As entertainment developers do their best to introduce a stronger sense of passion into their productions, latest opportunities are offered to the level designer to instil their virtual spaces with deeper symbols and meaning. Since the very beginning of film, the exploration of the concept of mise-en-scene (literally “put in the scene”) has allowed filmmakers to convey sub-text to the viewer by the careful consideration of how each frame looks (Logas 56).
Mise-en-scene is defined by film theorist Robert Kolker as: “the use of space within the frame: the placement of actors and props, the relationship of the camera to the space in front of it, camera movement, the use of color or black and white, lighting, the size of the screen frame itself”. It is a French terminology that accurately means putting in the scene. It entails camera work, illumination, blocking of actors, costumes, art direction, set dressing, props, and colour utilisation. The mise-en-scene informs the whole lot about the movie and gives filmmakers a rich palette to provoke emotions in their audiences. By organising essentials on screen in a manner that, movie directors can make mood, atmosphere, tension and conflict in the filmic space that is not attainable by any other possible revenues.
The art of stage design is utilised very efficiently in most films to stir up a certain mood in the viewer. In pursuing a more touching experience in movies, stage design can be leveraged to highlight not only emotion, but hint at psychological factors affecting the computer-controlled characters and reveal the narrative. Filmmakers have been using mise-en-scene to accomplish this since the advent of film (Vieira 42).
In movies, this technique is a holistic advance toward constructing a frame. The whole lot that is visible in a given scene is selected by the film instructor to communicate information to the viewer, both on a conscious and sub-conscious level. Survival horror movies particularly tend to use the elements of the level to achieve a sense of immersive dreadfulness in the player. A holistic advance to stage design makes a superior sense of captivation in the player and can converse to the player on a poignant level (Bruner 110).
Bruner further says that mise-en-scene takes this several steps more than even the most carefully planned stage design. Studying the techniques of mise-en-scene and taking a holistic approach to level design may help stage designers tap even deeper into the player and allow for communication at a subliminal level.
The stage designer is the member of the film development group that designs and builds the places that the performer will explore through their in-film character. The stage designer works with the art director to design the look and feel of the spaces in the movie. He/she builds the space, places within it props and sets the appropriate dressing, textures and all the other objects so that they appear in the proper colours and styles, and lights the area. With the exemption of cinematography (handled differently in different studios, but rarely by the level designer), blocking of characters (which in game design is controlled by the placement of cameras) and costuming (the responsibility of the person designing characters), the level designer is responsible for the elements which in film constitute the mise-en-scene (Skal).
To understand better how mise-en-scene would be a constructive means for stage designers, it is essential to deconstruct the mise-en-scene of certain horror films. Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining is one of the movies that have been chosen. It is a greatly thought-out and structured work that engages the viewer through an elaborate mise-en-scene. The Shining is also very game-like in the fact that its action is almost entirely limited to the Overlook Hotel and its topiary maze. Since stage designers must control their game play to a certain amount of levels, The Shining is a great example of how limited capital can be crafted in such a way as to have numerous layers of significance and interest. The other movie to be looked at is Konami’s Silent Hill 4: The Room (Altman 119).
Altman goes on to say that at its most fundamental, The Shining is an uncomplicated ghostly house film. In the hands of a minor director, it would have been a typical B-movie like The Amityville Horror with some good scares but nothing more. In the hands of Kubrick and his dedicated cast and troop, the film becomes an assertion about the collapse of Western Culture, the termination of the nuclear family, spousal and child abuse, perverted patriarchal structures, and the power of women.
Since mise-en-scene is a grouping of film techniques – camera work, illumination, blocking of actors, art direction, set dressing, costumes, props, and use of colour – it is imperative to look at these various aspects of the film and see how they work jointly to create a superior whole (Jim 125).
From the start, the human characters are dwarfed in relation to other objects. Jack drives his yellow VW beetle along a meandering mountain road to get to the Overlook Hotel for his job interview as the winter caretaker of the hotel. His little car appears like a bug traversing the vast mountain landscape. The camera glides above him, watching his slow advancement up the mountain, until it takes off with an intention of its own. Already Kubrick has recognized the occurrence of the mystical force that will encounter his characters. The force is enormous and overwhelming; in disparity to the tiny human being dwarfed by the natural landscape (Logas 78).
