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battle scene blocking positions

Joseph Nesbitt

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Hi I am currently story boarding my new WW2 film, set in the winter in the battle of the bulge, the script has 5 big battle scenes, I am completely lost on how to block these scenes. Most involve artillery barrages and then gunfights, now the main bulk of these sequences are following either a medic or a few troops but with so much movement I don't know where to start. I would like to follow a blocking setup up that starts out as an I or L pattern then turns into an A pattern, putting the key character in those spots then the rest in the background, but in a big chaotic scene how much does blocking really matter? obviously getting characters to hit they're key lights and stuff will be blocked accordingly but about scenes with just one guy running? can I throw out the handbook there? I know that some setups promote loneliness or isolation and for this movie I would like to use subtly as much as I can I don't want to throw emotions in the audiences face when they aren't ready for it. I'm sorry for sounding so vague but what I am looking for is guidelines on how you guys would set up scenes like this. Obviously the chaos on slaughter of the battle are essential themes I want to promote threw blocking set ups, I just don't know how to block a scene like that. So for one character running foxhole to foxhole, what setup would be best to point that out, and for 3-4 characters on a patrol how would these themes be established, any guidelines or input would be greatly appreciated

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  • Sustaining Member

Usually the script gives you some indication of what's important to cover.


One question you have to ask yourself is how subjective do you want to make the scene, shooting from the perspective (literally and/or emotionally) of the character, even if this makes the action or geography confusing.


There are also budgetary and logistical restrictions with war movies -- like if the real battle involved a dozen tanks (or the script mentions them) but you only have two tanks. Or if you need to make fifty extras look like two hundred soldiers are fighting.


Like I said, the script should be the guide as to what to shoot and what doesn't need to be shot.


But I definitely would not "wing" a battle scene, you have to do your homework and plan it out. Otherwise it may take you hours to figure out a few shots while standing on the set, plus nobody will be in the correct places for your camera when the time comes.


On a limited budget, you may decide to follow your character through clouds of smoke and dust as you hear explosions and screaming from off-camera...


Now you don't have to literally plan every shot and cut if you are going for a chaotic multi-camera coverage style - you plan the basic set-ups knowing that you'll do variations with the cameras within that set-up. For example, you may list a Steadicam shot that follows the character running from one trench to another, both chasing and following, but you may do some takes tighter on longer lenses, or decide to chase and follow in the same shot, etc. Or you may chuck the Steadicam on the day and decide to shoot it handheld. But at least you know you need a basic set-up that follows and chases the actor from A to B, with some variations in size, so you have a sense of what might be in the frame, what efx are needed, even if some angles can use a stunt man instead of the actor, and how long all of these angles may take to shoot.


No point, for example, in rigging a tree to explode if it turns out that it won't be in the frame. But it's harder if you decide after you've framed up a shot that you need the tree rigged to explode -- the efx person may say "great, give me two hours to rig it..." And after you've blown it up, you then realize that you need some shots of the tree before the time it exploded in the sequence.

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Most action blocks I have shot involve establishing the imaginary action of all charecters in an overarching plan, even if all ideas aren't ultamately shot (and some are added as the process develops). If its a car chase, we will plan on paper the path of the cars and major stunt/action beats, if its a fight scene we will block the scene in small progressive chunks (stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 fight etc), also somewhat on paper. Then we plan camera placement around that idea.


Once the camera starts to move, its easy to cheat blocking and geography. Usually I will start with the director and decide which charecters or action is important. In most setups, no matter the size of the actual scene, there is one idea that needs to come through. Once you plan that out for each set up you will do, then you can place extras in the background where they will logically be, along with what looks good for the balance of the picture.


Working quickly with the director and 1st AD early in the day/setup turnaround is key here to keep things moving. You may not need to do an individual plan for each setup, some setups can be blocked and then 2 or 3 or more actual angles can be shot. One thing to keep in mind that can make the sequence cut together better, every now and then place the action of one setup in the background of another. It doesn't nessisary have to be geographically correct, there is a lot of room to cheat here, but to have that bit allows the editor to tie multiple locations together to give a sense of cohesiveness. This is where breaking down the feeling of each stage of action helps. You shouldn't put action from stage 1 into a shot of stage 2 action.


