Style and Setting: Mise-en-Scene

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In the theater, the director positions actors on a carefully designed set, organizing the on-stage space. This staging of the action was dubbed, in French, mise-en scene. The mise-en-scene of a play, then, is all the physical objects on the stage (props, furniture, walls, actors) and the arrangement of those objects to present effectively the play's narrative and themes. "Mise-en-scene," the phrase, was adopted by film studies in the 1960s and broadly used and sometimes misused.

For some film critics the term carried almost mystical connotations, while for others it vaguely described any component of visual style. For our purposes, we will adopt a much narrower understanding of the term. Mise-en-scene will here refer to the staging of the action for the camera. Mise-en-scene thus includes all the objects in front of the camera and their arrangement by directors and their minions. In short, mise-en-scene is the organization of setting, costuming, lighting, and actor movement.

Mise-en-scene is a powerful component of the television apparatus. It forms the basic building block of narrative in fiction programs, influencing our perception of characters before the first line of dialogue is spoken. It directs and shapes our understanding of information in news, game shows, and sports programs.

And it forcefully channels our perception in advertisements and other persuasive TV material. To understand these narrative, informational, and commercial uses of mise-en-scene, we need to consider its basic materials.


The walls of a room, the concrete and asphalt of a city street, the trees of a tropical rain forest, the stylized desk of a TV newsroom: all are elements of a setting that must be either built or selected by the set designer or scenic designer, subject to the approval of the director or producer.

One initial distinction that may be made in television set design is between studio sets (constructed) and location settings (selected). Newscasts, game shows, talk shows, sitcoms, and soap operas all rely on sets erected on television sound stages. Prime-time dramas and MOWs shoot on studio sets, too, but they also make extensive use of location shooting.

The decision to stage a program on a studio set or on location is in equal parts economic, technological, and aesthetic. Studio shooting is more economically efficient because the production resources are centralized. Equipment, actors, and technicians are all conveniently close at hand. For programs such as game shows and sitcoms that incorporate a studio audience, it would obviously be impractical to bus the entire group to a distant location. Technologically speaking, it is certainly not impossible to set up cameras in a remote location (sports programs do it every day and soap operas do it on special occasions), but the equipment cannot be as easily controlled and manipulated when it is out of the studio. This leads to slower production time and increased costs. Aesthetic convention also encourages indoor, studio-based set design for some genres.

Soap operas, for example, tend to tell "indoor" stories. Their aesthetic emphasis on tales of emotion necessitates indoor scenes: hospital rooms, restaurants, bedrooms, and so on. And even when soap opera narratives do go outdoors, such as swimming scenes at the Snyder pond in As the World Turns, they are still mostly shot on studio sets. In contrast, the aesthetics of crime dramas and other action genres demand exterior shooting to facilitate the fast-paced movement of people and cars around city streets. Moreover, location shooting adds a certain patina of "realism" to these programs, which is another aesthetic concern.

Studio Set Design

Studio sets fall into two broad categories: narrative and non-narrative.

Narrative Studio Set Design. The main function of narrative sets is, obviously enough, to house characters engaged in a story. But sets in fiction television are not just neutral backgrounds to the action; they also signify narrative meaning to the viewer. The bar in Cheers, for instance, conveys meaning about the characters who socialize and work there, especially Sam Malone, the bar's owner. The type of bar that it is (lots of polished wood, sports mementos on the walls) helps characterize Malone as a very masculine character and suggests a male camaraderie associated with a neighborhood bar ("where everybody knows your name"). Thus, these sets and props serve as objective correlatives of the characters who inhabit and use them. Or, to put it in different terms, they are narrative icons-objects that represent aspects of character.

Remaining sensitive to the iconography of television programs can help the analyst understand just how characterizations are created.

Narrative significance is not the only thing governing the look of studio sets.

