Movies and Film: Elements of the Mise-en-Scène

Elements of the Mise-en-Scne

Despite the confusion about what exactly constitutes it, we understand the essential elements of the mise-en-scne as follows:

  • The degree and quality of artifice.
  • The frame.
  • The space in the frame.
  • Composition.
  • Lighting.
  • Character placement.
  • Decor.

We will discuss all these elements in the following sections except for lighting, which is treated in "Film Aesthetics of Black and White and Color Film."

Filmophile's Lexicon

Aleatory: "Dependent on chance, luck, or an uncertain outcome." (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed.) Originally used for the other arts, in film this means setting up the camera in such a way that you allow the possibility of interesting things happening without artificially preparing their occurrence.

Aleatory vs. Artificial Cinema

The Hollywood studio director knows precisely what she wants in the frame through every second of shooting.

The documentarist relies to some extent on an aleatory camera, hoping those fish will come up in the right spot, and that a bear will come along to catch them and feed them to her cubs. If this doesn't happen, maybe something else will.

Experimental and avant-garde filmmakers often rely on an aleatory camera to catch something interesting, or to prove that nothing interesting is happening. Andy Warhol's Empire (1964) is an eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. The drama is in the changing lighting and, then, in the realization that the film has been about iconography, fame, urbanness, and a host of other issues. Much of Rossellini's Open City (Roma, citt aperta, Italy, 1946) is shot on the streets of Rome just as the Nazis are evacuating, and it all feels much more breathlessly real than the studio John Wayne films, in part because you sense that Rossellini can't really keep Roman street life from bubbling all around him. Nor does he hide the terrible vision of buildings damaged by Allied bombing. Open City is a little different from, for example, the relatively artificial Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck studio production Roman Holiday (1953). Also shot outdoors in Rome (it was in part influenced by the Italian neorealism of directors like Rossellini), it is incredibly romantic, and incredibly contrived.

Framing: Mr. Inside-Outside

Open frame: Still from The 400 Blows.

Open frame: Still from The 400 Blows.

In our example of the nature documentarist versus feature filmmaker, we postulated that the documentarist has less control over what is actually in the scene, and what enters and exits the shot. The feature filmmaker makes certain actors enter and exit according to their proper cues.

What gets in and out of the frame can be either artificially controlled or aleatory. Films like Truffaut's The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups, France, 1959) contains exterior scenes in which traffic, pedestrians, and even characters, flow in and out of frame in a haphazard manner. The prostitutes in Lizzie Borden's Working Girls (1986) enter and exit the brothel's anteroom in a casual manner that suggests something about the spirit of the sexuality of the place. On the other hand, Buster Keaton's films are models of careful framing: Rarely does something enter the screen without a reason; rarely are the main characters (and machines) not carefully centered when the shot begins. In another example of careful framing, this time in Marx Brothers films, Harpo walks into the frame from the left carrying the front end of a board, exiting right. But when the end of the board appears at the left, it is still being carried by Harpo. The joke depends on your seeing Harpo enter and exit each side of the frame at precisely the right moment.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Frame: This word really has two related meanings. The first is roughly equivalent to "screen," and alludes to the border separating the picture from the theater auditorium. Everything thrown on-screen by the projector is in the frame. Everything in the dark is outside the screen: the theater stage, the walls, the popcorn, your lover's legs, and so on. The second meaning is simply one picture on the film strip. In this secion we will be interested in the first meaning.

As a rule, when the frame is aleatory, the audience has a sense of space opening out beyond the frame because we actually experience things going on and offscreen, so we have a sense that there is an offscreen, a great big world beyond what we can actually see. When the frame is artificially cut off from everything outside itself, we may have sense (even if not consciously) that the space in the frame is limited, even claustrophobic.

Director's Cut

Perhaps the most famous example of framing has to do with what is left out of the shot. In Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, Russia, 1926), the cruel Cossacks move down the Odessa Steps in lockstep fashion. You can see the guns, the jackboots, the military precision. But you can't see their faces; their heads are cut off at the shoulders. They move, but they do not think.

Spatially Speaking

That last point brings us to the notion of space within the frame. Space is not equal everywhere at all times. Think about sci-fi film space. Sure, it's incredibly expansive in Star Wars, with all that hyperspacing, space battling, and all those planets that, like Luke's home, are big, empty, and roomy, a little like the most benign vision of American suburbia. But what about outer space in Apollo 13 (1995), where you spend most of your time, not in the eternal ether, but in small, crowded spaces, especially the command module of the rocket itself? Apollo 13's space suggests, not the suburbs, but the irritatingly crowded and inefficient spaces of American urban centers at their worst. Have you looked at a college dorm room recently?

Space means depth as well as width. How far back into the picture is your eye supposed to dig? In most American films it isn't very far because most of the time you're supposed to keep your attention focused on the actions of the lead players, who are typically the most expensive item of decor on the screen. Some directors make more interesting use of space. In Citizen Kane, you can see little Charlie Kane playing in the snow at a remote distance through the windows of the old Kane Boarding House, innocent and heartbreakingly unaware that his parents—who are in the foreground—are about to destroy his edenic existence by sending him back East with a heartless lawyer. You are torn between laughing gently at Charlie's awkward play and feeling terrible about his changed circumstances.

