Mise en Scene: Everything within the Frame

Although widely applauded in film criticism, mise en scene is an often misunderstood term that speaks literally of what composes the frame in a film. Why is it so important? In critiquing films, mise en scene is valued for helping set the tone, emotion and meaning of the shot.

Elements of Mise en Scene

  •     Set
  •     Props
  •     Actors
  •     Lighting
  •     Space
  •     Costumes

Where Does It Take Place?

The set or location is a key element for the feel of a scene. The emotions that can be evoked for a merry-go-round can be fairly uplifting and nostalgic. Or, depending on the context of the scene, it can be heart-wrenching, if it reminds a character of bad things in their past. It can be used for contrast if a murder is going to take place there or if one occurred there in the past.

What's There?

What are the things the character has in this particular area? The cluttered nature of the frames within "Citizen Kane" tell audiences that this was a man who collected things, but he could never define his life by the things he possessed. On the other hand, a frame may be barren, which could tell of the emptiness of that character's life.

Who's Scene Is It Anyway?

Who's there and what are they doing? Characters may be very active-or even festive-in a crowd. Or, depending on what they're doing, they could be very alone. How they act-fast and jerky, or slow and methodical-can tell the audience a lot about what the filmmaker wants them to feel. Conversely, a character may be in exile, and his actions may be full of reflection. These proved very effective for Shakespeare, as evidenced by his soliloquies. 

Shadows and Light

If a set is brightly lit, it could tell something very upbeat, but if the same frame is draped in shadows, where mysterious things may or may not be going on, it may be telling us that there's something to dread coming up. The darker lighting and shadows were well used in older German expressionistic films, and they were effectively resurrected in the film noir genre.

The Wide, Open Spaces

One effective tool for creating a mood is not so much what filmmakers fill the frame with as much as what they don't fill it with. Open space can be very freeing (imagine the wide, open seas) or they could be foreboding, like when you see a lone man lost in the desert.
 
It's What You Wear

How are the characters clothed? If a character is moving through a medieval scene, but he wears a space suit, that's going to have a strange twist to it. Usually, a character will be adorned appropriately, but, if not, there may be a good reason. Uniforms are particularly important. Audiences are getting more and more savvy, and they can pick up on inaccuracies more quickly. Watch for what they wear-it should tell you a lot about what the filmmaker is trying to convey.