What is Mise en Scene?
A term commonly found in academia, theatre and filmmaking circles, mise en scene is an important term to know if you’re interested in thinking about movies. From budget YouTube videos to Hollywood blockbusters, mise en scene has been used as a way of analysis for many years now. Keep reading to learn everything about it!
Pause a movie or video, and you’ll have a ‘still’ photo that contains actors, props, a setting, and so on. Mise-en scene is a branch term for any of those visual elements within a production!
What is Mise en Scene?
Mise-en-Scene has its roots in theatre, but is nowadays associated with film. Translating to ‘what is put into the scene,’ it’s essentially what you see within any given frame. Check out this Twitter Account - it posts iconic or aesthetic stills from movies; each one of those is a display of mise en scene!
How do you pronounce Mise en Scene?
Phonetically, you would say ‘meese on seen’. The term comes from French, and is supposed to be written with the following punctuation: Mise-en-scène.
What does Mise en Scene mean?
Mise en scene doesn’t mean a specific thing you can pinpoint - it represents a range of visual elements which combine together to create a scene.
It’s easy to think of film in terms of the cinematographer and video team(s) - they record footage via cameras, then edit it together to create a movie. Mise en scene adds context to this; a costume designer, for example, had to design all of the outfits in a historical drama film. A prop designer had to craft a unique object that the hero is questing for. And so on! Even the colour composition can fall under the term - if psychedelic colours are chosen for a room’s wallpaper, maybe it’s because of a dream or drug sequence.
What is Mise en Scene example?
Any piece of footage is an example of mise en scene. Let’s look at a dynamic example and pull a few mise-en-scene observations from it. Check out the following clip from La Haine:
We can draw a lot just from this sequence. The actor is shirtless, and looking in a mirror in a bathroom - we can imply from this he is in a comfortable location, possibly a home or friend’s house. His acting and actions are directly referencing a scene from Breathless, so we can begin thinking about what the actor, character or director are trying to achieve via the nod. He ends the short scene with a gun motion towards the camera - this hints towards plot points both before and after this scene, but also brings with it a bunch of connotations commonly associated with (finger) guns.
How would you describe mise-en-scène in film?
Observations like those in the previous paragraph are collated under the umbrella term of mise en scene! Think of it like a methodology of breaking down what you see in a film shot, ready to be thought about in different contexts. It lets you focus on simply what you see, instead of trying to simultaneously break down the audio, narrative structure, and so on.
Mise en scene is often broken down into 4 separate elements. These differ, but the easiest way to remember them is thinking of them as 4 Ps:
- Point of View
Where exactly the shot is being, well, shot from. If it’s a handheld camera, the point of view is probably trying to replicant someone’s own line of sight or vision. An eagle-eye shot could be to easily establish a location, represent an aerial viewpoint, etc.
How the actor is acting, posturing, standing. If they’re barely moving, it could denote tiredness or depression. If they’re extremely excitable or violent, they’re likely embodying a character with those traits. Maybe they’re super close to the camera, to highlight a distinguishing action.
Non-organic objects you see in the frame. From tiny trinkets to awe-inspiring aircraft carriers, all non-acted elements are props in the scene. Decor, clothing, paintings - everything is chosen for a reason (even if that reason is just a low budget so the team couldn’t repaint a room!).
How all of the above interact with each other, compare and contrast. If two characters are framed of equal heights with equal appearances, maybe you’re supposed to see them as equals. If a character is dwarfed by their environment, maybe they’re feeling claustrophobic or irrelevant.
We’ve already covered the main 4 in the section above. Sometimes, a fifth is introduced by separating up the props and costumes. You can generally describe a character’s costume alongside the decor or setting, but if the costuming is especially important, feel free to separate them in your analysis.
Is camera angle part of mise en scene?
Definitely. The editing isn’t, but the camerawork and cinematography certainly is. A high camera angle could make a character seem weak, whereas a low camera angle could imply power, for example.
Is sound included in mise-en-scene?
No. A soundtrack can emphasise elements of the visual, but mise-en-scene itself is only what you can see. A moody, industrial soundtrack to emphasize shots of a factory or workday is something you should definitely note down and think about, but it’s also worth focusing on the visuals themselves under Mise en Scene!
How everything ties together (so, position if you have to choose one!). Each element of mise en scene only works because of everything surrounding it - by themselves, they’re just a boring element of a movie. Position is the ‘P’ that ties everything together - a character’s performance can be cool, but even more so when you see how they are framed, what objects they interact with, etc.
Check out the above example! Here’s another example:
Hot Fuzz is a comedy scene, and it’s mise en scene compliments the funny dialogue perfectly. You’ve got the initial cockiness and display by Simon Pegg’s character, culminating in an over-the-top somersault over the final fence. The following smile and failure of Nick Frost’s character, alongside the dramatic smash through the sturdy-looking fence compliments it perfectly. The camera angle is maintained, emphasizing the comparison. The final touches of this being a typical British set of backgardens also adds to the situation!
What can analyzing mise-en-scene tell us about a film?
Lots! It’s an awesome tool for breaking down why a shot works, fails, is dramatic, is sad, is happy, etc. You can focus on specific elements to critique or analyze, then apply them to the film’s wider context for effective analysis.