Actors are strategically placed in certain pre-determined positions and their movements in a scene are also thought out in advance.
This choreography of actors, including the positioning and movement of the camera and props as well is what is referred to in totality as blocking. It is a crucial element of film production, without which there would be havoc on the set.
The camera’s attention would be all over the place, actors’ movements and positioning would also be haphazard and distracting. Without proper blocking, the boom may also peek into the shot! Blocking helps maintain a sense of order in the frame so that all these various aspects of film coincide in harmony. But there’s more to blocking than just achieving peace on set.
The placement of actors and a mapping out of their actions brings out the vision for the scene and may also pass subtext or deeper meaning. Positions of actors in the frame during dialogue can subconsciously pass certain messages to the audience. For example, if two parents are arguing over a child’s custody, the blocking might see the child feature between the two, further away from the pair.
That might communicate the kid’s powerlessness in the decisions being made over his future and how he’s caught up in the middle. The more authoritative parent may appear closer to the screen, while the dominated subject is a little further off.
A great example would be the boyhood scene in Citizen Kane:
While the adults talk about adult stuff in the foreground, we see the boy Charles Foster Kane playing in the snow. It’s a one camera shot, but it’s a powerful foreshadowing of the ending.
Aside from demonstrating power dynamics, blocking may also be implored to direct viewers’ attention to a prop or some other important part of the backdrop. That may be for foreshadowing purposes or to fill in certain gaps of exposition.
Writers have a say in how a scene should be blocked, and they can have specific requests on their scripts or storyboards. However, the lion’s share of blocking work often falls on the director. He figures out what’s best for each scene, depending on the location of filming, the tone of that specific shot, among other factors.
The director typically determines blocking during rehearsals. His decisions are influenced by the lighting of the scene, the position of important props, audience sightlines and the need to keep those clear, and dramatic effects among other factors.
The camera, its choice of lens and movement as well, is a vital part of blocking. A wide-angle lens may communicate a certain feeling of vastness or helplessness while a more constricted one can serve to stifle viewers. When talking about camera blocking, directors also factor in the various types of camera shots, e.g. medium, closeups, long shots, full shots, etc.
That decision is dependent on the purpose of the scene and its mood, although most shots in films are of the medium kind. If it’s a more emotional take and the director would like to powerfully convey an actor’s grief, he’d usually go with a close-up to amplify the power of facial actions. If there’s a lot going on and the backdrop is an important part of the frame, wider shots are the go-to. And so on.
When it comes to camera movements, a choice is made to add more meaning to a scene. For example, panning shots give off a feeling of speed or movement or they can tell us more about where the characters are and why they’re behaving a certain way.
Tilts, on the other hand, are popular with dramatic reveals, as are zooms, while tracking and dolly shots can build drama in anticipation of a significant point of action. The way the camera moves or positions around the actors enriches the narrative playing out on set, communicating to viewers on a deeper level through visual cues.
Handheld (usually shaky and imbalanced) camera work, for instance, adds realism to a scene and is particularly effective in igniting panic in tense situations. It’s a perfect style for found footage cinema.
The rules of cinematography also guide directors and DoPs on how to block various scenes. Dialogue generally adheres to the 180-degree rule of cinema, where the camera sticks to one side of an imaginary axis connecting opposing characters.
The rules of composition, otherwise known as the rule of thirds, meanwhile guide character placement onto the periphery of a shot. Directors often stretch and even strategically break these rules for certain purposes. A towering figure that appears right in the middle of the frame, for instance, shows authority. A conversation that breaks the 180 -degree meanwhile may signify a change of pace in the conversation and the start of a quarrel or conflict.
Wes Anderson is most famous for his defiance of these rules, especially with his fondness for center framing characters. He does that multiple times in the film Fantastic Mr. Fox to tells us that the protagonist is a thief, a rule-breaker, and self-centered.
The actors are perhaps the most important part of the puzzle. How they move, talk, walk, and basically anything they do on the set influences our perception of the characters they play. Every tiny detail, facial expression, and body language all add to the dynamics of their onscreen personality.
Actors inject life into the script, allowing us to like or hate a character depending on the behaviors we see, and the emotions they’re putting out. While most of the actor blocking is guided by the director and his team, actors are sometimes encouraged to improvise and be creative with their actions on set.
This improvisation and creativity in blocking surfaces and excels in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange which follows the story of a psychopathic delinquent. In one of the most infamous scenes, after Alex and his gang have broken into a couple’s home, Malcolm McDowell (who plays Alex) improvises with a dance and song.
For a couple of moments as the deranged Alex beats up the couple, his joy takes over and he grooves to “Singin’ in the Rain.” After countless unsuccessful takes, Kubrick was open to going with the flow, and the actor spiced things up with a catchy number. It is remembered today as an iconic, and cringey, piece of improv. In many productions, actors are encouraged to improvise some of their lines and actions, and sometimes scenes are better off for it.
