Mise-en-scène, Montage, and the Unique Language of Film
by Michael McVey, Skiffleboom.com
Mise-en-scène refers to the visual design of a film. A narrative film’s visual elements can include lighting, set décor, costume design, props, blocking, spatial relationships, scene composition—Mise-en-scène is how these visual elements work together to tell the story. Every visual element designed for narrative film is considered mise-en-scène. Even non-narrative films, such as documentaries, can be said to have a certain degree of mise-en-scène. This arrangement and design expresses aspects of the characters, themes, and story that are necessarily in dialogue.
Consider the “Night Visitor” scene of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The character Cesare has entered the bedroom of Jane Olsen. The mise-en-scène of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not realistic at all – it reflects the state of mind of the storyteller, Francis. As Francis relates the story, the mise-en-scène accents the emotional subtext. Cesare is a dark and threatening character. He lurks in the shadows, his features obscured in darkness. Obfuscation reflects Cesare’s inhumanity–he has no free will or personality of his own. He is a dark figure carrying out evil deeds at his master’s behest.
Jane lays asleep in her bed. White pillows and lace coddle her. This décor suggests a virginal and vulnerable character, unaware of impending danger. This image directly conflicts with the threatening Cesare. He emerges from the shadows towards her. The set design behind Cesare is sharp and angular. There are several dagger-like shapes jutting overhead. Cesare walks underneath these sinister shapes, implying his murderous intentions. The actor’s blocking (or pre-ordained path) to Jane continues underneath the dagger-shapes, shapes which aim at the defenseless Jane.
The abstract set design of this scene illustrates the inner-workings of not only Jane and Cesare, but of Francis. Given the larger context of the story, these threatening and off-kilter images reveal Francis’ hidden desires relative to the story he tells.
The hostile décor services the scene’s twist: The audience dreads that Jane will be murdered, an assumption derived from visual clues. But as Cesare is dumbstruck by Jane’s beauty. Jane is spared, despite momentum built from visual evidence to the contrary. In this case, the mise-en-scène serves both character and plot. Conflict is what creates tension and interest in the scene. Conflicting imagery and subverted expectations are rooted in the mise-en-scène.
The early silent classics are rife with groundbreaking examples. In the 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau, Count Orlok approaches the character of Thomas Hutter late at night. The scene is filled with a sense of dread. The room is dark – the lighting on Hutter is minimal and sharp, drawing long, unsettling shadows. A clock on the wall sounds. The clock itself features a skeleton, a symbolic representation of death. It casts a strong shadow on the wall. A fearful Hutter moves towards the door. The light source is low and strong, again casting stark shadows on decrepit walls. The room is almost a tomb – it gives the sense of impending death. And like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there is dagger-like imagery in one shot. The long, pointed door hinge of Hutter’s room is aimed directly at his heart.
The terrified Hutter opens the door, revealing Count Orlok, standing alone in darkness. His morbid wardrobe, sinister makeup, and shadow make an ominous creature. The wide shot dissolves into a medium close-up, which further accentuates the Count’s hideous appearance. This mise-en-scène strongly suggests Orlok’s evil intentions. Hutter is unable to escape. The coffin-shaped door swings open, implying supernatural elements at hand. There is nothing but darkness on the other side. In lingering on this darkness, Murnau emphasizes Hutter’s dread. When Orlok enters the room, he is eerily backlit. From Hutter’s point of view, he is framed within the doorway. Orlok looks like a corpse in a coffin. This imagery further underscores the feeling of impending death.
The mise-en-scène from these scenes imply impending doom. But visual design can be used to accent any emotional kind of subtext. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon contains fines examples of mise-en-scène reflecting the inner states of a character. The character of the Woodcutter experiences guilt over a murder he witnessed. The Woodcutter paces back and forth during the final act of the film. Torrential rains reflect his inner turmoil–both the storm and his heart are raging. The burnt ruins of a temple serve as shelter, but the ruins also imply a sense of moral corrosion or destruction accompanying his guilt and shame. He is dressed in the humble attire of a Woodcutter, but the ragged costume may also imply his character, or even his conscience. Mise-en-scène is essential in creating films with depth beyond the narrative.
Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was one of the world’s earliest film theorists — his ideas and opinions have influenced generations of filmmakers and critics. Eisenstein believed montage to be the essence of filmmaking. Eisenstein wrote extensively on montage, including the books The Film Sense, and Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Film Form contains the essay ‘A Dialectical Approach to Film Form,’ in which Eisenstein outlines his approach to the film montage.
In the essay, Eisenstein defines conflict as an inherent characteristic of art. For Eisenstein, art’s social mission and nature is strongly defined by conflict, or dynamic tension, within the art. It is through this Dynamism that new ideas are formed. According to Eisenstein, true art contains multiple ideas, ideas that exist in opposition to one another. The inherent value of the work comes from the clash of these ideas. The collision of two existing ideas yields a third, new idea. This is not unlike the nuclear fusion of atoms to create new elements.
