Mise-en-scène is generated by the construction of shots and the ways that they lead to visual coherence, across the edits from shot to shot. It includes all the elements in front of the camera that compose a shot: lighting; use of black and white or color; placement of characters in the scene; design of elements within the shot (part of the process of production design); placement of camera vis-àvis characters in the set; movement of camera and/or actors; composition of the shot as a whole—how it is framed and what is in the frame. Even music may be considered part of mise-en-scène. While not seen, at its best music enhances the visual and narrative construction of the shot.

Cinematic mise-en-scène refers to how directors, working in concert with their cinematographers and production designers, articulate—indeed, create—the spatial elements and coordinates in the shot and succeed in composing well-defined, coherent, fictional worlds. Composition and the articulation of space within a film carry as much narrative power and meaning as its characters' dialogue. Mise-en-scène is thus part of a film's narrative, but it can tell a larger story, indicating things about the events and characters that go beyond any words they utter.

Mise-en-scène can also be an evaluative term. Critics may claim a film does or does not possess mise-en-scène. For example, if a film depends entirely on dialogue to tell its story, if its visual structure is made up primarily of a static camera held at eye level on characters who are speaking in any given scene, if its lighting is bright, even, and shadowless, it lacks mise-en-scène. On a more subjective level, if a viewer's eyes drift away from the screen because there isn't much of interest to look at, the film lacks mise-en-scène. Such a film may succeed on other levels, but not visually; it is constructed not in the camera but in the editing room, where the process is much cheaper because actors are absent. Films with good dialogue, well-constructed narrative, and scant mise-enscène can still be quite effective. But these are rare—as rare as well-written films.

Journalistic reviewers may care little about mise-eène. They are rarely concerned with the look of films and focus mostly on whether or not the story or characters seem "real." They may term visually centered works "arty" or say they have interesting "camera angles." Filmgoers may simply want to be entertained and not care about how a film is constructed. But dedicated filmmakers and filmgoers, like talented novelists and readers, want complete, self-contained, detailed cinematic worlds that are at the time open to the viewers' own worlds and experiences. Such people will find satisfaction in the visual complexity of mise-en-scène.

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