Cinematic codes

Bibliothèque Angellier


In normal viewing we experience simultaneously a number of codes : visual, sound and the codes controlling the linking of one sound or image to another. To divide the components is arbitrary but it will help in analysis to separate them.

Mise en scène

The term derives from the French, ‘having been put into the scene’ is used to designate the visual aspects that appear within a single shot (Objects, movements, lighting, shadow, colour : in fact pro filmic event, those elements that are there before the filming starts. They may appear to have a real world existence and hence appear not to be encoded. (Early cinema rested on the notion that filming was solely the recording of reality or theatrical performance)

The concept of Mise en scène was developed by those theorists who were interested in issues of authorship in constructing the meaning of film. During the classic period of Hollywood studio, from 1920 to 1950, the director’s control was limited to the processes that were recorded during shooting. Script, editing, post dubbing, re-cut escaped his control.

Let us look now at some specific elements of mise en scène:

- Setting
In the context of studio shooting, the predominant form in the 20s and 40s, all elements of the setting were controlled and chosen by the director. Setting are usually perceived as a signifier of authenticity, the place where the events are happening, they are nevertheless a constructed setting for action. This become clear if we examine the different of look of the West in films such as Shane, My Darling Clementine, Johnny Guitar and The Unforgiven. All these films are recognisable as the West, yet they emphasise different kinds of settings: wilderness, small town, large ranch. The western may be defined in terms of the opposing focus of wilderness and civilisation, the contrasting images of the garden and the desert, the cactus and the rose. The landscape and settings of westerns are read against the conventions of the genre more than as representation of a real West.
The setting can also function to place the performers. In The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari the characters are enclosed in a two dimensional setting, with lighting painted over a backdrop and the stage. The setting suggests danger and paranoia which is revealed, at the end of the film, as a relocation of the interior world inhabited by a crazy narrator. The film was a precursor of German Expressionism, influential on German films from 1919 to 31. Its aim was to convey the crude force of human emotion in a total cinematic experience. Leading protagonists of German Expressionism, Lang and Murnau, move to Hollywood in the 20s and 30s and influenced the horror films of the 30s, Tod Browning and Whale, and the film noir of the 40s, Capra. We have noticed in recent films the predominance of Dystopia ( future world where everything has gone wrong): Blade Runner, Ridley Scott.
- Locations can also create their own space and meaning. (Haunting and haunted houses)


Props are devices to convey meaning.
They are definers of genre: garlic and crosses, guns and stars. The arcane paraphernalia of conventional genres.
They can also become unique signifiers of meaning in a particular film. Ex the lighter in Strangers on a Train with its crossed rackets signifying a number of crossing and exchanges. It is a significant icon throughout the film.
Props can also be used to ‘anchor’ characters into particular meanings. They may be used to clarify a meaning, they partake to the characterisation. (props relating to family life in Godfather) (cigarettes, mirror, curtain in Streetcar)


It is a variant of the prop tightly connected to the characters. Use of codified colours, change of costumes to signify change of status or evolution. See Mildred Pierce and the transformation of Joan Crawford from housewife to businesswoman.
Costumes may also be used to signify mismatches. A series of expectations aroused by the costumes are subverted by the action.
Cross-dressing is a further device of mismatch: Some like it hot, Tootsie. In the Crying Game our knowledge is at least problematic and the mismatch only appears retrospectively.
A distinctive costume may be misread by other characters, while playing with the spectator’s connivance with the character.

Performance and movement

Probably the richest source of mise en scène is the performance of actors. The performer can be considered as the object of the camera’s gaze. The body language is coded but universally understood.
Body language is a key element in the creation of a performance. See Orson Welles’s evolution in Citizen kane.
The close-up allowed meaning to be express by slight movement, facail expressions. Minimalist actor, Michael Caine, ably demonstrated in a Master Class what can be conveyed by the flickering of an eye, the raising of an eyebrow or the turning of the lip.
Finally, the star brings to the film meaning derived from his mere presence through expectations and implied meaning.


It is an invisible code, the lighting of a shot being off the camera.
Whereas the early cinema relied on flat field of action, depth in the action became soon desirable. Bazin argued that such a form of shooting was both more realist (the shots closely resembling the capacity of the eyes to recognise objects across a wide depth)

