Film Scene Analysis: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène in American Beauty

The aim of this video is to demonstrate how cinematic techniques are used to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.

It uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty (American Beauty IMDb Page) —the two office scenes featuring Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Brad (Barry Del Sherman). I’ve kept the video short and simple, so it should be suitable for anyone interested in learning about movie making.

The cinematic techniques discussed in the video are related to mise-en-scène collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2, which is the term used to describe everything ‘put into the scene’. In this video, I focus on décor, lighting and props, costumes, body language (e.g., posture, gestures and facial expressions) and composition. I also look at how these elements are framed in terms of camera height, camera angle and camera distance, all of which fall under the category of cinematography (classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/cinematography.htm).

1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Lester)

1st Meeting: Lester
1st Meeting: Lester

The scene appears early on the movie. At the beginning of American Beauty, the protagonist, Lester Burnham is disillusioned with his life. At home he and his materialistic, ambitious wife can barely stand each other, and his sullen teenage daughter cannot stand either of them. At work, he is going nowhere, trapped in a thankless and meaningless job writing for a media magazine.

In this scene, Lester is having his performance reviewed by Brad, his company’s recently hired efficiency expert. Brad tells him that his work is not up to standard and that if he wants to keep his job, he will have to start performing. What’s interesting in this scene is how differently the two men are presented visually.

Let’s look at Lester first. As this is a wide shot, Lester occupies a small portion of the frame, which makes him look rather small. This shot is also a high angle shot, which makes him look even smaller. He is in the middle of a mostly empty room, totally exposed. His body language—slouched in his chair, legs spread—gives off an aura of weakness and resignation, and his facial expression shows his exasperation and frustration. He can’t even keep his tie straight. He looks powerless and vulnerable.

This shot is a like a point-of-view shot, as if we are looking at Lester from Brad’s position. However, the downward angle is exaggerated. Rather than looking at Lester strictly from Brad’s physical point of view, we seem to be looking at him from Brad’s mental and emotional point of view. We are looking at a small and unimportant man.

In terms of décor and lighting. the room itself is ugly, utilitarian, dimly lit, poorly decorated and is horribly dull and grey. Behind Lester, there is just a dying plant stuck in a corner and a painting that is too small for the wall. The décor reveals what kind of organization Lester works for—one that sucks the life and light out of its employees.

In terms of composition, the framing of the shot is ugly as well. Lester is positioned in the center-bottom of the frame, which is a strange place to put the main subject. There is far too much headroom above him, his feet seem to be cut off, a ceiling light juts down into the top of the frame. It’s an ugly shot in a dark, ugly room; it serves as a visual manifestation of Lester’s discontent and unease.

1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Brad)

The following image shows how Brad is presented in the same scene.

1st Meeting: Brad
1st Meeting: Brad

Here the shot is a mid-shot, and Brad occupies a large portion of the frame. The low angle mid shot emphasizes his power, especially when juxtaposed with the high angle wide shot of Lester that we just looked at. When Brad stands up, the low angle shot is further emphasized.

Visually, Brad is presented as being dominant. His posture his straight, he is younger, he is dressed more fashionably and his facial expressions reveal smugness and contempt.

Behind him, the vertical Venetian blinds create a visual pattern that brings to mind the bars of a jail cell or cage. To Lester, his job is like a prison.

Note the furniture and props positioned around Brad: his desk, his brightly shining nameplate, the gold pens, the paper holder, the portrait behind him, the Venetian blinds. Almost everything is straight edges, angles and points. Everything is hard and sharp. You can think of this scene as a battle: Brad is protected by his desk and is surrounded by his sharp edged weapons; Lester has…a dying plant. There will only be one winner in this battle.

In terms of lighting, the room is brighter where Brad is. Brad’s career at this moment in time is certainly outshining Lester’s.

In short, the visual elements in this scene work together to emphasize Brad’s dominance over Lester, the soul-destroying nature of Lester’ workplace and Lester’s sense of hopelessness and disappointment.

