mise en scene and cinematography
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This writing assignment focuses on two key aspects of film examined in the first half of the course: mise en scene and cinematography. It is comprised of two parts:
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- Shot worksheet that breaks down one specific scene; and
- Scene analysis essay based on its shot-by-shot breakdown.
The ASSIGNMENT PROMPT (Links to an external site.) and the SHOT WORKSHEET (Links to an external site.) are linked here. The Prompt text is the same as the text below. For the assignments, please choose one of the two clips below:
Zhora’s chase scene from (Links to an external site.)Blade Runner (Links to an external site.) (Ridley Scott, 1982): 64 shots, 2:50 length LINKED
Brief description of the shot: Here you should briefly describe the action taking place. It should not be highly detailed, but instead sufficient to identify the shot, for example, “Gangster and girlfriend enter the theater”; “Rachel looks L [left] at Noah”; “Johnny peers down into miniature maze,” etc.
Most significant aspect of its mise en scene: This category is not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, you should note only the most significant aspects of MES. These could refer to setting/locale; lighting of characters and/or setting (including color, harsh or soft, highlighting or shadowing); props, costumes, makeup; placement and movement of figures; acting performance (including facial expressions and manners of speech); foregrounding and backgrounding through elements within the frame.
Type of shot: Principally for noting features of cinematography, you should note if it is a close-up (CU), medium shot (MS), or long shot (LS). These could be further specified as needed, for example, medium close-up (MCU) or medium long shot (MLS). Additional useful details could include ‘frontal,’ ‘side,’ ‘top,’ ‘rear,’ or ‘from above/below,’ referring to the camera’s position in relation to the shot’s principal subject(s); ‘tracking L’ [left], ‘panning R’ [right], ‘craning down’; ‘Deckard’s POV’ [point of view] or ‘ground-level’ or ‘bird’s eye POV’; ‘LS zooming in to MCU’ or ‘CU zooming out to MS’; slow-motion (‘slo-mo’) or sped-up as distinct from real time.
It is easy to get caught up in listing every feature of mise en scene (MES), or in providing an overly detailed scene description or notations for type of shot. Keep in mind that many MES elements may remain constant over several shots, and that the most significant detail therefore might be revealed in subtle or abrupt changes, and/or changes in the manner in which it is shot. Contrasts may be notable: why are different characters shot, lit, and/or staged differently within the same scene? Also, shot durations in comparison could be very telling––a quick split-second shot obviously only allows attention to a prominent detail or details, while a shot stretched out over several seconds allows the viewer the opportunity to take in more details and/or movements and interactions.
Rather than measure each shot in isolation, it may be more productive and efficient to note the time stamp for each shot––for example, 0:00, 0:05, 0:12, 0:15, etc.––and then indicate their relative lengths later––5 sec. (shot #1), 7 sec., 3 sec., etc.
Don’t worry about filling in details for every box before proceeding to the next shot. It will be more efficient to fill in those details that stand out to you most over several shots, and return later to address empty boxes and gaps. It may turn out that a key element or feature is repeated over several scenes; hence you could cut-and-paste or refer to it in abbreviated fashion over several shots. If the greenish-tint lighting in The Matrix stands out over several shots, or is significantly repeated or amplified later, it could be spelled out for an early shot, then referred to later as ‘grn-tint lt,’ or something to that effect. You might also ‘pile in’ several details into your narrative description initially, then later relocate those elements that belong more properly in other categories, as a means for addressing unfilled boxes.
The scene analysis is a short paper, 800–1,200 words long, double spaced. It develops an interpretation supported by an examination of the scene’s use of its formal elements, and assesses the scene’s significance in relation to the film overall. As you compose your worksheet, you should start to see larger patterns and/or stylistic features emerging. You might realize, for example, that a character’s personality, emotional state, predicament, and/or worldview is shaped not only by his/her acting but also by the director’s subtle use of lighting, pattern of camera shots and angles. Likewise, the ‘world’ against which a character rebels, or in which love is possible, might be conveyed not only by the setting but equally by the use of space and perspective, artificial vs. natural lighting, or the duration of the shot or shots devoted to a key or emblematic feature of that world (which could be the working world in the frame or the everyday world beyond the frame, etc.).
The purpose of the scene analysis, then, is to grasp the purpose or ‘meaning’ of the scene as it is conveyed through the interrelation of its mise en scene and cinematography, and the function of the scene in relation to the film overall. Does the scene inaugurate or resolve a problem in the narrative? Does it set up or subvert an expectation, give us insight to a protagonist or villain, introduce or repeat a pattern, theme, or motif in the film?
Please allow yourself significant time to complete your worksheet well in advance of writing your scene analysis, and significant time to write the analysis itself. Expect to return to and revise your worksheet, as it would be best to fill it in over more than one viewing of the scene. You might also find it useful or necessary to revise the worksheet as you compose the scene analysis. DO NOT assume that either the worksheet or the analysis is simple and straightforward. The more careful and thoughtful you are in filling in your worksheet, the stronger and better your analysis will be.