Eisenstein applied this concept of Dynamism to film theory. Montage is a form of Dynamism wherein two or more independent shots are juxtaposed to create a new idea that did not previously exist. This new idea or feeling is born out of conflict, and is independent of its constituents. Viewers would be able to bridge seemingly disparate shots with logic of their own creation.
In this way, filmic storytelling largely depends on the viewer synthesizing ideas from what is presented. The filmmakers direct the viewers’ synthesis by controlling the constituent shots. Interestingly, the viewing experience differs from person to person — it can be argued that no two individuals ever see the same film. But skilled filmmakers can carefully direct this Dynamism through the mise-en-scene and editing process, strongly influencing viewer synthesis.
Eisenstein defined five distinct methods of montage. They are metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual montage. Metric montage is the editing of separate shots based on their duration. In this style of montage, the number of frames in each edit is consistent and independent of content. In rhythmic montage, shots are edited together with both duration and content in mind. This is a more complex form of montage, and incorporates both visual and auditory content to create dynamism. Tonal/overtonal montage is even more complex, incorporating emotionality of the content to create new meaning. Intellectual montage is the fusion of shots to create abstract or intellectual meaning from sound and imagery.
In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, metric montage is used during the Woodcutter’s walk through the forest. The successive shots of the sun through the trees, the close-up of his ax, the frontal tracking shot, dolly shot, and tilt are all relatively similar in duration. Furthermore, these shots are set to a bolero score, which makes the cadence of each cut measurable.
The later clairvoyant sequence illustrates rhythmic montage. During the transition to this sequence, the film cuts from the Woodcutter relating the story to quick shot of a fallen icon, soaked by torrential rains. The shot cuts to a close-up of the icon, and then quickly cuts to the metallic rattling of a ceremonial staff. The shot quickly cuts to the clairvoyant shaking the staff, and tracks her for a few seconds before cutting to a wide overhead shot. This final shot holds for a few moments, establishing the new setup. Each shot varies in length, but serve to bridge both time and space using impactful imagery.
The use of symbols in this sequence, such as the icon and staff, prepare the viewer for the supernatural elements to come. This association of iconography with the supernatural story elements can be considered intellectual montage – the viewer can extrapolate the source of the mystic’s power from the juxtaposition of ancient religious iconography.
The sequence also functions as tonal montage. The content of the shots suggest a dark, mystical mood. The forces of nature (torrential rains), the religious icon, and the soundtrack’s ceremonial drum chants, when juxtaposed, create a sense of otherworldliness. This tone helps the viewer accept the fantastic notion of a clairvoyant channeling the dead, moving the story forward. When viewers bridge these conflicting images and sounds, they infer logical conclusions for the clairvoyant’s abilities.
The Uniqueness of Film
The moving image has radically changed the art landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries. Up to the invention of the motion picture, synthesis of imagery and sound existed in theater, dance, and other performance art. But the introduction of film expanded the realm of art in all directions.
Film can be visceral (Halloween), or it can be intellectual (The Seventh Seal). Film can be lyrical (Days of Heaven), or it can be crass (Old School). Film, like literature, can relate a narrative in real time (Nick of Time), or it can span millennia (2001: A Space Odyssey). Film structure can create and play with both space and time in interesting ways – Koyaanisqatsi used various time-lapse techniques juxtaposed with music, resulting in a film that presents an unusual perspective on the world.
Film can use symbols to communicate subtext. Unlike the symbolism in literature, film symbolism has direct visual impact. The burnt out landscape of Rashomon adds extra layers of meaning to the film’s narrative. The visual destruction emphasizes thematic elements and heightens emotion. Rain can be used as a symbol, in Rashomon, perhaps as an emotional storm. In this respect, film symbolism is like painting. Visual stimulus can be frantic and surreal, like the seizure-inducing finale of Man with a Movie Camera. But film can also utilize sound to convey symbolism – In Citizen Kane; the sound of a screaming woman underscores a shot of a character. The scream represents the unspoken internal emotions of the character. The use of sound as symbol often accompanies visual cues. The combination of both visual and audio symbolism, when used expertly, can have great dramatic or comedic impact.
Citizen Kane uses a non-linear structure to tell the tale of a publishing tycoon’s life and death. The editing transports the viewer through time, correlating events from different eras with the emotional life of the protagonist. We are able to see long-term consequences juxtaposed with their causes, regardless of how much time separates them. A newsreel montage is used in the film to describe Kane’s public life. Citizen Kane utilizes a wide variety of media techniques to reveal plot and character. The use of radio-styled voice acting following the newsreel montage illustrates this point. Editing unites these multiple styles into one coherent piece, furthering film’s ability to communicate, advancing the art of storytelling.
Technology has given us the ability to more or less capture live events on film or video. The documentary format can capture objective reality and present it subjectively. Man with the Movie Camera is one such film; it presents objective reality in a subjective context. When using the technique of montage, objectively captured footage can be used to create tone, rhythm, and meaning. The editing of successive images creates a sense of surrealism in the film. There are several techniques used, such as double exposure and reflected imagery. These amplify the movie’s surrealist tone.
