The first few scenes of a movie have a very important job, they have to prove to the people that this film is a film worth watching. Their purpose is “hook and hold” the viewer; the first few seconds of the film are used to entice or ‘hook’ the viewer in, showing a scene and introducing characters, scenery or objects, something that catches the viewer’s attention. After giving this first glimpse in to the setting of the film, the next step is to ‘hold’ the viewer, by starting to add some context around it and often, getting lots of symbolism in, giving as many hints as possible in to the mood and plot of the film. Mis en scene is a phrase, that translates roughly to “put into the scene” and is describing the way everything is placed in the frame. Objects and people are put very deliberately in certain places, and the way all the props, costumes, scenery etc. work together can be used by the director as another way to tell story, aside from dialogue.
For example, this opening scene from The Searchers. In the first few seconds you see this shot:
Seeing the character so small in the frame, surrounded by the vast desert, you feel that he shares many characteristics with the landscape. Deserts are seen to be wild, unfriendly, lonely places, and this makes it feel like the character too is a very lonesome person, often spending lots of time isolated from others and living a wild, untamed life. They may also have a very dry and rough personality. The man is riding towards a homestead, where there are white American settlers living a supposed ‘civilised’ lifestyle and even though that is where he’s heading, there is a barrier between the homestead and him. In the foreground of the frame pictured above, there’s a pole, with a blanket draped over it and from the design we can assume it’s a Native American blanket. The pole is close to the camera, so is much larger than he is in the shot, and is positioned directly in front of him in the frame, meaning he is heading straight towards it. This isn’t a a barrier that he physically can’t get past obviously, but it represents a metaphorical barrier, showing that maybe he can never get close enough to the western lifestyle he was born into so isn’t as connected, because the Native Americans are a blockade in his mind that takes up too much space. The size of the the pole in the shot is comparison to him suggests that maybe he is so involved with the Natives because they intimidate and pose a threat to him, he doesn’t like them and as long as they are ‘in the way’, he can never settle down and be happy. Or perhaps, the blanket suggests that the Natives attitudes and way of living have interested him and he is starting to sway towards their behavior rather than the western world.
Another example of using mise en scene to hook the viewer is this first shot from Stoker.
Immediately, the vibrant yellow of the line on the road causes us to subconsciously separate the left side of the shot and the right side. You can see that on the right is the police car, and the woman has crossed over the line to the other side. This suggests that she was involved with something related to the police, and by crossing the line, she is putting up a wall between those events and herself. The police represent law and order, so by separating herself from that, she is rejecting it. This could potentially mean that maybe her life has been hectic and wild, and instead of trying to gain control, she is willingly letting it consume her.
As well as the vertical separation of the frame, you can also horizontally separate it. If you draw a horizontal line through the centre of the shot, you will notice that in the lower half, the entire section is grey road, whereas in the top half the road becomes a less prominent feature and instead it’s mostly natural: trees, grass flowers etc. The grey of the road suggests that her past was grey and brooding, possibly filled with lots of dark memories. The fact that as you move up to the second half the road disappears could mean that the woman is escaping these memories and moving on towards freedom, symbolised by the green of the trees and grass. The naturalness and bright green show that despite everything that’s happened in her life, in that moment she is content, maybe even unaffected by her past life.
This is perhaps my favourite opening to any movie I’ve ever watched. It is both serenely simple and wonderfully symbolic, all the while introducing the character of Forrest Gump very thoroughly.
Before you even see Forrest, you are introduced to him via the feather. The way it drifts through the air, floating slowly and calmly in all directions, being pulled into every current of air unknowingly, it effortlessly represents the way Forrest made his way through life. The amount of times throughout the film he managed to become involved with significant moments in history: Elvis Presley, the Watergate break in, the hippie movement, the Vietnam war. He is so unaware of what’s going on around him and the effects he has, and is just moving from one thing to another, much in the same way the feather is caught up in air currents. It’s a really lovely piece of symbolism.
Also, notice how invisible the feather is to everyone as it passes through the streets, until it reaches Forrest. Immediately he sees it and picks it up, and in that small moment you get a feel for the way this character thinks and acts. His brain doesn’t work in the way others do, he notices things others don’t and, therefore, looks on life differently from others. People may not look at the feather because it is not deemed important enough to bother with, but the careful attention Forrest pays to the feather tells you that he has a careful and sensitive soul. Without him saying a single word, he has already intrigued the audience.
The first part of Forrest you see are his shoes. They’re battered, dirty, and don’t fit with his clean suit and shirt. They suggest that he has been on a journey, and has taken many steps in his life (both literally and metaphorically), with these trainers being worn by him every step of the way. The contrast of the new-looking, fresh suit with the trainers suggests that he is about to make another new step in his life to add to the many he has already taken.
The other important part of this opening is his suitcase. It is very deliberately placed so you can see fully inside it and takes up the majority of the frame. Everything inside is so neatly folded and precisely packed, suggesting that his brain has a systematic and logical thought process. However you can see that he decides to keep the feather, putting it in-between pages with a vibrant blue sky printed on them, showing that despite what the contents of his suitcase suggest, he also has a childlike curiosity and is intrigued by the world.
Silence of the Lambs (unfortunately this is the only clip I could find)
This scene starts off showing a woman in the middle of doing an assault course. A lot of the course consists of upwards struggles, for example the net she has to climb up and the rope she has to use to pull herself up. The camera makes sure to capture her obvious emotions of pain and determination that she shows on her face, so begins to suggest that the character herself may have an uphill struggle in her personal life. She never gets a chance to finish the course, suggesting that the emotional struggle she has is ongoing and she’s stuck in the middle of it. The course has clearly been made for multiple people to use at the same time – see the extra rope and large space on the net – but she is running it alone, creating a sense that she is maybe quite isolated and solitary, trying to work past her problems alone, which is only emphasized by the eerily quiet surrounding forest. There is an opportunity for other to run the course with her but she chooses to do it alone. Similarly, there is opportunities fro people to help her in her personal life but instead she chooses to shut it out and struggle alone. It does also show that she is a strong-willed character that has grit and determination, as she is running the course as an extra to try and better herself. Maybe she feels she has to prove herself, especially as she works in the FBI.