Mise en Scène and the Extra D

3D is fast becoming an expectation of how we want to consume media – a differentiator between old and new technologies and existing and emerging experience paradigms. The public is thoroughly embracing a shift towards media that offers a greater sense of immersion (and “realism,” ironically) and many industries are following suit. From Hollywood to video games to retail environments to Google Goggles, we are obsessed with this extra “D”.

Our 3D hunger is so pervasive it’s being echoed in inherently 2D mediums like photography and the web. Parallax is increasingly being employed to make 2D content more 3D-esque. An amazing documentary I saw last week uses parallax to give all of its archival photographs and documents a z-axis. And earlier this week, I visited Hollow and witnessed how parallax can be used to transform the browser into a 3D-feeling space.

Hollow is an interactive documentary that tells a multitude of stories about a small town in West Virginia. The intro is a chronological and multi-sensory montage that provides a sense of place and prepares you to meet the many characters living in this world. As you scroll through, visual elements enter and cross your field of view at varying speeds, creating a sense of fore-mid-and background depth. In addition, almost like tuning an old radio dial, you encounter contextual audio that comes in and out of focus (aural depth-of-field).

I enjoyed navigating Hollow, and I realized one reason for that was the sense of surprise and revelation its scrolling parallax engenders. Things enter and leave frame in a fluid choreography, making the website feel more dimensional and exploratory, even though it’s all still happening on a 2D screen.

Considering how parallax is being used to evolve our experience of the web, it’s exciting to reference how my favorite medium, cinema, has also attempted to reveal a z-axis while constrained to a measly two D’s.

In cinema, the choreographing of visual elements across a stage or field of view is known as mise en scène. This term can be used to refer to lots of things, but I’m using it to focus on the ways actors and other visual elements are arranged and move in space in relation to the film camera. Long before movies used special cameras and glasses to break the 3D barrier, the art of bringing multiple elements on and off screen proved incredibly successful in making two dimensional scenes deeply immersive and surprising.

The funeral scene in Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba (1964) contains some of the most amazing cinematography and mise en scène I’ve ever seen. Watch the way the camera traverses this scene, seeming to defy gravity at points, and how with each turn a new facet is revealed, all choreographed to make the entire scene flow effortlessly. Watch and then ask yourself the same question every filmmaker who has seen it asks: How the hell did they do that?!

Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses mise en scène in the opening title sequence to Delicatessen (1991) by having the camera float across and reveal a series of physical objects that act as totems for the various creative departments. Compared to the ubiquitous motion graphics title sequences we are becoming accustomed to, it’s beautiful to see something so dynamic being done practically.

Fellini was a master at moving both the elements in a scene and the camera itself, as seen in this dreamlike moment from 8 1/2 (1963) (jump to 3:24).

Martin Scorsese uses the steadicam to beautiful effect in this classic tracking shot from Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese puts us in the same emotional point of view as Karen, who is entering a new world of privilege and access. All one take, no cuts. The chaos, kinetic energy, and movement of the camera make this scene feel thrilling and organic – like it’s all chance – but it’s actually the result of an amazingly precise and masterful execution of mise en scène.

In the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola begins with a long shot of the jungle, smoke rising in the foreground and brief glimpses and sounds of helicopters appearing and disappearing. All at once, this seemingly static moment expands into an all-at-once collage that sets the film’s psychedelic tone in motion and visually invites us into the central character’s haunted psyche.

One of the most innovative and bold uses of mise en scène is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Hitchcock wanted to shoot the entire film in “real time” using long, unbroken takes (limited only by the fact that 35mm film cameras could only hold 10 minutes of negative per magazine). To achieve this, Hitchcock precisely choreographed the movement of the actors and camera to constantly be revealing new information, characters, and environmental details without using cuts. The walls of the set were built on rollers so they could be moved out of the way as the camera moved, then replaced when they came back into shot. You’ve got to watch the whole film to truly appreciate what an amazing accomplishment this is.

These are just a few examples that continue to inspire me; powerful moments of visual storytelling that feel thrilling, risky, elegant, and visceral. Yes, they exist in a 2D medium. But the experience I have watching them is anything but flat.

 — David Waingarten, Creative Director, Storytelling 


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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