What is mise-en-scène? An essential filmmaking concept

Mise-en-scene is the atmospheric collection of visuals that are used to create a frame. Everything from the choice of camera angles, to the blocking of the actors, to the placement of props on the set serves to help create this ephemeral feeling that makes your style uniquely yours.

In a nutshell

  • Mise-en-scène is every element that’s in the shot — visual and auditory
  • Mise-en-scène includes framing, lighting, set design, blocking and sound
  • The sum of your mise-en-scène amounts to your artistic style as a filmmaker

What is mise-en-scène? That’s probably the question that brought you to this article. Mise-en-scène is a term often left undefined. However, it deserves explaining because it is an essential part of a film director’s work. It is, in fact, the culmination of all of a filmmaker’s tools, skills and experiences used together to tell a story wrapped in a sense of atmosphere.

Possibly the vaguest definition of anything ever comes from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his opinion on the case of “Jacobellis v Ohio.” He was unable to define what would make a movie obscene and thus not protected under the First Amendment. He wrote: “I know it when I see it.” This shoulder-shrugging definition has kept lawyers and artists pushing the limits. Nobody has known the exact dimensions of obscenity for nearly 50 years. 

Mise-en-scène is similarly undefined. 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

Literally translated, 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 and background). Probably a better translation for it is “everything that’s part of your shot”, or “everything in the frame.” It is, in essence, the miasma of everything that makes your film beautiful and unique. It’s what sets the mood and brings your ideas across.

Mise-en-scène 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 and it was a conscious decision on the part of the showrunners, the directors, the cinematographers, the color graders, the set designers and others who got together, long before a frame was shot, and made decisions about how the final piece would look.

Scene from Game of Thrones at Castle Black with blu-ish color grade.
Scene from “Game of Thrones” at Castle Black with bluish color grade. Production designer Gemma Jackson won an Emmy for her work and inspired a lot of cable TV shows that desperately wanted to be the next audience-grabbing series.

Mise-en-scène and the long take

However, 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.

You can have a lot of things in the frame and have them be jarring, uninteresting or outright hostile to the viewer. This is still mise-en-scène; it’s just bad mise-en-scène. That is, unless it’s done for a very specific reason — there are indeed times you may want your audience to be uncomfortable or to think something is ugly. You can think of mise-en-scène as design for the screen — arranging everything in the frame in a manner that’s both pleasing to the eye and useful for telling the story.

Building blocks of mise-en-scène

The elements that make up your frame, and therefore your mise-en-scène are:

  • Setting
  • Lighting 
  • Props
  • Actors, including their makeup, costumes and hairstyles
  • And lately, color grading, which is becoming a more important part of film and video productions

Your mise-en-scène is built from each of these elements. Everything you put into a frame should be working towards creating one that’s cohesive, distinctive and spectacular.

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.” In this scene, 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.

Mise-en-scène is everywhere

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. Sometimes this matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, 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.

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 part of your personal style

Mise-en-scène represents your overarching goal as a filmmaker — your style, your personal artistry. It wraps up many of the elements of video production 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.

Many directors and cinematographers have a very specific mise-en-scène that telegraphs their presence. You can look at a movie by Michael Bay, Quentin Tarentino or Guillermo del Toro and know who directed it.

When does mise-en-scène begin? 

Mise-en-scène begins long before you get to the set. It starts with your concept. When a producer says, “This film is a gritty New York police drama about a detective whose underworld past has caught up with her,” that’s already setting a scene. Using this description, you’ll start to find actors, sets and lighting to bring that out. Likewise, if your client tells you, “This film is a police procedural about a single father whose insistence on a meticulously ordered and fastidious life involves the careful balances of daycare and by-the-book crime solving,” you’ll probably start thinking of different actors, lighting and camera work. 

In each of these examples, you may start to think of ways to use the balance or imbalance of objects in a frame to show order or disorder, a color palette that shows things in control or things out of control, brightly lit scenes vs. starkly lit scenes. Things that take place in the daytime vs. things that take place in the night.  One character’s hair may be meticulous while the others may be unkempt, one wardrobe well cared for and the other disheveled. All of these things will work together to tell your story before your characters speak a line of dialogue. 

Planning for good mise-en-scène

Knowing that things exist and being able to name and describe them goes a long way towards reducing the amount of searching you need to do for the right final product. 

In some films, the mise-en-scène is so thick and so pre-planned that the actors often find themselves to be tiny props in a much grander vision think epic science fiction films or blockbuster superhero movies. In some of these instances, everything in the frame that is something that’s been created specifically for the purpose of that frame. But that doesn’t mean that no work goes into more realistic films — it’s just more subtle. 

A production designer may spend an enormous amount of time and effort finding the exact refrigerator to place in a character’s kitchen to help tell their story. Even the contents of that refrigerator may be carefully chosen to push the narrative forward. Is the character health conscious? Are they a neat freak? An alcoholic? All these subtle clues are part of the mise-en-scène, just as much as a gigantic, Earth-destroying robot, towering over Manhattan, or the snow globe in “Citizen Kane” (1941). 

