Allow me to introduce a word destined to impress your friends and family when you trot it out at the next cocktail party: Mise-en-Scène. And even if you don’t frequent erudite cocktail parties, and who does these days (a shame, really), it’s still a handy term to have around. It’s French (obviously), and it literally means “putting on stage.”
Why French? Because sometimes we just like to feel fancy. And let’s face it, to an American, French is fancy.
But the idea is simple. Borrowed from theater, it refers to every element in the frame that contributes to the overall look of a film. And I mean everything: set design, costume, hair, make-up, color scheme, framing, composition, lighting… Basically, if you can see it, it contributes to the mise-en-scène.
I could have started with any number of different tools or techniques filmmakers use to create a cinematic experience. Narrative might seem a more obvious starting point. Cinema can’t exist without story, and chronologically speaking, it all starts with the screenplay. Or I could have led off with cinematography. After all, we often think of cinema as a visual medium. But mise-en-scène captures much more than any one tool or technique in isolation. It’s more an aesthetic context in which everything else takes place, the unifying look, or even feel, of a film or series.
And this is probably as good a time as any to discuss the role of a director in cinema. There’s a school of thought out there, known as the auteur theory, that claims the director is the “author” of a work of cinema, not unlike the author of a novel, and that they alone are ultimately responsible for what we see on the screen. The fact is, cinema requires dozens if not hundreds of professionals dedicated to bringing a story to life. The screenwriter writes the script, the production designer designs the sets, the cinematographer photographs the scenes, the sound crew captures the sound, the editor connects the shots together, and each of them have whole teams of experts working below them to make it all work on screen. But if there’s any hope of that final product having a unified aesthetic, and a coherent, underlying theme that ties it all together, it needs a singular vision to give it direction. That, really, is the job of a director. To make sure everyone is moving in the same direction, making the same work of art. And they do that not so much by managing people – they have an assistant director and producers for that – they do it by managing mise-en-scène, shaping the overall look and feel of the final product. And while mise-en-scène has many moving parts and many different professionals in charge of shaping those individual parts into something coherent, it’s the one element of cinema that is most clearly the responsibility of the director.
This talent for shaping mise-en-scène is one of the reasons we can so readily identify the work of great directors. Think about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Agnes Varda, Wes Anderson, Yosujiro Ozu, Claire Denis or Steven Speilberg (and if some of those names are unfamiliar, seek them out!). If we know their work at all, most of us could pick out one of their films after just a few minutes, even if we had never seen it before. And not just because of some signature flourish or idiosyncratic visual habit (though that’s often part of it), but because their films have a certain look to them, a certain aesthetic that saturates the screen.
Take the films of Claire Denis for example:
Denis’s films generate an enveloping atmosphere that you can almost taste and feel, and all of that is part of her consistent (and brilliant) use of mise-en-scène.
Or how about the films of Wes Anderson:
Anderson’s films consistently use symmetrical compositions, smooth, precise tracking shots and slow motion, but it’s the overall effect, the mise-en-scène that makes the impression (check out more break-downs of Wes Anderson’s style here and here).
Because mise-en-scène refers to this “overall look” it can feel rather broad (and even vague) as a concept. So let’s break it down into four elements of design: setting, character, lighting and composition. We’ll tackle each one in turn.
Nothing we see on the screen in cinema is there by accident. Everything is carefully planned, arranged and even fabricated – sometimes using computer generated imagery (CGI) – to serve the story and create a unified aesthetic.
That goes double for the setting.
If mise-en-scène is the overall aesthetic context for a film or series, setting is the literal context, the space actors and objects inhabit for every scene. And this is much more than simply the location. It’s how that location, whether it’s an existing space occupied for filming or one purpose-built on a soundstage, is designed to serve the vision of the director.
As we saw in Chapter One, in the early days of motion pictures, when cinematic language was still in its infancy, not much thought was given to the design of a setting (or editing or performance and no one was even thinking about sound yet). But it didn’t take long for filmmakers to realize they could employ the same tricks of set design they used in theater for the cinema.
