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Blocking


Justin Hayward
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I’m not great at it, but blocking is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. It seems what makes an otherwise perfectly competent movie feel off is poor, awkward, blocking. But I get chills when the blocking is amazing. I luv watching classic Steven Spielberg dance-like blocking where actors move around the frame forming three or four dynamic compositions in a single static shot. What are some of your most exciting or satisfying blocking experiences? And what style of blocking do you most enjoy, very specific movement and marks, or more of a natural, looser, feel, or a mixture?

 

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Spielberg is a master at blocking actors to the camera. So was Orson Welles, just look at "Touch of Evil" for example.

 

Kurosawa too, though more in formal static compositions, but look at "Sanjuro" and how well he places the 10 samurai in the frame in scene after scene.

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I’m not great at it, but blocking is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. It seems what makes an otherwise perfectly competent movie feel off is poor, awkward, blocking. But I get chills when the blocking is amazing. I luv watching classic Steven Spielberg dance-like blocking where actors move around the frame forming three or four dynamic compositions in a single static shot. What are some of your most exciting or satisfying blocking experiences? And what style of blocking do you most enjoy?

 

Thanks

 

I've always felt it was a matter of blocking and composition. Kind of like moving the pieces of a puzzle until they seem to fit properly. On my last short, it was the first time I'd really done a blocking session and it really paid off.

 

One of my favorite examples in classic film has to be Robert Rossen's The Hustler. The careful arrangement of virtually every detail in the frame is a testament to the cinematic craftsmen of that era.

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Watch the opening of "Razor's Edge" (1946) for a good example of blocking for camera -- there is a huge party scene where all the characters are introduced, and there are only a few cuts in the whole section. Hitchcock's "Rope" is another good example of blocking for the camera since there are so few cuts.

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There's a great app you all may have heard of by Per Holmes called shot designer. It's a lot of extra work in preproduction but if I can get a director to jump on board with me to use it and we can plan all of our blocking and shots it usually leads to some of the best footage I have.

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It's certainly not easy, and I often have to step away and take a moment to figure out what's not working. I call it the "peeling the banana" approach. You keep peeling back the bad stuff until you're left with something good.

 

I remember the first time I saw someone block a scene to camera in an interesting, but very authentic way. He was a very talented teacher's assistant in college, and he was far more talented, skilled, and experienced than the actual teacher. It really opened my eyes to how important good blocking was to the authenticity of a scene. The actors were moving around like they would in real life, but always creating new and interesting compositions which exploded with "cinema" onscreen. I've wanted to make movies as far back as I have wanted to do anything, so naturally I've had many milestones of film "revelations" throughout my life, but realizing good blocking is critical to authenticity, but also pure cinema was one of the biggest. Ever since then it's been one of my favorite parts of the process.

 

I also really enjoy the moment when you realize a "stillness" brings authenticity. Just a well composed image of people not moving at all... like a painting. Now split the difference... :)

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There have also been times when I've put together, what I felt, was really lovely blocking and camera movement, but it wound up cut because it didn't add to the scene or maybe even distracted, or took too long to get to the point, or whatever. It's a hard lesson to learn, but I dig it.

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I haven't shot anything like a "scene" in quite a while now - but when I did my method was to watch the scene unfold in rehersals and walk around the rehersal looking at it from different angles and getting a kind of four dimensional idea of it in my head.

 

I'd then re-imagine the scene in terms of shot angles.

 

But this is never enough.

 

The scene, as played out in rehersals isn't for a camera. A camera working with such a scene is sort of just fitting in and not really doing anything. So the next trick is re-arrange the scene to better exploit the camera angles.

 

But that's not enough either. For it's just the reverse problem. The scene is just fitting into the camera.

 

But through this process one starts to find beautiful co-incidences where it's neither the scene nor the proposed camera angles that are determining the magic you are after, but a kind of amazing tension between them which one then seeks to amplify. Sometimes you see something that just has to be done regardless of other shots, and either rework the other shots, or work out some way of jumping across any edit barrier between them. Those performers who are always glancing off screen provide a lot of leeway (ha ha).

 

It beats storyboards I reckon because you are working with a live scene rather than one in your head. And it beats just shooting quantity and giving it to the editor to solve for they'll never really resolve lazy photography.

 

C

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I think Mike Leigh has a very smart approach to it which is to rehearse with the actors in the actual shooting location. He does this well before the shoot day without the DP or anyone present. They work on the scene and then he'll bring in Dick Pope to a rehearsal or two after to look at it and Mike might take some suggestions on blocking adjustments based on what might work better for the lighting. But it's done in rehearsals and it's born out of actor improvisation. Then it's all noted down and carefully mapped out for the actual shoot.

Rehearsing in the location is not always practical for everyone to arrange but I would agree with Mike that it's the ideal approach. Actors will have a much more fully informed well of inspiration to draw from if they get to create in the space they'll be working in and there's rarely time for that when you are actually shooting.

 

The flipside to this approach would be a director like Henry Jaglom. Who also lets the actors improvise only he does it while the camera is actually rolling. Which I think is gutsy but also limiting. The camera usually has a zoom lens and is locked down at a distance to be able to reframe easily and follow an actor wherever they might decide to go.