One of the objectives of actor blocking is to replicate the real-life authenticity of ordinary situations. For instance, it seems unnatural for two characters to stand perfectly still while talking to each other even if they aren’t any tasks in the scene. People don’t always just stand still doing nothing, and even more so movie characters.
So it’s common for scenes to feature pacing, hand gestures, fidgeting, and other complimentary body movements, including interacting with props in the background, as determined by filming heads. Usually, the characters’ state of mind and emotions dictate the movement of actors on set. These change in line with the tone of actions or conversations.
The actors’ starting positions may be visibly marked out on the set by marks and signs by the director during rehearsals, which are then taken out during actual filming. Same goes for camera positions and how they are supposed to transition to support the movement that’s taking place in the frame.
Extras also take on blocking tasks in film, but more in line to support their purpose in shot. For instance, to aid the illusion of dining at a restaurant, we might see the occasional waiter going about his duties in the backdrop. Or we might catch a glimpse of other guests, but usually in a way that doesn’t take the spotlight away from the scene’s focus. Everything that appears on camera is methodical and well-thought-of and nothing is left up to chance.
Blocking may also extend to controlling the position of props and their movement (in the case of moving objects like a car, bicycle, etc.) in the frame. A parked vehicle leering suspiciously over a house may hint that the car might be of more significance than what you get at first sight.
Or it could be the ominous ringing of the bell in a diner, like the final scene of the Sopranos:
How it moves across the frame may make the audience think nothing of it or give off the feeling that something more is going on. A rifle hanging over a living room wall may be important to later chapters. The gun’s persistence in frames can offer hints about its significance.
How props are placed in relation to the characters, and the amount of screen time they get, tells a story as well. Props also complement actor blocking to make characters more in tune with their surroundings. Additionally, they also reveal traits about the people they belong to. When there’s no meaning to background props or objects, they are usually out of focus or relegated to the periphery.
If they have a much larger role to play, their placement is a lot more obvious and frequent. Directors can also get more creative with their showing of important props beyond the typical close-up cutaway.
For example, if certain tickets are of particular interest to the plot, an actor snapping them in-between his fingers before giving them away might hint at that. The audio cue is unmissable but not obvious. It still keeps the story going along but makes the prop memorable.
Lighting is also a critical element that affects blocking. If your viewers are seeing light on the screen, then there needs to be an explanation of where it’s coming from. The position of lighting and equipment choices and setups can make the audience believe that the light is coming from a window in the scene, for example.
The appearance of lighting guides camera angles and actors’ actions as well. More importantly, lighting also affects the perception of characters. Directors and actors work on their movements to ensure the lighting captures the characters’ desired image.
When it comes to lighting choices, there are endless options to play around with. From negative fill and bouncing light to diffusion and more, lighting will guide the blocking necessities of each scene. Actors may move in between deep and soft facial shadows, for instance, to illustrate the shifting dynamics of trust in a scene. While it’s usually the case that lighting plans are more permanent, it’s not unheard of for portable lighting options to move with the actors.
Orson Welles is remembered as a force of change and innovation in the film industry in the 20th century. The talented screenwriter/actor/producer/director is remembered for many great works of art, including his illustrious career in theatre, cinema, and radio. Welles is most synonymous with the ground-breaking technical masterpiece that was Citizen Kane, which he co-wrote, produced, and directed.
His movie paved the way for revolutionary filming techniques such as deep focus and offered a master class on how blocking can enrich a screenplay. Orson Welles was famous for planning out his mise en scene in a way that nothing was left up to chance. Every little detail spoke to the audience, and every actor’s action, position, and movement was calculated and meaningful.
Many consider Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made, and it’s hard to disagree especially on the cinematography front. The film is laden with blocking brilliance that communicates subtext, adds to the dramatic effect, and builds the tension of the plot. Perhaps the most significant bit of blocking is the window scene that kicks off the protagonist’s journey in the movie.
A young Kane is first seen outside playing blissfully in the snow unaware of the life-changing discussions taking place in the house. The camera zooms out from the boy and in through a window into a room. His mother is handing over the boy to Thatcher, but Kane’s father is in fierce disagreement.
you can see the boy through the window as he remains the subject of discussion between the three parties. He seems so tiny in the shot given his distance from the lens compared to the other three characters. The blocking here emphasizes Kane’s powerlessness in the decisions being made over his future. Kane’s father is furthest from the camera within the room while Thatcher and his mother are nearest to it.
This strategic placement of the characters shows us who is the more powerful figure in this debate. Kane’s mother has her way in this scene and the blocking mirrors the power dynamics. The boy’s dad is losing the argument and is the submissive one of both parents.
Kane’s powerlessness in various situations continually plays out with similar blocking techniques. In another scene…
…. Jim Gettys, Kane’s boss at the time, is forcing him out of the gubernatorial race. Kane cuts a depressed figure at the back while Jim and others dominate the frame to once more show authoritative might over Kane. Susan, Jim, and Kane’s wife, Mary, form a triangle, with the latter pair’s backs to Kane. They discuss his political future and he finds himself on the outside of the group once more, like a child with no say.