The set design of the Overlook Hotel is furthermore colossal and overriding. In the scene where Jack and his family arrive to start their winter stay, the camera moves along in parallel with them as they are dwarfed by the enormous room. Even the outside landscape disappears through the windows to be replaced by luminous, bland light. The building dictates what the characters see or do not see. The association of the Overlook with an immeasurable complicated jumble begins straight away as they are given a go round of the intricate corridors of the hotel. Wendy’s character even comments on this as she fears she needs to leave a track of breadcrumbs to find her way back. The stage designer spent the time and effort required to dress up the Overlook to be one of the main characters of the story (MacDougall 64).
The art direction in The Shining is detailed in its attention to detail. Scattered throughout the hotel are framed photos of renowned people who have stayed at the Overlook over the years. The photos occur in many scenes as background decoration, but at the end of the film viewers track into one of the black and white photos dated from 1921 to see Jack front and centre. The snap itself is an entrap, with Jack sheltered inside the glass like a bug trapped in amber; he has constantly been at the Overlook and often will be, as one of the ghosts has pointed out to him (Palmer, Boyd and Barton, 78)
A very intricate colour scheme adds complexity to the hotel interiors. Gold, pink, red, white, orange and blue are the colours that dictate the backgrounds of the hotel, and hold connected meanings. Even the carpets have elaborate patterns and colours that are indicative of an inevitable labyrinth (Logas 79).
Logas observes that when Jack is talking with Delbert Grady, the ghost of the caretaker who murdered his own family, the exchange takes place in a bathroom that is painted red and white. The red overwhelms the scene, giving us the feel that Jack has already descended into torment. The scene where Grady’s twin daughters confront Jack’s young son Danny takes place in a corridor decorated with vibrantly coloured flowery wallpaper. The flowers become a sarcastic counterpoint to the gruesome picture of the girls chopped up with an axe and the carpet and walls stained with their blood.
Lighting places are a significant part in setting the tone in The Shining. At the start, Jack is lit from above with a scatter light that softens his features. The light is affectionate and welcoming, with amber and peach tones that evoke a sense of peace and tranquillity. As he descends into madness, the lighting of his character changes to match his altered state. The scenes in the Gold Room bar show Jack illuminated from below, as the bar counter itself becomes the source of light; his facial features are deformed by the strange angle of the light. Eventually the colour shifts entirely to an unpleasantly cold blue as Jack hunts Danny inside the snow-filled maze. Jack no longer has the colour of a human being, but of a spectre (Logas 81).
Logas elaborates on how atmospheric effects are used throughout the movie to stir up mood and atmosphere. When Jack’s family first arrives at the hotel, the mountain behind the Overlook is covered by a strangely-shaped ventricular cloud; the cloud imparts an impression of otherworldliness that adds a layer of foreboding to the shot. In the scene where Danny is trying to flee from Jack inside the maze, swirling clouds of snow and mist obscure the action and add to the anticipation.
When Wendy and Danny escape in the snowmobile, their going away is enclosed by a mask of swirling snow that we sense has been generated by the spirits of the Overlook. Jack’s path has been blocked, and the next shot shows Jack frozen to death in the pale light of morning. The Overlook’s exterior appearance changes from day to day, with snowfall piling higher and higher on its sides and distorting its shape to reflect its morphing character. Another remarkable scene occurs in the Gold Ballroom when Jack finds himself at a party full of guests dressed in costumes from the 1920’s; the room is filled with cloudy smog that filters everything with a dull light. Again, the filmmakers give us visual clues that the spirit world has intersected with the world of the living (Logas 83).
Props are used to create a frame of mind and add anxiety to scenes. Danny’s tricycle allows him to glide through the various corridors of the Overlook, and gives the camera a commonsensical basis to fly down the corridors behind him. With each turn into a new hallway, we look forward to encounter some form of terror. The sudden jolt we get when his way is blocked by the twin girls is confounded by our expectation of movement through the space. This run into would have been much less spectacular if Danny had simply walked or ran down the corridor (MacDougall 67).
The choice of weaponry all the way through the film mocks the suburban way of life. At first Wendy defends herself from Jack using a baseball bat, an object designed for recreation and fitness. Jack chooses a fireman’s axe as his weapon of choice, while Wendy protects herself with a long kitchen knife. All of these props are forced into uses that do not correspond to original designs – the fireman’s axe is designed to break down doors to save people, not kill them, while the kitchen knife is designed to cut up food for human consumption, and not to skewer them. By reassigning these items to new tasks, Kubrick plays with our view of what is safe and what is not, and scoffs us with our previous associations of these objects to household tranquillity (MacDougall 68).
