A Closer Look at 'Under the Skin’s' (Film) Mise-en-scène & Marketing Choices
2013 science fiction art film directed by Jonathan Glazer, starring Scarlett Johansson
Read Time: 12-15 minutes excluding videos
A lot of the content I post is marketing-related, but from time to time I like to express my other interest or area of study: film and/or television! I graduated from university with a Double Degree in Marketing and Screen Arts.
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WARNING: Spoilers Below
The mise-en-scène choices a director makes depends on the effect he/she wants to achieve moment by moment, scene by scene. In this Vocal Story I will be analysing Under the Skin directed by Jonathan Glazer. Specifically I will be exploring how the director’s vision was created through the manipulation of key elements of form and style for dramatic effect with reference to: lighting, sound design, framing, setting colour, as well as costume colour.
ABOUT THE FILM
Under the Skin is an adaption of Michel Faber’s 2000 cult science fiction novel of the same name.
It’s about an unnamed alien woman who combs the highways in a van in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring the lost souls into an otherworldly lair. The film examines human experience from an alien perspective. Watch the trailer linked below.
Want to know where you can watch the film? I've listed several platforms at the end.
Much of the impact of an image comes from the manipulation of lighting (Bordwell and Thompson 2013). Under the Skin doesn’t have a lot of lighting variety compared to other films - Glazer uses mainly natural lighting. In an overwhelming number of shots you almost don’t know what you’re looking at: often the unnamed alien character has an almost totally dark face except for eye-lights and the lighting of the lower half of her face as shown below.
Under the Skin has a very dizzying buzzing score that carries on relentlessly, like a beehive or otherworldly hornet’s nest - Listen to the soundtrack titled "Love" linked below:
Sometimes the strings resemble nails going down a chalkboard screaming, like an eerie horror-movie soundtrack with the ability to really get under viewers’ skins.
The music is very much the blood of the film because it describes the alien character in a way that the camera cannot, and that we do not have words for. The music sounds are very intertwined and thus indistinguishable from one another—it's hard to tell where one sound ends and another one begins. The music is also eruptive in places and emotional, whilst the frame remains unmoved, unexcitable or indifferent - a contrast which is especially jarring during horrific events. However, as the film progresses, there are scenes that have no soundtrack whatsoever, a blankness or silence of affect that captures the alien's own distance from the humans she observes. It becomes about embracing the sounds of the real world, such as: rain and wind.
In cinema, “framing is not simply a neutral border; it imposes a certain vantage point onto the material within the image - it actively defines the image for us,” (Bordwell and Thompson 2013). The unnamed character in Under the Skin has a sturdy dominance of the frame.
Glazer uses unconventional shooting methods in Under the Skin, with a guerrilla style execution - many of the "victims" captured by the alien character were non-actors whose exchanges were captured on hidden cameras giving the film a uniquely roughshod feel.
The name of the game was to stay hidden; to hide in plain sight. This hidden camera approach wasn't used for every scene. The team also used the Arri Alexa [a digital motion picture camera system] to shoot the staged scenes producing some beautifully dark images, but in order to capture the spontaneity of the unrehearsed, "hidden camera" scenes, they created a very small camera especially for the film and called it the ‘One-Cam’ (Renee 2014).
It’s essentially “about the size of a household box of matches in which you could fit 16 mm lenses on it, with a very good quality image,” (Bernstein 2014).They rigged the van with eight hidden cameras, recording her (the alien character) improvised interactions with any given passer-by in real time and with maximum coverage (Renee 2014).
This stealthily filming enabled Glazer to work with people who weren’t aware of the cameras and to retain the spontaneity of the performance with non-actors. Glazer’s reason for using a documentary-like style is to properly portray the real world from an alien perspective. He was devoted to experiencing things as the alien did, really - by being alongside her, by keeping with her perspective (Anders 2014). He wanted to be “with her, and away from the world,” (Anders 2014). Watch Under the Skin: The Hidden Lens linked below:
The One-Cam in Under the Skin covered some really interesting angles, which allows the viewer to watch the alien character in different ways. Under the Skin’s point of view is jarring to say the least. We are accustomed to objectification of women’s bodies, but less accustomed to the blunt meat-market tactics applied to men in this film (Vint 2015). This is reinforced in the film by camera movement and framing. In the early scenes we join the alien character as she drives around Glasgow, the camera's gaze standing in for hers. As she cruises the streets and looks at passers-by, the camera remains static when it frames women, who walk in and out of the shots without prompting a reaction; however, it pans and tracks the men who enter the frame, consuming them visually (Vint 2015). This camera work prompts the viewers to realize that something is off with the alien’s idea of men, but we often fail to notice when it is women rather than men captured by the gaze (Vint 2015).
