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What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

by A.D. Jameson
June 25, 2014 4:59 AM
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Scott Pilgrim

4. Mise-en-scène and the Short Take

In order to demonstrate the importance of mise-en-scène in short-take cinema, I’d like to devote the remainder of this article to analyzing a scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), looking at how mise-en-scène and editing work in concert to produce several complicated larger effects. A few notes first. I chose this scene because the editing in it is very fast. (The editing in Wright’s films tends to be very fast in general.) Here, we have 24 shots in 57 seconds, yielding an ASL of only 2.1. That of course doesn’t tell us how long each shot is, but it’s worth noting that this ASL is lower than in most contemporary Hollywood films, which tend to hover in the 3–6 second range. And yet, despite the brisk pace, a great amount of information is communicated in this minute of film. Let’s see how that is done.

The scene in question occurs roughly 26 minutes into the film. Scott Pilgrim has just had his first date with Ramona Flowers. Later that day, his band (Sex Bob-omb) is due to play in a battle of the bands at a club called the Rockit:

Ramona arrives, surprising Scott; she then meets some of Scott’s family and friends. She also meets Scott’s current girlfriend, Knives Chao, who kisses Scott, causing the young man to stammer and flee. Along the way, we also get the beginnings of a subplot in which Wallace will seduce Jimmy away from Stacey. In order to understand how Edgar Wright accomplished all of this (and more!), we need to examine his sophisticated deployment of mise-en-scène.

For one thing, even though the Rockit isn’t the primary focus of the scene, the setting is still important. The first two shots (of the club’s sign and the interior, including the stage) function as establishing shots, after which we catch glimpses of people milling about, and crew members preparing for the upcoming battle of the bands. The next ten minutes of the film will take place at the Rockit, and these establishing and background elements help set the stage (literally) for the coming action. The setting also figures into the film’s larger plot: its dive-bar atmosphere (“this place is a toilet”) helps establish the upward progress that Scott and his band mates are striving to make, which will be entwined with Scott’s struggle to win Ramona’s heart. As both Sex Bob-omb and Scott advance, the clubs grow progressively nicer until they wind up at the final battle, at Gideon Graves’s state-of-the-art Chaos Theater.

Other background elements are also doing important work. Edgar Wright sets up a quick joke by using the first few shots not only to reveal information, but to conceal some as well. Ramona arrives and greets Scott, and we get some conversation between them done as shot-reverse-shot. Wright then cuts to reveal that Wallace, Stacey, and Jimmy are also present, and have been standing there the whole time. The reveal is humorous, and helps further Scott’s obliviousness (he has eyes only for Ramona). (The maneuver recalls the joke in the opening scene of Shaun of the Dead, where Wright gradually adds in characters.)

Another important function of the mise-en-scène of each shot is how it helps focus our attention—which is in fact vitally important, given how short these shots are. Lighting and costuming are used to offset the characters from the background, drawing our attention to their faces. And it’s worth noting here that, even in short takes, there’s still room for mobile camerawork. (In other words, changes in composition and changes in shots through editing are hardly opposed to one another, but can work in concert.) As Stacey introduces Wallace and Jimmy, the camera whip-pans to show us each character. Wright then builds another joke out of this, hand-in-hand with the cutting, as Wallace sets his sights on Jimmy.

As the scene progresses, our attention is gradually shifted away from the background elements of the setting, and more toward the characters themselves. Again, numerous elements are working together here to accomplish this (including tighter framing and a shallower depth of field). The focus grows increasingly shallow throughout the scene, as our perspective shrinks to that of Scott Pilgrim and his discomfort. The payoff comes in the final shot of the scene, where Wright opens the space up once again, returning us to a larger sense of the club. The pounding of Scott's heart turns out to be a drum being used in the sound check. Meanwhile, Scott, unable to handle the conflict at hand (his basic problem as a protagonist), takes advantage of the deeper focus of the shot to run off into the distance, and out of sight. (We have here an illustration of how cinematography often anticipates how the actors are going to move in the course of a shot.)

Yet other elements of the mise-en-scène work to develop the ongoing conflicts and jokes. When Knives Chau shows up, her performance calls attention to her new hairstyle, which is part of her character’s arc: her adoration for Scott is causing her to become an indie rock fan. In a later scene, she’ll dye her hair blue, in imitation of Ramona—and already the film is drawing comparisons between their respective looks, and setting that love triangle in motion.

It’s also worth noting that the scene, despite being rapidly edited, is hardly incoherent, either temporally, spatially, or narratively. Indeed, a great deal is being communicated here in all three of those aspects of the film. Several of the jokes depend on a consistent sense of space. And, narratively, the scene introduces many characters to one another, delivering some exposition to them and to the audience, as well as establishing two separate love triangles (Scott / Ramona / Knives and Stacey / Wallace / Jimmy).

And this analysis only scratches the surface—we haven’t considered much how sound functions in the scene, or color, or any of the CGI elements. But I think we can see how the scene functions due to its complex interaction of lighting, costuming, setting, character positioning (blocking), camera movement—and editing (and camerawork). Rather than opposing one another, all of the elements of the film—including the mise-en-scène and the editing—are working in concert to progress a wealth of character and plot detail. Indeed, it’s only because those elements are so carefully arranged in consideration of one another that Wright can accomplish so much so economically. That complex interplay is the very heart of the film’s sophistication, and artistry.

A.D Jameson is the author of three books:  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other writing has appeared at Big Other and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he's been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

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  • Jandy | June 29, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    I guess I've always considered mise-en-scene more or less synonymous with "composition," in terms of how elements are arranged within a shot (and by extension how they move within a shot). I think I would define montage as creating meaning through time and mise-en-scene as creating meaning through space. I'm not sure that contradicts anything you've said - I would define them in opposition to each other, sure, as different ways to create/express meaning, but not in the sense that one is more useful/valuable than the other. They work in concert to create a totality of meaning through space and time, as you've analyzed in Scott Pilgrim.

    I think that Hollywood now tends to rely on editing more than on mise-en-scene. As you mention in your comment below on Bay, he may not cut faster than Wright, but Wright's images remain utterly comprehensible whereas Bay's (to me, at least) do not. That suggests that Bay's mise-en-scene is not good enough to sustain the editing speed he uses, while Wright's focus on careful mise-en-scene allows him to make faster cuts while remaining comprehensible.

  • James M. | June 25, 2014 3:44 PMReply

    Or what ALI said before me.

  • James M. | June 25, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    It's a useless term. And a pretentious one at that.

  • anonymous | June 25, 2014 12:50 PMReply

    " This contributed to the idea that long takes are somehow more respectful of film viewers, and as such require more sophisticated viewers. Over time, this created the kneejerk association that long takes are somehow smarter than shorter ones (an idea that lives on in the attacks on Michael Bay)."

    I don't think long takes are superior but imo Bay cuts so fast its hard to follow the action.

  • jack | June 30, 2014 6:22 PM

    It's not Bay's editing necessarily, it's his constant focus on cramming as much visual cotton candy into every sequence of shots as possible, and the coherence of the narrative and geography of the scene often suffer as a result. This has always been an issue for Bay, but it becomes magnified in the Transformers films. I'm not sure how those films are storyboarded, but it often feels as though ILM delivers a sequence, Bay cuts it up to change the pace and punctuate his narrative logic, and then he has them add any number of special inserts after the fact. The result is that the scene feels choppy but really it's just packed to the gills with sensory overload and nonsense.

  • A D Jameson | June 28, 2014 2:50 AM

    I'm curious about Bay. I've been looking at Transformers: Dark of the Moon, wondering what precisely causes that effect you're describing (where it's difficult to follow the action). I agree with you that the overall effect is disorienting, but I'm not entirely sure it's due to the rapid cutting. Because the cutting in Scott Pilgrim, to name one example, is much faster than in Bay, and yet it's not hard to follow the action there. So something other than rapid cutting itself must be causing the disorientation. This is precisely why I thing it's necessary to study the mise-en-scène in concert with montage.

  • Ali | June 25, 2014 9:54 AMReply

    Sounds like nobody really knows what it means, and judging on this I don't see why they should really care either. If indeed it does mean nothing more than 'shot' then it's entirely superfluous and using the phrase is nothing more than a pretentious affectation.

  • A D Jameson | June 28, 2014 2:56 AM

    I confess I can't see why the term is pretentious. It's 60+ years old, with a great deal of serious critical study behind it. Admitted, perhaps it isn't the best term; I acknowledge that in the above post. Despite that, however, I do think it's worth taking the time to figure out what the concept is trying to account for or to explain. And even if the term is eventually discarded, I'd argue that critics still need to perform the kind of analysis I've done of the snippet from Scott Pilgrim. Which is to say, critics need to be able to account for how all the various elements of filmmaking can add up to produce certain artistic effects. So even if mise-en-scène isn't the best term to describe the contributions that production design make to filmmaking, there still needs to be some term or concept or means accounting for that notion.

  • Ben.C | June 27, 2014 7:01 AM

    Mise En Scene encompasses everything that we see, it's VERY important. The problem is that it's a very old definition that was popularly discussed back when films began to be critically analysed, thus it has become a little forgotten and lost in translation. It involves the production design, the way something is shot, the distance the actor is from the camera and another actor, the colour (I could go on). I don't think it's something that is used and thought about enough today. Films are relying heavily on CGI nowadays and Big Stars, which is, on one hand, a good thing that is revolutionising filmmaking but also ruining the pure art of complex and visually interesting story telling.

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