Overriding economic, technological, and aesthetic considerations combine to determine how those sets will be designed.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3 Frasier Set Design

There are no ceilings on most studio sets, for the simple technological/ aesthetic reason that lighting is done from above (more on this later). The lights are hung on a grid where the ceiling would normally be. This lack of ceilings limits the shots that may be done with the camera down low, looking

upward at the characters; such an angle might reveal the tops of the sets and the lights. It also means that ceilings cannot be used within the frame to enclose the characters, creating a slightly claustrophobic sensation-as was popular in 1940s films following the lead of Citizen Kane (1941; Fig. 1). One exception to this is ER, which does indeed reveal the ceilings in its sets (Fig. 2). By so doing, it emulates a prestigious style of shooting not normally associated with television-helping to distinguish it from other TV medical programs such as Chicago Hope (1994-), which debuted at the same time.

Studio sets are normally wider than they are deep, rectangular rather than square. Generally speaking, studio sets are shallow. And, of course, they are constructed of three walls rather than four, with the side walls occasionally splayed outward. The lack of a fourth wall, an aesthetic holdover from the theater, is further necessitated by the technological need to position two or three (or more) bulky video or film cameras in front of the actors. The added width gives the camera operators room to maneuver sideways, allowing them to vary their camera positions, mostly along a line that, in a sense, forms the invisible fourth wall. In studio production the cameras do not move forward or backwards very much because the closer they get to the actors, the more likely they will be within range of another camera behind them. As with the cameras, the actors also tend to move side-to-side, rather than up-and-back because of the limited depth of the sets.

Fig. 4; Fig. 5

Fig. 3 diagrams the main apartment in Frasier (1993-) -as is shown in Figs. 4 and 5. The lateral orientation of the set is quite evident. To the left is the door through which family and friends enter. From there we encounter the living room furniture (Fig. 4). The dining table, kitchen, and a hallway are on the right (Fig. 5). The function of this set is to permit free interaction among the main characters-three of whom live together. Although the movement on this set is predominantly side-to-side, there is a hallway to the bedroom on the left and a balcony in the back of the set that are occasionally incorporated.

The positioning of doors on the sides facilitates actors entering and exiting the room without blocking or being blocked by other actors. Aesthetic convention also holds that doors not be located "behind" the cameras on the invisible fourth wall. On television, characters never exit toward the cameras or enter from behind them. This shows, once again, the aesthetic influence of the theater, where such an entrance or exit would mean walking into or out of the audience. Television maintains the sense of our being behind the cameras, and does not want to draw attention to us by having the characters walk directly toward us.

The quick and easy entering/exiting of characters is important to all narrative programs, but it is especially significant to ones in which the narrative is segmented and interruptible. Soap opera is the pinnacle of this trend. Soap opera characters are constantly coming, going, and being interrupted by other characters' entrances and exits. This is necessitated by the genre's frequently interrupted narrative structure. (Just when the two young lovers are about to consummate their romance, someone knocks on the door or the phone rings; more instances of coitus interruptus have appeared on soap opera than any other genre in narrative history.) Thus, a seemingly small detail like the position of the doors in a set's design fits into the overall narrative scheme of a genre. Set design follows narrative function.

Fig. 6 Studio Setup for Programs with Studio Audiences

Fig. 7 Studio Setup for Live-on-Tape Programs Without An Audience

These three-sided rectangular boxes are arrayed in specific fashion in television sound stages, depending on whether an audience is present at the filming or taping. This economic/technological concern influences the size and shape of the sets, as well as the number of settings an episode will have. Narrative programs with studio audiences, such as Frasier, typically have room for only three (or at most four) sets, which are arranged next to one another, facing the audience (Fig. 6). The program's main location, such as the Frasier living room, is usually placed in the center, so that most of the audience can see it well.

In contrast, programs without audiences are produced on sets parallel to one another, leaving the middle space open for cameras and other equipment. In the CBS studios in New York, two separate studios are dedicated to videotaping As the World Turns. Six to ten sets are put together every single day, although some of the more elaborate sets are left standing from one day to the next. They are positioned against the walls (Fig. 7), with the videotape control room located right next door.

