There are many elements that go into telling a story onscreen successfully. An audience may not realize it, but as writer/director/actor/crew, you must be aware of all that goes into creating an evocative end product if you want your work to find success. The combination of all the elements that come together to create a brilliant work on film? That’s the mise en scène.
But what is mise en scène and how is it achieved? We spoke to a few experts to break down the French phrase in order to help you understand this nuanced, subjective idea and how all of its parts come together to tell a story.
“Poker Face” Credit: Sara Shatz/Peacock
Mise en scène is a catch-all phrase for how a scene comes together and tells your story. Also sometimes written as mise-en-scène, it can be roughly translated as “setting the stage,” as it was originally used to refer to the staging of plays and other theatrical productions. In film, mise en scène similarly involves everything that happens in front of the camera: set design, lighting design, actor placement (blocking), and the way it all looks onscreen.
“It’s setting the scene,” explains writer and director Amy Aniobi. “It’s the composition; how the story can be told by what you see, whether immediately or revealing it partway through or at the end of a scene. It’s how you tell the story by what you see and not what’s being said.”
In film analysis, the term ultimately means the overall effect of every element in front of the camera. Mise en scène brings those elements together for the audience and enhances the journey they go on as the story unfolds.
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” Courtesy A24
In the simplest terms, mise en scène is what elevates filmmaking to an art form. “It fills in narrative details that dialogue alone cannot,” says screenwriter Anna Klassen. “It’s all the artistic and creative ways to express a story beyond dialogue. Without it, film and television would be two-dimensional. Mise en scène is the life force of any narrative: it’s the color, the texture, the culture of the scene.”
In short: if you want to tell a good story in a visual medium, it’s vital to understand how that story unfolds through visual elements. Good mise en scène is what will bring your audience into the story, the mind of the characters, and their emotional states and lead viewers and characters alike on an emotional journey.
Mise en scène is the unspoken language of your film. It’s the emotional puppeteer of not only your characters, but the audience, too. It provides context that helps guide the story beyond the machinations of the plot and takes time and care to successfully craft.
“I use mise en scène to aid in the old adage ‘show, don’t tell,’ ” Klassen explains. “I can demonstrate the world of my characters—what’s on their bedroom wall, where they keep their coffee cups, what their cubicle looks like at work, for example—much more effectively, and interestingly, using [it].”
Composition is everything when it comes to creating good mise en scène. Each frame should be telling the audience something, either literally or inferred. When planning your film, ask yourself these questions:
- How are the actors positioned?
- How is the scene lit?
- What are the shooting angles?
- Which lenses are being used?
- What are we seeing that the characters may not be?
- Is there movement, either in the scene or from the camera itself?
The answers will lead you toward effective mise en scène. “I come from the Melina Matsoukas school of film,” adds Aniobi, speaking of their work together on “Insecure.” “She creates photographs: You could take a snapshot of any moment in a scene and you have a great compositional photograph that tells you what the scene is about.”
“Knives Out” Credit: Claire Folger
It would be easy to assume that mise en scène is created by the director and screenwriter alone, but it takes much more than one or two people to create it.
“Sometimes, even in the best screenplays, [mise en scène] is not always on the page,” Aniobi says. She explains that the writer may see it in their head but not expound on the page, leaving other crew to interpret the missing elements. “But it’s about composition and the context of the scenes before and after—the mood, the emotion.”
Like most aspects of film and television, evoking that mood and emotion through mise en scène is a collaborative effort between the heads of many departments: set and prop design, lighting, costumes, hair, makeup, and locations, as well as actor blocking and shot composition. If everything is not working in concert, things fall apart or feel flat on screen.
“It’s color theory, it’s the arrangement of the shot list, it’s ensuring the clothes and makeup are period-appropriate, it’s the general mood of the film. It’s everything in frame that helps execute the creative vision and themes of the narrative,” says Klassen.
But if it doesn’t come from an honest place, even the most interestingly composed scenes can fall flat. “A great and deep understanding of story and character is necessary. It’s about being intentional,” explains Aniobi.
“It’s not just about cool shots. We don’t do shots to look cool, we do [them] to tell the story. If it’s cool for the story, great, but if a shot is just cool for the sake of it, cut that out…. That’s not telling the story, that's being selfish and self-indulgent.”
When all of these elements come together, the story being told is strengthened and emboldened; the nuance of everything happening onscreen is understood and felt by the audience. In this way, mise en scène is the heart of visual storytelling. It’s what elevates a good script into a great work of art.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
While there are many great examples of mise en scène, there are a few directors who are known for their signature style and the way their films are composed.
“Wes Anderson is the poster boy for mise en scène,” Klassen explains. “He has a very specific visual style that employs symmetry, as well as a certain pleasing aesthetic and color palette.”
For Aniobi, Ruben Östlund is a modern master of mise en scène. “[In] the scene in ‘Force Majeure’ when the avalanche is coming down and the dad runs away and everybody stops, [he] shows you that the movie is about something way deeper.”
“[Another] movie that immediately comes to mind is ‘Amélie,’ which showcases the title character’s interior life perfectly by exploring her external world,” adds Klassen. “The clutter and brightness of her bedroom, for example, gives us a clear look into her psyche—imaginative, whimsical, and constantly buzzing. She doesn't need to tell us that she has a vibrant imagination, we can see it clearly through her surroundings.”
Good mise en scène doesn’t exist in dramas alone, as Aniobi points out. “[In] ‘Mean Girls,’ the moment when Cady [Lindsay Lohan] is doing her lip gloss in a vanity mirror in a mall? It shows you how much she’s changed, how she’s become cheap, a commodity—it says so much without saying anything explicit at all.”
Perhaps the most classic example of all, according to Klassen, is “The Wizard of Oz.” “Once the film transforms from black-and-white to color, the sets and costumes take full advantage of living in Technicolor: Dorothy’s sparkling red slippers, the orange poppy fields, the Emerald City, the yellow brick road…it’s an effective way to demonstrate that Dorothy’s internal world is expanding as she goes on a journey through an increasingly colorful landscape.”
In the end, good mise en scène is all about context, nuance, and story elevation. So the next time you’re working on a film or TV project, spend some time considering how to make your mise en scène more intentional, and you will surely watch your story soar to the next level.