<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=364338823902536&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Now extended! Get 50% off 1 Year of Soundstripe

Save 50% for a limited time.

Get Started

Act now, before it's too late! Get 50% off 1 Year of Soundstripe


Time is running out! Act now.

Get Started


What is Mise-en-scène in Film? (And How Do You Actually Use It?)

Jourdan Aldredge

Mar 11, 2022

If I could impart one piece of film theory knowledge from my four years of film school, it’s this: There is no more powerful term in filmmaking than mise-en-scène.

For first year students it is pretty much the correct answer to every question on every test. But, for those who might not have gone to film school — or those who might need a refresher — what does mise-en-scène actually mean?

Tracing its origins back through theatrical productions and visual arts, let’s explore this all-powerful term and see how it can be applied to filmmaking. 


And while we won’t give you any tricky multiple choice questions at the end, we will make sure that you understand what mise-en-scène means, how it works, and how you can use it for your projects today.

What is mise-en-scène in film?

Simply put, the mise-en-scène definition is really about how everything within a frame of film is arranged. From the set and prop design to the lighting and even to how the actors are blocked throughout a scene. A good way to think about it is as everything in front of the camera.



You can see why this is such an important term in film school as it gives educators and students a quick way to talk about what you’re seeing in a film as you study each frame and sequence. 

However, it differs from other critical film elements like scripting and writing dialogue, camera movements and direction, and of course post-production and how scenes are cut together.

Let’s move on to really explore these individual elements of mise-en-scène and trace how they’ve been developed and used over the years.

Mise-en-scène analysis over the years



Owing its origins to stage and theatrical productions, the term mise-en-scène translates roughly to “placing on stage,” or “what is put into the scene” from French. And that’s basically the best way to think about it as it's been repurposed to refer to film and video.

From its theatrical roots, we can see how even simple elements like props and costumes can convey a lot to an audience in terms of where we are, what’s going on, and who these characters are that you’re seeing either on a stage or on a screen.

As you could expect, many of the first filmmakers were theatrical directors themselves and they would often think of setting their cinematic scenes much in the same way they might shape their stage plays. 

And as film developed, we moved away from silent cinemas and static cameras. But while more and more elements became available for filmmakers and cinematographers, these basic film production principles remain the same.

Exploring the elements mise en scène



As far as all of the elements in front of the camera, here are some aspects you should consider part of mise-en-scène and visual presentation for your projects:

  • Location: The first element of mise-en-scène is simply the location of your shot. Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it filmed on location? Is it meant to signify a specific time and place? 
  • Set design: From there, set design is used to really build out the location to feel the real-world. Set design as mise-en-scène will include all of the furniture, windows, and other set elements.
  • Props: Props usually fall under set design but are distinguished as set elements actors can physically interact with. 
  • Costumes: The costuming of your actors is also important as part of the mise-en-scène as it will help tell your audience more about who your characters are, where they’re coming from, and/or where they’re going (and why).
  • Hair and makeup: Similarly, hair and makeup is crucial on any set to further build a character’s identity and backstory. After all, the way someone styles their hair can tell quite a bit about who they are.
  • Actors and blocking: The way that actors are blocked and directed to move across the space is a major part of a shot’s mise-en-scène.
  • Lighting: Lighting can play a huge part in how a shot looks and feels. (For example, the difference between high key lighting and low key lighting as a three-point lighting setup can be a huge factor in how a scene appears.) Lighting also needs to convey elements about time of day, location and fill in any relevant spaces like windows or doorways.
  • Shot composition: While not always considered part of mise-en-scène, basic elements of shot composition are indeed part of how a scene is meant to be arranged. The shot type (whether that be a wide shot, a medium shot, or a close-up shot) or even camera placement can drastically change the meaning in narrative cinema.
  • Depth of field: We should consider depth-of-field and focal length as important elements of mise-en-scène because they will help tell the audience where to focus their attention. 
  • In-camera looks and effects: Finally, without getting into post-production, many filmmakers still choose to use basic (and sometimes advanced) looks and effects in-camera, like changing between color and black-and-white, introducing film grain or film stock, or working with LUTs for specific looks.

By definition, mise-en-scène truly covers anything and everything that might be in front of any film or video camera. That means there might be elements not covered by the above list that you decide to include in another definition of mise-en-scène. 

However, it’s helpful to understand some of these basic parts of video production as we try to apply this term and practice to modern filmmaking and visual storytelling.

How to use mise-en-scène in your projects



Alright, hopefully these definitions and elements have given you a solid understanding of where the term “mise-en-scène” comes from and how it’s been used in traditional filmmaking. But what do we do with this knowledge today?

Speaking personally, I’ve always found the term to be a bit abstract. I’ve rarely been on a film or video set where someone mentions mise-en-scène in any regards. However, as a concept, I think it’s helpful to give productions a sense of order. 

For example, to handle the elements of mise-en-scène listed above, you need specific roles and departments for each of the points, which would include:

  • Camera department, which includes a cinematographer (or DP) and a crew focused on the camera’s setup, composition, depth of field, and looks and effects.
  • Location department, which includes location scouts and coordinators to make sure locations are secured and set up as needed for a shoot.
  • Lighting department, which includes gaffers and lighting technicians to handle all of the lighting types, high key lighting vs. low key lighting placements, and choosing different intensities for shadows to help the DP arrange the shots for a particular scene.
  • Set department, which includes set designers to dress a set both for mise-en-scene as well as safety.
  • Props department, which includes prop designers and prop masters to find and place all props within a scene (as well as critically handle all prop weaponry).
  • Costume department, which includes costume designers and coordinators to make sure all the characters (and even background extras) are wearing appropriate clothing to help set the scene.
  • Hair and makeup department, which includes hairstylists and makeup specialists to dress all the actors and extras.

From there though, it’s really about challenging the director or filmmaker to be as intentional as possible in how they compose their shots for a particular scene. Just as they did in the days of theaters and plays, every single element that you see on stage is an important piece in helping to tell a meaningful story.

And as filmmakers, while we might not use the term “mise-en-scène” every day, keeping that same mindset can be the key in turning a rushed, unprofessional project into something crisp, real, and timeless.

Further reading

If you’d like to read up more on different film theories, terms and techniques, be sure to check out these other great articles from the Soundstripe blog below: