As filmmakers, we are always aiming to create impactful, powerful cinematic storytelling on screen. It’s at the very heart of every filmmaker’s ambition.
Having strong mise-en-scène within a film is one of the most helpful tools available to strengthen on-screen storytelling and turn your shots into powerful storytelling moments.
What is Mise-en-Scène?
If you haven’t come across the filmmaking term mise-en-scène before, it’s a French phrase used to describe how subjects and scenery are arranged on set and within each frame. Its translation is ‘setting the stage’, or loosely ‘things in place’. It’s a fantastic way to take fairly standard shots in filmmaking and (with some directorial consideration) turn up your cinematic storytelling.
Mise-en-scène refers to how all the items within a single cinematographic frame are positioned for the camera, including actors, set, props, horizons, lighting and anything else contained within the frame. It also refers to how these elements are combined together – their composition within the frame.
For instance: imagine a character at their desk. Every little detail about that staging, all the little ‘things in place’ can impact on the storytelling and communicate important information to the audience.
Imagine your character. Are they sitting at the desk? To which side? Are they standing? How much of their body can we see? What about their face? Is there anything on the desk? If so, what? What does that tell us about the character, the setting, the story? What can be seen in the background? What does that mean in the moment?
All the small details – the mise-en-scène – are contributing information about the story to the audience, and any opportunity for small details should be seized to maximise the potential for cinematic storytelling. Mise-en-scène is all about showing, and not telling.
How to Super Power the Potential of Your Shots using Mise-en-Scène
Thoughtful storyboarding is the first step to pack plenty of cinematic storytelling into your filmmaking.
Take plenty of time and consider each frame as its own work of art. Think about the angles you plan to use, and how you plan to position your subjects. Consider the background, are there any details you add in that show us more about your character, their environment or their journey? What about any costumes, set, or props? Can that be telling us any more?
Take a look at the suggestions below and try to work these suggestions into your storyboards to enhance your mise-en-scène.
How you position, frame and coordinate your actors can often be one the first considerations, after all, it is the characters of a film that we’re following. In close up shots, an actor’s face might also represent 60% or more of the frame, so in these kinds of shots, how you place your actor will be the majority of the work. In an Over the Shoulder shot, you have two, or potentially more actors to place and how you do so can tell the audience a great deal.
Think carefully about your actors in the shot, and which shots you might like to use. Is a Close Up the best shot size, or is a Medium Shot more appropriate for the action?
Think about where in the frame your actor should be. You might want to reference the Rule of Thirds here. Where do you want to place their hand? Or their eyes? What are they looking at (and where)? Who are they talking to? Plan out the small details and work with your actor to ensure that your shot reflects your vision.
In shots that use groups or ensembles, this might need even more consideration. You can use their positions and spacing to communicate specific details, for example, does one character tower above another?
Detailed Set, Costume & Makeup Design
How you present your production design can have a huge impact on the storytelling, with plenty of opportunity for small details.
Your set can tell the audience a great deal about the narrative, the space can often tell its own story. It can also be used to build atmosphere. It can reflect, amplify or contract with a character’s mood.
The set can help to identify key features of the story, the time period, the location and the physical environment. It can also influence how the characters behave and reveal their state of mind and their relationships. How a character behaves and interacts at their own home will be very different to how they interact in a headteacher’s office, for instance.
Costumes – just like clothing in real life – can become an expression of the self and tell us a lot about a character and how they see themselves. Imagine a teenager wearing their favourite T-Shirt – what does it look like? What about their best friend’s favourite T-Shirt? Is it the same? How is different?
Clothing can also be a signal to time periods, weather environments, age and status. Imagine a character in a t-shirt and board shorts, wearing flip flops and sunglasses. But they’ve just got off the bus in a new town, where everyone else is wearing a warm coat… We’re in a classic fish-out-of-water narrative.
Costumes can also change to reflect a transformation within a character as the story progresses.
Makeup can be an extension of the character’s self, but it can also be used to create particular effects. Costume and makeup in The Hunger Games series is used to great effect to show the difference between the rich characters in the Capitol and the poor characters in the districts.
Lighting is another element that can be used to powerful effect in the overall mise-en-scène. Choices of lighting can support with composition (see below), as well as communication.
Using highlights and shadows can be used to help channel the viewer’s attention, or to give certain impressions of a character, or even other character’s impressions of a character.
Lighting can also help to add particular styling, which can play into people’s perceptions about what we might be watching. For instance, dark, moody lighting can tell us we’re watching a horror movie, or a particular kind of crime thriller. Overly bright lighting can suggest fantasy, surrealism or suggest that our eyes aren’t to be trusted. Making use of these codes, or even challenging these codes, can add to the messaging and emotional impact of the shot.
One of the challenges of having lots of small details within the frame is that they can start to compete with one another. If you have fantastic costume details, you will understandably want to highlight them, but sometimes other elements can be more significant to the plot.
This is where some difficult choices might have to be made about what is most important and what should have the attention within the frame.
The composition of your shot – including how it might move and change according to the actors’ movements or any camera movement – should place emphasis on what you feel is important to the story. At times this might be plot, but at other times it might be characterisation, or establishing the environment.
Try to highlight what is the most important element within the composition of the shot. This can be by size or by shot type, by dimension, through depth of field or lighting, or through using colour or another technique. Aim to draw your viewer’s eyes towards the elements that are most important to the story.
And try not to worry about the little details being lost. People love rewatching their favourite movies to discover new layers they hadn’t seen before!
About Sparks Film School
Sparks Film School welcomes young filmmakers to its filmmaking, animation and photography courses for ages 5-18.
We have over 30 youth film schools in the UK, where filmmakers can learn all about the different aspects of filmmaking in practical, hands on workshops and courses.
We were inspired to write and share this piece after seeing Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (2023). This film demonstrates powerful use in mise-en-scène and highly cinematic storytelling beautifully, there is so much story in every single shot, told in a uniquely cinematic way. If you would like to learn more about how mise-en-scène can help to add cinematic storytelling to your filmmaking, we recommend taking a look at this film.