Mise-en-scene. It’s a fancy looking phrase that you’ve seen floating around many film-related articles, carrying with it an immediate sense of snobbery. Don’t worry, you’re not the first person to ask “what is mise-en-scene?” After today, you’ll have a better sense of this concept and its fundamentals so you can apply it in your next project.
Mise-en-Scene in Film
How to define mise-en-scene in film
Mise-en-scene can be a complex idea to wrap your mind around. It is both highly nuanced and highly subjective. As we break this concept down, however, the basic strategy is simple — how can you create the most "meaningful" image?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, we'll start with a definition of mise-en-scene. Then we'll look at the films of Wes Anderson to see how he has made "attention to detail" a fine art.
What is mise-en-scene?
Mise-en-scene is the arrangement of scenery and stage properties in a play. Translated from French, it means "setting the stage" but, in film analysis, the term mise-en-scene refers to everything in front of the camera, including the set design, lighting, and actors. Mise-en-scene in film is the overall effect of how it all comes together for the audience.
- Actor blocking
- Shot composition
Yet there’s no denying the importance of mise-en-scene in film. When properly used, it elevates film from a series moving pictures to an art form with purpose. Something bursting with atmosphere and emotion that pulls viewers in and doesn’t let go.
In this video, Crash Course answers the question "What is mise-en-scene?" with a thorough and focused mise-en-scene definition with examples from films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
To better hone your own directing chops, it can be helpful to watch other filmmakers and how they work. You'll gain inspiration by seeing how they master certain techniques.
To best explain how to use mise-en-scene in film, let's take a look at a modern director who has truly created his own signature style.
This is, of course, the Wizard of Whimsy himself: Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson's visual world
From his early film Bottle Rocket to The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson has consistently been a top-notch world builder. This is largely due to the director’s unique method of visual storytelling. Let's watch Mr. Anderson talk us through his approach to filmmaking.
Let's talk about the major mise-en-scene elements. Then we’ll discuss how Wes Anderson uses them to make movies so original they can best be described as, well: Wes Anderson-y.
Mise-en-scene and production design
Production design is an umbrella term that covers every element to a film's "look." This includes the sets and locations, the props, the characters' costume and make-up, etc. This all falls under the Production Designer's job description.
Here's a video from our masterclass on Filmmaking Techniques that highlights the power of production design.
By working with the Production Designer, the director uses the set design to create the world of the scene. All of this work is done during Pre-Production and requires planning and consideration between multiple departments.
Pre-Production allows you the time to organize and consolidate your ideas on how production design can be aimed towards the best mise-en-scene for your project. Follow the image link to download the following worksheet to get those ideas out of your head and onto the page.
Wes Anderson's bread and butter is production design. In keeping with the dollhouse metaphor, Anderson’s set design depicts how detailed his characters are. For example, bedrooms are designed to be a physical representation of the person who lives in it.
The Royal Tenenbaums does this very well. When introduced to the three Tenenbaum children, we don't need the narration to know what these kids are all about.
Wes Anderson's production design is the definition of mise-en-scene but he's not the only game in town. Building a world around your characters is absolutely necessary, especially when dealing with stories that take place in slightly exaggerated worlds...like those of superheroes.
In this video, we explore how the filmmakers behind The Boys used exaggeration in designing their specific universe. From the costumes, to the sets, to the props, production design in The Boys gives us a great example of how to use mise-en-scene in film and television.
With these sets designed with mise-en-scène in mind, the characters' worlds are visualized. But this is only the beginning of how mise-en-scene in film works. We still need to capture these sets onto film and that's where cinematography comes in.
Mise-en-scene and cinematography
One of the most important aspects between mise-en-scène and cinematography is how you compose the frame. Composition walks hand in hand with cinematography techniques, including the multitude of camera shots and angles.
Being aware of what’s in the frame, and then choosing how to shoot it, is how you control your film’s look.
And if you know anything about Wes Anderson's visual style, you know that composition plays a major role. Where does he place the characters and objects? What does he show? What does he choose not to show?
Even someone who has never seen a film would recognize one key aspect of Wes Anderson’s composition: symmetry. This video does a great job at reminding us of Anderson's obsession with precision and evenly-balanced frames.
This creates a strange effect. Instead of feeling like roller coaster rides, Wes Anderson films feel like dollhouses. Everything is perfectly set up and staged.
With composition in place, another consideration of mise-en-scene and cinematography is lighting. The intensity, depth, and angle of your lighting can all greatly affect the mood of a scene.
The key thing to remember is that lighting is emotional. It depicts a character or situation as joyful or desperate... relaxed or dramatic. In other words, the various lighting techniques will yield various effects.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is vibrant and fun for most of its runtime, and so its lighting is soft and warm. Yet Anderson’s script calls for scenes of violence, and so he adjusts the lighting to match it.
There is a chase scene at the end in which a character is murdered, and the entire scene is shot in shadow.
We've designed our sets, chosen our costumes, decided how to use cinematography to capture the image but the last piece comes down to the actors, their performance, and how they move (or not move) in the frame, otherwise known as blocking.
Mise-en-scene and blocking
The last element of mise-en-scène we’ll cover is blocking. This, of course, refers to the actors’ performances but also how they arranged in the frame and interact with the environment. Creative blocking can give live and energy to a scene that might otherwise seem stagnant.
Since actors are almost always what the audience is paying attention to, their performance and the presentation of that performance are key. How do we capture their behavior, their body language, or their relationship to other characters in the scene?
Directing actors in terms of mise-en-scene also refers to the actors’ placement in each scene. Here is a video of mise-en-scene examples illustrating how Kubrick, Spielberg and Iñarrítu use blocking and staging in their visual storytelling.
Wes Anderson films are mostly known for their symmetrical shots, but there is yet another lesser-known option.In The Royal Tenenbaums, the character Margot is the sullen outcast. In almost every shot with a group of people she stands all way in the back or off to the side.
In Life Aquatic, all the characters share a small submarine together at the film’s climax. Where they sit depends on how close they are emotionally to the main character in the center.
Actors standing versus sitting brings a certain level of confidence. Actors smaller in view makes them appear weak. There are too many possibilities to count.
Blocking can have a noticeable emotional effect on an audience when working in combination with the other mise-en-scene elements. Every director approaches this aspect of their craft differently.
Coppola is clearly taking a different approach than a filmmaker like Wes Anderson but that's the beauty of it — there is no "correct" way to tackle mise-en-scene in film. When you understand how mise-en-scene works, you'll be able to apply these concepts in any project.
Mise-en-scene elements in detail
Now that we have a mise-en-scene definition, it's time to go deeper on how each of the mise-en-scene elements work independently and in combination. We'll look specifically at common mise-en-scene elements like props and sets. We'll also cover those elements that aren't so obvious like the effects of shooting on film vs. digital, sound design, and depth of field with mise-en-scene examples like Mean Girls, Titanic, and Goodfellas. Your deep dive into mise-en-scene continues now.