Mise-en-scène [meez-awn-sen] (‘placing on stage’) is an expression used to describe the design aspects of a theater or film production, which essentially means ‘visual theme’ or ‘telling a story’—both in visually artful ways through storyboarding, cinematography, and stage design, and in poetically artful ways through direction.

Mise-en-scène has been called film criticism’s ‘grand undefined term.’ When applied to the cinema, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. Mise-en-scène also includes the positioning and movement of actors on the set (‘blocking’).

These are all the areas overseen by the director, and thus, in French film credits, the director’s title is ‘metteur en scène’ (‘placer on scene’). This narrow definition of mise-en-scène is not shared by all critics. For some, it refers to all elements of visual style—that is, both elements on the set and aspects of the camera. For others, such as film critic Andrew Sarris, it takes on mystical meanings related to the emotional tone of a film: ‘Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an ‘elan of the soul’?… as it is all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and later catalog the moments of recognition.’

The term is sometimes used to represent a style of conveying the information of a scene primarily through a single shot—often accompanied by camera movement. Two academic papers, Brian Henderson’s Essay on the ‘Long Take’ (1976) and Lutz Bacher’s MA thesis entitled ‘The Mobile Mise-en-Scène’ (1976), discuss the use of mise-en-scène in long shots and shots that encompass a whole scene. Neither conflates its meaning with how the term was originally applied to film in the ‘Cahiers de Cinéma’ (an influential French film magazine), which was expressed in 1960 by critic Fereydoun Hoveyda as follows: ‘What matters in a film is the desire for order, composition, harmony, the placing of actors and objects, the movements within the frame, the capturing of a moment or look… Mise en scene is nothing other than the technique invented by each director to express the idea and establish the specific quality of his work.’ This recent and limiting redefinition of the term makes it synonymous with a ‘oner’ or a single shot that encompasses an entire scene. This use of the term displays some ignorance of both the traditional use of the term in French theater and film and its actual translated meaning.

In German filmmaking in the 1910s and 1920s, one can observe tone, meaning, and narrative information conveyed through mise-en-scène. Perhaps the most famous example of this is ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1919) where a character’s internal state of mind is represented through set design and blocking. The similar-sounding, but unrelated term, ‘metteurs en scène’ (figuratively, ‘stagers’) was used by the auteur theory (the presumption that the director, not the writer, is most responsible for the finished product in filmmaking) as a disparaging label for directors who did not put their personal vision into their films. Because of its relationship to shot blocking, mise-en-scène is also a term sometimes used among professional screenwriters to indicate descriptive (action) paragraphs between the dialog. Only rarely is mise-en-scène critique used in other art forms, but it has been used effectively to analyze photography.

An important element of ‘putting in the scene’ is set design—the setting of a scene and the objects (props) they’re in. Set design can be used to amplify character emotion or the dominant mood of a film, or to establish aspects of the character. The intensity, direction, and quality of lighting have a profound effect on the way an image is perceived. Light (and shade) can emphasize texture, shape, distance, mood, time of day or night, season, glamour  it affects the way colors are rendered, both in terms of hue and depth, and can focus attention on particular elements of the composition. The representation of space affects the reading of a film. Depth, proximity, size and proportions of the places and objects in a film can be manipulated through camera placement and lenses, lighting, set design, effectively determining mood or relationships between elements in the story world. Using certain colors or designs, costumes in narrative cinema are used to signify characters or to make clear distinctions between characters.

Makeup and hair styles establish time period, reveal character traits and signal changes in character. There is enormous historical and cultural variation in performance styles in the cinema. Early melodramatic styles, clearly indebted to the 19th century theater, gave way in Western cinema to a relatively naturalistic style. Directors also make filmstock choices such as black & white or color, fine-grain or grainy, and the aspect ratio. The relation of the width of the rectangular image to its height. Each aspect ratio yields a different way of looking at the world and is basic to the expressive meaning of the film.

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