Mise-en-scene (pronounced meez-on-sen) is french for “staging.” it covers everything we see in a frame–setting, camera angle, character(s) and their positioning, costumes and props, lighting–we mean everything!
The term can apply to both still and moving images, and includes both seen and unseen elements.
Producers, directors, writers, along with sometimes hundreds of craftspeople, artists, and technicians all work together to present one picture. mise en scene is, quite simply, everything that goes into the production.
Think about it this way: the total design of an image. Mise-en-scene is a great way to think about the elements of character & camera we’ve reviewed in our other lessons, but we can take each of these even deeper!
characters: costumes / props / performance
When it comes to creating a movie, lots of thought goes into creating characters. Costumes include everything from clothing to hair and make-up–from ruby red slippers to an everyday t-shirt and jeans! Similarly, props (short for “property”) may include iconic items like Thor’s hammer or even just a teacup used in a restaurant scene. And characters are nothing without their actors’ performance: how they deliver their lines, their facial features and body language, or simply their presence on screen. All of these character elements go into mise-en-scene!
camera: lighting & color
We often appreciate lighting in movies without really thinking about it, but it’s one of the most important elements of capturing a scene on camera.
3-Point Lighting is one of the most common techniques (as we see in the first example above). The key light registers most prominently in the frame, while fill lights help fill in some (but not all) of the shadows. Backlight helps give a definition to a scene, lighting the back portion of the subjects and helping to outline them.
Other times, lighting techniques are used to help tell the story. In the second example above, how does the lighting help frame the shot? What does it highlight? What color tones does it create and what feelings does it convey?
Movie lighting also helps to create color palettes, or combinations of colors. Look at the three examples above: each uses some similar warm colors (primarily red), but in different ways. What does the color in each palette make you think of? Are some colors stronger than others? How do the colors in the palette work with or against each other?
We can also think about color palettes by using color theory. In color theory, we use a color wheel to cover the full color spectrum and understand how various shades and colors work together. Primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are the basic building blocks of the color wheel, but on their own, they may be used for a bold effect. French New Wave filmmakers loved using primary colors. Complementary colors (red and green in the example above) sit opposite of each other on the color wheel, so they work well together. Analogous colors (the shades of yellow in the third example above) sit right next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors is a great way to work with various shades of a certain color and create a distinct visual setting. Analogous colors also communicate different feelings, from warmth or passion (red shades) to cool darkness (blue shades).
films to watch
while you watch
Think about characters and camera, especially framing. When does the cinematography or staging of a scene stand out to you? What colors are used and what do they communicate? Fantastic Mr. Fox (just like any Wes Anderson movie) is a great introduction to thinking about mise-en-scene, especially because it was crafted by hand (just think of all the work that went into making each scene)! In a documentary like Honeyland, where scenes may be happening more organically, how do the filmmakers still manage to capture interesting staging? In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, how does staging translate to painting, and how does painting translate to filmmaking?
activity: create your own color palette
Choose a favorite frame from a movie you’ve watched, or choose a picture from your phone or social media. Study the colors in it. Do they seem intentional or random? Do they work together? What do they communicate? Paste your picture in the template below and create your own color palette! (You can also see examples on Cinema Palettes on Twitter!)