Mise en Scene. It’s a fancy looking phrase that you’ve seen floating around many film-related articles. Saying it out loud gives off an immediate sense of film wisdom. Plus, any phrase that’s pronounced about ten different ways is worth talking about.
But what is Mise en Scene? Why does it matter? And who knows how to best use it? (Spoiler: it’s in the title). After today you’ll have a better sense of this technique. And why you should never forget it during any visual project.
What is Mise-en-Scene?
Translated from French, the Mise en Scene definition is “placing on stage. This refers to everything in front of the camera.
Including Composition, Set Design, Lighting, and Actors, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a bit. Mise en Scene is the visual storytelling of a film. It’s every tool the director has on set to make his or her film a work of art.
Funnily enough, the phrase is rarely, if ever, actually spoken on set. It is used solely by wicked smart film scholars to analyze cinematic techniques.
Yet there’s no denying the importance of Mise en Scene in film. When properly used, it makes the film less a simple blur of moving pictures but an art form with purpose. Something bursting with atmosphere and emotion that pulls viewers in and doesn’t let go.
The use of Mise en Scene in American Beauty
If you ever watched a movie and wanted to jump inside, that’s good Mise en Scene.
It’s crucial to watch another filmmaker to better improve your onw directing chops. You'll gain inspiration by seeing how they master certain techniques. To best explain how to use Mise en Scene, let's take a modern director who is a master of the craft, using it to create his own signature style.
This is, of course, the Wizard of Whimsy, Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson, Quirky Filmmaker
If you didn’t already know what he looked like, you probably guessed right.
From Bottle Rocket to the recent Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson movies are a household name. This is due to the director’s unique method visual storytelling.
There is an unmistakable Wes Anderson style in all his work. Precise detail and shot composition, absurd characters and vivid use of color.
All of this makes Wes Anderson movies Chinese-needlepoint-levels of meticulous. Yet, somehow, they are also the goofiest things ever.
A movie as detailed as Kubrick yet as silly as a Rom-Com shouldn’t exist. Yet it does, because Anderson is that type of filmmaker.
Time to dig in! We’re going to talk about the major Mise en Scene examples.
Then we’ll discuss how Wes Anderson uses them to make movies so original they can best be described as, well, Wes Anderson-y.
Composition: Visual storytelling in every frame
The most obvious part of Wes Anderson films is his tight use of composition. Composition, in film terms, is how everything in the frame is organized.
Where does he place the characters and objects?
What does he show?
What does he choose not to show?
It's a daunting task with many options. Film is a visual medium, and it’s important to make sure everything in frame, no matter the genre, is visually engaging.
So much of visual storytelling depends on solid groundwork, and that really starts with how your script it.
Without a clear visual framework laid out on the page to start, the set environment turns messy real fast.
StudioBinder offers great scriptwriting software for filmmakers that helps you write and polish a script before production starts.
This way you can establish the bones, the nitty-gritty formula for your film. Then you can start getting creative with your shot composition.
Composition walks hand in hand with Cinematography, which focuses on lens types and camera movement.
Being aware of what’s in the frame, and then choosing how to shoot it, is how you control your film’s look.
This is something you don’t want to improvise. It helps to start any project with a list of tips on producing the best Composition and Cinematography Techniques. The more you’re prepared, the easier it will be to set up any shot.
Back to Wes Anderson for a moment:
Even someone who has never seen a film would recognize the main aspect of Wes Anderson’s Composition: symmetry.
Moonrise Kingdom. Also known as “Running away from home and actually doing it”
Through higher budgets and digital effects, modern films tend to be bigger and flashier than the older flicks. They use a great deal of camera movement, but Wes Anderson is married to the almighty tripod.
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 to an almost ridiculous degree, yet that’s where they get their charm.
We audience members are invited to explore every crevice of the film. Every background object and foreground facial feature is there for us to discover.
It’s like we’re curious little detectives. There’s something undeniably cute about that, and it helps all of the Wes Anderson movies carry a consistent, quirky mood.
Set Design: Give your movie a makeover
The term more or less defines itself. Set Design is everything physically on set the director uses to create a mood or time period. It’s the wardrobe of the film. Working with the Production Designer, the director uses the Set Design to create the world of the scene.
This includes not just larger elements, like rooms, stages and the Batmobile, but smaller ones as well.
Props, even ones as tiny as pens, can add much to any given shot.
You can thank Joel Schumacher for this disco ball
When does the story take place?
If in the past, simple objects like rotary phones can sell the time period to the audience.
If in the future, your set design depicts how advanced, or how set back, the world has become.
In keeping with the dollhouse metaphor, Anderson’s set design depicts how detailed his characters are. Every shot of a desk is covered with perfectly staged objects, which is something this writer still fails to replicate on his own desk.
Every bedroom acts as 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:
The Athlete has his tennis equipment..
The writer has her library...
And the rigid businessman’s pad is colorless and OCD incarnate.
Set design is a key factor of Mise en Scene throughout any film, but perhaps most so in a film’s intro.
An iconic opening sequence can immediately get the viewer invested. And with the right set, you can establish early on what kind of experience they are in for.
Don’t forget to consider the formatting for end credits too. Every minute of your film matters when it comes to Mise en Scene.
