What is Mise-en-scène?

Mise-en-scène means, liter­ally, “put in the scene.” It refers to almost everything that goes into the compos­i­tion of a shot: framing, move­ment of the camera and actors, lighting, set design and even sound. It can be defined as the artic­u­la­tion of cine­matic space.

If the editing of images together (see ‘Montage) is about time; mise-en-scène is about space. Specific­ally the area of space framed by the screen. Editing is a way to create a narrative through a rhythm of forward action; for example through rapid shifts of point of view between the parti­cipants in a dialogue sequence.

HeavensGteBy contrast, conscious use of a mise-en-scène tech­nique in film­making directs our atten­tion to the space of the shot itself. We are invited to really look at what is in front of us and find meaning in the compos­i­tion and arrange­ment of its elements.

Typic­ally there must be time to do this and the char­ac­ter­istic of this type of film-making is a long, lingering shot that happens without any cutting away.

For this reason, it demands a lot more careful atten­tion and plan­ning at the produc­tion stage. There is no room for mistakes because there is no oppor­tunity to fix them in editing. If a mistake is made, the entire shot must be taken again.

It also requires more from the audi­ence in terms of active parti­cip­a­tion – to get the most from a film of this kind, you have to pay atten­tion and some­times even analyse and think about what you are seeing.

Unsur­pris­ingly, for mainly economic reasons, this type of film-making is not seen often in main­stream commer­cial cinema.  Films that use a direc­tional, forward-moving editing style – one that leads the viewer through the narrative – make far fewer demands on an audi­ence and are far more popular.

Case study: La Grande Illu­sion (1937)

There is a sequence in (this) film by the director Jean Renoir in which a group of WWI POWs receive a carton of gifts. Among the gifts is, unac­count­ably, some women’s clothing. One of the soldiers puts the clothing on, and the rest stare at him in stunned silence.

Renoir creates their response by gently, slowly, panning across the men staring. The move­ment yields up the space the men inhabit, suggests that it extends beyond the frame, and delic­ately emphas­izes their confused sexual response to this sudden appear­ance of a man in a woman’s clothes.

Had Renoir cut from face to face, the effect would have been quite different, suggesting the isol­a­tion of one man and his emotional response from the next person in the group. If he had offered only a wide shot of all the men together, their indi­vidual expres­sions would have been lost. The pan joins indi­vidual to group, making the revel­a­tion of space not only phys­ical but emotional and communal, and the response more gener­ally and genu­inely human. It allows us to under­stand the response and not lose our perspective. Close­ness and comfort­able distance remain.” ( By Robert Kolker)

(Full text avail­able online here)

Lawrence of Arabia

This scene from David Lean’s epic film became famous because of the demands it made on the audience’s atten­tion. The camera remains still as Omar Sharif’s char­acter slowly mater­i­al­ises from the desert in one long, sustained shot. This style of film-making was not unpre­ced­ented but it was very unusual to see it in a main­stream commer­cial feature at the time the film was released. Although the scene is not that long, it felt much longer the first time you saw it.

What to read next
Montage – a tech­nique for editing imagery to create meaning

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