How do successful movie directors get their actors to move and interact so naturally? By blocking the scene and giving the actors good direction concerning where they need to be.
Writers spend most of their time worrying about the words that the characters on the screen will say; sound engineers worry about how to make sure the words can be heard and how to mix them with music and background noises; lighting designers spend their days figuring out how to make sure the people, places and things can best be seen; directors of photography figure out what lens, camera angle and camera movement will make things look most attractive. Then it's up to the director to figure out how to bring all of this together. In this overwhelming collection of things that need to be overseen, one thing that is often overlooked by beginning directors is blocking - the movement of actors from place to place in a scene. This involves things like where do characters sit or stand? Why do they sit or stand there? How do they move from one place to another? How to track screen direction? This is where directors work very closely with the director of photography and the lighting designer.
Take the opening scene of Steven Spielberg's 1981 adventure masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark. Henchmen follow a shadowy adventurer through the woods - his face obscured in darkness. As the adventurer produces a treasure map, one of the henchmen draws a gun, the shadowy adventurer pulls out a bullwhip and knocks the gun from the assailant's hand. The craven skulks off while the adventurer takes three steps forward and pauses as his face hits a beam of light. In movie terms this is called a "reveal" and it's how we first meet daring archaeologist Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford. Without careful blocking so that the beam of light strikes "Indy's" right eye you don't have the shot.
This is blocking done right with careful collaboration and forethought. If you're working alone, as many video directors do, you'll need to think of all these things yourself. Let's look at some common types of blocking difficulties and how to deal with them.
Cheating is Allowed!
When people sit around a table, or meet in a group on the street, they tend to sit or stand equidistant from one another, like pizza wedges. Three people will typically occupy 33% each of a round table. This creates a problem for movie makers because they'll always have someone's back in the shot, which isn't the best option. If you have people line up or sit on the same side of the table it can look false. Try it - next time you go to a restaurant sit next to your meal-mate rather than across from one another. Feel weird? It looks weird too. So directors will try to think of ways to make it believable that characters sit next to one another by doing things like having them sit at a counter, or have people on the street meet while traveling in the same direction, so they can walk side by side.
Often, when a director has to position people - say around a breakfast table, they'll have them sit in more of a semi-circle opposite the camera. This is called "cheating." Instead of camera at 9:00, with the characters sitting at 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00, they'll have the camera at the 9 position on the clock with the characters at 1, 3 and 5, so they're looking enough at one another for it to be believable. The director may say "Tony, cheat out a little", meaning turn your body more towards the camera or "cheat in a little" meaning to turn your body slightly away from the camera.
A great example of this is from another Steven Speilberg classic, the 1976 film JAWS. During the dinner scene we have police chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, exiled to one corner of the cabin on the boat while crusty old sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw) and the young ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sit at the table and compare scars. Quint is able to cheat out towards the camera by facing Brody and these shots show us how isolated and out of his element the police chief is. As the scene progresses and they begin to bond, Brody goes to sit down at the table, importantly, not sitting across from Hooper, in the obvious place where you can clearly see his dinner plate, but next to him. Quint remains cheated out, rather than turning to face the others. This gives us three actors facing the camera which Spielberg can now cover with a single camera to show us their individual reactions to the shark attack which is about to occur. This is very clever blocking which not only solves the problem of capturing three people at a table, but pushes the story along too - the blocking follows the real internal motivations of the characters.
Woody Allen also deals with this problem in a very clever manner in his new film Midnight in Paris. He picks up the end of a dinner conversation between Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy. Inez excuses herself after only a few moments, leaving her parents seated in a single two shot. They finish the scene on the same side of the table without their positioning seeming strange.
In real life when people sitting in the same room have a conversation they don't move much. People tend to plop down on a chair and stay there (It's Newton's First Law of comfortable seating). In movies that kind of stasis can mire your pace and so directors will very often have people move about to keep the scene from getting stale - this might involve one character who is performing a task during a conversation. Instead of having two people sit on the sofa, have one of them dusting, or putting away dishes. The blocking should always be telling us something about the characters so be very careful that each movement has a purpose that's believable for that character. People don't often rise from a chair and look longingly out the window during a conversation, but they do rise from a chair and go to the window to check on a child in the backyard, or they may get up because they're too angry to stay seated next to someone, or because a cat has jumped up on the kitchen counter. One thing to consider is not having characters automatically sit down to have conversations. Someone who enters a room may stand with their arms on the back of a chair or they may lean against a wall. From these positions it's easier to get them moving again. A character who's standing can more easily leave a room, providing an incentive for seated characters to get up and follow.
Every Character has Its Spot
The cowboys riding horses in movies might enter the scene from different angles, but they all end up riding side-by-side into the sunset. In the real world, they'd either be single-file, or spaced far enough apart not to bump into each other or eat someone's dust.
When large groups of people come together during an event, they tend to bunch. If you were shooting this at a normal occasion, people in the front would most likely block the face of people behind. Watch how they overcome this in movies. Imagine a group of 10 people walking together towards the camera. The director will give each main character a place in the front of the crowd, but there will be a space between those in front where you'll see the secondary characters slightly behind them.
In the last scene of the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenixwe see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his two companions, Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) walking away from the famous Hogwarts castle. The three main characters are joined by a few of the secondary characters, who are lined up behind but between the main characters, so you can clearly see the entire cast equally.
Blocking and Lighting
I hope you're not lighting your movie by aiming two bright spot-lights at 45-degree angles at the set, and I hope you're not lighting it using the existing overheads. Beautiful and realistic light can be made from sources mimicking natural light in conjunction with "practicals" giving your set a rich playground of different looks to work with your blocking.
Imagine a seedy detective's apartment, at night. From the front of the room a neon sign flashes red lights through the window. There's a bumping sound then a directional desk lamp flips on, creating a sharp, narrow pool of light, revealing the detective, who was asleep on his blotter, an empty whiskey bottle next to him. He looks wary. There's a knock, he rises, his office door is frosted, we see the name of his detective agency in reverse, and the silhouette of a person standing in front of it. The detective opens the door and the light from the hallway continues to back-light the mysterious figure. She steps in, still shrouded in darkness. "I may have been followed," she says and goes to the back window where beautiful soft moonlight illuminates her face. The detective stands in the front of the room, his chiseled face revealed then hidden in the rhythm of the neon sign. Here you have four separate lights to work with as you plan blocking for the rest of your scene. Think of the light and movement that best works for mood lighting.
Baptisms and weddings are often very heavily scripted and if there's not a rehearsal that you can attend, you should try to spend a few minutes with the officiant before the actual ceremony to assure you get the footage you need. Ask questions like "Where will you be standing? Where will the parents be standing? Will the audience be seated at this point? What door will you enter and exit through?" These questions will make sure that you're not taping a shot of Uncle Murray's comb-over while the event unfolds out of your view.
Your Mission (Should you Choose to Accept it)
While you're watching movies and television, pay particular attention to blocking. Do characters get up and move? Why do they move? What's their motivation? When do you see a character's back? What's the longest time a character stands still? How do directors get people moving? How do they get them from one place to another? How do they seat people around tables? How does this differ from real life? The world is your classroom. Keep an eye open.
Blocking in Non-fiction Video
Blocking is critical in any type of video, even ones you aren't blocking yourself. Take, for example, a graduation. The president of the college stands by a table, stacked high with diplomas. One by one the student's names are announced, they walk up, shake hands, and get their diploma. Sometimes the students are slower so the college president might inch forward and eventually she's standing with her back to you, facing the rear of the stage, completely obscuring the graduates as they approach. In a situation like this, the video producer can do several things to ensure the ceremony is properly captured. One is to be part of the planning process, make an X on the floor where you want the president to stand and explain "don't move from this spot, wait for the graduates to get to you" - another option is to have the staff services install decorative velvet ropes that will guide people along the right path, assuring that they're in the focal plane and that the right moment is properly captured.
Sidebar 1: Big and Little - Bridge the Difference
In NBC's Emmy award winning series, The Golden Girls, the director had two big blocking issues to deal with. The show included four characters living in one house, and many of their conversations took place on the couch or at a small kitchen table. If they seated all four characters at one time, one would always have her back to the camera, so the writers always wrote for one of the women to do busy work, preparing a meal, or entering or leaving the room while the others sat at the table. The other issue was the 1-foot height difference between 5'10" Bea Arthur, the character who played Dorothy, and diminutive 4'10" Estelle Getty, who played Dorothy's mother Sophia. The writers were careful to bridge the height gap during longer conversations by having Arthur sit while Getty stood.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.