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Literally, ‘mise-en-scene’ means “placing on stage.” But in film, mise-en-scene encompasses everything the camera is capturing. The artists and crafts-people who work in Production Design, Wardrobe, and Hair and Makeup are responsible for setting the stage of a film and making sure the characters fit on that stage. In this episode of Crash Course Film Production, Lily Gladstone talks us through the roles involved in designing the world of a film.


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  Intro (0:00

literally means "placing on stage." But in film, mise-en-sceène encompasses everything the camera is capturing. It's the set and how it's lit. It's how the subjects are framed. It's the actors and how they look and what they're wearing. It's the props they're holding and the set dressing they're moving through. 

Just as every line of dialogue and every shot should be helping to move the film forward, everything in frame should be helping to build the mise-en-scène. From the overall look and feel of the sets to the details in makeup on the actors' faces, everything in a film is designed and captured for a reason. 

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 Designing the Set (0:45)

Sometimes mise-en-scène is pretty obvious: think of the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or any film by Tim Burton or Wes Anderson. These films are clearly stylized - the audience can tell that the sets, costumes, and makeup were all created and crafted by somebody. 

But sometimes the mise-en-scène is more subtle, like in the realist film Winter's Bone or films by Lynne Ramsay or Kelly Reichardt. The world portrayed in realist films might make the audience wonder what a production designer even did to build the world, because the scenes look so much like the world we live in. 

But look carefully at the world of a realist film. Just as the cinematographer uses the language of the camera to help tell the story, the teams creating the mise-en-scène structure the set and the actors in specific ways to bring the director's vision to life. 

The production designed creates the physical world of the film. This person leads the art department, which builds and decorates the sets. Early in pre-production, the production designer is hired to work with the director to develop the look of the film. Depending on when and where the script is set, they'll probably have to research what to include and exclude when building their world. 

For example, I was in a film that took place in the 1970s, and there was a scene shot next to a building with corrugated metal siding. Because of his experience and research, the production designer knew that the shape of that metal corrugation wasn't developed until the 1980s. So to make the scene accurate to the time, he had the art department bring in old corrugated metal and hung it over the new metal.

This might seem silly. I mean who, besides the production designer, is going to know what year corrugated metal changed shape? But, even if we don't know the year, subconsciously we feel the differences. Imagine a scene in a classroom from your childhood. If you grew up in the 1990s and a film about your childhood years included students writing on chalk states or if you grew up in the 1960s and the film included a smart board, both of those things would feel wrong. 

So, as soon as the production designer gets the script, they begin researching the time period and the location where the story takes place, to get the feeling just right. It might even be a time period in the future or a make-believe place. But they still start with research. 

After that, the production designer prepares plans and drawings for the sets that need to be built. And they go on early location scouts with the director so they can begin planning how they'll use a location. Then they'll present the director with their ideas for designing the setting. Once they've agreed upon a plan with the director, the art department gets to work. 

They work with the set decorator, also called a scenic designer, to research and implement every detail they'll bring into the world of the film. While the production designer is creating the look of the film overall, the set decorator is choosing the details and designing the sets. The production designer also works with the art director to budget and organize the department. They hire buyers who buy or rent set dressing and props. Once the set is designed, the art department builds anything that doesn't already exist for the set itself, as well as any special props that are needed.

 Designing the Wardrobe (3:21)

The art department masterminds what the physical world of the story looks like, but if the characters don't look and feel like they belong in that world, then it's all for nothing. The costume designer and the wardrobe department, along with the hair and makeup departments, also play pivotal roles in creating the mise-en-scène

And the work of any designer starts, again, with research. The costume designer uses pre-production to study the setting and the time period, including the season when the film takes place. The costume designer's most important job, though, is to understand the characters and how they grow throughout the film. By developing a signature look for a character, the designer can help convey the stories, plots, and themes.

Maggie Smith plays both Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series and Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van - two very different characters with very different backstories and goals. The wardrobe of the character can convey more about them than their opening lines. 