The economic reliance on studio sets has the aesthetic repercussion of limiting the stories to a very few locations: just three or four in a weekly sitcom, and seven or eight in the more narrative complicated daily soap opera. In a sense, stories must be written for the sets. Characters must be brought together in locations that are as much economically required as they are aesthetically determined. (This is also why when characters die or leave a soap opera other characters often move in to their houses and apartments.) And a large part of what they may do and what themes are presented is determined by where they are. Hospital sets are used to deal with issues of life, death, paternity, and maternity. Courtrooms house questions of justice. Private homes are the sites of intense personal and interpersonal emotions. In television programs, setting often determines story and theme, rather than vice versa.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

Non-narrative Studio Sets. Most non-narrative genres (e.g., news, sports programs, and game shows) make a very different use of space than narrative programs do. This use of space aligns with a different way of ad dressing the viewer. Non-narrative programs seldom create the illusion of an everyday room, preferring instead to construct a space that more resembles that of non-narrative theater (that is, music and dance performances): a stylized pre-sensational space that directly addresses the performance to us. Non-narrative programs do not create the illusion that we do not exist, but instead acknowledge us by performing toward us. The direct address of non-narrative television is evident in the way that the set design positions the spectacle for our entertainment. News desks face the cameras straight on (Fig. 8). Game show hosts stand behind podiums that are aimed at the cameras (Fig. 9). The furniture on talk show sets positions guest and host at 45-degree angles to one another so they face the camera as much as each other (Fig. 10). In short, the set design of non-narrative programs is emblematic of the form of address they use.

The studio sets we see on newscasts, game shows, talk shows, musical variety programs, and the like follow different conventions than those of narrative television. Within each non-narrative genre the conventions of set design are often quite rigid. What follows is a sampling of the various non-narrative set designs and is not meant to be exhaustive.

The sets of network and local news broadcasts invariably include some form of desk behind which the anchors sit. The desk implies that these are busy, working journalists, pausing briefly from tracking down leads to pass a few tidbits on to the viewer. Behind them, on many news sets, is a newsroom (actual or fabricated) that reemphasizes the earnestness of their journalistic mission (Fig. 8). These newsroom sets stress the up-to-the-minute nature of TV news, as if one of the worker drones in the background might hand the anchor a news flash at any moment. Adding to the illusion of immediacy are monitors into which reporters on location may insert remote segments at that moment.

The mise-en-scene of game shows is one of the few that regularly incorporates into it social actors (see section 4), members of the audience.

Consequently, the sets of many game shows play up the audience's presence by incorporating the audience area into what still might be called the performance area. As the difference between spectator and performer blurs, so does the demarcation between audience space and performance space. This is particularly evident in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where host Regis Philbin conducts the competition on a stage surrounded by the audience, from which the contestants are drawn through a competitive process (Fig. 11). These audience members function as our surrogates, pulling us into the action in a way that few other television genres can. The program's set design confirms this alliance.

Fig. 11; Fig. 12

Other conventions of the game show set include some form of scoreboard, a space for contestants, and a podium for the host. Beyond that, each program must develop some distinctive contest, which maybe represented in visual terms: for example, Wheel of Fortune (1975-) contestants spin an oversized roulette wheel and a woman in evening wear reveals letters forming a phrase by turning blocks suspended on a frame (Fig. 12). Surrounding the game itself may be a broad assortment of neon-bright colors and on-stage lights-unlike most other genres where the studio lights are hidden from view. Note the evident lighting grid in Fig. 13, above the set of The Newlywed Game. In this shot, the lights cause a minor distortion, a flare, diagonally across the image-drawing attention to themselves. Similarly, the set design of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire emphasizes lights above and below the host and the contestants, and even reveals part of the structure that appears to support the lights (Fig. 14). Obviously, these swirls of light and color signify excitement and heighten competitive tension. They also reemphasize the value of winning and the glamorous validity of competition.