We’ll end this section with a fun trick. It’s a big word worth knowing: Anachronism.
It’s anything that belongs in a different time period than the one it’s currently in. Adidas sneakers in the 1600’s would be one example of it.
When used properly, this can bring a whole new layer of depth to the film’s world.
Outdated objects can show how certain characters are trapped in the past, like the characters in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore.
They can also make the movie seem like it’s in multiple decades at the same time, as if it exists in its own universe. Think of any Tarantino film.
When crafting your shot, consider the characters and world at large, and how set design can reflect that.
Lighting: Responsible for half of epic photos everywhere
The intensity, depth, and angle of your lighting can all greatly affect the mood of a scene. Or how about the lack of certain lighting at all?
The key thing to remember is that lighting is emotional. It depicts a character or situation as joyful or desperate... relaxed or dramatic. All depending on how you light them.
Soft Lighting keeps things bright and cuts shadows. It keeps things equally lit within the frame.
Gels and different lenses can further soften the lighting. This technique makes the emotion of a scene, whether it’s happy or sad, come across gently. Romances live and breathe soft lighting.
Hard Lighting, as you’d expect, is the opposite. This technique uses smaller light sources to create shadows. Harsh portions of light and dark show up. It creates disharmony, rather than making everything feel open and equal.
Such lighting can display fear, confusion and a sense of mystery. It’s no surprise that horror flicks and thrillers love hard lighting in their cinematography.
Other than hard or soft lighting there are various angles and geometry of lighting that affect the scene. These tips go into more depth explaining which lighting to use for any scene.
Since most films stick to one genre, they don't mix too many different lighting techniques. It’s good to stay consistent. Wes Anderson uses a lot of soft-to-normal lighting to display his detailed frames.
Yet his films dip into bizarre and dark territory, and this is where the lighting shifts.
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 of which a character is murdered, and the entire scene is shot in shadow. When there is light, it’s hard lighting, flashing briefly on a pair of glasses or a face.
Probably the scariest Jeff Goldblum moment since The Fly.
Anderson could have kept the lighting consistent so the audience never lost that warm, tweed-jacket-by-a-fireplace feeling.
The chase sequence could have worked as a farce. Instead, Anderson altered it dramatically to disjoint and then shock us.
From that point on, we understand that the characters are in real danger. It brings a whole new level of stakes to the drama.
Variety is the spice of filmmaking. It’s key to know when to change the lighting. And always be mindful of the types of shots in which to use them.
Never be too shy about surprising your audience. It’s a risk, but can work wonders.
Gaming Oblivion’s quick discussion of Mise en Scene & Wes Anderson
Acting: The art of striking poses
The last main aspect of Mise en Scene we’ll go over is Acting. This refers to the actors’ performances and how they approach it.
Are they subtle or dramatic? How does a character deliver a certain line or speech?
Before this you also want to ensure you have a good cast. A performance makes or breaks a film. There are great tips on how a filmmaker with a small budget goes about casting the right actor for the right part.
Directing actors in terms of Mise en Scene also refers to the actors’ placement in each scene.
Where are they standing?
How many are in the frame?
How are they arranged as a group?
These are the questions to ask yourself when looking at the frame.
One of the most common decisions for a director is how to frame Shot-Reverse-Shot.
This is when a movie cuts back and forth between two characters talking to each other.
Tony Zhou from Every Frame a Painting explains the use of Shot-Reverse-Shot
A filmmaker might keep both the speaker, a bit of the person they are speaking to, in frame. This makes it clear who is in the conversation.
The Coen Brothers go a different route. They often use a Wide Angle Lens and show only the speaker. This brings more awareness to the person’s environment.
Wes Anderson films, known for their symmetrical shots, often contain yet another option.
Actors, whether talking to each other or striking a quirky pose, frequently get the frame to themselves and stare straight into the camera.
This, along with his Set Design and Lighting, adds a dry humor to the mix.
With so many different characters speaking in the same dry tone, shot in the same symmetrical way, the film develops it's unique Wes Anderson charm. It’s like a cross between a police line-up and a photo shoot for Urban Outfitters.
This is not to say he doesn’t try new things every now and then. In his films The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, there are much larger casts. When they share the frame, they are placed according to their personalities and relationships.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.
Margot, being awkward on the left
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.
This may have just been everyone trying to sit as close to Bill Murray as possible.
There’s too many possibilities to count. Actors standing versus sitting brings a certain level of confidence. Actors smaller in view makes them appear weak.
There is plenty to play with when it comes to staging actors.
It’s not just about getting Oscar-caliber performances out of them (or even Golden Globes).
That's a wrap
It’s no secret just how popular Wes Anderson has become. His new hit Isle of Dogs already hitting the ninety-percent zone on Rotten Tomatoes.
And by now you know how he uses Mise en Scene to create his own unique style.
So now it’s your turn. With what you know now about Mise en Scene, try applying it to some of your own projects
Check out our shot list and storyboard program to better prepare for a shoot. There are plenty of customizations and collaborative features to take advantage of, all of which better streamline the pre-production process for the entire team.
Use what you know, learn what you can, and make a the next great project that will blow our minds.
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