Introduction to Film Analysis/mise-en-scene

Analyzing a film, it can be fun. It can also mean a lot of work. If we have the tools, however, it can go by a lot smoother. Any film worth watching is also worth analyzing. The filmmaker is going to try and use every trick in the book to influence the audience. If you want to make your own films or simply want to understand how filmmakers are influencing you, then analyzing can be useful.

The most important concept of film analysis, in my opinion, is mise-en-scene. With mise-en-scene, we not only are able to analyze scenes and full movies, but we are also able to make films and also get a firm grasp on film theory. It’s very important.

So what is mise-en-scene? It is essentially the study of each individual frame of a film. What makes up the shot? Everything from color values, actor positioning, camera angles, lighting, and props to dominant visual contrasts, film stocks, and how a frame is divided by what’s within it. It is generally considered to have fifteen different points which, when applied to a frame, will give you a grand perspective on the film. To find out more detailed descriptions of the fifteen points, simply google the following: “15 points of mise-en-scene.” It will go into far greater detail than I can here, and will give visual examples so you can follow along.

Now, film analysis differs from film theory slightly. Film theory is about certain aspects of film. I’ll give an example. The Auteur Theory. This is the theory that a film director is the author of a film and that all their films taken as a whole will have similarities. You need the background of the theory in order to apply it. However, you need the film analysis to discover the similarities between the films. The two, theory and analysis, are intertwined and are complimentary to each other.

I will be using both in upcoming posts as I delve into specific examples in film.


The Backbone of Any Artist

An artist, in any form, must have the backbone to continue their work no matter what. What, however, constitutes the “backbone of an artist?” It is my opinion that the backbone is twofold. The first element of the artist’s backbone must be the knowledge they have of the medium. It is very important to have knowledge of what you are doing. Yes, a lot of artists have a natural talent that they were born with, but even they have to learn elements of their craft. Whether it is color hues or good plot structure, we must have knowledge. Sometimes it is natural knowledge. Sometimes we just know how to do something. Other times we must study hard to learn this knowledge.

I will speak from a filmmaker’s point of view. One of the most important aspects any filmmaker can do is to study film theory. A lot of young filmmakers sometimes want to skip this step and go right into making their first film. This isn’t necessarily a bad move, but it isn’t the best one either. Once a person has a grasp on at least one film theory, and has studied at least one or two films, then he or she can begin to make films that will exceed whatever they would’ve made cold turkey. Once we see how others have done something we will then have the tools to make our own pieces. We also have the ability, and the knowledge, to make something even better. Film Theory is crucial.

Other art forms are the same way. Study what has come before and you will surely succeed going forward. The second aspect of the backbone of an artist is the drive to persist. An artist without the drive to persist is like a car without wheels. It will never go anywhere. Don’t get stuck in the mud. I have seen people with immense talent squander it. The problem is that they don’t have the drive to continue on with their talent. They don’t have a passion for it. It’s a shame when someone has talent but fails to use it. However, if you simply don’t want to do something, no matter how good you may be at it, you won’t do it or, at the very least, do a poor job. You can have all the theory and history packed into your brain, but without the drive and the passion to do the work, then nothing will become of it.

However, once you have these two elements you will be golden. As the writer of The Filmmaker’s Reel, I will strive to provide the first part of this backbone. In upcoming posts I will be diving into film theory and film analysis. Hopefully this can be a starting point for some beginner filmmakers out there. As for the second part, well, that is a natural drive that you must find yourself. Nobody can teach you to have a passion for something. It is a part of you.

It’s Not the Camera You Use…

            It’s not the camera you use, but it’s how you use it. A lot of beginner filmmakers get discouraged if they don’t have the most expensive, most technically complicated camera on the market. They think they need a bunch of expensive equipment if they want to make a great film. They think, “If I get this camera, my film will look amazing and therefore be amazing.” If only that were the case.

I’ve seen films made with top of the line equipment that came out horrible. Likewise, I’ve seen films made with bottom tier equipment that came out excellently. It really comes down to your vision and your ability to use the camera in creative and imaginative ways.

Yes, you do need equipment. This does mean you have to spend money, but getting a top of the line camera does not mean you’re going to make a top of the line film. A great, festival level film can be made on a mid-priced DSLR camera. With the right lighting and the right camera movement, you can make anything down to an HD Mini DV camcorder look great. I will say, however, an HD camera is probably necessary. However, this doesn’t mean you need to shell out thousands of dollars on one. I bought a camera this past spring that only cost $200 and filmed HD1080 and had an option to film in 24p. No one thought I used a cheaper camera on the film I made with it, but I did. I had access to more expensive cameras, but the camera I ended up using had its benefits. The main benefit was that it could film one long continuous take until the SD card filled up. This was important because my film was composed of all long takes.

It wasn’t the camera, however, that made the film. It was how I used it. Even a low end camera can churn out great results if you use a dolly or a slider, or even a tripod. When you’re starting out and don’t have a massive budget, don’t hesitate to get a cheap HD camera. If you have the skill, it’s going to look great. Just watch out for lighting and camera movement, and of course audio. Having a Director of Photography is really helpful in these situations. If not, however, you can definitely do it yourself. Believe in your vision and make your film!


Believe in Your Project, No Matter What

I mentioned several articles ago about how all my projects before college fell through. It got me thinking yet again! Why did they fall through? I know one reason was definitely because the people who would be working on the projects did not have a passion for films or for filmmaking. None of them. However, I think there is another reason I never got those projects off the ground, I was never enthusiastic enough. (Although, the final project I tried to do in high school, I may have been over-enthusiastic, it may have driven them away!)

You must believe in your project. Even if you have reservations about it. You also have to find that middle ground. Don’t be over-enthusiastic either. The trick is to make everyone else working on the project just as enthusiastic as you. Make them believers in your vision. If you go into it just doing the bare minimum, as far as getting them to believe in your project, why would they want to work on it? If the creator doesn’t seem to think too highly of his or her own work, why should they?

Get them pumped up! Make them want to commit to the production schedule. Make them want to come to set each day to make your vision a reality. If they believe in a project just as much as you, they are sure to give the best performance they possibly can. This goes for actors and crew members alike. When you believe in something you want to make it work, therefore you give it your all. Have you ever tried doing something you didn’t want to do or something you didn’t see the point in doing? It can be hell.

Talk with them. Create a good communication with them and you will find it does wonders to the ease of production. I learned this the hard way by having early projects fall through. I didn’t have that communication. I developed that later on when I started making short films in college. I started to get more serious about my work and I had to show others I was serious. I had to convey what I was thinking. I could not just assume they’d know what I was thinking, or how I felt. I also had to make it fun. Filmmaking does not have to be this rigid, cold experience. Have fun with it. There will be stressful days, and there will be scenes that need that seriousness on set. You’ll know when you can let loose on set and when you can’t, but through it all make sure to keep the communication open with those who are helping you out.

The Power of Music in Film

There are a lot of films that don’t use music. Those films look towards the sounds in the film itself to convey the emotions they desire. An example I can think of is 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon”. That film has no music except for the opening title sequence. That film is still considered one of the best ever made.

However, with such exceptions put aside, we have to look at how much of an impact music has on a film. If used correctly, it can elevate a scene beyond the ordinary. There is a simple experiment to prove how important music is for cinema. Film a man walking down the street with no expression upon his face. Now duplicate it so you have two copies of it. On one copy, add a really sad sounding piece of music. Think Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. On the second copy, add a really bombastic, heroic theme. Think Orff’s “O Fortuna”. Notice the difference.

The visual has not changed, but the soundtrack has. On the first copy, it looks like something horrible has happened to the character. Perhaps someone has died, or maybe he is going to die. It creates a sad atmosphere that we project onto the image we see. On the second copy, we now have this atmosphere like something epic is going to happen. Maybe this man just did something incredible, or maybe he is walking towards a fight he will partake in. Either way, the music makes us project this type of emotion onto the screen. The visual is the same, but the emotions are different.

A director can play around with this as well. Using certain types of music will help get your message across even better. Why do you think horror films use creepy, slightly off music in certain scenes? To get you scared. Imagine the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” without the iconic string music. It completely changes how the scene plays out. Sure, it may still be unsettling to watch, but it definitely wouldn’t have the same impact as does with the music. Another thing you can do is to fool around with the music choice. Take Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” for instance. In the infamous home invasion sequence, the attacker is singing the song “Singing in the Rain”. A very happy song which counters the brutal visual we are watching. It makes the scene that much more twisted. Many films do this kind of thing. They have a brutal, violent, or disturbing scene play out with happy music over it. It confuses the audience and will be sure to make them even more uncomfortable. You love the music, but you hate what you’re seeing. It can have an incredible effect.

As I said, of course, there are exceptions. “All Quiet on the Western Front” from 1930, a Best Picture Winner, has no music in it. Instead, it relies on the horrors and sounds of World War One to elevate the various scenes impact. I think such a strategy can work, but I also think it is rarer that it does. Sometimes I watch a film with no music and think how much better it could’ve been with music. Never underestimate the power of music when making a film. Next time you watch a film, pay attention to the use of music. You may be surprised at what you find. Even better, watch a really scary film on mute. Then you’ll see how much music, (and audio in general), can make or break a film.