The Arri Alexa in Under the Skin also covered some really interesting angles. One of the most interesting shots of the film is the image of the alien character walking away with the man half submerged which is then framed to locate us as if we, too, are following her until we lose ourselves in the film’s dangerous beauty, swallowing us whole - See image below (Betancourt 2014).
From the start, Under the Skin’s ‘witness’ approach made the film very un-cinematic or un-Hollywood compared to other films. The film's “camera style is all about witnessing - the camera's not excited - and this allows the alien to witness things we do and allows us to then watch her reaction to those things,” (Anders 2014). Glazer’s approach, far from a typical cinematic look, uses an unfettered image that enhances the voyeuristic and uncomfortable angle of the film. The imagery has a reality and naturalness to it, unlike other films, which is quite beautiful. As viewers, we’re conditioned to cinema defaulting to Hollywoodized versions of reality over reality itself, and when presented with a film such as Under the Skin which uses little additional lighting or makeup, it’s a bit disconcerting to start with.
An example of a non-Hollywood scene is the shocking scene on the beach (linked below) where we watch from afar along with the alien character as a person is drowning. A typical Hollywood scene would get in the middle of the action, but this deliberate non-Hollywood approach makes it seem as we just stumbled upon this awful event. Overall though, the film can be divided up into two parts: the everyday kind documentary-like sequences, and the fantastical sequences which are visual effects heavy.
SETTING & COSTUME COLOUR
The alien character in Under the Skin has a remarkably limited wardrobe and is only ever seen in shades of red and black. Safe to say it has a very muted and almost drab colour palette compared to other films. Each scene tends to have what is called a ‘limited palette’ or ‘monochromatic colour design’ whereby “the director emphasizes a single colour varying it only in purity or lightness,” (Bordwell and Thompson 2013). In monochromatic mise-en-scène the slightest fleck of a contrasting colour (The alien character’s red top shown below) will catch the viewer’s attention and suggest that this difference in colour is loaded with meaning and is an important part of the narrative (Bordwell and Thompson 2013). Colours take on a role in the film: blue is used to articulate isolation, sadness and desolation; red represents passion, anger and trouble (Rogers 2012).
JONATHAN GLAZER TALKING ABOUT THE FILM
9 minutes in, Glazer discusses the lighting: “The aesthetic wasn’t important to me in this film actually...the aesthetic was that there was no aesthetic actually, and the word that we kept using was ‘unadorned’...it was very important to me that everything felt unadorned, it felt like, as it was. I challenged every light, because I wanted daylight...I’d rather that than anything we’re gonna construct.”
13 minutes in, Glazer discusses simplicity: “You want everything in a film to be essential, you know that thought about ‘the perfect machine is the one with the fewest parts’ you know, you don’t start with the fewest parts, you’re trying to distill to the fewest parts. Simplicity is something you end with, you don’t start with it, you get to it. If you’re lucky you get to it.”
DIRECTOR JONATHAN GLAZER’S PREVIOUS WORK
Glazer has only done a total of 3 feature films, namely: Sexy Beast in 2000, Birth in 2004 and Under the Skin in 2013 - So there were 9 years between feature films, which is a pretty long time.
Birth is about a 35 year old woman (played by Nicole Kidman)who encounters a 10 year old boy who is in love with her and is convinced he is the reincarnation of her dead husband. The trailer is linked below. What I find interesting is that both Under the Skin and Birth tackle some rather dark subject matter. Just looking at the titles alone, of all his films, shows that he's interested in the unknown or the questions of humanity.
His most recent commercial (linked below) is for Apple's Watch Series 4 'Flight' which to me is brilliantly done, and possibly his best ad/work to date.
