Film & TV

What Is Mise en Scène in Film?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 5 min read

Whether audiences realize it or not, there are many elements in plays and in movies that help guide a viewer’s attention. Here’s everything you need to know about mise en scène, one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous yet hard-to-define terms.

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What Is Mise en Scène?

Mise en scène, pronounced meez-ahn-sen, is a term used to describe the setting of a scene in a play or a film. It refers to everything placed on the stage or in front of the camera—including people. In other words, mise en scène is a catch-all for everything that contributes to the visual presentation and overall “look” of a production. When translated from French, it means “placing on stage.”

10 Components of Mise en Scène in Film

Mise en scène creates a sense of place for the audience whether they realize it or not. It does so by using:
1. Actors: Actors, their performances, and their performance styles are crucial parts of mise en scène. When an actor is on screen, they’re typically the focal point, so their presence carries a lot of weight for the overall look of the story.
2. Location: The location of the scene sets the mood and supports the action. For example, in a scene in which a man proposes to his girlfriend, a domestic setting sets a completely different tone than a public one.
3. Set design: Set design refers to everything the audience sees within a particular scene. These details help build out the world of the location and add even more context to the story. If it’s a dorm room, are there books and notebooks on the desk to indicate studying? Or are there pizza boxes and red cups to indicate a party?
4. Lighting: Lighting is often the tool that conveys mood most clearly. High-key lighting, often used in musicals and romantic comedies, relies on hard light to minimize shadows. Low-key lighting, often used in horror movies, features a high-contrast lighting pattern to both brighten and darken parts of the frame.
5. Shot blocking and camera placement: Blocking is working with performers to figure out their body positions, gestures, and movements on stage. In cinema, blocking also involves working out the placement and movements of the camera, and can impact the lighting, set design, and more. Both shot blocking and camera placement are effective tools that convey things like characters’ status and relationships to the audience.
6. Composition: Composition is the deliberate selection of frames and camera angles that make up a shot. Manipulating composition can accentuate the emotional themes of the story and communicate a sense (or lack) of meaning to the audience.
7. Depth of space: The depth of space is the distance between people, props, and scenery, both in relation to one another and the camera. Much like shot blocking, it can tell the audience a lot about the tone of the scene and the status of the characters. Is the space shallow or deep? Does this accurately capture the truth of the narrative?
8. Film stock: The film stock refers to the appearance of the movie on the screen. Is it in black and white, or color? Is the film fine-grain, or grainy? Each tells a different story.
9. Costumes: Costumes are the clothes actors wear and how they’re tailored to fit them. For costumes to be effective, a costume designer must know which colors look right on a character, and then reconcile this with the colors suited to the actor playing the part and the color palette of the production design.
10. Hair and makeup: Hair and makeup are the physical touches that help actors transform into their characters, such as prosthetics, blood, or aging techniques. Like costumes, hair and makeup are fundamental ingredients in the story being told.

Who Determines Mise en Scène in Film Production?

The mise en scène of a theater or film production is a collaboration among dozens of professionals. It’s determined by the director with the help of the following:

  • Cinematographer
  • Production designer
  • Prop master
  • Location manager
  • Gaffer
  • Visual effects supervisor
  • Costume designer
  • Makeup artists
  • Hairdressers

But in many ways, mise en scène is not a production term. While the director and their crew are aware of the elements that contribute to a project’s mise en scène, the actual term is more often used in film studies and film criticism when discussing how or why a particular scene works.

Mise en Scène and the History of Film Criticism

In the 1950s, film critics and the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma began using the term mise en scène when reviewing movies. However, because there is no singular definition of mise en scène, its usage varies. André Bazin, a co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma and an expert in Italian Neorealism, argued that as film technology became more advanced, editing became less important. He and his colleagues valued the components of mise en scène more than good editing, as mise en scène afforded directors more opportunities to be artistic. Thus, directors began using long takes to leverage the impact of mis en scène.

A long take is a single continuous shot that lasts longer than the average shot without editing or cutting away. With the help of moving cameras, the audience can follow characters and see more of their world from different angles, all while staying in the moment. When done well, a long take accomplishes the goal of conveying mise en scène.

3 Famous Films With Memorable Mise en Scène

There are many examples of mise en scène in film. Some of the most famous and well-executed are:

  • Citizen Kane: During a flashback to Charles Kane’s childhood, director Orson Welles was deliberate with composition and depth of space. He placed Kane outside playing in the snow, visually between the adults debating his future. Welles also employed deep focus—a term used to describe when everything in the frame is in focus at once—to guide the viewer’s attention.
  • The Graduate: Director Mike Nichols cleverly played with costuming as part of the film’s mis en scène. When we see Mrs. Robinson at the Taft Hotel, she’s wearing a fur animal-print coat, which reinforces her role as a predator.
  • Amélie: Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet used production design to communicate traits about Amélie’s character. Her warm and whimsical bedroom establishes her in the audience’s mind as a positive, playful person.

Pay careful attention to the elements of mise en scène the next time you watch a movie. Every prop, angle, and texture was chosen deliberately to help better immerse you in the world of the story.