left of the camera which then moves in close – building the idea of the train being lured in to his trap.

Shot 14. An OTS - Jesse is to the far left of the frame looking in to the blackness.  The camera then moves past Jesse and there is a full nine seconds of complete darkness.

Shot 15: We finally see the light on the front of the train illuminating the track, which curves round from just left of centre.

Shot 16: White light behind tree trunks with the light moving from left to right.

Shot 17: The camera is now on the other side with the light behind the trees going from right to left.

Shot 18: The hooded gang members are lit up as they wait in the woods. 

Shot 19: A close up of a man in a creepy white hood.

Shot 20: Frank watches as the train lights and the trees create shadows which ripple across him.

Shot 21: Front view of the train, coming straight towards the camera.  As it almost hits us, we start moving with the train, being taken along on the journey, right in the centre of the action.

Shot 22: A long shot of Jesse in silhouette walking back to the barrier that has been constructed across the track, holding a lantern. He puts this down as he gets into position.

Shot 23: Close up of the screeching and sparking wheels of the train as it tries to stop before hitting the ambush obstruction.

Shot 24: View of the men behind the sparks of the braking train moving through the woods in the same direction as the train – left to right.  They are hard to make out, barely in focus, creating even more of an anonymous, nightmarish feel from our viewpoint on the train.

Shot 25: Another close up of the wheels.

Shot 26: Jesse stands on the barrier as the train approaches, unflinching, even as he is completely engulfed in steam and smoke.


Commentary about the scene from Roger Deakins, director of photography:  “We shot that in Edmonton in this preserved town where they had a little loop railway and a small train. Andrew [Dominik, the director] actually wanted to ship in a much bigger train, but the cost was prohibitive. We kept trying to reassure him that we could do things photographically that would give the train more of a presence. Andrew kept calling it ‘Thomas the Tank Engine,’ and when you saw it in broad daylight, it did look pretty puny!”

The set looks very authentic and the verticals of the tree trunks have been used to great dramatic effect. Even the stones on the track play a part – adding texture and providing some grounding Jesse in the dark but also indicating the vibration on the track as the train starts to approach.

Costumes and makeup

There are some nice touches here with sight of the pocket watch and Jesse’s boot on the track.  The dark clothes add to the menacing appearance of the gang members – especially Frank and Jesse – but the white hoods are also extremely eerie, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. The first time we see them is as the light from the train shines through the wood and the calmness of the men as they watch the train go past builds tension superbly.


This is absolutely key to sequence. The director wanted this to be incredibly dark and Deakins used a technique called ‘bleach bypass’ to deepen the blacks further. Initially faux oil lamps are used, with flickering to add authenticity. The actors are mostly in shadows to add to the nightmarish feel, heavy contrast adds to the evil – there is no attempt to use fill lights or a three point approach.  We are also treated to nine seconds of complete darkness after following the sight line over Jesse’s shoulder. Then the entire scene is gradually revealed by a 5k par lamp on the front of the train, to great dramatic effect. There were also some lights along the side of the train to light up the sparks and the smoke, which goes completely to white at the end of the scene.


Brad Pitt is away from his men, showing his isolation. He is centred in some of the shots to stress the power of his almost superhuman (and obviously gorgeous) presence. He is shown to be fearless, with his cheek on the tracks and then unflinching as the train screeches right up to him and envelops his figure in steam and smoke.  The open form and room to move in these shots shows he is in complete control of his surroundings and the situation.  We are faced with Jesse at every angle – at once complicit and detached.

Roger Deakins: “The camera was rigged on a flat bed rail car and we just let the train hit it. We used a very low tech solution to lessen any jarring or recoil, which was simply a block of foam. We also had a silver reflector mounted on the flat bed so as to get some gleam in the metal of the train which would otherwise been black and lifeless.”


I think the mise-en-scène has worked superbly to build tension in this scene and convey the dark menace of the James gang.  The deep shadows and stark lights from the train, revealing the waiting presence of the outlaws, is the stuff of nightmares, making for an incredibly dramatic and memorable scene.

Checklist for mise-en-scène analysis

Great ideas borrowed from here:

  • What is the dominant? Where is our eye attracted?  Why?
  • Lighting?  High key or low key?
  • Camera proxemics? FS/MS/CU?
  • Camera angle? High, low or eye level?
  • Dominant colour? Why? Symbolism?
  • Costumes? Props?
  • Lens? WA/Telephoto?
  • Composition? Density?
  • Form open or closed?
  • Framing? Room to move? Tight or loose?
  • Depth of field? Focus on BG or FG?  Comment on MG?
  • Character placement?
  • Staging positions?
  • Character proxemics?
  • Always ask WHY?

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