For all the traditional perspective - framed - arts (photography, theatre, painting) the position of the viewer, the vantage point for ‘seeing’, is a fixed point in space that is pre-defined and pre-determined by the act of composing. The photographer arranges the frame to show visual content and that process, by its nature, creates a position for the viewer. The painter, similarly, in the act of painting creates a vantage point for observation. For theatre, which brings a more flexible compositional frame derived from the space of the theatrical venue itself, there is none the less a pre-ordained and fixed position of spectatorship. The theatre director knows where the audience will be and, knowing this information, composes the work accordingly. For painter, photographer and theatre director alike the Mise en scene, the act placing into the ‘stage’, is a framic arrangement based on fixed position of observation. In this regard William Mitchell links these artists as being forms of ‘perspective artist’ who “can control the image by varying the parameters of situation point” (1992, p118)
This understanding, at once both reasonably obvious and consistent, has formed the spine of cinema and the moving image. The point of difference for cinema, that marks it with unique qualities from it’s theatrical and still-photographic predecessors, is the ability to move and shift the position of observation in space and time; to offer multiple spatio-temporal perspectives on a framic composition. Both the twin pillars of cinematic understanding – Mise en scene and Montage - exploit this property. For the Realists, proponents of long-take cinema and temporal continuity, it is the movement of the frame in space to be repositioned (or reposition itself) that formed the ability to shift perspective, to relocate the point of observation. For the Formalists, who saw the fundamental power of cinema as lying in the edit and the construction of meaning by montage, the method differs but the result is the same; the ‘cut’ delivering a spatial and temporal relocation of the viewer to engage with the framic composition from multiple vantage points.
The methods differ but in either case the compositional impetus and paradigm is the same - overtly concerned as they are ostensibly with temporal rather than spatial imperatives. The act of composing cinema is fundamentally one of deciding (and pre-deciding) where the viewer will be and then subsequently arranging the scenic contents for that view point. With the primary decision being Where is the viewer? everything else is subsequent, built from the answer to that question. Bordwell and Thompson distil the perspective paradigm as;
“that stable space of proscenium theatrical representation, in which the spectator is always positioned beyond the fourth wall. The axis of the action (or center) line becomes the imaginary vector of movements, character positions, and glances in the scene, and ideally the camera should not stray over the axis.” (1985) p56
There is certainly nothing radical about this idea, its consistency over the history of cinema has stood despite continual stylistic, cultural and conceptual challenges. But the current digital age of media construction has delivered new technology-based toolsets that, by substantially altering the means to make cinema, alter the aesthetics by which cinema is experienced. Mise en scene’s base pillar is a staging for the camera where the act of composing visually is first and foremost about composing the position of the viewer with the tool of the frame. This construct however comes under direct challenge by contemporary technology and production processes. New methods and tools of making cinematic art prompt us to re-define what cinematic composition is, and relegate the notion of the ‘Frame’ to a distinctly different function than which it has occupied for so long; one focused on reception and delivery and not composition and construction. The digitally-derived tools that inspire this re-evaluation of the role of the frame are many and varied - indeed the pace of technological change ensures a steady stream of challenges - but there are none the less fundamental consistencies in the varying technological apparatuses that give rise to a tangible pattern of new cinema aesthetics. Aesthetics that are brought to bare by the new production processes the technology brings. Central among these is 3D CGI space.
Mitchell, W.J., 1992. The reconfigured eye visual truth in the post photographic era, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K., 2001. Film Art an introduction 6th editio., New York: McGraw-Hill.