Mise-en-scene is everything that’s in a shot at a given time. For example, in The Lion King, when Simba returns to Pride Rock to confront Scar, the once fertile terrain is grey and ugly. All the beauty is gone. This famine symbolizes the land under Scar’s rule. Had the mise-en-scene not been so ugly, nor had we had a wide shot, we would have no visual indication of the effect Scar has had on the land.
If everything had been as green as it was at the beginning of The Lion King, when Mufasa still ruled, then nothing would feel different.
Say the land was ruined, but we only followed Simba in medium shots and close-ups. That would me we lack the necessary scope to understand just how bad Scar’s rule had been. That’s why it was important we have a wide-shot of a ruined landscape. It makes clear how dire the situation is.
Mise-en-scene is important, because we derive meaning from what’s there or not there. But how filmmakers use mise-en-scene varies.
For some, it’s practical.
Like, “This character is careless. So we’ll show they have a messy bedroom. That will convey how careless they are.”
Or, “This character is sad. So we’ll show a close up of them frowning and tears in their eyes.”
Most Hollywood genre films (romantic comedies, action movies, thrillers, horror films) are very practical in their mise-en-scene. For example, there’s nothing really poetic or symbolic about the shots in Hitch. All that mise-en-scene wants to accomplish is making sure we can see the information necessary for the plot and to understand how the characters feel. Everything else that’s in the shot is practical, not meaningful. The mise-en-scene of Die Hard doesn’t have the same aims as the mis-en-scene of Fight Club.
Fight Club juxtaposes the modern and trendy state of Edward Norton’s apartment versus the degradation and decay of the Paper Street house he eventually lives in with Brad Pitt. There’s not the same kind of symbolic contrast at play when Bruce Willis goes from the interior of the Nakatomi building to the rooftop.
“Best picture” movies, “festival” movies, independent films, and movies by “auteurs” like Kubrick or Coppola, tend to do more with their mise-en-scene.
One famous story about The Godfather is that Coppola started using oranges to foreshadow violence and death.
Or look at this shot from There Will Be Blood.
We have a close up of Daniel Plainview covered in oil and lit by fire. There’s symbolic meaning to that moment that goes beyond plot. Most of the movie Daniel is dressed well and talking with a dramatic voice, appearing as a respectable, knowledgeable, and well-intentioned businessman. We’ve seen moments where that act has cracked, where he’s actually calculating, intimidating, and cruel. But this shot is the first time that inner greed and selfishness has a physical form.
There are movies that are 100% practical in their mise-en-scene and that’s okay because the narrative is so great. Likewise, there are movies like Tree of Life that move people to tears for reasons they don’t understand. Mise-en-scene doesn’t make a movie good or bad. But it can certainly elevate a movie, making what was a just a good story into a work of visual and narrative art. Gareth Edwards brought this kind of art to the mise-en-scene of Rogue One and it’s something I don’t think a Star Wars film had ever had before.
Let’s look at one of the major examples of this.
Remember this scene?
The Death Star settles over Jedha and fires for the first time. The resulting explosion is catastrophic. It’s the only time Jyn, or anyone for that matter, has witnessed what the Death Star was capable of. Jyn, Cassian, and the rest of the rebels have to flee from Saw Gerrera’s hideout before the earthen tidal wave kills everyone. Notice in the above image how the Death Star actually blocks out the sun.
The above GIF is a very brief look at what Jyn and Cassian must fly through. When they begin their escape, they have mostly light around them. But the speed of the destruction is immense, to the point where you can see how close they are to being engulfed. All around them, darkness grows and becomes more and more dense. On the brink of being swallowed completely, they’re able to warp away.
Compare that to the one other time the Death Star fires, at the end of Rogue One.
Jyn, Cassian, and the Rebels have attacked the Imperial base at Scarif. Their goal is to steal the Death Star schematics and forward them on to the Rebellion so the Rebels can expose the Death Star’s fatal flaw and destroy an otherwise unassailable force. Understanding how important it is for the Rebels to fail, Grand Moff Tarkin fires the Death Star in order to destroy Scarif. All the soldiers, the entire base—it’s all a justifiable expense in the case of protecting the Death Star.
Fortunately, the Rebels succeed. Jyn, with an assist from Cassian, transmits the plans to a Rebel ship, and they pass the info on to Leia. Yay!
Unfortunately, Scarif is about to explode and Jyn and Cassian have no way off. That means we see, once again from the ground level, what the death of a planet looks like. This time, there’s no escape.
Do you notice a difference between the scene on Jedha and the scene on Scarif?
Jedha was all oncoming darkness, a kind of crushing. While Scarif is brightness and light. In the simplest of terms, this is basic contrast. One is dark, the other is light. And that makes sense, as the earlier explosion was a win for the evil Empire, but this time the Rebels have won. So the connotations of dark with loss and light with victory are in place.
But this is Star Wars. The entire lore of the universe is based around the idea of The Force and the dark side of the force and the light side of the force. We have the Sith as purveyors of the dark, we have the Jedi as knights of the light. Every Star Wars movie except for Rogue One has featured a Jedi as a hero and a Sith as the villain. What’s cool to me is that even though Rogue One downplayed the whole Jedi/Sith, Light/Dark thing, Gareth Edwards made sure the mise-en-scene still symbolized that conflict. This means that the battle between those two sides of the Force doesn’t just play out on the human scale, but manifests in the elemental. As far as I’m aware, George Lucas never did this. He used mise-en-scene in only practical ways.
From this perspective, it isn’t just pretty for Jyn and Cassian to vanish in the light. The light is symbolic of the Force, and thus implies the two of them have accomplished something transcendent.
You could read this as the two have them have gone to Force heaven, or become part of the Living Force, or the Cosmic Force.
We could also read this as a changing of the tide. When the Death Star destroyed Jedha, the Rebels lost hope. The Empire seemed invincible. And that vibe of lost hope is present in the wave of darkness we see in the death of Jedha. Remember, when the Death Star fired on Jedha, it created a solar eclipse, a literal denial of light.
But what Jyn accomplished on Scarif changed the course of history. We know that her actions result in bringing Luke Skywalker into the fray and that Luke eventually defeats the Emperor and restores the Jedi order. That means that Scarif was the moment in history where the light side of the force gained the momentum necessary to defeat the dark.
These are two scenes that could have been nothing more than meaningless-yet-impressive moments in grandiose special effects. Yet Gareth Edwards and his team made decisions in which the mise-en-scene tied into the larger themes and narrative of the Star Wars universe. This kind of poetry-of-film was not part of the original trilogy or the prequels. And it’s one of the reasons I not only enjoyed but respected Rogue One so much. It seems like a simple thing, but it makes a massive difference in the depth a movie has and the impact it makes.