Mise en Scene: Selecting Props

Setting up a scene, or mise en scene, often involves selecting the right props for that scene, and there's more to prop placement than simply adding something to fill in the background. A prop tells the story just as much as the characters and locations do. When setting up a scene, photographers and videographers need to look for items that fill in the character's back story, assist with moving the story forward and help establish location and time.

Step 1: Understanding Mise en Scene

Mise en Scene is a French term that loosely translates to arranging the scene. The purpose of Mise en Scene is to basically set up the scene of a shot, and everything from the character's clothing to design of the location to what props are being used are part of the frame arrangement.

Mise en Scene will provide information about the location, time and character without words ever needing to be spoken. For example, if a woman is walking around a room strewn with children's toys, and she's holding a pacifier, it can be readily assumed that she has kids.  She didn't have to say that she's a mother for the audience to figure it out.

Step 2: Character Props

While many people just think of props as something in the background, they often can take center stage. Characters can be given a prop that provides additional information about the character itself or the action taking place. These additional props can be added to a person's clothing for more detail or simply be put in the person's hand.

Here are two examples. If a character is walking around with several pill bottles in pockets, this allows the reader to know that the character has some sort of problem, be it chronic condition or drug addict. 

But, if you take an example like Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, you can see how a simple glass of milk can not only create doubt on the character holding it, but also increase the tension of the film. Cary Grant's character is suspected of murder by his wife, played by Joan Fontaine. She thinks that he poisoned someone else and is trying to poison her, and the milk would be the perfect way to do this.

Step 3: Location Props

Props can also add additional information about the location and time period of the action. For example, if a 1967 Chevy Impala is sitting outside a movie theater playing Easy Rider, it can safely be assumed that the setting for this movie is in the past, circa 1960s. 

And, the location props can also provide some more information about the character and who that character is. Another example would be a room with everything strewn about, a half-eaten pizza sitting on the kitchen counter and the like. The viewer can assume that this person is a slob without any other character making that observation.

So, overall, props need to add something to the scene, and it shouldn't merely just be to fill in empty spaces. Props need to be considered carefully before they are put in a frame.