5 Essential Elements of Successful Mise en Scène in FilmThe visual culmination of a filmmaking collaboration.
“Everything in the frame can carry meaning.”
The more you study and learn about filmmaking, the more you’ll encounter an elusive and fancy-sounding term:
“Mise en scène”.
Mise en scène – literally “placing on stage” in French – is a common term in film analysis and criticism circles. To explain it simply, mise en scène refers to what we see onscreen in a film. It’s the film’s visuals; meaning, all of the elements that appear on camera and their arrangement.
Of course, many different factors contribute to the visuals – the setting, decor, lighting, depth of space, and costumes and makeup, to name only a few – but together, they comprise the mise en scène.
Allow me to indulge a brief detour, here. I’ll bring it back around, I promise!
So recently I served as a judge in a Junior Iron Chef competition at my town’s high school. If you’re familiar with the Iron Chef TV show, then you probably know that it’s a cooking competition in which a celebrity chef is challenged to whip up a dish that impresses a panel of celebrity judges. Junior Iron Chef is similar, except that the chefs are teams of high school kids, and they’re trying to impress, well, me and my fellow judges!
I was a fish out of water. Most of the other judges were restauranteurs and foodies who knew a lot about the competition. I was feeling kind of lost until the person in charge said that, in addition to the food, we should judge the “mise en place.”
I immediately thought, “mise en place, that sounds a lot like mise en scène!” I started to feel more at ease, figuring that something familiar had landed on my plate – and I was right.
Basically, in the mise en place portion of the competition, we had to observe the budding chefs as they were cooking and analyze the visuals. How clean was their cooking space? How well were they working together? How confident were they in their tasks? What did their technical skills look like – were they chopping properly? Handling a knife well? In other words, what sort of show were they putting on? Did it look professional? What was the story unfolding at their chef station, as suggested by the visuals?
Mise en scène is similar to mise en place. When you’re analyzing a film’s mise en scène, you’re judging the visual presentation and the story it tells. Mise en scène helps create a sense of place, a sense of character, a mood. It communicates a lot to the viewer, often without them consciously realizing it.
“A key component of film style, mise en scène produces meaning,” the Oxford Reference of Film Studies summarizes, “by providing visual information about the world of a film’s narrative”:
“In some films… mise-en-scène can be a site of extraordinarily complex and subtle meanings, as in the Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk, for example, in which mise-en-scène often provides ironic commentary on the characters and the worlds they inhabit. In film studies, mise-en-scène is an indispensable concept in understanding film style and in making critical distinctions between films of different genres, historical periods, and national provenances; it can also be a key concept in studies of authorship in film.”
The operative word being “studies”.
Who actually talks about mise en scène, and why?
Although we frequently discussed mise-en-scène in film school, by many accounts, it’s not actually a production term. It’s more of a critics’ term that refers to the coming together of many different elements of film, which we’ll break down shortly.
To be clear, “directors don’t walk around saying ‘Let’s change the mise-en-scène today,’” Gabe Moura writes for Elements of Cinema:
“From the craftsmen who build bookcases to the cinematographer who chooses where the lights will go, the mise-en-scène is the result of the collaboration of many professionals. Thus in the production environment, the director is more specific with his requests and orders. Is he talking to the prop master, the set designer, the actors, the make-up artists? All of them are part of different departments. But all of them, in the end, have influence in the mise-en-scène.
Said differently, at its heart, mise-en-scène is the culmination of many different moving parts that coalesce for the camera. Although you can sense mise-en-scène on set, many people won’t know the full impact until they look at what was shot, since mise-en-scène is created first and foremost for the film, not the on-set experience.
So what, precisely, contributes to a film’s mise-en-scène?
Well, let’s break down some of the key contributing factors. There are more factors than the ones we’ll introduce here, but these five aspects are touchstones in virtually every circle of film analysis and criticism!
The setting of a scene – that is, the literal physical space in which it unfolds – has a huge impact on the visuals.
Are we in a big, airy room, or a small, cramped one? A sun-soaked beach, a windswept plateau, a labyrinthine cave? What’s the environment?
Of course, where we are can reveal a lot about a character’s mood and state of mind. For example, a scene set in a character’s bedroom provides us with an opportunity to say something about who they are and how they live. Is the bedroom messy or spotless? Are there rock concert posters on the wall or unpacked boxes stacked in corners? Such details can help you tell your story visually.
If you’re looking for a specific example of the interplay between setting and story, then check out Moonlight, 2016’s Best Picture winner. As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody analyzes, director Barry Jenkins’s “sense of societal atmosphere is inseparable from his cinematic sense of actual, even meteorological atmosphere”:
“The action is set in Miami; that’s Jenkins’s home town, and he films it with a feel for light and heat, for the very choreographic implications of its urban geography, that makes a sense of place a central part of his characters’ sense of being. Jenkins wrenches the film’s images from the very core of his own being, filming Chiron and the characters around him as if from the inside; the sense of empathy and identification that emerges from the visual music of his dramatic images is itself a cinematic miracle.”
It’s a beautiful story in which the setting, Miami, arguably becomes a character in and of itself.
The decor, also production design, within a setting is especially revealing. It, too, is often analyzed as symbolic of something about the story or character.
In particular, color can be read as an expression of deeper meaning. Green is often interpreted to exude nature, red passion, black death or foreboding. Textures, too, are key. If a lush fabric like velvet is common in a space, then you might conclude that the inhabitants can afford luxury.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie comes to mind as an excellent example of meaningful decor. Its vibrant, playful primary colors manifest the protagonist’s optimism. The decor creates a bright, intimate, hopeful feeling that will put a smile on your face!
If you need further proof of the power and significance of color, then look no further than Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. Color helps distinguish between the three worlds in which the film unfolds.
Specifically, the adult world is blue and cold. It rains frequently, deepening the feeling of it being a harsh place. Meanwhile, the Faun’s world is bursting with earthy greens, suggesting wilderness and the unpredictability of nature. And the world of the Underground Realm is all light reds and golds, by turns a place of bloodshed and refuge.
These color differences help us keep track of what’s happening where as well as experience the full range of emotions that del Toro intends.
Of course, lighting – an aspect of cinematography – is a key contributor to a film’s look and feel, too!
Is the lighting high-key, meaning low contrast? Then you might be watching a romantic comedy or a musical, with few shadows and an invitingly even appearance. Is the lighting low key, meaning high contrast? Then chances are you’re in a more dramatic movie; say, a horror, thriller, or film noir. “The chiaroscuro (Italian: bright-dark) technique, Moura elaborates, “long used by painters, is… often employed to unnerve the audience.”
The breathtaking lighting in Blade Runner 2049 is a prime example of how lighting can contribute to a film’s sense of place, character, and mood. “It was about trying to find Wallace’s character,” legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins explains:
“[Director] Denis [Villeneuve] and I spent a lot of time talking about the look of the interior… We looked at a lot of references of the way architects use light in modern buildings, and especially the way light falls on some of these big concrete structures.
There was one particular cathedral that’s a big concrete block with two skylights that lets light in a most interesting way. We thought about an artificial world in which lighting moves like sunlight. I went with that and little patterns. Denis wanted the main space to be a big platform in the middle of a pond (based on an architectural design we’d seen). And the idea was to play with water with caustic patterns to evoke different emotions.”
The effect was created using 256 ARRI 300-watt Fresnels in concentric circles (!!!), mimicking skylights for the character lighting, while the water was lit with 10K Fresnel lamps to get water reflections on the surrounding walls in the background. In other words, a lot of thought and effort went into the lighting and how it informs the characters and story!
Feeling inspired? Then take a look behind-the-scenes of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner for an idea of the degree of inter-department collaboration that happens when it comes to designing mise en scène:
IV. Depth of Space
When we talk about “depth of space”, we’re talking about the depth of the image onscreen. Depth is determined by the distances between objects, people, and scenery, influenced by their placement along with camera location and lens choice.
One of the most historically significant and impressive examples of depth of space can be found in Citizen Kane. In this scene, Charles Kane’s education and future are debated by his parents while he plays in the snow outside, blissfully unaware. It’s a devastating contrast between the pressures of adulthood and the innocence of childhood:
Such “deep focus” – meaning, when everything in the frame, from front to back, is in focus at the same time – had just become possible in 1941, thanks to advances in lighting and lenses. It helped place a newfound importance on mise en scène. When everything is in focus, the filmmaker has a more obvious obligation to direct the viewer’s attention onscreen.
V. Costumes and Makeup
Although it can be easy to overlook costumes and makeup when you’re developing your screenplay, they’re a key element of mise en scène. “What the character is wearing and how it is arranged can say a lot about them, or not much at all. Which is equally important,” Film Inquiry advises:
“For example, in The Village the yellow cloaks act as a deterrent to the beast stalking the villagers. The garish yellow stands out strongly against the wooded background, its daring brightness almost a challenge to the creature. A daring choice that confuses the audience as to whether the villagers are that stupid or perhaps, that smart. When Ivy makes her way through the forest her confrontation with the beast covers her in mud. Her blindness means she is aware of this fact but can do nothing to fix it. The absence of colour stands on in stark contrast to the red robe of the beast that attacks her. Here, colour and costume is used to invoke tension and fear.”
More recently, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread – about a couture designer and his young muse – weaves meaningful costumes into the tapestry of the film, attempting to use the outside to reflect the inside. For example, Alma’s journey manifests in what she’s wearing. As the film’s costume designer, Mark Bridges, tells it:
“When she’s sort of the fisherman’s daughter, and charting that progress: country clothes, and city clothes, and trying to fit in with the women in the [Woodcock] workroom and things… And then there’s personal expression in the fashion show as well. Something Alma wears references something she wore earlier in the story. And so in a very subtle way, we see how she has come into his life and affected his life as well as his work.”
On the makeup front, Black Swan comes to mind, about an obsessive ballerina who loses her mind in pursuit of artistic excellence. The mounting chaos and thematic darkness are expressed in the protagonist’s dramatic makeup:
Essentially, costumes and makeup are another way to externalize the internal, ever the holy grail of a medium as visual as film!
Although mise-en-scène isn’t strictly a production term, it’s definitely something that filmmakers consider throughout the creative process! Think of it as the convergence of many different departments’ efforts, as guided by the director, culminating in a singular visual impression that impacts and gets analyzed by audiences and critics alike.
As you design your own films, be sure to consider these five aspects of mise-en-scène. They represent an opportunity for you to tell your story visually.
Nothing need be random, friends. Everything in the frame can carry meaning. It’s up to you and your team to instill it!
Lauren McGrail, with
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