Beware of Oversimplification

Before moving on to discussing the next scene, I would like to clarify one point. The use of a single film technique in isolation doesn’t carry a specific meaning. A good example would be the low angle shot of Brad. A low angle shot does not necessarily imply power; it could also be used to establish a point of view (e.g., from the point of view of a character lying down and looking up at someone or from the point of view of a shorter person or creature), to create a comical, grotesque and/or ironic effect or to exaggerate a physical action such as jumping or hurdling.

In the scene from American Beauty, the low angle shot works TOGETHER with a variety of different elements to create the effect of dominance:

  • The plot (Brad is threatening Lester’s career)
  • The acting (Brad and Lester’s body language, their words their intonation)
  • The elements of mise-en-scène mentioned above (lighting, decor, props, wardrobe)
  • The contrasting shots of Lester (high angle wide shots, dim lighting, ugly decor, etc.) that precede and follow it

If you are analyzing cinematic techniques, it is important to consider them in context.

2nd Scene: Lester Quits

Mid-way through the film, the two men meet again. By this point in the movie. Lester has decided he needs to make a change. In this scene, Lester is quitting his dead-end job AND blackmailing the company into paying him off. Emotionally, he is in a very different place.

When the camera is looking over Lester’s shoulders at Brad, Lester‘s head dominates the screen.

2nd Meeting (Lester Quits): Brad
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits): Brad

When we go to the reverse angle shot looking over Brad’s shoulder, Brad’s head is out-of-focus and slightly off-screen.

2nd Meeting  (Lester Quits)
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits)

Lester dominates the screen in both shots. Brad is no longer so important, no longer so powerful. And all those sharp edges, the pointy gold pens, the massive nameplate—those have become small, unnoticeable, unremarkable pieces of stationery.

Lester’s posture is now relaxed and confident. He is in control.

The room is brighter. Lester is no longer trapped in gloomy darkness.

The shots are now more aesthetically pleasing in terms of composition and framing. For example, the shots of Lester are composed so as to follow the rule of thirds. This more attractive (and more conventional) composition reflects Lester’s newly found feelings of being at ease.

Everything has changed. The whole look is different.

Conclusion

In a commentary by the director Sam Mendes and the cinematographer Conrad Hall, the two men discuss how they tried to show Lester’s emotional growth by making him look bigger on screen as the film progresses. And we can see that growth clearly in the two examples. In the first scene, the cinematic techniques that were discussed reveal the power differential between Brad and Lester and show Lester’s disappointment, frustration and vulnerability. In the second scene, they show how Lester has become emotionally stronger and more hopeful.

In this video, I have only touched on a few cinematic elements related to mise-en-scène and cinematography and have not touched upon things like dialogue, editing, sound or music. I have also left out things like blocking , cameras level, depth of field, film stock, keying (e.g., high key versus low key lighting) aspect ratio, tonality, camera movement (e.g., zoom, pan. tilt, tracking shots, etc), shot duration and editing.

There is a lot more to discuss when interpreting a scene , but hopefully this video can give you an idea how different visual elements can work together to help tell a story.

Why American Beauty?

I chose to use American Beauty, because the director (Sam Mendes) and cinematographer (Conrad Hall), who both won Academy Awards for their work on this movie, did an amazing job visually presenting the story and its themes. You can see that each shot has been set up, framed and shot to bring out a plot and/or thematic element. The only problem with using this film as a teaching aid is that many of the scenes contain swearing or coarse language (which is why I didn’t show the entire meetings in this film analysis video)

Related Videos

This is the second video in my film analysis series. You can view the first one here:

Fight Scene Cinematography in Hero and The Bourne Identity.

This features an analysis of the different ways filmmakers strive to capture a sense of realism in action sequences.


