Mise en scene refers to the arrangement of physical elements that appear before the camera. It is a French term simply meaning ‘putting into the scene’ and was originally applied to the direction of staged plays. This includes the setting, lighting, costumes, props, staging, actors and the atmosphere that are depicted in a scene which ultimately add to the depth and plausibility of the story line.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), an American drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont is an excellent example of a film which utilizes the attributes of mise en scene numerous times. The various elements of design allow Darabont to adequately express vision through generating a sense of time and space in the story, as well as shadowing emotion and suggesting his characters’ state of mind. The story follows Andy Dufresne, a banker who is convicted and sentenced to life at Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his claims of innocence. One example of the mise on scene in the film is when Andy plays opera music over the prison speakers for all the inmates to hear.
This powerful shot applies mise en scene to enable the audience to empathize with the prisoners at Shawshank Penitentiary. The shot is set in the prison courtyard with the camera placed directly behind the speaker system in an over-the-shoulder shot fashion. There are no signs of organic substances (only dirt), establishing an imperative dismal feel. The viewer’s line of sight is instantly directed at the speaker head, positioned slightly off center on the screen, which dominates the scene, and then to the many actors scattered around the courtyard that are facing it. The slight low angle shot further emphasizes the importance of the music being projected to the characters in the shot, unifying the films notions.
All of the inmates stand in comfortably slouched or natural positions, contrasting with the stiff, upright postures of the prison guards. This subtle performance by the actors expresses the conflicting emotions the guards and prisoners are feeling towards the music that is playing; the guards are confused and impassioned whilst the prisoners stand basking in the soothing sounds. This adds to the overall sense of confinement in the film. The actors are also scattered in a way that majority of the inmates are in the direct line the speaker is facing, furthermore exaggerating the importance of the music to the prisoners. There are no props used in this scene, heightening the prison atmosphere. As the music is playing, a sense of hope is ingrained for each of the inmates, as that is literally the only element the actors have to focus on in the whole courtyard. All of these elements together form the mise on scene for the shot, characterizing the space being filmed and visually complementing the story line.
Film Art: An Introduction, Chapter 4 by Bordwell and Thompson
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) written and directed by Frank Darabont
Mise en scene:
The Shawshank Redemption: