5 Essential Elements of Successful Mise en Scène in Film
The 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, all of the elements that appear on camera and their arrangement.
Of course, many different factors contribute – the setting, decor, lighting, depth of space, and costumes and makeup, to name only a few – but together, they comprise the mise en scène.
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.
An early example of distinctive mise en scène, especially in the set design – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari | Decla-Bioscop, 1920
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.
Τhe 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, 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.”
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!
Moonlight | A24, 2016
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” and see below the well-traveled short film (duration 30') Limbo by Konstantina Kotzamanis. A beautiful story in which the natural space - the lagoon of Mesologgi through the dreamy aesthetics of the creator undoubtedly becomes a character in itself. A place made of religious parables and folk tales.
Amélie | UGC-Fox Distribution, 2001
II. Decor I Objects
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!
The short film (duration 14') the Seed of Iphigenia Kotsonis - see below - with original and inventive decoration presents the Athens of the future where the cultivation of all plants is illegal to unravel the story of a lonely "rebel".
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.
Blade Runner 2049 | Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing, 2017
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.
The legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins explains:
“ We looked at a lot of references of the way architects use light in moder n 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.”
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:
Many movies adopt a dual-tone strategy in many of their scenes. Why do they use two colors, and not three or four... or one? Watch the video to find out.
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 the 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 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.
Black Swan | Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010
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”
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.
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.
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.
Nothing be random, friends.
Greek adaptation Psaroloco Team