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 trailer 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.