Mise-en-scène” is both one of the most important terms in cinematic vocabulary and one of the most slippery. In its most general definition, mise-en-scène is simply how the various elements within a frame interact to create meaning and tell a story. These elements include sets and physical landscapes, lighting, props, costumes, actors, and the movement within a frame. Through where and how a component is placed in the picture, the director sends us messages about that object or character. For example, we can determine the dominance of a characters in a scene based on whether they are positioned in the foreground or background, in a central or peripheral spot, well-lit or in the dark. We read into the relationship between the various elements we see: their comparative size, centrality, focus and placement in light or shadow. Thus if a character appears as a tiny speck on a vast landscape, we are told that an individual human being is insignificant in comparison to the mighty power of nature.

The famous film theorist Andre Bazin offered a more narrow take, applying the term exclusively to a certain style of filmmaking that emphasizes the unique way that cinema probes depth and explores the relationship between space and temporality. Bazin’s definition still focuses on the things that populate the frame and the meaning they create; however, his understanding of mise-en-scène describes a specific type of filmmaking that favors long takes, choreographed movement and deep focus (a large depth of field that keeps more objects within the frame in focus). Bazin argued that long takes with masterful organization of both the camera and the actors and objects within frame represented a more sophisticated control and a better representation of "objective" reality. As Fandor’s Scott Smith says, “When successfully executed, the residual effect of this technique is the all-encompassing feeling that a whole world is in motion far beyond the reaches of the frame.” Bazin’s idea of mise-en-scène can be seen as a counterpoint to the Soviet theory of montage, popuarly in the 1920s and 1930s and notably explored in the films and writings of Sergei Eisenstein, which emphasizes carefully composed frames and the creation of meaning through editing and juxtaposition. J. Dudley Andrew writes in The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (1976), "Bazin opposed to these types of montage the so-called 'depth of field' technique which permits an action to develop over a long period of time and on several spatial planes. If focus remains sharp from the camera lens to infinity, then the director has the option of constructing dramatic interrelationships within the frame (this is termed mise en scène) rather than between frames. Bazin prefers such depth of field shooting to montage constructions for three reasons: it is inherently more realistic; certain events demand this more realistic treatment; and it confronts our normal psychological way of processing events, thereby shocking us with a reality we often fail to recognize."

One filmmaker whose films consistently and neatly fits Bazin’s definition of mise-en-scène is Jean Renoir. His 1939 film The Rules of the Game, for example, makes use of deep focus photography, allowing the viewer to clearly see what is happening on multiple planes within a given frame. Rather than using static shots and frequent cuts, the camera glides gracefully through the opulent halls of the country estate in which the narrative takes place, capturing highly detailed, exquisitely choreographed interactions between the numerous characters.

Compare this approach to Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), in which action happens within the frame while the camera remains static. Rather than creating meaning by moving the camera through space, the film generates its meaning between rather than within frames -- stories and ideas emerge in the cuts between different images. Still, while October does not fit Bazin’s definition of the mise-en-scène filmmaking style, one can read the film in light of broader definitions of the term (as the interraction and choice of all elements within a frame), as Eisenstein does tell a story in his specific choices of lighting, movement, and setting within the film’s carefully composed frames.

Regardless of which definition of mise-en-scène one applies, the existence of the term points to a fundamental fact about cinema -- it is the result of the interaction of numerous elements. Whatever its editing style or use of space, a moving picture is made up of settings, objects, bodies shadows and movement all working at once. The story, feelings and ideas we read into any film emerge from the way this long list of elements come together and interract.