FIG. 13

Fig. 14

Many talk show sets have inherited the desk from television news. NBC's venerable The Tonight Show has had a desk since 1954 (Fig. 10). In this instance the desk provides a boundary between guest and host and, further, establishes the authority of the host over the guests, who do not get their own desks and must eventually share the couch with other guests. Additional areas of the set establish separate, theatrical spaces for performances by Jay Leno and visiting musicians and comics (Fig. 15). Thus, set design facilitates the talk show's two main functions: conversation and performance.

Location Set Selection

Most sports programs and news events (or actualities) are videotaped on lo cation. The reason for this is obvious enough: Sports and news activities occur out in historical reality, where the newscasters "capture" them for us. Not all parts of historical reality are equally significant, however. Some settings are invisible to television. Why? Either they are taken for granted and are not considered important enough for TV (e.g., the inside of a factory, unless there's a strike or an industrial accident); or they are officially banned by the government (e.g., the battlefields of the Gulf War); or they are censured by television itself (e.g., a gay bar). Missing from television's location settings are the ideologically safe (that which is so "normal" it has no meaning) and the ideologically dangerous (that which is so "abnormal" or threatening it must be contained and censured). There are certain television sports and news settings, or types of settings, that recur over and over again and acquire meaning from this repetition. In sports, for example, the center court stadium at Wimbledon carries specific connotations of British royalty, wealth, and class status, in addition to the tennis competition. The mud-and-crushed-cars setting of a monster truck competition carries a whole separate set of connotations.

Television news also makes pointed use of iconography. Fig. 16 is a shot of a reporter standing before some significant news scene. This denotes first that "she is really there:' and second that the information she is giving us must be true because she is at the scene and has witnessed something personally. Thus, setting is typically used in TV news to validate the authenticity of the report. Further, when local newscasters present themselves standing on the site of a murder or car crash or the like, it is usually hours after the event has taken place. The event itself cannot be shown, so its setting is used to stand in for it, to certify that it really took place and that it really happened as the reporter is telling us it happened.

Setting thus becomes a guarantor of television's verisimilitude-its illusion of truth and reality-and it helps authenticate the reporter's interpretation of the event.

Fig. 15; Fig. 16

Sports and news programs are not the only television shows that shoot on location, however. Many narrative programs also use location settings. Al though most sitcoms and soap operas do not usually tape on location (except during sweeps weeks when ratings are taken), prime-time dramas and MOWs frequently shoot outside the studio walls. Mostly, this location shooting is used for outdoor, exterior scenes. Indoor, interior scenes are still shot on studio sets, except in rare circumstances. Location setting in narrative programs is used, as in news, to heighten television's sense of verisimilitude, of being "true to reality." Police and crime programs, for instance, are prone to location shooting to authenticate the realism of the show. NYPD Blue (1993-) would strike us as "phony" if the exterior scenes were shot on a studio lot and not the streets of New York City. However, verisimilitude isn't the only motivating factor in the use of location settings in narrative programs. Narrative, like the news, makes extensive use of the pre-established iconography of the real world. Miami Vice is a particularly good example of this. The program's opening credits consist of a collage of Miami sights (and sites) and thus play on our associations with the city: Cuban culture, money, power, overheated sexuality, potential violence, and so on (Figs. 17- 19). Ironside (1967-75); Hawaii Five-0 (1968-80); The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77); and Magnum, P.I. (1980-88) are among the other police/detective programs that draw on the iconography of a particular location. Thus, setting-whether constructed or selected-is not iconographically neutral. It always has the potential to contribute meaning to the narrative or the program's theme.