Serious depth: Still from Citizen Kane.

Serious depth: Still from Citizen Kane.


Another term borrowed from art criticism, composition refers to the way in which objects relate to each other in the frame. Classical composition refers to the high Renaissance tendency (itself influenced by the classical world) to keep all elements in balance. A little simplistically put, your eye is drawn to a dominant object at the center of the frame, and other objects are arranged around them to give a sense of evenness and fluidity.

In silent films, directors and editors often created the dominant by means of an iris shot or other masking device to zero in on a face, or kittens playing, or a hand holding a gun.

Though directors don't now—for the most part, they use masking devices—some directors evoke this effect within the frame. For example, in one shot during Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet, Sweden, 1957), the figure of Death (who looks a lot like the Death in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, 1991) walks away from us, his cape raised, and toward his victim, a knight back from the Crusades. The black cape acts like a masking shot, and starts to envelop the figure of the knight, giving us the impression that he is about to expire. (He doesn't, at least not then.)

Filmophile's Lexicon

Dominant: Also known as the dominant contrast, it is the place on the screen where your eye first rests. The subsidiary contrast is the next place your eye goes to.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Masking: Blacking out portions of the frame in order to highlight that portion not blacked out.

The dominant is further determined by two other effects: lighting and movement.

We tend to be drawn to the place on-screen where the greatest contrast between light and dark occurs. (Hence the alternative name: "dominant contrast.") In Lawrence of Arabia (Great Britain, 1962), our eyes are drawn to the line of the desert horizon, where the contrast between the setting sun and the bright sand is stark. In the last moments of The Seventh Seal our eyes go to the silhouettes of the dancing dead people on the mountain ridge.

The last example suggests as well that we attend to the most kinetic element in the frame. No matter what the lighting effects might be, our eyes are drawn to the galloping horse, the formula racing car, the Millennium Falcon, and the long-distance runner.

Sometimes the dominant is determined not by any formal element like movement or contrast. Rather, it can be intrinsically interesting. The boat on which Fredo and his bodyguard are fishing near the end of The Godfather Part II (1974) is small, motionless, and far away from the camera. But we are riveted to that tiny object because we know that Fredo is about to die.

Finally, another way of describing composition refers to two different but related formal dynamics:

  • The form of and relationship between colors and shapes.
  • The relationship between objects.

Are the objects and space in a sequence, imagined as abstract shapes, square and hard, soft and rounded, or otherwise related in an interesting manner?

Director's Cut

To some degree the dominant is not biologically but culturally determined. In determining where the dominant is, it is also important to remember that, in our culture, we tend to scan the screen left to right, and top to bottom, after the way we read. Israeli film directors might make different assumptions about the way the eye scans the screen because Hebrew is read right to left.

Lighting Up the Room

Filmophile's Lexicon

Key lighting: Not a spotlight placed on your car or house key, key lighting refers to the intensity of the lighting in the frame.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Contrast: The amount of difference between lighting in one part of the frame and an adjacent part.

Like the camera, this element of the mise-en-scne deserves a section by itself because the technology of lighting has evolved in ways that has had important repercussions for movies. In the same way that the increased sensitivity of film stock allowed for more subtle makeup and acting styles, so the improved quality of lighting also allowed actors to begin moving away from flat makeup, allowed cameramen to begin using deeper focal ranges and more subtle in-camera effects, and allowed directors and decorators to employ more subtle decors.

The most important dimension of lighting is its key. There are two kinds of key lighting:

  • High-key lighting is bright, intense light. American comedies tend to be shot in high key.
  • Low-key lighting is more diffuse and shadowy. Film noir and The X-Files tend to be shot in low key.

Next in importance is contrast, or the amount of difference in lighting from one part of the mise-en-scne to another. High-contrast lighting tends to be more dramatic; low contrast less so.

Other kinds of lighting also produce distinct effects: back lighting, spot lighting, and so on.

Closed frame: Still from Barry Lyndon.

Closed frame: Still from Barry Lyndon.

Character Placement

The way that characters relate to each other and to the audience—referred to as blocking or proxemics—says something about how we are supposed to think of them. There are the obvious cues: Characters close to each other may be romantically inclined, even if they are not touching each other, while physical distance between characters perhaps suggests alienation between them.

There is of course a relationship between the characters and the audience. Is the character facing the audience fully? Is the character partially in shadow, making him or her somehow ambiguous?


What kinds of choices does the director make about where to shoot? Mainly interior or exterior? If interior, what kind of rooms will the action take place in? What kind of furniture goes into those rooms? What does the decor say about character, mood, and theme?

Director's Cut

Directors sometimes try to shoot without use of artificial lighting at all. One of the most famous films to try to use as much ambient lighting as possible, for example, is Barry Lyndon (Great Britain, 1975). Stanley Kubrick tries to make the interior scenes as realistic as possible by filming the eighteenth-century novel's interiors in ambient lighting, sometimes with nothing more than candles.

Short Cuts

Sometimes not seeing the character's face at all makes us curious, as in the opening sequences of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Indiana's back is to us for a significant amount of time.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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