Another commercial he did was for Cadbury's Flake - 'Temptation' in 2010, which Cadbury apparently banned/rejected for pushing things too far from the traditional Flake ad - If you watch the ad (linked below) I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not appropriate or congruent.
Glazer has done more short-form content like music videos and commercials, than full feature length films. I think that his acquaintance with short-form content and the 9 year gap between films really shows through in Under the Skin because it feels disjointed at points.
MARKETING 'UNDER THE SKIN'
The marketing campaign for A24’s Under the Skin had a hard time of it, as the film's storyline and approach don’t lend themselves well to hooking huge audiences all at once. To overcome this challenge they experimented with Craigslist ads and ended up creating a unique viral sexually charged marketing campaign. Their clever, seductive ad shown below hints at a peculiar kind of connection if fans respond to the ad.
The ad takes people to the website “www.T0uch-Me.com”, which has a bunch of particle pixels that all come together to form Scarlett Johansson’s character in a black bra. You can manipulate the picture with the mouse pointer, and it’s an amusing way to spend 15 seconds, though it doesn’t necessarily make me any more interested in the movie than I was before.
Another site is “www.touched-some1.com” which poses the question ‘When was the last time you touched someone?” and when you submit an answer the site shows you all the previous answers. The most recent answers are sadly people sharing links or promoting things, but if you scroll all the way down to the bottom you’ll see some real answers which I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading!! Both sites mentioned above should still work, try them out!!
Additionally, a slew of seductive teaser posters came out, shown below:
To conclude I'd say that anyone who listens to Glazer or watches any of his work can tell that he's a true student of film. He plays around with form and style for dramatic effect, so much so that typical movie-goers may find it difficult to follow. Under the Skin for other students of film, however, is a welcome challenge. Adding onto that, I'd just like to say that film in general is a unique experience, one that we should not take for granted.
'UNDER THE SKIN' TV SERIES
Silver Reel beat out A24 and won the rights to develop an Under the Skin television series and any other potential spin-off projects.
Silver Reel CEO discussing the TV series: "The show will draw a lot from the novel on which the film is based while remaining very respectful to Glazer’s vision."
I'm uncertain how exactly they will serialize the film and book. If or when the TV series comes to fruition, will you watch it?
Where to Watch 'Under the Skin'
Below I've listed/linked [in no particular order] where to watch Under the Skin. However, if you're reading this months after I've posted it, then some or all of the information provided below may have changed.
Rent on YouTube - A$2.99 HD, usually A$4.99
Buy on YouTube - A$14.99 HD, $12.99 SD
Watch on Amazon Prime Video - 7 day free trial, A$6.99 per month after
Rent on Amazon - A$4.99 HD
Buy on Amazon - A$14.99 HD
Rent on Google Play - $3.99
Buy on Google Play - $12.99
Watch on Hulu (America Only) - Free 1 month trial, USD$5.99 after that
Watch on Apple TV - A$7.99 per month
Watch on Kanopy - Start watching for free with your public library card or university login
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Anders, Charlie. 2014. “Under The Skin Is About "De-Eroticizing" Scarlett Johansson”. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/under-the-skin-is-about-de-eroticizing-scarlett-johan-1556420016
Betancourt, Manuel. 2014, July 22. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin, or How Glazer’s alien’s tale is a queer one”. Manuel Betancourt Blog. http://www.mbetancourt.com/under-the-skin/
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2013. Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Renee, V. 2014. “Jonathan Glazer Hides in Plain Sight with Custom-Made Cam to Secretly Shoot 'Under the Skin'”. No Film School. http://nofilmschool.com/2014/04/jonathan-glazer-hides-in-plain-sight-secretly-shoot-under-the-skin-onecam
Rogers, Simon. 2012. "Paradise is Burning: Expressing the Unspeakable through Melodrama in all that Heaven Allows and Far from Heaven." Screen Education (66): 90-98. https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/1282119623?accountid=10382.
Vint, Sherryl. 2015. "Skin Deep: Alienation in Under the Skin 1." Extrapolation. 56 (1): 1-VI. https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/1691157351?accountid=10382.