Among movies, the survival horror field is possibly most highly developed in the use of mise-en-scene to create a frame of mind in the audience. As in The Shining, this mood is one of gradually developing fright and terror. In Silent Hill 4, the Room is the latest discharge in the Silent Hill sequence of games. Like its predecessors, close interest is given to creating an impression of anxiety and horror. In their post-mortem on the movie in Game Developer Magazine, developers Akihiro Imamura and Akira Yamoaka talk about the nature of horror in the progression (Logas 84).
While the Silent Hill series lies securely in the horror/action adventure genre, the core of the terror is not a fright of being attacked and killed by ghastly creatures. Rather, it is a psychological terror of being gradually stalked and cornered by mysterious beings. It’s not really about the shock value, but much more of a deeper sense of apprehension; you know something is coming, but you don’t know when and you can’t stop it (Silent Hill 4, Konami, 2004).
Konami states that the stage design in Silent Hill 4 makes impressive use of the concepts of mise-en-scene to help capture this apprehension. As indicated by the title, The Room takes place in the apartment of the main character, Henry Townsend. Just as the Overlook Hotel becomes an important character in The Shining, Room 302 of South Ashfield Heights becomes a character that the player will come to know all too well. Room 302 at first glance is a simple building with a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room/kitchen area, and a laundry room. At the onset of the film, there are two noticeable signs of something being very wrong. The face door of the building has been chained up from within by an impracticable criss crossing network of heavy chains.
In the bathroom (the location of prime exposure in a house) a wide open hole has appeared in the wall. Should the player take the time to inspect the area about the hole, the level designer has left clues that this hole had been punched inward, into the bathroom (Logas 85).
Henry is trapped in his apartment with no contact to the external world. He leaves through the hole in the bathroom and enters one unsettling place after another, with his only way of flee being a hole in that world which connects to his bathroom. Even though there is an anxious danger in not being able to escape the apartment, at the same time it is a safe haven. It is here that the player can save the game and can also store up and reclaim items that they might need for the next encounter. As the movie progresses, however, the building itself little by little changes to expose more and more scary details. The simple arrangement of furnishings allows the player to promptly become familiarized with how things are laid out, and immediately notice if something is not right (Jerome 98).
Jerome further says that even in its original “normal” condition, the apartment does not pass on a sense of placidity. The apartment scenes take place in the first person, which allows the player to observe things closely and conveys a sensation of being in the space. The ceilings feel low and cramped, creating a feeling of claustrophobia in the player. The palette of everything in the apartment is largely greys and yellows, with some browns. The fortifications are not white, but an off white that is changed with dull gray and just a hint of yellow in various places. The lighting is dim, and gives everything in the bedroom and living room a flat, gray appearance. The furnishings in the building are very bare and austere. The entrances are pock distinct. The decorations on the walls are serene landscapes that contrast sharply with the horror that Henry is about to go through. Even so, a sense of foreboding is caused in the player by Henry’s explanation that these photos were taken at Silent Hill – the location of previous horrible events in previous games.
Henry is able to look out the windows of his apartment, and even through a small hole in the wall to his next-door neighbour’s room. Looking out the windows the player sees a city full of life. Dozens of people go about their gray but sunlit day, free to stroll where they desire and unaware of the man who can’t leave his room and join them (Jerome 99).
Looking through the hole in the wall, Henry can see a little bit of the girl next-door’s apartment. While Henry’s room is greyish and empty, her room has pink flowered wallpaper, a pink stuffed bunny on the bed and a wardrobe with clothes hanging on the open door. Her span gives a nature of life, while Henry’s gives a nature of mustiness and entropy (Jerome 99).
Jerome states that in designing the apartment, the level designer imparts things about the story to the player on several different levels. On a position level, this room has clearly been here a very long time and has never been looked after particularly well. On a personal level, Henry seems to be a neat, quiet and sentimental person (in addition to the Silent Hill photos, his apartment also contains photos of himself as a child and in high school). Finally, on an emotional level, the room expresses an atmosphere of awkwardness and slow decay – even before the actual decay of the room into a nightmare space begins.