Stuff Explained: Mise en Scène

The term mise en scène translates from French as literally ‘putting in the scene’ or ‘placing on stage’ and is basically just that – the things you place in a scene. The simplest definition here is the most effective because mise en scène covers such a wide area it can get a little confusing. Again, essentially it refers to how all the visual elements are arranged before the camera and this includes; set design, costume and makeup, use of space in a scene/movement of actors within a frame, cinematography and directing.

How these elements are arranged before your camera conveys a great deal of information about mood, atmosphere and even at it’s most basic level, how believable your staged environment is to an audience.

In his book Rebel Without A Crew film director Robert Rodriguez warned filmmakers that if you haven’t got much money to build a quality set and employ a top class set designer then don’t show off anything cheap, tacky and amateur-looking in your set. Crop your mise en scène! Crop your frame and stick to close up shots as much as possible. That obviously is a bit extreme and isn’t going to work for everyone but you can understand why he suggested it. The camera doesn’t lie and will show off the lack of attention given to every element in the background, so in his first feature film El Mariachi he recognised this weakness and went for a lot of close ups, when he could. So according to Rodriguez either spend time and money on your mise en scène or crop it!

Here’s a tip, if you don’t have sophisticated lighting or camera lenses try not to have bare white walls in the background (unless it’s an art gallery of course). Why? White walls convey very little depth of field and come across as flat looking, while a darker wall gives some depth of field by making the viewer focus on the actor in the foreground when the actor is lit. Another alternative is distinctive wallpaper. Even naff looking wall paper communicates some sort of positive visual language to your target audience who pick up on everything in the mise en scene subconsciously. So wallpaper wins over white walls everytime. Notwithstanding the fact that you might actually want white walls because they are exactly what you are looking for artistically. These are not, of course, absolute rules, they refer only to the lowest budgets. Sophisticated lighting equipment has made many a white wall pretty engaging in more films than I care to mention!

To best understand all these filmmaking terms and techniques, you should study films that best employ them. Obviously insane directors like Stanley Kubrick are worth mentioning, but early cinema in particular has very distinct mise en scène, possibly because those guys were approaching film from a theatrical background, so check out movies like A Trip to the Moon, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.