Blocking is the term that describes where, when, and how subjects are placed and move within the frame. There are several possible blocking combinations.
- The actor is static, and the camera is fixed.
- The actor is static, and the camera is moving.
- The actor is moving, and the camera is static.
- The actor is moving, and the camera is moving.
Each combination will change the dynamic of the whole scene. However, there is never one right combination since it depends on understanding the story and the message you want to convey to the audience. Knowing where there is an emotional shift will help you make that choice.
Take this short film Apricot by Ben Briand. Throughout most of the film, the camera is static when focusing on the two characters at the table. However, towards the end, when the woman gets up to leave, which is not what the man wants, and this puts something at stake for him, the camera is now moving.
Therefore, we understand that blocking is the visual depiction of the story by actors’ bodies—their body language, gestures, and movement through space —and this blocking must be tied to the shot, whether the camera is locked down or moves.
Understanding Blocking in Film
The art of blocking is a crucial part of film production that can make or break a scene’s impact. Effective blocking requires a well-thought-out plan that considers the actors’ movements, camera angles, and the emotional themes the scene seeks to convey. However, with so many possible options for blocking, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure about where to begin. Here are some tips to help you achieve your desired results and make the process more manageable.
The scene should inform camera placement. The emotional themes of the story should guide the framing of a shot, so it’s crucial to focus on the actors’ positions and camera placement. Be prepared to adjust cinematography, the actors’ body positions, and blocking to fit the framing of a shot better.
With that, it’s important to remember that planning is key to effective blocking. Before the shoot day, creating a shot list and storyboard that will guide the actors’ positions and camera angles is essential. This will make the shoot day more efficient.
Let the actors inform the blocking, but also remain open to adjustments. Blocking is like choreography; each movement needs to be motivated by the character’s thoughts, feelings, wants, or needs. Start by talking to the actors to understand their characters’ motivations and feelings. Use rehearsals to experiment with movement and camera placement, but remain flexible and open to your team’s instincts and unexpected discoveries. Sometimes the slightest adjustment in stage directions can significantly impact the visual storytelling of the scene.
Give actors something to do during scenes. To avoid the unrealistic scene, give the actors some “business.” It makes the scene feel more honest and human if everyday life happens during a scene.
The ultimate goal of blocking is to make the scene emotionally compelling and memorable. By thoughtfully considering all the elements of blocking, including actors’ movements, camera placement, and scene purpose, filmmakers and directors can breathe life into their scenes and create something truly memorable.
Esteemed director Steven Speilberg is renowned for his excellent use of blocking. While I would implore you to cycle through his vast library of films, you can additionally check out the excellent video essay from Wolf Crow below.
Film Blocking Checklist
In Kurt Lancaster’s book DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, he has created a blocking checklist.
1. Who owns the scene—the point of view character? This is the character who, perhaps, has the most to lose in the scene or the character impacted by the events in the scene. When you know who owns the scene, then, as the director, you can determine what the emotional state of this character is at the beginning and the end of the scene: where does this change occur? You need to know this to effectively block the scene (and determine how you’ll emphasize this moment—through shot size/angle changes and/or camera and/or actor movement).
2. Set up your camera so that you capture not only the action of this character but, more importantly, the character’s reaction to the events occurring in the scene—especially where the scene change occurs. The character’s actions and reactions will motivate where and what you capture on camera and help immensely in editing.
3. The choice you make should depend on the story’s needs.
As you prepare to capture your scenes with precise blocking, it’s beneficial to approach each shot and scene as an independent production. With your cast positioned and ready to perform, your lighting configured and prepared for any necessary modifications. Your camera movement practiced and primed for motion; each take can be considered a condensed version of the scene you’ve already choreographed. All that’s left is for you to execute it flawlessly, bringing your vision to life on screen.
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