Mise-en-scène is a phrase often used to describe film production. It translates to “setting the stage” or “setting the scene”. It describes the elements within a frame of film that affect the look and feel of the movie. When mise-en-scène is used correctly, a movie appears to have continuity and the world portrayed within the film is believable. This paper will describe the mise-en-scène of Black Rider’s opening sequence, which lasts for 1 minute and 43 seconds. The opening sequence ends when the train arrives at the station.
The setting of a movie shows the viewer the world that the story will take place in. Shooting the film in a natural location, such as the city of Berlin, adds realism, while shooting on a studio set is perceived as less realistic. Studio sets require stronger artistic direction to increase their level of believability.
In Black Rider, the setting of the movie is described in a series of opening shots that are set to music. These shots depict a light rail commuter train as it travels through the city. The audience sees close-ups of trains passing each other, passengers disembarking, close up shots of feet, and customers heading toward the train. These opening shots also depict city life by using jazz music that evokes the dreariness and angst of the city.
Key props support the film’s authenticity and enhance its believability. The key props shown in the opening sequence are the train and the décor of the train station. The train is the most important prop in the opening sequence, while the décor of the train station supports the films believability. The train comes toward the camera in the first frames of the film. The train is also seen rushing past the camera and “snaking” through the city. The shots of the train used in the opening sequence portray it as enormous and dominant. The life of the city seems to flow in, out, and around the train.
Actors create believable characters that the audience can relate to or follow. This is done through acting and directing. The role casting plays is subtle, but important. Black Rider had a diverse cast of unknown character actors and a talented director who worked together to support its realistic tone. The director's role is to help the actors navigate the screenwriter's vision.
If Tom Cruise had been cast as the biker and Denzel Washington as The Black Guy (that's the actual name of the character), this would be a very different movie. No matter how hard Washington or Cruise would try to sink into their roles, the audience would relate Black Rider to their previous films.
A film that excels in all other aspects of mise-en-scène but neglects acting is not perceived as believable. Black Rider’s actors do a fantastic job. They make us believe that they inhabit the cityscape that the audience was introduced to in the opening sequence.
The film frame registers smaller movements than the theater stage. As a result, actors who are versed in theater’s broad movement style train to use small gestures and micro-expressions for film. At the train stop, two girls are talking and laughing. When one of them looks up at a boy who is standing nearby, her expression informs the audience that she has a crush on him. Her head movement and facial expression portrays joy, infatuation, and embarrassment. The actress was able to communicate three emotions in a scene that lasted for two seconds.
Actors wear costumes that match the culture and roles of their characters. In a 10-minute short film, there is no time to learn each characters background. The costumes, culture, and preferences of the characters are “coded” into their costumes.
At the train stop, several types of characters are introduced. The boy wearing a soccer jacket is a student athlete or sports fan. A grey haired man wears a golf cap, casual shirt, and thick glasses. This costume identifies him as a retiree. He stands near a woman in a business suit who holds a briefcase. Her earrings are tightly wound hoops that match her tense expression. The audience can infer that she is both impatient and unapproachable. Her costume and acting combine to enhance the impersonal “feel” of the city that is being communicated throughout the opening sequence.
In the film noir genre, makeup was often used to express the nature of a characters personality. A nervous or unbalanced character would appear to be greasy or unshaven while a femme fatale would wear noticeable makeup that would express her devious intentions and her beauty. A movie that places a high priority on realism uses makeup that is “invisible” to the audience. This is the type of makeup used in Black Rider.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of mise-en-scène. Expressionistic films use lighting to express a character’s internal mood. Realistic films such as Black Rider use lighting to communicate the “reality” of the setting and characters to the audience. The lighting in the opening sequence is bright, with hot spots and minimal shadows. The audience will believe that they are seeing a bright, sunlit day. This is because they see hot spots, which come from a bright key light (the sun) with a minimal amount of shadows. The shadows that do exist are cast by outdoor structures such as the train stop.
Composition is the method that filmmakers and photographers use to arrange subjects and key props within the frame. To compose the frame correctly, the cinematographer and director must coordinate character blocking and camera angles.
Pepe Danquart and his cinematographer, Ciro Cappellari, carefully crafted the composition of Black Rider to match the themes and focus of the film. When the characters are shown at the train stop for the first time, the businessmen appear in a low-to-high angle medium close up shot. From this angle they appear to be dominant figures within the city.
The Black Guy and his white friend appear to be equals when they are shown at a table near the train stop. A closer look reveals that the shot is angled so that the white character is closer to the camera and The Black Guy is further away and therefore smaller within the frame. The composition of this shot also favors the white character since he is closer to the camera, and therefore larger than The Black Guy.
Black Rider. By Pepe Danquart. Dir. Pepe Danquart. Perf. Paul Outlaw. 1993.
Kasdan, Margo. The Critical Eye. (pages 69-96)
Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2008