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

Fig. 19

Fig. 20

Fig. 21


In narrative television, costume design is closely allied with set design. Just as props and backgrounds are objective correlatives or icons designed to establish character, so are the clothes a character wears. Dr. Mark Greene's scrubs and glasses (ER), Columbo's distinctively rumpled trench coat (Peter Falk on Columbo [1971-77] ), B.A.'s copious jewelry (Mr. Ton The A-Team [1983-87]), and even Kenny's cartoon snow parka (South Park [1997-]) help construct the characters who wear them (Figs. 3.2, 20, 21, 22). Costume is one of the first aspects of a character that we notice and on which we build expectations. It is a significant part of the program's narrative system. Columbo's rumpled overcoat expresses the sort of detective he is-suggesting that doesn't care about superficial things like appearance and also misleading murder suspects into thinking he doesn't notice details. He was so clearly identified by his iconography that ads for a Columbo MOW needed only ask rhetorically: "How many detectives can catch a killer with nothing but a trenchcoat and a cigar? Only one. Peter Falk in the role he made famous ... Columbo: Ashes to Ashes [2000] on ABC." Costume design is not limited to narrative television. News and sports have their own coded conventions of appropriate dress. Sports teams are the most regimented, with their uniforms identifying both which side of the conflict they are on and what their position within that conflict is (e.g., football players' uniforms are numbered according to the positions they play). The dress of sportscasters is practically as regimented as the players' uniforms is, with men wearing the inevitable blazer and women dressed in modified blazers or some variation on the businesswoman's suit. In news there is a sharp demarcation between the formal business dresses and suits of the anchorwomen and men, and the less formal dress of the reporters in the field. The studied "informality" of the field reporters (appearing in their suspenders or wearing fatigues while covering international incidents) signifies that they are the ones in the trenches, digging stories out by any means necessary.


In the early years of television, camera technology dictated that sets be broadly and brightly lit. Because the early TV cameras were not very sensitive to light, a huge amount of illumination was necessary to transmit the simplest image.

Consequently, TV cameras could only broadcast images of outdoor scenes in direct sunlight or indoor scenes under powerful studio lights. Today, however, cameras are much more sensitive, which presents videographers and cinematographers with the ability to manipulate lighting for a variety of effects. No longer is it a matter of simply getting enough light on the set; now lighting may be used to develop mood or tone and contribute to characterization.

Fig. 22

Fig. 23

The Characteristics of Light

There are four basic properties of light in television direction, intensity, color, and diffusion (or dispersion).

Lighting Direction and Intensity. Probably the most significant lighting characteristic is the direction in which the light is shining. Lighting direction has long been used to imply aspects of a character. Underlighting (the light source below the subject) has suggested a rather sinister character in hundreds of horror and suspense television programs. In Fig. 23, from the "Lane Change" episode of Amazing Stories (1985-87), the joy of a bridal couple is undermined by the eerie lighting. Backlighting may be used to mask a killer's identity or imply an angelic state. In the case of the music video for Low Pop Suicide's "Disengaged" (Fig. 24), backlighting may heighten the enigmatic character of the lead singer. The variation of camera position derives much of its significance from its deviation from a conventional norm of lighting known as three-point fighting.

Three-point lighting is yet another part of the legacy that television inherited from the cinema. According to this aesthetic convention an actor (or object)

should be lit from three points or sources of light of varying intensity: the key light, the fill light, and the back light (Fig. 25). The key light is the main source of illumination, the most intense light on the set. Normally, it is positioned at an oblique angle to the actor's faces-not directly in front or directly to the side. And, as in all three points of light, it is above the actor's head and several feet in front. If this is the only light on the set-as in Fig. 26-there will be deep shadows beneath the actor's nose and chin; and these, in conventional television, are thought to be unsightly. Consequently, a second source of illumination is provided to fill the shadows. This fill light is directed obliquely toward the actor from the opposite side of the key light, at approximately the same height (or a little lower), and is roughly half as bright as the key light.