Camera and camera movement

The setting being ready and well lit, the next set of choice surrounds the positioning of the camera.
Early Cinema was largely characterized by long shots. Drawing primarily from the already existing art forms of photography and theater, the camera was held static: placed in the ‘best seat in the stalls’, square on to the action, with actors moving in and out of the shot as if from the wings.
Now technological developments up to the Steadicam permits great flexibility and choice, both of movement and angle. Within the capacities of focus, the camera is able to move anywhere from the extreme-close-up to the use of widescreen shots limited to pairs of eyes, to the extreme long shot. The close-up has particular place in the development of film, permitting us to ‘know intimately’ the faces of characters, hence to read their thoughts and feelings.
It is also necessary to decide on the angle of the shot and the relative height of camera to the object being filmed: a low-angle shot looking up to the object or high-angle shot looking down. Conventions accounts suggest that low-angle shots imply the power of the object (usually a human figure) and a high-angle shot its weakness. (see Citizen Kane: Kane looks down on Suzanne as she pieces together a jigsaw puzzle; but at the end of the birds, the family is shot from below, suggesting dominance, but, in fact, the birds are above, in the attic, just waiting.
While the camera is normally held level, it can also be tilted to one side. Such a shot is read as an indication of instability, either of the character or the situation. (The third Man, Dutch shots).
While shots are classically in sharp focus, a soft focus can be used either to enhance the romantic effect of a scene or to expose the incapacity of a character to register the world around. (Deconstructing Harry)
Finally, the camera is able to move. The earliest moving shots were dependent on the movement of objects- car or trains- so shots mimic the experience of viewing. Pan and tilts appear to reproduce eye movements and are motivated by the action. Shots can also be developed to reproduce the movements of the characters, using rails (the tracking shot). These shots give a strong sense of place and identity.
While these shots are perceived as naturalistic, and replicate the natural movements of the eye, the use of the crane moves display a high degree of control by the director: such shots involve positions and movements that are inaccessible to us an a day-to-day basis. See in Gone with the Wind, the scene with the lying wounded soldiers in the station. Crane shots can take us from the wide panorama of a scene to focus in on an object. (See Marnie, her point of view from the landing above the expansive hall to a close-up of her previous boss, Strutt, who can expose her.) This shot reflects the sense of inevitability and powerlessness felt by Marnie. The crane can also be used to reveal what had been hidden. (see Halloween, end of the first sequence, the murderer is unmasked and the camera cranes back)


Let us look at the combination of shots which construct a film flowing over time. Editing, or the joining of strips of film is specific to cinema, the shots can be used in photography, hence it has been seen as the essence of films.
Kuleshov engaged in a number of experiments and proved that adept editing could create alternative reading of the same facial expression.
Historically, the first editing was between scenes, with individual extreme long shots recording a self-contained sequence at a particular time and place, followed by a cut to black. This device establishing a narrative flow drew on the theatrical black-out and could easily be understood. Then, a vocabulary of linking devices was invented by Griffith. In particular, this method involved the distinction between slower devices: the fade to and from black, and the dissolve between the image and the cut. While the fade implied a change of scene and time, the cut was used within a scene, or in the case of cross-cut editing, signified that two events although separated by space were happening simultaneously. This device was used by Griffith to build up suspense. Other devices, such as the wipe, the push off and the turn over have been reduced to comic effects. French New Wave used the dissolve to suggest passing time and dissolve to white to draw attention on the uncertain nature of the narrative.
While the linking devices described above signify to the viewer the discontinuity of the action- the change of space and time- the major development in editing has been to minimise the sense of disruption. The rules of continuity editing mean to produce a system to tell a story in such a way as to set out the action in space and time while it remains unobtrusive. The storytelling should not draw attention to itself or to the apparatus of cinema, the strategies appear transparent.
These rules may be summarized as follows: first an establishing shot, then a long shot which enable the spectators to orientate themselves. All subsequent shots are read within this space. A master shot can be reintroduced to reestablish the space or show significant movements of the characters.
The 180° rule involves an imaginary line along the action of the scene. The rule dictates that this line should be clearly established and that consecutive shots should not be taken from opposite side of the line. Hence a common background space (implicit or explicit) and a clarity of direction of movement.
An extension of this principle is the ‘eye-line match’. A shot of a scene looking at something off –screen is followed by the object or person being looked at.
The 30° rule proposes that a successive shot on the same area involves at least a 30° change of angle, or a substantial change of viewpoint. It involves a reorientation but the viewer finds his bearings.
Finally, the movement of actors and the reframing of the camera is so arranged and planned that the movement of the camera does not draw attention to itself. This involves the cut on action, so that the cut anticipates the movement to be made , such as a long shot of a character standing up or a cut to the person talking. The cut appears to be motivated by the need to tell the story.
This style of editing is integral to the Hollywood classical realist text, a film that “effaces all signs of the text’s production and the achievement of an invisibility of process”. ( Even if they are naturally difficult to notice we may find good illustrations of this principle in Maltese Falcon)
However, we are aware of these conventions when they are broken or subverted. It is not unusual nowadays to commence a sequence with a close-up. The 180° rule is forcibly broken in Stagecoach as the Indians attack the coach, seemingly riding from both sides. Sometimes the breaking of this line suggests an impossible relationship or the viewer’s incapacity to ‘place’ himself emotionally. The jump-cut was used by Godard in A Bout de Souffle to produce ellipsis. (the jump-cut draws attention to the selection that has taken place)
While continuity editing has dominated classic narratives, other strategies have been used. The ‘montage sequence’ entailed a number of shots to demonstrate a process of change. In Citizen Kane, the disintegration of the marriage, in The Godfather, the baptism of Michael takes place while a sequence of killing occurs in different locations but with the same soundtrack of the church service.
An alternative form of editing is the ‘non-diegetic insert’ which involves a symbolic shot not involved with the time and place of the narrative to comment on or express the action in some alternative ways. See Eisenstein’s films. In Hollywood, such coded inserts proved useful to circumscribe censorship. (North by Northwest, the train entering the tunnel)
The cutting of film stock can also be expressive in itself. Rapid or slow cutting can convey meaning in itself. The shower scene in Psycho exemplifies the use of rapid and highly fragmented images to present a climactic moment.