One of the pioneers of this was the French filmmaker, Georges Méliès. Take, for example, his 1903 film The Kingdom of the Fairies:
Méliès’s use of elaborate sets, along with equally elaborate costumes, hair styles, make-up, and even the hand-tinting of the film itself, all contribute to the fantastical look and feel of the film. He brought a similar design sensibility to all of his films, including the ground-breaking 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.
A decade or so later, this attention to detail in the design elements of cinema had become commonplace. Indeed, many of the more well-known early silent films are famous for their sophisticated mise-en-scène, particular in regard to setting, often above all else.
Check out this scene again from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916):
The set design alone is staggering. Built in the middle of Los Angeles, it took four years just to dismantle it.
Or consider the opening of Fritz Lange’s Metropolis (1927):
The film draws us into a mechanized, dystopian future – one of the first science-fiction films in history – and its success lies in its careful design of the setting to serve that narrative purpose.
Once filmmakers realized the importance of setting as an element of design and what it contributed to the overall look of their films, it wasn’t long before a position was created to oversee it all: the production designer. The production designer is the point person for the overall aesthetic design of a film or series. Working closely with the director, they help translate the aesthetic vision for the project – its mise-en-scène – to the various design departments, including set design, art department, costume, hair and make-up. But arguably their most important job is to make sure the setting matches that aesthetic vision, specifically through set design and set decoration.
Set design is exactly what is sounds like, the design and construction of the setting for any given scene in a film or series. Plenty of productions use existing locations and don’t necessarily have to build much of anything (though that doesn’t mean there isn’t an element of design involved, as we shall see). But when a production requires complete control over the filming environment, production designers, along with conceptual artists, construction engineers, and sometimes a whole army of artisans, must create each setting, or set, from the ground up. And since these sets have to hold up under the strain of a large film crew working in and around them for days and even weeks, they require as much planning and careful construction as any other real-life home, building, or interplanetary city out there in the universe.
Take a look at the incredible detail involved in bringing the set design to life for Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017):
D. W. Griffith can take a seat.
These sets may be built on site to blend in with the surrounding landscape, or they may be built within a large, windowless, sound-proof building called a soundstage. A soundstage provides the control over the environment production designers need to give the director exactly the look and feel she wants from a particular scene. On a big enough soundstage, a production designer can fabricate interiors and exteriors, sections of buildings, even small villages. And since it is all shielded from the outside, the production has complete control over lighting and sound. It can be dawn or twilight for 12 hours a day. And a shot will never be interrupted by an airplane flying loudly overhead.
The use of soundstages is particularly helpful when producing serialized content. A TV or streaming series, especially one that uses the same few locations over and over – the family home, the mobster’s headquarters, the king’s palace – needs access to those sets for months at a time, year after year, for as long as we keep watching. Of all those series you binge watch on the weekends (or during the week, when you should be reading this), almost all of them depend upon sets built from the ground up and housed on soundstages for years on end.
Of course, sometimes the setting of a particular production requires more than a production designer can deliver with the materials available (or the time or the budget as the case may be). In that case, the setting must be augmented with computer generated imagery (CGI). The most common way this is implemented is through the use of green screen technology. The idea is fairly simple. The set is dressed with a backdrop of bright green (or blue, the actual color isn’t terribly important) and the scene filmed as usual. Then, in post-production, software picks out that particular color and replaces it with imagery either filmed elsewhere or generated by digital artists, a process called keying. For this to work, no other object or article of clothing can match that shade of green, or it will be replaced as well. And with ever-improving technology, the sky is no longer the limit to what designers can offer up for the screen.
Whether the production designer is building the set from the ground up on a soundstage, or simply using an existing location, the setting is still a kind of blank canvas until that space is filled with all of the important details that really tell the story. That’s where set design meets set decoration. Still under the supervision of the production designer, set decorating falls to any number of skilled artisans in the art department. And they design everything from the color on the walls, to the texture of the drapes, to the style of the furniture, to every ashtray, book and family photo that might show up on screen. And that goes for existing locations as well. A film production using someone’s actual home for a scene will likely replace all of the furniture, repaint the walls, and fill it with their own odds and ends that help tell the cinematic story. And then, hopefully, put it all back the way they found it when they’re done.
Take a look at the ways the production designer for the Netflix series The Crown converts existing locations into a Buckingham Palace throne room or the Queen’s private apartment:
This is where storytelling through the physical environment – the setting – can really come alive. Every object placed just so on a set adds to the mise-en-scène and helps tell the story. Those objects could be in the background providing context – framed photos, a trophy, an antique clock – or they could be picked up and handled by characters in a scene – a glass of whisky, a pack of cigarettes, a loaded gun. We even have a name for those objects, props, short for “property” and also borrowed from theater, and a name for the person in charge of keeping track of them all, a prop master.
As should be clear by now, setting is one of the most important design elements in creating a consistent mise-en-scène. Not simply the location – a suburban home, a high-rise office building, a spaceport on Mos Eisley – but all of the details that fill that location, make it come alive as a lived-in space, and most importantly, help tell the cinematic story. And one way we can begin to really see the intention of the filmmaker, to understand how she is subtly (and maybe not so subtly) manipulating our emotions through cinematic language, is to pay attention to these details. The very details we’re not supposed to notice.
Character is a term that will come up a lot. We use it to describe how a screenwriter invents believable characters that inhabit a narrative structure. And we use it to describe how an actor inhabits that character in their performance. But we can also examine how the physical design of a character, through costume, make-up and hair style, not only contributes to the mise-en-scène, but also helps fully realize the work of both screenwriters and actors.
Typically, when we think of “character design” we might immediately think of fantastic creatures dreamed up in a special effects studio. They might be animated through CGI or fabricated from latex and worn by an actor. And all of that is a reasonable way to think about the concept of character design. But in some ways, that is just a much more extreme version of how I would like to frame the work of costume designers and hair and make-up professionals.
Just as a screenwriter must create – or design – a character on the page, and an actor must create – or design – their approach to inhabiting that character, the wardrobe, hair and make-up departments must also design how that character is going to look on screen. This design element is, of course, more obvious the less familiar the world of the character might be. The clothing, hair and make-up of characters inhabiting worlds in a distant time period or even more distant galaxy will inevitably draw our attention. (Though even there the intention is to add to the mise-en-scène without distracting us from the story.) But even when the context is closer to home, a story set in our time, in our culture, maybe even our own home town, every element of the clothes, the hair and the make-up is carefully chosen, sometimes made from scratch, to fit that context and those particular characters. In other words, each character’s look is carefully designed to support the overall mise-en-scène and help tell the story.
Take costume design, for example. We often think of “costume” as another word for disguise or playing a character. But the last thing a filmmaker wants is the audience to think of their characters as actors in disguise or playing dress-up. They want us to see the characters. Period. The wardrobe should fit the time and place, and most importantly, the character. And once that is established, the designer can layer in more subtle hints about the larger context, the underlying theme, by adding a touch of color that serves as a visual motif, or introducing some alteration in the wardrobe that dramatize some narrative shift:
What is important to note is that costume design in film is not about fashion or even what looks “good” on an actor. It’s about what looks right on a character, what fits the setting and the overall look of the film.
These same principles can be applied to hair and make-up. As with costume design, it’s easy to think of the more extreme examples of hair and make-up design, especially when the setting calls for something historic or other-worldly or… horrifying. The special effects make-up for the gory bits of your favorite horror films can sometimes take center stage. But more often, these elements are not meant to draw our attention at all. To achieve that, perhaps ironically, hair and make-up require even more attention from their respective designers. This is due in part to the technical requirements of filming. Bright lights that can reveal every distracting blemish or poorly applied foundation, and as camera and image technology improves, the techniques required to hide the fact that actors are even wearing make-up must be continually refined. But it is also because hair and make-up are incredibly personal and intimately connected to the character:
And while all of this is tremendously important for the audience, it is even more important for the actor playing the character. We’ll discuss the various ways an actor approaches their performance in detail in another chapter, but for now it’s important to note how much actors rely upon the design of their character through costume, hair and make-up. Putting on the wardrobe, seeing themselves in another era, a different hair style, looking older or younger, helps the actor literally and metaphorical step into the life of someone else, and do so believably enough that we no longer see the actor, only the character in the story.
The first two elements of design in mise-en-scène – setting and character – fall squarely under the supervision of the production designer and the art department. The next two – lighting and composition – fall to the cinematographer and the camera department but are just as important as elements of design in the overall look of the film. We will take a deeper dive into each in a later chapter on cinematography, but for now let’s a take a quick look at how these elements fit into mise-en-scène.
As should be obvious, you can’t have cinema without light. Light exposes the image and, of course, allows us to see it. But it’s the creative use of light, or lighting, is what makes it an element design. A cinematographer can illuminate a given scene with practical light, that is, light from lamps and other fixtures that are part of the set design, set lights, light fixtures that are off camera and specifically designed to light a film set, or even available light, light from the sun or whatever permanent fixtures are at a given location. But in each case, the cinematographer is not simply throwing a light switch, they are shaping that light, making it work for the scene and the story as a whole. They do this by emphasizing different aspects of lighting direction and intensity. A key light, for example, is the main light that illuminates a subject. A fill light fills out the shadows a strong key light might create. And a back light helps separate the subject from the background. And it’s the consistent use of a particular lighting design that makes it a powerful part of mise-en-scène.
Two basic approaches to lighting style can illustrate the point. Low-key lighting refers to a lighting design where the key light remains subtle and even subordinate to other lighting sources. The result? A high-contrast lighting design that make consistent use of harsh shadows. Another word for this is chiaroscuro lighting (this time we’re stealing a fancy word from Italian). Think of old detective movies with the private eye stalking around the dark streets of San Francisco.
Classic low-key lighting design.
High-key lighting refers a lighting design where the key light remains the dominant source, resulting in a low-contrast, even flat or washed-out look to the image. Think of art-house dramas set in stark, snowy landscapes, or even big Hollywood comedies that try to avoid “interesting” shadows that might distract us from the joke.
In either case, the cinematographer, working closely with the director and production designer, is using light as an element of design, contributing to the overall mise-en-scène.
The fourth and final design element in considering mise-en-scène – one that I touched on in the last chapter and will receive much more attention in the chapter on cinematography – is composition. As discussed in Chapter Two, composition refers to the arrangement of people, objects and setting within the frame of an image. And because we are talking about moving pictures, there are really two important components of composition: framing, which even still photographers must master, and movement. In the case of cinematic composition, movement refers to movement within the frame as well as movement of the frame as the cinematographer moves the camera through the scene. All of which are critical aspects of how we experience mise-en-scène.
Like lighting, composition fall under the responsibility of the cinematographer. And while there are many technical and artistic considerations when it comes to framing and movement, cinematographers are also keenly aware of the design element of composition. In fact, they often describe at least part of their job as designing a shot. Part of this process involves arranging people, objects and setting in the frame to achieve a sense of balance and proportion, often dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically to ensure proper distribution. We call this the rule of thirds and it’s fairly common in photography. In fact, take out your phone right now, open the camera app, and you’re likely to see a faint grid across the screen. That’s there to help you balance the composition of your selfie according to the rule of thirds. Another important part of the process of designing a shot is the choreography involved in moving the camera through the scene, whether on wheels, on a crane or strapped to camera person.
Again, we’ll spend more time on this subject in a later chapter, but take a look at how Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa approaches the composition of movement in designing his shots:
Or how Andrea Arnold uses framing and composition to communicate isolation, captivity or a deep connection to the earth:
A thoughtfully composed frame does more than create a pleasing image. It can isolate characters, focus our attention and draw us into the story – all without us ever really noticing the technique itself.
Unless we know to look for it.
Taken together, setting, character, lighting and composition make up the key elements of design in creating an effective and coherent mise-en-scène. As discussed earlier, it’s one of the ways we can pick out the work of great filmmakers. A consistent mise-en-scène becomes a kind of signature style of a filmmaker.
