Mar 11, 2022
If I could impart one piece of film thoery 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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: