Anyone that enjoys watching movies already have a solid understanding of the French term mise en scène – even if they have never heard the term before.
Generally speaking, the term mise en scène refers to all of the things seen within the frame. Visual storytelling and all of it’s key elements including all the actors, props, locations, camera placement, visual theme, shot composition, everything is mise en scène.
But what does the term mise en scene actually mean? Do you need to go to Film School and get a degree in mise en scène analysis?
MISE EN SCÈNE ORIGIN
The term mise en scene refers to a French term and it means ‘setting the stage’ as it was originally a theatrical term. As it applies to film in nearly the same way – it is easy to think about mise en scène in the context of setting the stage. The setting up of all the visual elements needed for a believable story.
Character development, art direction, the visual theme of single scene are created with costume design, set design, props, even the placement of actors within a scene, called blocking, are all elements of mise en scène.
MISE EN SCÈNE REFERS THE LANGUAGE OF CINEMA
So even if you did not go to film school and never intend to be a film critic – whenever you are talking about a particular scene or your favorite theme from a movie you are talking about mise en scène.
Mise en scene is considered a grand undefined term among film theorists and critics, and everyone has their own interpretation, but they can all agree that it is an important aspect of filmmaking.
The artform of narrative cinema is created through film production and a way to describe all of the considerations that went into creating the style and tone of the story. Mise en scène embodies everything that went into creating the film.
ANDRE BAZIN AND MISE EN SCENE
According to pioneering writer of Film Theory and Film critique, Andre Bazin, the two core tenets of filmmaking were the use of montage (editing) and mise en scène. These two techniques were experimented with and are still in use today.
To Bazin mise en scène referred to the choreography between the performers and the camera. The visual elements of single scenes to tell a story through the medium of cinema.
Filmmakers are constantly exploring new ways to assemble shot compositions and give their own unique expression of visual presentation. Mise en scène is how Film Theorist and Film Critics can talk about visual themes from movies.
ASPECTS OF FILMMAKING LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
Everything that goes into making a movie can all be described as mise en scène elements. Even the equipment used from the film stocks, film camera or video camera, even the type of post-production processing can all be factors of mise en scène. If it can be used to help tell a story – it is part of mise en scène.
SHOT COMPOSITION AND VISUAL PRESENTATION
Obviously one of the most important aspects of filmmaking is shot composition. Composition can refer to the placement of the performers and their blocking/choreography throughout the scene. Composition can also refer to the type of lens – which have different depths of field.
Composition really has to do with space and balance within the frame. Space and balance are key components of visual storytelling. The status of all the characters, situations, tone – can all easily be expressed with thoughtful shot composition.
Simply put, the color palette of the film is what colors it expresses. Colors can be cool or warm – bright or muted. The intensity of the colors is called saturation. And lack of color is called monochrome.
The use of colors, or lack of color, are great uses of mise en scène to help with storytelling.
FILM OR DIGITAL
Just like any art form, the medium of the art itself can affect the end result. In the past this was due to the various different film stocks that were available. Different film stocks would have different visual presentations. Some film stock have particularly grainy textures and work better for Daylight shooting. However, some film stocks eschew grainy textures but require a substantial more amount of like which can make it difficult to use for a particular shot. Also still, there would be some film stock that would be used for day-for-night – which is when the production shoot a night scene during the day. Once the film is graded by a colorist – the scene appears to be as if it was shot at night (results may vary).
DEPTH OF FIELD
Depth of field refers to the focal length within a shot. The amount of light, the distance of the subject, the setting of the aperture of the camera are all factors of focal length and depth of field. Deep space would have a distinct background, middleground, foreground – also known as wide or deep depth of field. Shallow space is when the shot is all on one plane – then it’s a narrow or flat depth of field.
For the most part, many scenes have shallow depth of field and involve only a handful of characters. A typical 2-shot, a shot with just two characters talking to each other side by side, is flat because it is only taking place on one plane. There may be an out of focus background – but essentially the primary visual of the shot are the two characters.
Depth of field can be altered depending on the camera lens used. It can be used to convey all sorts of emotions or tones. Characters that are distant from each other emotionally can be further distanced by a wider or deep depth of field – with one character much further away than the other.
Another tactic is to use depth of field to give a sense of struggle – using a long telephoto lens a character can seem to be running in place and not making any progress.
NATURAL OR THEATRICAL
Filmmakers use real life locations and studio sets in order to create worlds big and small. Mise en scène can also refer to the status of the story’s world – does it take place in the ‘natural’ world or a ‘theatrical’ world? Filmmaker’s methods of addressing this very question can be considered an art form in itself and this distinction can become muddy.
A sci-fi movie with invading alien robots can be naturalistic and grounded in reality or it can be theatrical and cartoonish. A basic coming of age teen drama that deals with grounded issues like first crush and finding oneself can be set on a galaxy spanning spaceship.
Choices of film stock, film grain, color palette, hair & makeup, props, can all contribute to the world building intended by the filmmakers mise en scène. And film technology is always adapting and learning new techniques. Video camera technology has allowed camera setups to be in places no cinematographer could have dream of fifty years ago. Camera movements are no longer limited to a particular scene.
ON LOCATION OR IN A STUDIO
Probably one of the first questions answered by filmmakers, where are they going to shoot the movie? Films can have multiple locations and in some cases a single scene can be made by compositing multiple locations with the magic of post-production. A great location or set can mean everything for a filmmaker. And it’s what they can do with the location or set, using mise en scène, that allows filmmakers to tell their stories.
DRESSING A FILM WITH OBJECTS
Dressing a film with objects is probably the easiest element of mise en scène to understand. Every object you see in the frame was placed there by someone in the art department. Objects that are not used by the performers are useful in helping to set the place for the story. A scene that takes place in an office would have different objects than one that takes place in a jail cell.
Sometimes the objects are more than just telling a place – they can also be used for characterization. A trophy case or a series of framed photos and newspaper clippings can give us the history of a character without the need for dialogue.
Sometimes objects can also just be used to enhance scenes – dripping pipes in an abandoned factory, the flickering single light in a basement, or the creaking of a rocking chair all give a sense of unease and they give flavor to the scene.
HMU (HAIR + MAKEUP)
HMU or hair and makeup is another important element of mise en scène and filmmaking. HMU artists literally dress up the performers using the performer’s faces as canvases. HMU work closely with the camera crew and are essential from the simplest documentary interview to the most alien of alien prosthetics in a sci-fi film. Even the simplest ‘natural’ look requires a skilled HMU artist. Character development can be expressed through the changes of their visual elements.
OBJECTS USED BY ACTORS – PROPS AND COSTUMES
Objects that are used by the actors or performers are called props and are part of the production design. The Propmaster and Costum Designer are responsible for dressing the performers.
Props can be anything from basic objects like small handwritten notes or more complex objects like guns or laser swords. Typically these objects or props are nothing more than the object they are meant to be. But they can still be elements of mise en scène and characterization.
Props can tell us if a character is sloppy or neat, intimidating or absurd, quickly and with visual themes. Objects used by the characters can tell us a story visually – the villain is dressed in black. The free-thinking character has a free flowing and brightly colored outfit. Objects used by actors are another aspect of mise en scène.
Cinematography is the control of movement and light. Traditional directors like to only use film cameras but the technology for a comparable digital video camera have almost replaced the old film stock cameras of old. There can be an entire department on set just dedicated to the film camera. Or a small crew. Whether it’s a single camera setup or a multiple camera setup – they both deal with movement and light to create cinema. They adjust the focus of the aperture of the camera lens, replace film reels or harddrives, and move the camera between setups.
The aforementioned choreography of the performers can also be applied to the camera itself. Rigged up to a dolly track or a jib arm or even strapped directly on a camera operator itself with a steadicam – the camera itself can be part of the choreography of the scene. And the more complicated the choreography the more complicated the lights setup will be.
Light schemes for film traditionally are based on a concept called Three Point Lighting. Using just three lights, one can sculpt the light for an entire scene.
The first light is called the Key light. Typically also the strongest light, the key light is used to primarily illuminate the subjects in a scene.
The second light is called the Fill light – usually a little weaker than the Key light – it is used to fill in the unwanted shadows created by the Key light. If only a Key light is used then subjects tend to be washed out.
Finally the third light is called the Backlight. The backlight is faced opposite the Key and Fill and is used to help the subjects stand out within the frame by eliminating the shadows around the subject.
HIGH KEY AND LOW KEY LIGHTING
The arrangement of the three types of lights give different looks and tone. Moving the Key closer or using a more powerful lamp is referred to as a strong Key. A strong Key with a stronger Fill gives a brighter color and brighter image – this is called High Key Lighting.
High Key lighting creates brighter images with less shadows.
If the Key light and Fill Lights are weakened – either by using smaller lamps or moving them further away – and the Backlight is instead strengthened – you will create a more somber darker image with higher contrast – this is called Low Key Lighting. Low Key Lighting has much more detail between shades of light and dark and thereby more shadows.
Light creates shadows when an object blocks the light. So the source of light is important for any lighting setup. The light in a scene is considered to be motivated or unmotivated.
Unmotivated lighting means light in a scene appears to be coming from everywhere – it is not clear exactly where the light is coming nor does it matter. The scene just needs to be ‘lit.’ A bright sunny day at a park, the middle of the desert, or on the open ocean. It can also be called ambient lighting.
Motivated lighting on the other hand is when light is a direct element of the scene. Sometimes the light source itself is an important visual element. Sunlight coming in from a window. A rocking lamp. A searchlight. The glow from a valuable object. Light can be used to direct the audience and the character’s attention.
It can also give a sense of high power ‘touching’ an object or character. Motivated lighting can be used to motivate a character. Or the light itself can be a representation of a character.