Action scenes are tough but definatley one of my favorite things to do. I don't get to do them enough, and a WWII pic is my dream, so feel privilaged to have such a rewarding challenge. Plan well and you will have time for experimentation and fun on set.

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Yes it is a privilege to shoot and the script did have descriptions sorry if I didn't mention that, we are on a low budget so extra planning is definitely something I have kept in mind, but now I think I'll put more stock into the smaller aspects of planning I may overlook, the tree thing for example. I have a few more questions on how to bring out the emotional bits of a battle scene threw blocking. I know saving private Ryan and band of brothers would have a tendency to get right on the line of action, throwing us right into the action, however the older movies veered away from this, what do you guys think is more effective? I originally wanted to mix it up, for some scenes I planned to have the audience connect with the characters in battle more towards the end of the film, then as it progresses we start to give it that Saving private Ryan touch, and also shot size is another concern, to frame in all these explosions am I creating an environment I don't want as a director? If I have to zoom out enough to frame a falling tree my characters are suddenly in the bottom right hand corner of the frame and maybe in a scene where I want the battle going in there favor, and maybe a tree gets hit, I can break the emotion of the scene, or if I shoot from below and I am trying to make a character look weak just to frame a tree it seems like a lot of times in this movie I may have to make choices to make FX work opposed to the art of the movie and trust me I don't want to be the next Michael Bay, so anyways how should I frame scenes like that, without giving emphasis to the fx, I would like the explosions and blood just to be there, and not to put emphasis on them, yet still I want that production value that they bring.

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  • Sustaining Member

You have to figure out what you are trying to say about the scene and what you want to convey emotionally or intellectually -- that will guide your decisions regarding screen size, etc.


Take a look at the WW1 battle scenes in the original "All's Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) or the later "Paths of Glory" (1957), they use wider shots of action to convey the carnage and absurdity of war. There is a similar effect in "Barry Lyndon" as in "Paths of Glory" -- Kubrick shows a sort of relentless quality where the camera tracks with someone going slowly through a battle formation as more and more people around them drop away. It creates this sense of the awful mechanics of a battle, the grim calculations where it is planned that a certain percentage of soldiers are not expected to make it through the battle.

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okay thank you for answering that Dave, one of the main themes is the expendability of the soldiers on the front lines, I am trying to convey both the separation from home threw some shots and blocking positions with that mechanized fleet of innocent men to the machine guns to convey the real expendability of these guys. Oh and btw if anyone wants the links I was able to fund this movie for under 2 grand for props and stuff, if anyone wants the links to the sites I used I can give them, I think it's a shame war movies become a dream of what you want to shoot, I know 2 grand sounds like a lot but all the weapons and costumes and stuff were very cheap.

clothing plus props







most of the guns I got here, you just need to put em together


the rest were at a site called kapowee they have deals on broken airsoft guns with real wooden parts at low prices, I was amazed, just go to the boneyard section


they even have toy guns that look really nice, I couldn't really find any that I liked but I'm sure that if you give the site time some may pop up

Alright well if anyone has anymore tips on how to create the feelings of either isolation, expendability or the reckless acts of war threw blocking positions I would be glad to hear any more tips I could use all the help that I can get, also how much attention should I pay to the effects of the film, lets say a tree gets blown up, obviously this takes a lot of time to do on set but in the real battle it was just something else that was happening, would paying a lot of attention to effects like this or gun shots, mortar strikes turn my movie into Transformers ( definitely don't want that by the way ) or would it help convey the terror of the battle, I felt band of brothers found a happy medium and it just help put you into the battle rather than saying Holy Sh** did that tree just blow up, I found myself saying could you imagine what it was like to be there, I think the best war movies produce the second result, what do you guys think and how can you achieve that?

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  • 4 months later...
okay thank you for answering that Dave, one of the main themes is the expendability of the soldiers on the front lines, I am trying to convey both the separation from home threw some shots and blocking positions with that mechanized fleet of innocent men to the machine guns to convey the real expendability of these guys.


Take another (or a first) look at Band of Brothers, an excellent war series that emphasized precisely what you are seeking.

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  • 1 year later...

Most good battle scenes that I have seen, tend to emphasize the randomness of battle violence. Instead of having all the violent action going in one direction for one side, and in another direction for the other side, I'd mix is up and try to emphasize the chaos of battle. But that doesn't mean it's shot randomly. :)

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