This video uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty to show how elements of how cinematic techniques related to mise-en-scène and cinematography can be used to help visually tell a story.
The following elements are examined:
Mise-en-scène: Decor, lighting, costumes and body language (gestures, expressions and posture)
Composition and framing, camera angle, camera height and camera distance
At the beginning of American Beauty, the main character, Lester Burnham is disillusioned with his life. At home, he and his wife hate each other while his teenage daughter cannot stand either of them. At work, he is stuck in a boring and meaningless job writing for a media magazine.
The first scene we will look at appears early on in the movie. In this scene, Lester is meeting with Brad, his company's new efficiency expert. Brad is telling him that his work is not up to standard and that his job is at risk.
What's interesting here is how differently the two men are presented.
Let's look at Lester first. As this is a wide shot, Lester occupies a small portion of the frame, and because this shot is also a high angle shot, he looks even smaller. He is in the middle of a mostly empty room, totally exposed. He is slouching in a chair--his body language sending a message of weakness and resignation, and his facial expression shows his exasperation and frustration.
In terms of decor and lighting, the room itself is ugly, utilitarian, dimly lit, poorly decorated and awfully dull and grey. Behind Lester, there is a dying potted plant stuck in a corner and a painting that is too small for the wall. The ugly décor reveals what kind of company Lester works for—one that sucks the life out of its employees.
In terms of composition, the framing of the shot is also ugly. Lester is positioned in the centre bottom of the frame, which is a strange place to put the main subject. There is far too much headroom above him, his feet seem to be cut off, and at the top of the screen, a ceiling light juts down into the frame. It's an ugly shot in a dark, ugly room— a kind of visual manifestation of Lester's unease and discontent.
Now let's look at Brad. Here the shot is a mid-shot, so Brad occupies a large portion of the frame. The low angle mid shot emphasizes his position of power, especially when it comes right after the high angle wide shot of Lester that we just looked at.
Visually, Brad is presented as being dominant. His posture is straight, he is younger, he is dressed more fashionably and his facial expression reveals smugness and contempt.
Behind him, the vertical Venetian blinds create a visual pattern that calls to mind the bars of a jail cell or cage. To Lester, his job is like a prison.
And note the props around Brad: his desk, his large, brightly shining name plate, the gold pens, the picture and its frame, the Venetian blinds. Almost everything is straight edges, angles and points. Everything is hard, sharp, threatening.
In short, the visual elements in this scene work together to emphasize Brad's dominance over Lester, the soul-destroying nature of their workplace and Lester's hopelessness and vulnerability.
Mid-way through the film, the two men meet again. And Lester is a different man. In this scene, Lester is quitting his job AND blackmailing the company into paying him off.
If you compare these two reverse angle shots, you will see that Brad is no longer shown to be dominant. In the shot over Lester's shoulder, Lester seems to be looking down at Brad. And in the shot over Brad's shoulder, Brad's head is out-of-focus and slightly off screen, Brad is no longer so important, no longer so powerful. And all of those sharp edges, the pointy gold pens, the massive nameplate—those have become small, unremarkable pieces of stationery. They no longer pose any threat.
Lester's posture is now relaxed and confident. He is in control.
The room is brighter. Lester is no longer trapped in gloomy darkness.
The shots are now more attractive in terms of composition and framing, and this also reflects Lester's more hopeful mindset.
He has changed, and these changes are shown through the use of a variety of cinematic techniques. In the first scene, these techniques highlight the power differential between Brad and Lester and show Lester's disappointment, frustration and vulnerability. In the second scene, they show the extent to which Lester has become more hopeful and confident.
In this video, I've only touched on some of the cinematic elements related to mise-en-scène and cinematography and haven't mentioned things like dialogue, editing or sound or music. There is a lot more to discuss when interpreting a scene, but hopefully this video can help you better understand how different visual elements can work together to help tell a story.