~by longzijun

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Loss of Innocence in All About Lily Chou-Chou

Movie: All about Lily Chou-chou (Riri Shushu no subete)
Director: Shunji Iwai

lily-chou-chou-2

With its shaky hand-held cinematography, chrnologically disjointed plot and nihilistic portrayal of youth, the Japanese movie All about Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. Usually I prefer movies that are more linear, less experimental; however, the imagery and themes in the movie resonated with me long after I watched it. Read More »

Fight Scene Editing and Cinematography: The Bourne Identity and Hero

 

Let’s looks at the cinematography and editing of two very different style of movie fight scenes. The first clip is from Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (featuring Matt Damon). The second clip is from Zhang Yimou’s Hero (the sword vs spear fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen). We won’t be looking at the differences in fighting style; instead we will be concentrating solely on camera techniques (especially the kinds of shots used) and editing (in these two excerpts, only cuts are used, so the focus here will be on the rhythm of editing and not on types of edits).

In this clip from the Bourne Identity, the rapid-fire editing of hand-held close-up shots creates a frantic, chaotic and exciting feel–almost as if you are one of the combatants taking part in the fight. This feeling is reinforced through the occasional use of shots in which the fighters are out of focus and through POV shots like this one. Here you are, with Jason Bourne trying to stomp on your head. In the Bourne Identity clip, everything is moving fast and you are not always clear what is going on.

The clip from Hero, in contrast, features far fewer edits, longer shots and a much greater use of the wide shot, in which you can see the entire body of each actor.The use of long and wide shots makes it easy to appreciate the martial arts skills of the actors. Even though there is some wire work in this scene, it is clear that the actors, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, are highly skilled. The camera work is this scene is generally very smooth and makes use of stationary shots without any camera movement and other shots that feature pans, tilts, zooms and tracking shots, quite often in combination.

If you are wondering about the use of black and white in the Hero clip, these scenes represent the fight as it takes place inside the swordsman’s mind as he envisions will happen in the coming battle.

You may also notice that, except for a few frames, Jet Li is always on the right and Donnie Yen, wielding a spear, is always on the left. Even when their weapons are shown in close up, the sword is coming from the right and the spear from the left. This regular positioning of the actors, combined with a more extensive use of longer and wider shots, helps to make it very clear who is doing what to whom at any given time.

One thing the two excerpts have in common is that they both have a similar rhythm to the editing. While the editing rhythm in Hero is much slower, both films take brief breaks in the action. In the Bourne Identity, this is done with the use of slightly longer shots during short breaks in action, while in Hero this is done with the use of a series of still close ups as the characters prepare for the next move.

To sum up, the camera work and editing in the Bourne identity creates a sense of realism–as if you are right there with the characters, whereas the cinematography and editing in Hero, as with many Chinese martial arts movies, is better at revealing the real skills and techniques of the actors and in allowing viewers to clearly see and understand what is happening.

Both films are striving for a sense of realism but are focusing on entirely different aspects–the Bourne Identity on the real feeling of being in a fight and Hero on the real abilities and skills of the actors.

Background

This is a video I put together to show how film techniques can be used in different ways and for different purposes for a similar kind of scene—in this case, a fight scene.

 

Statistics

These figures refer to the two 60-second excerpts shown in the video.

Shots and Camera Movement The Bourne Identity Hero
Total number of shots (60 sec.) 63 23
Longest shot 3.6 sec 8.2
Shortest shot 0.4 sec 0.8 sec.
Average length of shot 1.0 sec. 2.6 sec.
No. of wide shots (whole body onscreen) 2 7
No. of mid shots (most of the body onscreen) 14.5 5
No.of close ups (incl. medium
and extreme close ups)
46.5 11
Type of camera movement All shots hand-held
and all moving
Combination of stationary shots
and pans, tilts, dolly shots and
zooms (with some very noticeable
oblique angle shots)
No. of obvious POV (Point of View shots 4 None

 

Related Videos

This is the first video in my film analysis series. You can view the second one here:

Film Scene Analysis: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène in American Beauty

This features an analysis of the how filmmakers use cinematic techniques to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.
 


~by longzijun

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