Case Study: “Gunpowder Milkshake”

Let’s take a look at Isralie director Navot Papushado’s heavily stylized gangster movie “Gunpowder Milkshake” (2021), starring Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Basset. Lensed by Michael Seresin with production design by David Scheunemann and set decoration by Mark Rosinski, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is an action movie that pays tribute to many, many other films — which is to say, it has a very specific mise-en-scène. 

How does this come about? 

“Everything is in service to the story,” says director Navot Papushado, “once I realized that this is an assassin movie that’s based on ronin’s or lone samurai from Kurisawa or the hired assassins of Hitchcock, once you understand that, that’s where this kind of genre-blender is born. It’s almost a study of who you are as a filmmaker because you write something and then you realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I was influenced by this and this and that.’ And when you come to break down a scene, you relive those influences once again.”

The clean lines, clean spaces and overhead lighting tubes in parts of Gunpowder Milkshake pay a strong tribute to Stanley Kubrik’s 1968 epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“There are a lot of nods to Kubrick, especially in the clinic fight scenes, which we wanted to make very sterile and bright and clean, so it’s like ‘2001,’ but it’s also like ‘Roger Rabbit.’ I think that’s from growing up in the 1980’s, it’s the natural evolution of being influenced by all those great flicks. You grow and progress as a person and a filmmaker, but these pillars of cinema are always in the back of your head.”

Starting at the beginning

Navot says that all this pre-planning about how things are going to look happens, for him, very early on. 

“The first person you start to work with is your production designer. The first thing we did was come up with a color map deciding what each color is going to mean. One group is going to be all blue and grey, the other group will be all browns, yellow is going to mean death, so there’s a yellow bag that says “I love kittens” on it, and it’s full of guns, and the body bags are yellow. And orange is going to mean change, evolution, so 35 minutes into the movie our heroin, who has been dressed in very dark colors, puts on an orange jacket because she’s starting to make decisions that go against her character.”

Karen Gillan puts on an orange jacket and begins her metamorphosis. Gunpowder Milkshake, 2021 ⁠— directed by Navot Papushado.

One of the gangs, dressed in dark browns and Earth tones. The arrangement of the actors is extremely particular and shows the very ordered nature of this group of thugs. Gunpowder Milkshake, 2021 ⁠— directed by Navot Papushado.

Navot and his production team also made sure that the props fit each of the characters. They discussed textures, fabrics and weapons and then sent the various department heads to start to bring things together. Some of the script changed when actors were cast, but other things remained exactly as written in the original script. 

Michelle Yeoh takes on a room filled with bad guys. Director Navot Papushado’s carefully chosen color palette gives a very stylized look to the film and allows viewers to easily place people who belong in a scene and intruders. Gunpowder Milkshake, 2021 ⁠— directed by Navot Papushado.

Color and storytelling

“Gunpowder Milkshake” successfully uses lighting, colors and framing to create a very specific world, a world in which colors tell us who belongs and who is an intruder. People who belong in a scene fit in as though they were camouflaged and those who don’t stand in stark contrast. The world itself, even in its grittiest places, is immaculately clean — parking garages, there are no objects that don’t serve to advance the story and remind us that it takes place in a world not quite here, where the rules are different. Strung somewhere halfway between fantasy and reality “Gunpowder Milkshake” is able to take leaps that would require explanation in a different setting. 

The language of mise-en-scène

We see that mise-en-scène can be borrowed, it can be referenced and it can be paid tribute to. Mise-en-scène can also serve to bring multiple films together stylistically.

Take Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece of outer space terror “Alien.” The film takes place in the lower decks of a grimy spaceship called the Nostromo, itself a nod to the 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad. Everything in this spaceship screams “working class” — from the relaxed uniforms to the clutter, grime and dark lighting. This is a spaceship that exists on low margins in an unglamorous world perfect for hiding a people-eating alien.

This franchise has spun off a number of related films, like the action-packed 1986 sequel “Aliens,” and others, some of which take place in the distant past — our present — on Earth. How do you make Earth in 2007 look like a spaceship in 2134 or a space colony in 2191?

Scott’s original spaceship was inspired by the drawings of H.R. Geiger which place tubes everywhere. That’s how we get the familiar territory of the Nostromo. To reflect this, Directors Greg and Colin Strause take us into a spooky water-filled sewer whose wall-mounted pipes are a strong tribute to the sewer in  James Cameron’s 1986 follow up “Aliens.”

The corridors of the space tug Nostromo. Alien, 1977 — directed by Ridley Scott.

Underneath the colony. Aliens, 1986 — directed by James Cameron.

A sewer on contemporary earth, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, 2007 — directed by Colin and Greg Strause.

In each of these instances the mise-en-scène evokes a dark and complicated space where scary things can hide. However, in the latter two, the directors are using familiar objects to keep the films in a universe that the audience feels like they know.

Homework assignment

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?