But it can also mark the signature style of a particular genre or type of cinema. Take film noir, for example. Remember those detective movies I mentioned earlier? They are part of a whole trend in filmmaking that began in the 1940s with titles like The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). These films and many more are part of a style of filmmaking that includes a gritty, urban setting, tough, no-nonsense characters, low key lighting, and off-balance compositions. Sometimes they feature a private detective on a case, but not always. Usually they were filmed in black and white, but not always. In fact, film noir – which literally means “dark film” in French (what is with all the French?!) – has been historically difficult to define because the specific elements can vary so widely. But one easy way to identify a film as part of that tradition is by its mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène isn’t about any one element, it’s that overall look, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And that can extend to a whole national trend in cinema as well. Because cinema is so deeply connected to a particular cultural context, part of that give and take in the cultural production of meaning, it should come as no surprise that there are certain periods in a given place and time where cinema can take on a kind of national style. Where cinema artists in that same place and time are all speaking the same cinematic language. As a result, produce a unified, identifiable style, which is another way of saying a consistent mise-en-scène.
One example of this can be found in the films produced in Germany around the time of the First World War. It was still early days in cinema, before the introduction of sound, and German filmmakers were experimenting with how far they could push the new medium (and their audience). The result was a style of film – a national cinematic mise-en-scène – that would come to be known as German Expressionism. These films were notable for their consistent use of surreal, exaggerated set design and very low key lighting schemes. The films were full of dark shadows and macabre settings. Films like Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920):
Or F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922):
In fact, we can trace the origins of modern horror films to German Expressionism. And I don’t just mean borrowing the mise-en-scène. A lot of the first Hollywood horror movies were made by German filmmakers who pioneered German Expressionism and were fleeing Germany before the Second World War.
Another example of national style in cinema is Italian Neorealism, which coalesced around a consistent mise-en-scène in Italian cinema around the end of World War II until the mid-1950s. It was quite the opposite from German Expressionism. Italians, filmmakers included, were coming out of a brutal period of state repression and terrible violence. They had no patience for an escapist cinema with surreal settings and macabre monsters. They had just survived real monsters who were very much human. Films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) showed Italian life in a stark, almost documentary-like style. They often used non-professional actors, rarely built any sets, and avoided showy camera techniques. Take a look at a critical scene from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves where the main character, Antonio, who depends upon his bicycle to provide for his family, is robbed while on the job:
Notice the stark realism of the setting, the wardrobe, the way the camera tells us exactly what we need to know. Now check out this analysis of the film’s mise-en-scène:
It’s a stylistic approach that could not be more different from the work of Weine or Murnau in Germany. Italian Neorealism was a film movement, unified around a particular mise-en-scène, that acted as a kind of collective, aesthetic catharsis through cinema.
Of course, any individual filmmaker can draw inspiration from any of these stylistic movements in their work. And sometimes, they can combine them in startlingly creative ways. Agnes Varda, the founding mother of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 60s, did just that in her very first film La Pointe Courte (1955). The film tells two stories, one grounded in a neo-realist aesthetic, which would come to define her work in documentary filmmaking, and the other grounded in a formalist, impressionistic mise-en-scène that would characterize much of her narrative work. The result is a surprisingly cohesive cinematic experience (and full disclosure, one of my all time favorites):
That is the power of mise-en-scène in any context, the power to unify a cinematic experience, to provide the aesthetic context for whatever else the filmmaker might be up to. Drawing on setting, character, lighting and composition, mise-en-scène is more than any one technique, it’s the overall look or even feel of a film, and it is far greater than the sum of its parts. Which is why I chose to start here in our exploration of how, exactly, cinema works the way it does.
Video and Image Attributions:
Georges Méliès – The Kingdom of the Fairies / Le Royaume des Fées (music by Steffen Wick) by PIANO PARTICLES. Standard YouTube License.
Intolerance (1916) — Belshazzar’s feast in Babylon by Fix Me A Scene. Standard YouTube License.
Metropolis (opening scenes) with score by Zack Kline by Zack Kline. Standard YouTube License.
Go behind-the-scenes of the ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ set design by QAGOMA. Standard YouTube License.
All Hollywood VFX Removed! What Movies Really Look Like by Fame Focus. Standard YouTube License.
‘The Crown’ Sets Explained by the Show’s Set Designer | Notes on a Set by Architectural Digest. Standard YouTube License.
The Big Combo, 1955, Joseph H. Lewis, dir. Public Domain Image.
All The Scary Vampire Scenes From “NOSFERATU: A Symphony Of Horror” (1922) by Porfle Popnecker. Standard YouTube License.
Between Neo-Realism and Formalism: Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte by IUCinema. Standard YouTube License.