The final element in constructing the ‘image’ of a film is the soundtrack. (after 1927) It has been argued that the speed of this innovation arose from a need for a realistic narrative. Sounds are diegetic.
However, soundtracks are equally ‘sound images’, constructed to make meaning.
Sound can be used to reinforce the continuity of the action, it tends to assert the ‘reality status’ of the images. See in Mean Streets, Charlie on the stage with an exotic dancer: on subsequent viewing we understand that it was his fantasy, yet the continuous soundtrack had led us to believe that it was actually happening..
Sound has also a continuity role in establishing links across the scenes. Orson Welles, in Citizen Kane used sound to bridge between sequences (‘Merry Christmas’) (See the problematic voice Marion hears in Psycho).
Sound can also be used to direct us into the past through the use of the voiceover as in Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity. Voice over are a useful device to accelerate story telling.
The use of non diegetic music: to inform the audience of appropriate emotional responses or enhance them. The emotional pull of music and its high level of connotative meaning allow these processes to operate subliminally. The impact of Psycho can be attributed to Herrmann’s music. With the stress on the surface reality of the classic realist film, music appears to give us direct access to the emotions of the characters.
Music also plays the role of ‘confirming’ the emotional response of the spectator, seemingly leading us to a particular way of seeing a sequence. It anchors meaning, eliminating ambiguities of response. It may be a rhythmic device to inform the pace of the cutting.
Sound effects are normally perceived as part of the narrative realism, authenticating the images and informing the narrative attention. They evoke ‘mood’. They establish the environment.
Music may also be used to identify characters (themes associated with characters: Dr Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, Once upon a Time in the West.


Films have a primary function of telling a story.
It may be useful to distinguish between the story that is represented and the representation of it that is perceived by the spectator. The story is the fabula which can be summarised but it is not the narrative of the film itself. The distinction may introduce the difference between narrative and narration.
A second term that may be used is plot. It gives the events a logic, in a causal way. Narrative develops on the basis of a chain of cause and effect. Besides it is assumed that all elements make sense or are clues. In the Usual Suspects the pleasure consists in determining what is a clue and what is a red herring. In North by Northwest Roger Thornhill’s matchbox bears the initials ROT (O for nothing, signifying a man with no center. Later, the matchbox will be used to signal his presence in the villain’s house. Film-goers are used to anticipate and expect the return of objects and to recognise the causal links. The plot constructs also the narrative in a particular temporal order with specific spatial references. Narrative involves the spectator operating on the tension between his expectations of likely outcome and anticipation and the capacity to frustrate or surprise.
Todorov sees the start of a narrative as a point of stable equilibrium where everything is quiet normal and satisfied. This stability is disrupted resulting in a state of disequilibrium. Equilibrium must be re created by actions. This reaction changes the world and the final situation is not the initial situation restored. Horror films are characterised by immediate disruptions. Vertigo begins with a particularly disruptive act.
Proppean analysis can also be quite useful.

Assignments Consider any mainstream Hollywood films with which you are familiar:
1. What is the initial state of equilibrium, how is it disrupted and how is it resolved?
2. Try to identify how individual characters fit into Propp’s typology of hero, villain, princess?
3. List the opposition that exist within the film
4. To what extent can the film be considered ‘realist’?

Alternative Narratives.
Some films challenge or subvert the conventions of mainstream cinema. This tradition of counter cinema was exemplified by Godard. These are the oppositions at work:
Narrative transitivity vs narrative intransitivity.
Identification vs estrangement.
Transparency vs foregrounding
Simple vs multiple diegesis.
Closure vs aperture.
Pleasurable vs unpleasurable, non-escapist