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Mise-en-scène

August 5, 2008


In his excellent textbook on filmmaking, Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti writes his second chapter on film composition with the title of “Mise-en-scène.” This term originates from French theatre and means literally to “place in the scene.” It refers to how the director organizes his tableau of actors and elements within the confines of the stage as a whole space shared by the audience. It has been expanded upon to include film composition as well, but in a more unique way. Since film is a projected two dimensional image, it no longer has the same space that was present when the actors were in performance, but instead becomes a record of that performance, as Giannetti says
“…like a picture in an art gallery. …Mise-en-scène resembles the art of painting in that an image of formal patterns and shapes is presented on a flat surface and enclosed within a frame, but because of its theatrical heritage [film] is also a fluid choreographing of visual elements that correspond to a dramatic idea, or complex of ideas.”

Of course, two-dimensional art doesn’t have the choreography of visual elements shared by film and theatre that exists within a period of time. In painting, composition lies within a static single image. However, even a static image has life. Not as a visual record of life, such as a photograph, but in the energy it exudes and its arrangement of space, its own mise-en-scène. This lies in the lessons of well-organized art composition as we all study them, in their proper balance and relationships and so on. However, keep in mind that the narrative elements in your work are as important as any other aspect of design. They will supply that clarity you need.


If we were to somehow remove the passing of time from a scene as played out in film, how could we still convey that sense of design and meaning for the scene without physical movement or sound? If we just froze a frame of that film, we would likely be missing quite a bit of information that had already taken place or would be forthcoming. How could we retain everything that was being shown without using the passing of time? The tools we have at our disposal are the tools of design, and how we organize them. The key is what is left unsaid, what is implied, as well what particular elements are used and in what condition they are presented. This applies to objects as well as people, and even abstraction.

I strongly recommend reading this book by Giannetti, and further study of filmmaking crafts as a means to expand one’s own sense of artistic composition. You may find similarities of thought and construction you had not previously considered.

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