Mise-en-scène (French pronunciation: [mizɑ̃sɛn] "placing on stage") is an expression used to describe the design aspects of a theatre 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, which is called blocking. In modern filmwork, 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." During the 1920s through the 1940s, these areas were typically overseen by the producers, titled variously as the producer, the production designer, the art designer, or the art director. Irving Thalberg of MGM was a legendary example of a producer who oversaw such production details.
Note also that, in French Theater, the director is credited as mise-en-scène, not "Directeur".
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 U.S. film critic Andrew Sarris, it takes on mystical meanings related to the emotional tone of a film.
Recently, the term has come to represent a style of conveying the information of a scene primarily through a single shot—often accompanied by camera movement. It is to be contrasted with montage-style filmmaking—multiple angles pieced together through editing. Overall, mise-en-scène is used when the director wishes to give an impression of the characters or situation without vocally articulating it through the framework of spoken dialogue, and typically does not represent a realistic setting. The common example is that of a cluttered, disorganized apartment being used to reflect the disorganization in a character's life in general, or a spartanly decorated apartment to convey a character with an "empty soul" (e.g., Robert De Niro's house on the beach in Heat), in both cases specifically and intentionally ignoring any practicality in the setting.
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