And as characters change over the course of the story, that change is often shown outwardly - and not just in makeover montages. In Jurassic World, for example, Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire starts out in nearly all white clothes, implying that she's never outside with the dinosaurs and is disconnected from the reality of the park she works in. 

But the costume designer played with what the audience already knew of the original Jurassic Park, and mapped out Claire's wardrobe changes to quote those of Laura Dern's character from the 1993 film. That way, she becomes more connected with the story and thus more capable in our minds. 

Design decisions like this help the audience get pulled into the film, but they also help the actors get into the minds of their characters. The director Tom Ford, who started his career in the fashion industry, has even sewn labels into his actors' costumes so that they never feel like costumes, but like the characters clothes themselves.

This extra detail isn't something the camera or the audience will ever see, but when your job as an actor is to believe in a pretend world while you're surrounded by crew and lights, it makes the world a little more real and your job a little easier. 

 Hair and Makeup (5:10)

This is true not just of the clothes actors wear, but also the makeup they use and how their hair is styled. Hair and Makeup, or HMU, are usually referred to as a single unit on set, and they often share a trailer, but they're two separate, specialized careers.

As with production and costume designers, pre-production is all about research and planning. Hairdressers work with the director to develop how they'll style the actors' hair. They'll prep any dyes, wigs, extensions, or bald caps that they might need. Because films are rarely shot in order, hairstylists need to be organized and plan how to maintain continuity throughout the film. 

This is often a reason wigs are used instead of dying hair. If scheduling demands that an actor play a grey-haired version of their character on either side of a dark-haired version, for example, then it can be easier to work with wigs than back-to-back dying. And making a wig look just as realistic as real hair can be tricky. 

If it's a period piece, they'll need to know how to create a time-appropriate look, but with the safety and health standards of the current times. 

This is true for makeup artists, too. Makeup artists need to understand each actor's skin and create a plan that keeps the actors as comfortable as possible while also creating the look the film demands. Makeup is similar to lighting or editing, in that it usually has to be seen, but not noticed.

Whether you're making a beautiful person camera-ready or building a look out of latex and airbrushing, the audience needs to be connecting with the character and their internal life, not getting distracted by their makeup. Some makeup artists specialize in special effects makeup. But all makeup artists need to know how to create certain illusions, like cuts, bruises, scars, bad teeth, and tattoos. 

Of all the departments on set, makeup, hair, and wardrobe spend the most time with the actors. Each department has a trailer at base camp, but will also send a representative to set with the actors. When the 1st AD calls "last looks," they're telling these three people to check the actors' makeup, hair, and clothing to make sure it's camera ready. It's their job to make sure the actors don't have to think about these things and can focus on their work of being present in the scene.

And of course, all the designers working on a film need to communicate between departments to create the mise-en-scène and help tell the story. A really bright example of how this can all come together is the character Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The costume designer, hair, and makeup team, and the production designer worked together to make the audience associate the color orange with Clementine. Whether it's her hair color or her bright orange sweatshirt, they look inspiration from her name and the script and brought it into the mise-en-scène

And if you pay close attention, they give us a big hint about the end of the movie by aligning her character with that color. That movie came out over ten years ago, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that it's about removing the memory of Clementine from the brain of her ex-boyfriend, Joel.

The costume designer and the set decorator took great care in making everything in Joel's world appear in greys and blues. But, when Joel wakes up from having his memory erased, everything in the scene is grey or blue except one orange vase. Like every real character we come to love in our favorite movies, Clementine isn't completely erased. 

  Review and Credits (7:54)

Today, we discussed the teams that play the biggest roles in creating the mise-en-scène of a film. We talked about how the art department creates the world the film takes place in, and how the wardrobe department interprets the character and the story through their clothing. And we learned how the hair and makeup departments transform actors into their characters on screen. Next time, we'll talk about Grip and Electric and how they add that final touch of the mise-en-scène: lights. 

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their latest shows, like Gross Science, Deep Look, and ACS Reactions. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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