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 mainly related to mise-en-scène collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2, which is the term used to describe everything ‘put into the scene’. You can think of this as being everything in front of the camera. The elements normally included under the umbrella of mise-en-scène include:

  1. The actors and their performance. This includes what the actors look like, what they are doing/saying, how they are doing/saying it and their facial expressions, body language and gestures.
  2. Costumes, make-up and hairstyles.
  3. Props.
  4. Blocking. In theater, blocking refers to how the actors and arranged on the stage (and when and how they move and how they interact with the props and set). In movies, there is one additional feature that is included: where the camera is positioned.
  5. The film set, indoor location or outdoor location. For indoor scenes, mise-en-scène would include the décor, furniture, interior design and whatever can be seen through the windows. For outdoor scenes, mise-en-scène would include things like buildings, scenery, trees, roads, cars and signs.
  6. Lighting. This would include natural lighting, artificial lighting and shadows.
  7. Space. This includes depth of space, which refers to how close the elements—e.g., people, props, décor—are to another and to the camera, and it also includes things like density. Density refers to the number of people and objects competing for attention in the shot.
  8. Composition. This is similar to the concept of composition in photography and painting. It basically involves how everything is arranged in the frame.
  9. Special effects that involve some in-camera work. For example, when shooting a scene of people in a car while street scenes are projected behind the people, that projection would fall under mise-en-scène.

In this video, I focus on décor, lighting and props, costumes, body language (e.g., posture, gestures and facial expressions), blocking and composition.

I also look at how these elements are framed in terms of shot angle and shot distance, which fall under the category of cinematography (filmanalysis.yale.edu/cinematography).

Elements that make up cinematography include:

  1. Shot angle (e.g., eye-level shot, high angle shot, low angle shot, overhead shot, Dutch angle shot, etc.), type of shot (e.g., POV shot, over the shoulder shot) and shot distance (e.g., long shot, medium, shot, close-up, etc). Shot angle, type of shot and shot distance are closely related to the ideas of blocking, space and composition that are mentioned under mise-en-scène. For more information refer to: www.studiobinder.com/blog/ultimate-guide-to-camera-shots/.
  2. Camera movement (e.g., tilt, pan, zoom, track, steadicam, etc.).
  3. Depth of field. If you have a very shallow depth of field (using a large aperture), the thing you are focusing on will be clear, but everything in front of it or behind it will look blurry.
  4. Focus. If you are using a shallow depth of field, what are you focusing on? Will you gradually change focus while filming—using a technique known as rack focus—so that you end up focusing on different things in the same shot?
  5. Lenses and related settings. For example, using a zoom lens will make objects appear even closer together than they really are.
  6. Aspect ratio. This is the ratio of width to height of the frame.
  7. Exposure and ISO settings.
  8. Color balance settings.
  9. Format settings (for digital formats) or film stock* (for film cameras). Different kinds of film stock will create different effects. For example, Technicolor films had a particularly vibrant look. In the digital era, however, this kind of effect is often done in post-production processes such as color grading.

*Film stock: Many people include film stock under mise-en-scène. However, I prefer to put it under cinematography. This is because mise-en-scène typically describes everything put in front of the camera, while cinematography refers to choices involving the camera itself.

In reality, there is quite a lot of overlap between mise-en-scène and cinematography. For example, if a director wants an actor to slowly emerge from the shadows the set designer, costume designer, lighting director and cinematographer would have to work together to get the right look.

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 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 and 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 and 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 the shot of Brad.

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. Personally, I think that in some of the shots, this is done too obviously, but that helps when it comes to learning about cinematography.

The only problems 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) and there are sex scenes.

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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