HARD AND SOFT LIGHTING
The lights themselves can be hard or soft. A hard light has distinct edges and can create stark shadows. A soft light has ambiguous edges and softens shadows.
Film noir the film genre uses Hard Lighting with a Low Key Light to create it’s distinct shadows and angular lines. This look can also be described using an Italian renaissance term for ‘lightdark’ called chiaroscuro.
AUDIO AND MISE EN SCÈNE
Overlooked by many, audio is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking and mise en scène. Great audio can go unnoticed but bad audio is easily apparent.
Audio is an aspect of filmmaking that can be perceived indirectly by the audience. Audio can give audiences a sense of danger, excitement, or longing with just a few pieces of audio.
When combined with great images of a cinematographer – audio can truly enhance any film. Sound effects, ambient sounds, music, are also all aspects of mise en scène.
Watch some of your favorite movie scenes and you will hear set elements you may not have noticed before or never realized. Sounds are combined with the character’s expressions. Sounds are associated with the entrance or exit of certain characters. Sound effects, music cues, ambience are all just more opportunities to create mise en scène.
DIEGETIC AND NON-DIEGETIC SOUND
One interesting concept with audio in film is diegetic sound. Is the audio within the scene or outside of the scene? If the sound is directly correlated with something within the scene it would be considered diegetic. A piano played by a musician, a dribbling basketball player, a cash register being operated.
If, however, the sound is not directly correlated with something within the scene it would be called non-diegetic sound. A laugh track – sound effects of slapstick comedy – underlying music that’s not in the scene itself – are all examples of non-diegetic sound.
Non-diegetic sound can become diegetic sound too. Music playing over a training montage sequence can be revealed to be playing on a tape deck at the end of the montage.
MISE EN SCÈNE IN A SCENE
Amelie is a 2001 French indie romantic comedy film. Our main character, Amelie, works in a cafe and is thinking about true love. The intense colors and high key lighting setting creates a whimsical tone in this scene.
One day while working at her job in the cafe, Amelie washes plates and overhears a conversation between her boss and an old customer.
The shot is flat – and shows all of the characters in the frame. Amelie is off to the side and the boss and older customer are centered.
The old customer laments to the owner, “Still, true love does exist.”
The owner leans forward, “I know. After 30 years behind a bar. I’m an expert.”
Cuts to close up the owner, “I’ll even give you the recipe.”
Now we cut to Amelie just as we hear a DING (diegetic sound of an order being rung) – Amelie is paying full attention – she is about to get an idea.
Owner, “Take two regulars – mix them together and let them stew. It never fails.”
Amelie nods to herself and then looks out of frame – the off screen space.
We cut to a shot showing the cafe customers -we see a grumpy man the camera pans across and stops to focus on a grumpy woman.
BREAKDOWN OF EXAMPLE
In order to create this particular scene many things needed to be decided upon ahead of time. The location of the shots – they are in a set built like a cafe and it’s well lit with high key lighting. The cafe is loaded with props and decor. The actors are all distinct characters.
The camera has several setups within the scene and moves and closeups are all part of how to tell the story of the scene. The timing of the sound fx. The shot blocking of the scene. Are all part of the choreography of movement.
In this little moment we are shown by the combination of close-ups and sound fx what our hero intends to do – which is to pair up the two grumpy customers. We first see our hero in a medium-wide shot placing her off to the side. She is not part of the conversation but she is close enough to eavesdrop. We literally see her listening in on the conversation between her boss and an old customer.
When her boss offers up the recipe for love (with an emphasizing close up of the boss) we then quickly cut to a closeup of our hero along with the distinctive DING sound which is both diegetic being a order-up bell but also doubles as the trope of having an idea ‘a-ha’ moment of a DING sound.
Our hero hears of the plan to mix up two regulars and then her eyeline changes towards the customers – she looks out at offscreen space. This small gesture gives us the audience knowledge that our hero has a plan – to set up some regulars.
We cut to a shot of a grumpy man – and then pan over to the grumpy woman. This can be considered an example of the kuleshov effect as we now know these two regulars are the intended targets of our hero’s match making wish.
If you love movies – chances are you understand mise en scène. If you learn more about film production you will learn more examples of mise en scene. Anything and everything that happens on screen can be picked apart and broken down and explained through mise en scène. It is the same as talking about movies.
MONTAGE DIRECTORS AND MISE EN SCÈNE DIRECTORS
Andre Bazin, the film theorist, said that traditional directors are of two camps – those that dabble in montage and those that dabble in mise en scène. Although most films are made with both montage and mise en scène in mind – there are directors that can sort of fit into the camps that Bazin proposes.
Guy Richie is a filmmaker that is strong with montage. Known for quick snappy edits and fast frenetic shots in all of his films. Whereas a great example of a filmmaker that is strong with mise en scène would be Wes Anderson and his distinctive locked off camera and perfect symmetry in his films.
Who are your favorite directors and how would you categorize them?