With the recent kick-off of the Toronto International Film Festival, residents of the city and visitors from around the world have come together to celebrate movies and their impact. Keeping COVID-19 as a primary concern, many virtual and safely executed in-person events characterize this year’s festival. As a range of films is debuted to the public, viewers might wonder about the different styles and themes being showcased. One such concept that ties in with this discussion is mise-en-scène, a term that was new for me when I was first introduced to it during university, in an Introduction to Film course.

According to instructor Zaira Zarza, mise-en-scène can be defined as the “elements that appear in the [movie] frame that the director has control over, whether they are intended or not”. This idea can be broken down into four aspects: setting, lighting, costume and make-up, as well as staging (which encompasses movement and performance). An individual look at each of these will follow, and their importance within films as a whole will be explored.


Enclosed in the frame, specific characteristics serve to depict the space, place, and time period of a film. These come together to form the overall setting. The design of this aspect can influence the spectator’s understanding of the various action points that a story presents. A filmmaker can make selections regarding colour, existing or constructed locations, use of props, and scale. The result has the potential to leave a memorable impression on the viewer and situates the film in question within a certain present or historical context.


Lighting may be used to guide the attention of the audience. Through highlights and shadows, it functions to create shape and texture. A patch of relative brightness on a surface can be referred to as a highlight, while portions of darkness on objects is obtained by shadows. The components that fall under the umbrella of lighting include quality, direction, source, and colour. Quality deals with the intensity of the light, as well as how it can be defined as either hard or soft. The path of light from its source(s) to the items receiving the light can describe direction. Noteworthy types of direction are included in the following list:

  • Frontal light – Removes shadows
  • Sidelight – Sculpts the features of characters
  • Backlight – Originates from behind the subject, forms silhouettes
  • Underlight – Accomplishes the distortion of features, often used to create dramatic horror effects
  • Top Light – Starts directly from above

In terms of source, and within Hollywood cinema, one of the basic techniques is known as three-point lighting. Lastly, colour and light play significant roles in all films, sometimes most notably in ones that are animated.

Costume and Make-up

This aspect of mise-en-scène can also serve specific purposes within a film. They each can be realistic or stylized, depending on the movie’s subject matter. Choices surrounding costume and make-up have a strong relationship with the structure of the setting, as both bring crucial visual components to the particular story. When one thinks of their favourite films, and the characters within those worlds, this topic might stand out to them as part of the reason they are drawn to and feel a connection with the movie.


Acting performances and the movement of figures are involved when staging is the focus of discussion. They will have an individual and stylistic nature according to the messages the film is setting out to convey. Staging is best evaluated through a lens of function and motivation, both within the entirety of the movie and in relation to other techniques. In addition, space and time factors connect with this aspect, and either can be constructed in deliberate ways by filmmakers. Screen space deals with how a specific shot is composed, while scene space covers the depth and volume of the depicted area. When time is referred to in this manner, it means the speed and direction of movement displayed by a shot are being investigated. The spectator’s attention is drawn to a departure from stillness, thus, it guides where the focus is turned. Furthermore, frontality can also achieve the same effect, whether this state is being transitioned to, featured, or a switch is taking place to an alternate one.

All in all, mise-en-scène can be divided into four boxes: setting, lighting, costume and make-up, and staging. An exciting piece of this topic is that it can be applied outside of the film realm, such as within the design and performance of theatre productions. I encourage compelled readers to dive deeper into their learning of mise-en-scène, and to keep it at the back of their minds when enjoying future films. While broad, it is a fascinating classification that all movie-lovers can expand their knowledge and passion with upon discovery.