The Big Ten, The Paragon of the Animated World Part 1: Mise en scène or creating balance and vision

This is the official launch point for a small series of essays I call The Big Ten. These are the ten animated films from each decade that delivered masterfully well in Mise en scène. They become films with vision, balance, and purpose. This post will specifically explain what Mise-en-scène is, its place in animation, and how transcendent animated films use it appropriately to create balance, atmosphere, and a personal connection. 

Concept Art for Duet, Glen Keane, Via “Glen Keane Talks ‘Duet’ and the Legacy of Disney Animation

To criticize film in any aspect, it’s important to understand its foundation. Animation is rooted in centuries-old concepts, made possible because of the persistence of vision. The persistence of vision is “the phenomenon that produces the illusion of movement when viewing motion pictures” (Dictionary.com) This illusion is possible when subsequent images are rapidly played through perpetual motion. As far back as 1645, people have used light and moving images cutout or placed close together to create this moving fantasy. From magic lanterns, shadow puppets, old slide projectors, and later more modern cameras that used film strips, each had in common the desire to create visual stories, almost like magic.

Magic Lantern, 1886, aka “The Curious History of the Magic Lantern—and the Man Who Collected Hundreds of Them
A Seventeenth Century slide projector showcasing a phantasmagoria, or horror light show, via “Farewell To Two Masters of the Magic Lantern
Thai Shadow Puppetry, via “Nang shadow puppet of Thailand
The Horse in Motion, 1878 Muybridge, via Galloping, GIFs and Genes

Animation studios have moved far beyond the more simplistic techniques used many years ago. However, the idea of creating for its audience an incredible experience through light, color, and motion is the same. But like any art form, films can either these techniques poorly, adequately, well, or in rare cases exponentially. Those who build upon and expound animation generate for their audience cinematic wonder.

In an interview with Julie Matlin, film producer Michael Fukushima put it this way.

Great animation films happen when all the component pieces – art, movement, timing, acting, music, audio – all come together and work as an ensemble. No single element needs to be outstanding, but the amalgam needs to work in beautiful harmony.

What Makes For a Great Animated Film, 2017

This beautiful harmony comes in part when filmmakers can properly utilize mise en scène. In order to create such a multidimensional and impactful experience for an audience, how an animated film looks, flows, and feels is crucial. That is where “staging the scene” comes into play.

Screenshot from Tangled, via fanpop.com

Mise en scène, creating balance and vision

Mise en scène originated in the theater and translates to “setting the stage” or “staging the scene” in French. In theater it involves everything seen and heard on stage including set design, lighting, space, composition, costume, makeup and hair styles, and acting to bring balance to a live production. In film its meaning is very similar except it implicates everything seen and heard in front of a camera. In an online film course, one article put it thus. “When properly used, it (mise en scène) elevates film from a series of moving pictures to an art form with purpose. Something bursting with atmosphere and emotion that pulls viewers in and doesn’t let go.” (Studiobinder, What is Mise en Scène in Film: Definition and Examples)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

One of the earliest uses of mise en scène in film was the famous German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Born directly from the Reinhardt TheaterCaligari inventively led its audience to a predetermined conclusion by setting the backgrounds and plot in a way the audience could easily follow. Viewers could become participants in the mystery as the story progressed because of its visual and narrative setup. Consequently, critics and audiences alike praised Caligari for its immersive and expansive experience. It set the new intellectual standard for feature films and influenced filmmakers and studios worldwide, including those in Hollywood.

These film techniques found there way into Hollywood and later into the earliest animated films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Hamish Thompson noted, “Mise-en-scene plays a significant role in how animation can tell a story. One could argue, animation in of itself is mise-en-scene.” (“Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast: Milestones in Genre“, Hamish Thompson) Incorporating mise en scène in animated films is tricky because everything seen and heard through the camera must be made and purposefully placed there. One blogger, Kim Morossy gave an insightful look into mise en scène in animation.

The animation director metaphorically “stages” the scene by controlling the placement of images, colours and lines. They also work with background artists and storyboard artists, who play major roles in shaping the layout of any given scene. It’s important to note that everything in the animated mise-en-scène must be consciously woven into the frame, whether it is through hand-drawn animation, props, CG, or some combination of the above. There is nothing that can be “incidentally” caught in the frame. Meticulous film directors go to great lengths to control the set design, where the cameras are set up, and so on. . . This is why people talk about film as a form of “heightened reality”, because even though much of it is staged and often supplemented by computer graphics, it is never completely divorced from the physical environment.

Kim Morossy, The Basics of the Animated Mise-en-scène

Animation conveys stories through an illusionary visual narrative and setting the stage is difficult for animators because they create everything by hand. The world, its actors and story aren’t ready made or easily accessible as they usually are for live action films. In 2D animation, this means artists draw and paint thousands of images. 3D animation uses computer graphics to map stories digitally. For stop-motion animation, they make and meticulously move all parts of the set by hand, frame by frame.

Image from Chuck Jones “What’s Opera Doc”, via ‘Here’s How Chuck Jones Really Felt About “What’s Opera, Doc?

Some of the best examples of evocative animated storytelling are old cartoon shorts. Traditional shorts left a strong impact on an audience in a short amount of time because animators staged them through visual gags aided by music and memorable characters. Early animation directors like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, and others learned to create enduring characters, master timing, and artistically render reality.

One example is a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, “What’s Opera Doc.” The story follows a similar formula: Elmer Fudd unjustly hunts Bugs bunny, then Bugs Bunny in turn tricks and beats him at his own game. This particular short has some minor changes. Sprinkled into the familiar Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny story arc is a little bit of opera, not so beautiful ballet dancing, and a somewhat surprising “tragic” ending.

What made this particular cartoon short shine was its clear vision. The animators and directors knew the story they wanted to tell and balanced well comedic timing with its rhapsodic “wagneresque” atmosphere. It was a masterpiece of blending culture with comedy. Matt Seitz said in his review of this famous cartoon,

“What’s Opera, Doc?” might have dazzled anyway had it merely constructed a facsimile of opera as enclosed by the proscenium arch. But Jones and his team upped the ante by building a cinematic fantasy of opera: the sort of daydreamy mind-movie that listeners might unreel while listening to Wagner or reading Norse mythology or studying woodcuts at a Northern European folk art gallery. (emphasis added) 

(Matt Zoller Seitz, Short Film Week: What’s Opera doc)
Screenshot from Tales of Earthsea (2006), via archive.nerdist.com

On the flip side, there are animated shorts and films which do not have a very clear vision or balance. The most common emotions bad film execution evokes are CONFUSION, IRRITATION, and BOREDOM. This can and does happen even in films with beautiful animation or interesting story arcs. Many visually promising animated films like The Grinch (2019), The Lorax (2012), or Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010) have improper pacing and execution. 

One of the best examples of a beautifully shot yet poorly executed film is Goro Miyazaki’s Tales of Earthsea (2006). As a movie, Earthsea had all the right pieces. Its source material came from famous fantasy author Ursala K. Leguin’s Earthsea Series, animators from the world-renowned Studio Ghibli created its amazing visuals, and Hayao Miyazaki’s own son directed it. In fact, taken out of context, the animation is very beautiful, the story premise and characters are interesting, and the musical score fits the overall film ambiance. It had all these things going for it, but its execution and consequentially its reception fell flat. This is because the plot became a confusing hodgepodge of different parts of LeGuin’s various books, and its characters were just as complicated to follow. 

So how to analyze film?

Looking more closely at mise en scène solved a major problem I’ve faced for quite a while. At its basest level, Mise en scène is staging how a film will look, flow, and feel for an audience. This staging will determine the type of experience possible to viewers. In subsequent articles, I will describe these following aspects, which I will use to analyze films in the future.

  1. Look, creating a film’s mood and aesthetic through style, backgrounds, and character design.
  2. Flow, comprehensible pacing made possible through a compelling narrative, dynamic and necessary characters, focus and timing.
  3. Feel, helping inspire an audience so they may have a deeper experience through music and heart.

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