What is mise-en-scene?

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What is mise-en-scene? This French term translates roughly to “placing on stage.” The term is difficult to define. Mise-en-scene can refer to the actor’s positioning and set design in film, television, and theater. It can also refer to scenes that are considered representative of a specific film. Sometimes, screenwriters use mise-en-scene to refer to descriptive paragraphs that establish a scene between dialogue. 

In film studies, commonly, mise-en-scene refers to everything the camera sees. This means set design, props, lighting, shot composition, and even actors are all part of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene is used to communicate, not just plot information but information about the character’s experience or state of mind. For example, when a character is experiencing anger or an emotionally intense situation, the director, set designer, costumer, cinematographer, and other crew members will work together to illustrate this state of mind through things like lighting, blocking, shot composition, and more. 

Elements of mise-en-scene

There are many elements that work together to make up mise-en-scene in film. They include blocking, the actor’s performances, set design, lighting, aspect ratio, hair and makeup, shot composition, costuming, use of space, and lighting. 

All of these elements work together to create one image that communicates something to the viewer. 

Take a look at the scene that is being created in this photograph. Imagine you are looking through the camera; what is being communicated? Everything from the specific make and model of car to the use of natural lighting to the actor’s sunglasses to the dumpster in the background is an example of mise-en-scene.

Now look at this image and think about all the elements that have gone into this shot. The set dressings are sleek and minimal, the lighting is moody, the backdrop is red, the actor is well-dressed and shot head on. What do you think is being communicated here?

In both of these images, a single actor is being filmed with a relatively basic setup, but it’s easier to list differences than similarities. This is the power of mise-en-scene. When all of these elements come together, a shot or scene is created and communicates something to the viewer.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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