When Kane is standing in the background at the fireplace in his mansion…
… he seems a small man once more. The gargoyle appears to be staring menacingly at him as if to foreshadow his perils. In the scene, Kane is overwhelmed by his possessions, and the blocking hints at how his wealth’s popularity would exceed his fame as a man.
Another great mind of the 20th century, Akira Kurosawa was famous for methodical blocking that made his movies stand out. The Japanese director/producer positioned his actors in scenes to communicate meaning and favored wide shots to bring in several characters simultaneously, hence communicating on multiple levels.
He uses blocking and the distance between characters in his wide shots in High and Low to show the strain of relationships and differences between characters. Then he fills up the distance with people to add to the central character’s internal conflict and show what’s going on in his mind or how other people are feeling through actor positioning.
Kurosawa’s 1963 High and Low is a cinematic blocking success made in his trademark image. The director explores power dynamics and character relationships through skillful blocking. He uses the back, middle, and foreground, factoring in compositional space and body language to rise beyond verbal communication. Mr. Gondo is a national shoe executive discussing a lucrative business move with other executives.
At the meeting, Gondo gets a call from a kidnapper and it turns out his chauffer’s son has been abducted.
In the image…
… Gondo is on a call with the kidnapper, straddled by the police inspector. The latter is the mediator and assumes his position away from the frame to the right. The telephone, which is representative of the kidnapper, is at the center of the frame, in viewing distance of all the people in the room.
Aoki, the boy’s father is standing in the background watching on as a helpless witness. He doesn’t possess the financial might or power of the other characters and his placement shows this. Gondo’s assistant, who is to the left looking over his boss’s shoulder, is somewhat detached from the events. While still a little interested in the matter he doesn’t agree with Gondo spending 30 million on the ransom.
His position on the periphery illustrates his stance. Gondo needs to make a decision. He could pay the money and save the boy or use the money to further his progress in the company and benefit himself. He is caught in the middle of the boy’s father and his assistant. Both are representative of either side of the outcome, hovering over him to make a choice.
When Gondo realizes what the power he has means and the ethical dilemmas that come with it, he is consequently seen lingering on the edge of the frame from then on. He no longer floats about the center to flaunt his position of power but avoids focus as he tries to stay away from the spotlight and the tough decision he needs to make.
Throughout the film, Kurosawa illustrates Gondo’s wandering mind, the position of power, and internal conflict with character placements.
Maestro director Alfred Hitchcock was known for his great attention to detail and his unquenchable thirst for perfection, which showed in his comprehensive storyboards and how he executed his blocking. He was a genius of visual storytelling and believed film should show the audience its intentions and avoid telling it as much as possible.
Hitchcock would shoot a scene multiple times until he was satisfied with its blocking and other elements he thought were out of line. For the infamous shower scene in Psycho, there were more than 78 takes between Hitchcock’s satisfaction. The actor’s positions, the camera movement in relation to those positions, and even the appearance of props in the film were all comprehensively thought of well in advance. Every tiny detail was put under the microscope before it went on screen.
We’ll be borrowing a leaf from the Alfred Hitchcock blocking book, particularly his use of it in the 1958 thriller Vertigo. John “Scottie” Ferguson is forced into early retirement after an incident on the job seems him crippled by past fears. He takes on a private investigator role to trail Gavin Elster’s wife Madeleine after he grows suspicious of his wife’s strange behavior.
In this scene…
… when Gavin meets up with Scottie for the assignment, Hitchcock uses blocking to paint a picture. When the pair first meets up Scottie walks about the room and settles upon the desk while Gavin sits in the chair below. Like a suspect in an interrogation room, Scottie questions Gavin about his business and life.
Afterward, Scottie walks up to an old painting of San Francisco on the wall. It reminds Gavin of the city he loved, which he can longer recognize in the San Francisco he sees today. As Gavin reminisces over the good old days in a medium shot, we get a view out of the large window behind him.
Construction work is ongoing and we can hear the noise from the machines. Gavin feels overwhelmed by the city’s modernity and the shot emphasizes that point.
Up until this point, Scottie has been the more authoritative of the two men. As he takes a seat, Gavin stands up and walks about, explaining the summoning, and the power dynamics shift. When he elaborates what he needs from Scottie, he’s stood up on a platform, towering above the seated detective.
He is now the more powerful person and explains that he wants Scottie to follow his wife around to ensure her safety. When Scottie follows up Gavin’s story by asking who would want to harm his wife, the camera moves in for an aggressive close-up of Gavin. It was a foreshadowing of his involvement in the murder of his wife.
After that, the camera focuses on the seated Scottie, and when it dollies out, we see both men now in the frame next to each other. A sense of normalcy is restored. The camera is all over the place in the famous scene from Vertigo, moving all around the room to keep up with the conversation. It was just as much a part of the dialogue as the two men and goes to show Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery over the various elements of blocking.
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