Film modifies space and time to tell a story. We switch from one location to other, and move along different time frames. Even within one scene, the camera keeps modifying our perception of space – from close to wide to reverse and so on, unlike theatre. And the edit pattern ‘cuts’ time, affecting our perception of it. There are various aspects of filmmaking that ensure this.
MISE EN SCENE: Literally, it means ‘putting in the scene’. You will find, in various French films, the director’s credit uses this term – ‘Mise en scene: Francois Truffaut’, instead of ‘Un film de Francois Truffaut’. Many critics use this term when they discuss cinema. In short, it just involves the decision of ‘how to shoot’. Well, ‘just’ is an understatement. ‘How to shoot’ is the difference between a great and an ordinary filmmaker. It involves, basically the following:
a. The Framed Image: How to use the scope and the limitations of the frame? How to compose it: the position, proximity and proportion of the subject? How to use light and shadow? Colour and Texture?
b. The Diachronic Shot: A shot that changes in its state across time. How to use the focus? The movement of the camera, and/or the movement of the subject during the shot? Change in the angle of the camera: panning, tilting or rolling? Zooming in or out?
Conveying what you want through mise en scene is always a greater achievement than doing the same through editing. I will give you an example. In Omkara (2006), there is this scene early into the film when Dolly acknowledges her love for Omkara before her father. A shot shows the dejected dad going away from her, as she stands close to the camera, with her back towards us. Here, we expect a cut to a reverse close shot of Dolly’s face – her reaction. But instead of that, the director makes her turn to her side, and we get the desired reaction in the same shot (by choreographing the movement of the actor) without resorting to a mechanical ‘cut’.
MONTAGE: Literally, it means ‘putting together’. It involves the question of ‘how to present’ what has been shot. Montage and Editing mean the same, except the latter apparently means ‘cutting out’ rather than ‘putting together’. American cinema uses the word ‘editing’ – traditionally being an organized industry that relies on set-patterns of ‘cutting’ to tell a story. European cinema uses ‘montage’ – essentially ‘putting together’ to create something from the raw footage. This is a philosophical distinction. As far as the craft is concerned, montage or editing do the same – modify time for presenting the story.
PUNCTUATION OF CINEMA: You must have noticed the fade outs or black screens that separate one scene from the other. Dissolve is used to imply time lapse. Tarantino uses intertitles: text on the screen, between distinct segments of the film. Freezing a frame is another celebrated punctuation.
SOUND: The omnipresence of sound in cinema is a distinct advantage. It is so pervasive that we tend to discount it and the intricacies of sound manipulation, or design, are tend to be ignored. But this pervasiveness of sound is what helps in realizing space and time.
Noted film semiologist Christian Metz says: “A film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand.” Going into the details of the syntax of film hardly seems fruitful. But it is in these painstaking details that lies the magic of the illusion called cinema.
(The post is a part of my notes from James Monaco’s brilliant book 'How to Read a Film'.)