End scene from 2001 A Space Oddessy

What is mise-en-scène? That’s probably the reason why you’re reading this article. However, mise-en-scène is often an undefined term and needs explaining.

In possibly the vaguest definition of anything ever, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his opinion on the case of “Jacobellis v Ohio.” He was unable to define what would make a movie obscene and not protected under the First Amendment. He wrote: “I know it when I see it”―summing up his vague opinion. This shoulder-shrugging definition’s kept lawyers and artists pushing the limits. Nobody knows the exact dimensions of for nearly 50 years. Mise-en-scène is similarly undefined.

Likewise, only a few years later, film studies professor Brian Henderson said in his essay, “The Long Take,” that mise-en-scène is “cinema’s grand undefined term.” He begins by listing directors who are masters at it. He included masters like Murnau and Orson Welles. However he went on to write “one does not lightly venture a definition of mise-en-scène… of which each person, when examined, reveals a different sense and meaning….”

Mise-en-scène definition

Technically, mise-en-scène means “placing on stage.” It includes the things that movies have in common with plays. That means props, lighting, wardrobe, blocking and the number of layers in the scene (foreground, middle ground, background).

It also includes a few things that stage plays don’t really have. For instance, movies have moveable cameras to represent the otherwise fixed audience of a play. That is to say the aspect ratio of the frame, the camera angles, focus, lens focal length and any color treatments to the film or video. You may notice while watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO that everything at Castle Black looks very blue. That includes the snow and the people. This is part of the mise-en-scène.

Scene from Game of Thrones at Castle Black with blu-ish color grade.
Scene from Game of Thrones at Castle Black with blu-ish color grade.

But, also like a play, critic Brian Henderson adds that mise-en-scène “requires the duration of the long take.” Once you add a cut you’ve jangled the mise-en-scène; reshuffled the deck. Henderson wants things to be given time. He’s a fan of 10-minute continuous shots.

Famous examples

Stanley Kubrick was a master of beautiful mise-en-scène and he loved long takes. One place where this is particularly apparent is the penultimate scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where astronaut Dave Bowman lives out his life in a mysterious glowing room, watched over by the monolith. The furniture, the colors, the light, the placement of objects, the symmetry and the asymmetry are all done to create a particular beauty, replace one chair with a yard sale discovery and the whole frame is hit with a hammer and knocked askew.

Mise-en-scène represents your overarching goal as a filmmaker — your style, your personal artistry.

Do some videos have this and others not? Oscar Wilde, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Mise-en-scène is like this, all movies have it, but in some it’s very good and in others it’s not very good and sometimes this matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.

A great deal of thought went into the mise-en-scène that makes up Lawrence of Arabia. Camera angles, placement of actors and props were very carefully considered in each frame by director David Lean, cinematographer Freddie Young and a host of other people including costumers and stylists.

Contrast this with a corporate fire safety video whose only duty is to inform office workers of how to properly evacuate a building in case of an emergency and to cost less than $400 to produce. In this case, the videographer may be considering some aspects of lighting and camera placement but most likely won’t trade a static shot for a dolly shot simply because the dolly shot is more attractive.

The mise-en-scène may be beautiful in one and pragmatic, or even ignored in the other, but they both have it.

Behind the scenes shot of Lawrence of Arabia showing stylist touching up Peter O’Toole.
Behind the scenes shot of Lawrence of Arabia showing stylist touching up Peter O’Toole.

Mise-en-scène is a concept you’re already utilizing in your videos

Mise-en-scène represents your overarching goal as a filmmaker — your style, your personal artistry. It wraps up many of the elements of videomaking that you’ve already learned about, from composition to focal length to the use of negative space. The way in which you put these things together will create your own particular mise-en-scène.

Your homework is to pay attention to the way all of these elements come together in movies and television you watch. Pick out scenes that speak to you. Watch them several times so that you can deconstruct each of the elements. You need to understand what they add to the final piece and how they work in concert with one another. Are there things you would do differently? Also, pay attention the next time you’re setting up a shot. What are you including, where are you including it and why? How does it help propel your story along?

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article Kyle. Well written and your examples spot on. I’m on my way to the zoo with more pretzels 🙂

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