The third point, the back light, is placed behind and above the actor. Its main function is to cast light on actors' heads and shoulders, creating an outline of light around them. This outline helps to distinguish the actors from backgrounds. In Fig. 27, for instance, fill and back lights have been added to a shot of the actor from Fig. 26.

Fig. 24

Fig. 25: Three-Point Lighting Back Light; Fill Light Key Light

Fig. 26-7

Fig. 28

Fig. 29

On any particular studio set, three-point lighting is achieved with more than just three lights. But the basic principle of one main source of illumination, one source filling in shadows, and one source backlighting the actors dominates all television production. Indeed, this lighting principle prevails in programs as diverse as prime-time dramas, daytime soap operas, and local news broad casts. This norm is so accepted, so taken for granted, that any deviation from it-such as underlighting or sidelighting-seems odd and, more important, communicates meaning to us about the characters.

Two related lighting styles earn their names from the key light: high-key lighting and low-key lighting.

High-key lighting means that the set is very evenly lit, as in most scenes from 1960s sitcoms such as The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). Even though Fig. 28 is from a shot that occurs at night, the lighting is still bright and even. In other words, the difference between the bright areas of the set and the dark areas is very little; there is a low contrast between bright and dark.

High-key lighting is achieved by pumping up the fill light(s) so that the key light is comparatively less strong. Most talk shows, game shows, soap operas, and sitcoms use high-key lighting. The economic decision to shoot these programs with two or three cameras simultaneously (which is cheaper than film-style single-camera shooting) leads to the technological necessity of high-key lighting.

When several cameras are shooting at the same time, the lighting needs to be fairly even so that different camera angles are fully illuminated. In addition, such programs as sports and game shows, which allow for unpredictable figure movements by social actors, need a broadly lit stage so that people do not disappear into the darkness.

These economic and technological imperatives result in an aesthetics of high-key. As the norm, high-key lighting comes to signify normalcy, stasis, equilibrium. Variations on high-key lighting result in deviate meanings.

Low-key lighting means that there is a high contrast between bright and dark areas, that the bright areas are very bright and the dark areas are very dark (Fig. 29). To achieve low-key lighting, the key light must be comparatively stronger than the fill light, so that the bright areas are especially bright. This lighting style often has shafts of light cutting through dark backgrounds--a style that also goes by the name of chiaroscuro when applied to theatrical productions or the dark paintings of Rembrandt. If high-key lighting is associated with normalcy, then low-key represents oppositional values: deviance, disequilibrium, even social rupture. On TV, it is linked to criminal elements or the supernatural and is frequently used in detective, suspense, and mystery programs, as can be seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-; Fig. 30).

Fig. 30

Lighting Color. Light may be colored by placing a filter or gel (short for "gelatin") in front of a light source. Colored light is used to convey different moods (say, blue light for sorrow) and times of day (orange tints for morning, blue for twilight) in narrative television, but principally it is used in stylized set designs for game shows and music videos. Otherwise, colored light is too great a deviation from the norm for use in conventional programs.

Lighting Diffusion. On an overcast day, when the sun's rays are dif fused through the clouds, the shadows that are cast have indistinct, blurred outlines. In television, this form of illumination is called soft light. It is often used to make actors look younger or more vulnerable. Hard light, in contrast, is illustrated by direct, undiffused sunlight and the harsh, distinct shadows it casts. In television, hard light is best exemplified by television news footage that is illuminated by a single light mounted on the camera (Fig. 31, from Cops, which is shot in that same style). Narrative TV finds uses for hard light to emphasize characters' toughness and invulnerability-turning their faces into impenetrable masks (Fig. 32; the lead singer from Manic Street Preachers).

Fig. 31

Fig. 33

Fig. 32

Fig. 34


Section 3 discussed the basics of performance in television. Now let's add a few thoughts about how actors are incorporated as part of the mise-en-scene, how they are moved around the set by the director. In the theater, this pattern of movement around a set is known as blocking.

In blocking a scene, the director must first take into consideration the position of the cameras and the layout of the set. How can the actors be moved around the set in such a fashion as to best reveal them to the camera( s) filming or taping them? Since the sets are usually fairly shallow in most TV studio productions, the actors usually move side to side, rather than up and back (see Fig. 3). The cameras are positioned where the fourth wall would be, pointed obliquely at the set. Consequently, actors' movements tend to be at angles to the cameras as they move laterally in this shallow space.

Deep space blocking, in contrast, is not commonly used on television. This type of blocking underscores the depth of the set by positioning one actor near the camera and another far away. In Fig. 33, from My So-Called Life (1994-95), Graham Chase watches ballroom dancers, unaware that his wife, Patty, has entered the room behind him. She is slightly out of focus, but when Graham turns his head to look at her, the focus shifts back to her (Fig. 34). Graham is hesitant about dancing. Patty, who persuaded him to go dancing, is in a flamboyant red dress and is about to surprise him with a new haircut. The moods of the characters in the foreground and background counterpoint one another in this scene.

Deep space blocking normally uses deep focus (see section 6), where the entire image is in focus. Occasionally, however, deep space will be used without deep focus, and one of the actors will be out of focus-as in this shot. Thus, deep space and deep focus, though often confused, are independent of one another.


Every television program has a mise-en-scene that communicates meaning to the viewer-meaning that may be understood before a single line of dialogue or news copy is spoken. Mise-en-scene contributes to the narrative system of fiction programs and the informational system of news and sports programs. It is shaped by the needs of these systems and by other economic, technological, and aesthetic concerns.

The frugality of studio shooting has led to a specific style of setting that caters to the technological demands of multiple-camera production. Three-walled, ceilingless studio sets form the backdrop for game shows, soap operas, news pro grams, sitcoms, and the like. In each of these types of programs, the studio setting performs a slightly different function -heightening competition in game shows, signifying journalistic ethics in news programs, and helping construct characters in narrative programs. Location settings play the additional role of signifying verisimilitude-the illusion of reality-in both news and narrative programs.

Costuming is closely linked with set design. Both are aspects of the program's iconography-the objects that signify character and theme.

Most of television's settings and costumes are illuminated in high-key, three point lighting. But there are important deviations from that style. Each of the main properties of light (its direction, intensity, color, and diffusion) can be manipulated in order to contribute to the narrative or the mood of a program.

In low-key or chiaroscuro lighting, for instance, the relative intensities of the light sources are varied to create a high-contrast image of bright light and dark shadow.

Mise-en-scene was originally a theatrical term. Converting it for use in television studies, we must keep in mind that the mise-en-scene of TV is experienced only through the camera; hence it must be designed explicitly for that purpose. This technological parameter thus governs all aesthetic designs of set ting, costuming, lighting, and actor movement, as we shall see in the following section.


The conventions of televisual style are described in many handbooks for television production. See Gerald Millerson, The Technique of Television Production, 13th ed. (Boston: Focal Press, 1999) and Herbert Zettl, Television Production Handbook, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996). Chuck Gloman and Tom LeTourneau detail the specifics of lighting design in Placing Shadows: Lighting Techniques for Video Production, 2nd ed. (Boston: Focal Press, 2000). A more ambitiously theoretical approach is taken in Gorham Kindem, The Moving Im age: Production Principles and Practices (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1987). Kindem endeavors not just to describe television's common practices, but also to articulate the aesthetic rationales of those practices.

The sole attempt to create an entire stylistics of television production is Herbert Zettl, Sight Sound Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999). Zettl's ambitious undertaking is occasionally idiosyncratic and quirky-and also quite provocative.

The most thorough guide to interpreting audial-visual style is not a television book at all: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 6th ed. ( New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000). Although Bordwell and Thompson have nothing to offer on some crucial aspects of television (e.g., multiple-camera editing or the characteristics of videotape), they provide an extensive introduction to understanding cinema production.

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Updated: Wednesday, 2021-05-12 10:17 PST