Documentaries can attempt more objectivity. Relatively recent documentaries, such as Crisis or High School attempt to accurately capture reality. These 1960’s films have no omniscient narrator. This gives them greater sense of impartiality. The conflicts presented still comment on the human condition, but are captured with minimal fabrication. The true fabrication occurs in editing.
Regardless of how impartial the filmmakers try to be, they are still manipulating the actual events for the viewer. In this way, real life can be viewed through different prisms. The documentary Salesman presents four individuals through the prism of the filmmakers. Reality may have been very different for the each salesman, but the film presents each of the narratives with deliberation. The film gives each of the salesmen an arch, which is subjective. Through careful editing, these real-life characters become symbols, character studies that speak to their time and place.
Each of these filmmaking techniques advances storytelling and expression. Film has the unique ability to combine multiple techniques and methods within a single piece. That is something most other media cannot accomplish. A painting has no soundtrack, nor does a book. A symphony doesn’t present us with a visual image of a mountain range. Ballet dancers cannot freeze in midair, a theater cannot give us one man magically playing eight instruments at once. But the moving image has the amazing ability to incorporate and recombine techniques from across the landscape of art.
Early Contributors to the Language of Film
Thomas Edison. American inventor Thomas Edison shares credit with W.K.L. Dickson for development of the earliest motion picture camera, Kintographthe. Edison also patented the Kinetoscope, (a peep-hole viewer), which served as an early form of presentation and distribution for short film. Edison Studios financed and produced hundreds of short films. Though Edison was not a filmmaker, he was the employer of the earliest American filmmakers, and is the earliest archetype for the studio systems.
The Lumière Brothers. French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière were filmmaking pioneers and technological innovators of film projection and film cameras. They are closely associated with the invention of the Cinematograph, one of the earliest film cameras – a camera that also projected the film. The brothers implemented perforating film to advance it through camera and projector. They also developed early color photography. The Lumière brothers favored location shooting and capturing live events in real settings – it could be said that they created the world’s earliest documentary footage.
The Lumière brothers first film was titled “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon,” which depicted real workers leaving Lumière family factory. This super short is considered the first filmic motion picture ever made (clocking in at a brief 46 seconds).
George Méiliès. French magician and filmmaker George Méiliès pioneered the use of special effects in film, as well as developed many early narrative techniques. His vaudevillian approach to cinema is termed the “Cinema of Attraction.” His use of multiple exposures, editing, dissolves, and manipulation of time in film received sensational responses from the public. His subject matter was often fantastic, such as 1902’s “Le voyage dans la Lune,” which depicted a spaceship hitting the moon in the eye. In “L’homme Orchestra,” Méiliès used multiple exposures to create the illusion he was playing seven different instruments at once. He may have been the first filmmaker to link independent shots together to further the story.
Edwin S. Porter. An American filmmaker who worked out of Patterson, NJ, Edwin S. Porter was an early pioneer of American cinematic technique. Porter was in the most famous cinematic pioneer from Edison Studios during the early Twentieth century. He developed many cinematic techniques for narrative film, including the linking of several shots to develop story, similar to Méiliès. Porter explored abstract concepts in his films, such as states of mind. In 1903’s “The Life of an American Fireman,” Porter used a double exposure to create a dream within the film. In 1906’s “The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” Porter used multiple exposures to create a state of drunkenness. Porter also developed the dissolve as a cinematic transition. He pioneered continuity editing in his films, which incorporated both indoor and outdoor shots into one seamless story. Porter developed the editorial technique of cross-cutting; showing simultaneous events in different locations. While not utilized in 1903’s “The Life of an American Fireman,” crosscutting was used in his most famous work, “The Great Train Robbery,” also shot in 1903.
D.W. Griffith. American film pioneer D.W. Griffith was most remembered for creating the first feature length motion picture, 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith worked on shorter films several years prior to this, and developed much of the cinematic language still used today. In 1911’s “The Lonedale Operator,” Griffith used close-ups with a wrench being mistaken for a gun. The insert was a cinematic technique that directed emphasis. He pioneered many uses of the frame in visual storytelling. He employed symbolism and other literary techniques in his films, used the camera iris to direct audience focus, and used a moving camera to create dynamism. He further developed the crosscut, which moved the view through cinematic time and space. Griffith differentiated cinematic acting from stage acting, eliciting more realistic performances from his actors. “The Birth of a Nation” despite being criticized for it’s racist attitudes, was a huge financial success – the first blockbuster. His follow-up film, 1916’s “Intolerance,” was an attempt to address the prejudices of “The Birth of a Nation.” Both films re-created historical events and captured spectacle, defining the costume epic as a cinematic genre.
Michael McVey, Skiffleboom.com
VMA 115 – History of the Moving Image
April 13, 2010 – Bunker Hill Community College