 

But if you look at their films it's pretty clear who's films look more cinematic in the end. Haha. It's always best to block ahead of time, even when it's born out of rehearsals. Makes for a better lit shot for sure.

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I also really enjoy the moment when you realize a "stillness" brings authenticity. Just a well composed image of people not moving at all... like a painting. Now split the difference... :)

Exactly! You see that in a lot of old classic films where the actors kind of become part of the mise-en-scene and the camera doesn't move at all. You just get to stare at the craftsmanship of the shot and think "I wish these people were still alive and making films."

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I love seeing a director blocking a scene, it is so inspiring when they get the most out of the shoot in just one shoot.

John Ford is my go - to classic director when talking about composing and blocking and David Fincher and Steven Spielberg are the ones I tend to keep an eye on nowadays.

 

I miss those days where actors played within the frame and that frame had multiple layers where they all could play :(.

It is my opinion that staging a sequence in that way is far more difficult than staging a sequence and shooting it from 20 angles.

 

Have a lovely day!

 

Best.

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It's an integral part of the holy trilogy of cinematography: Lighting-Composition-Blocking.

 

I adore blocking, it's one of the most satisfying and creative elements of the job to me - How is this scene going to play out? And what can the blocking reveal and express about our characters and the story?

 

Sadly, a lot of directors don't put as much thought into it as they could, and it's too often the actors' rehearsals that govern the blocking. Which is problematic, because actors respond to each other, rather than the 'frame'; and if you can't harness their movements towards or away from each other in a way that compliments the frame, and informs the audience - then you're missing a great opportunity to give a scene more impact.

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Not that I am accomplished at it... but Its funny... most of what I have been shooting on a current, ongoing project is observational documentary style. I miss a fair amount of footage because I am kind of waiting for them to sort of "block" themselves (if that makes any sense) After it happens I tell myself that was a good moment but the shot will be or would have been all wrong. I keep thinking it would be fun to find a local "drama" club or class that wants to shoot some scenes just so I can get that controlled environment fix.

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I love seeing a director blocking a scene, it is so inspiring when they get the most out of the shoot in just one shoot.

John Ford is my go - to classic director when talking about composing and blocking and David Fincher and Steven Spielberg are the ones I tend to keep an eye on nowadays.

 

I miss those days where actors played within the frame and that frame had multiple layers where they all could play :(.

It is my opinion that staging a sequence in that way is far more difficult than staging a sequence and shooting it from 20 angles.

 

Have a lovely day!

 

Best.

 

I agree that it is more difficult to get it all right in a single take, but then you don't need the 20 angles, so in the long run I think it's actually more efficient even so.

 

However, even if it weren't more efficient, it's quite a bit more powerful when you craft a shot so that the composition, set design, lighting and shadow, and blocking all work together to enhance the storytelling.

 

I don't pretend to be there yet, but it IS what I'm aiming for.

 

As much as I've come to enjoy having the freedom to move the camera smoothly with very little setup and effort, I'm most satisfied when we're able to make a compelling static shot by combining all of those elements together.

 

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Bit of a lost art, but Spielberg is a master as mentioned. Munich is like a master class and a film school onto itself as well as most of his older stuff.

 

Sergio Leone another one - look at the intro to Once Upon A Time below. Genius blocking and composition.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyuwBW9lNa8

 

John McTiernan is another good one - Die Hard is excellently blocked throughout.

 

Scorsese another master. Look at the blocking and shot solutions in this scene from Casino:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8Pku1zXM5g

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Scorsese another master. Look at the blocking and shot solutions in this scene from Casino:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8Pku1zXM5g

 

Yup...that's because they learned from the masters that came before them. The reason it's something of a lost art is because there have been less & less influential examples being turned out by the industry for some time, now.

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Although I said that I liked when a director gets everything done in one shoot I also enjoy seeing the other part, when the director's mind work really quickly to see how to get a scene done with quite a lot of shoots and he / she is ACTUALLY going to use them all.

 

Iñarritu is a fantastic person to learn from in that field, he knows what he wants to get and how to get it and when you work with him you seem to be powered and moved by his passion. Enrique Chediak is also a cinematographer who has the whole movie in his mind and keeps anticipating to what the director is looking for and giving him even more options when appropriate.

 

And I forgot to mention a person I like a lot, Mr. Greengrass.

When I saw the Train Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum it blew my mind, it is such an amazing combination of editing and blocking altogether.

 

It is a pity that Greengrass is so contemporary that a lot of film students (directors) forget to check on him because his narrative is very powerful and how he connects everything together with multiple shoots is, actually, a gift that not too many directors have.

 

 

On the other hand, Bela Tarr's look is absolutely amazing and if I had a chance to work with him on anything as anything I would say yes with no doubt!

 

 

John McTiernan ah! I never thought about McTiernan being good at blocking, I will revisit Die Hard soon so!

 

And Bill, I am afraid I don't agree with you on your paragraph, there are at least, 20 contemporary directors or cinematographers who are very influential and whose sense of blocking is beyond imagination.

 

I think the reason why blocking is a bit of a lost art is because we are in the world of "good enough" and we've moved to a frenetic world where the new generations of filmmakers are used to getting everything quickly and with a MTV pace.

 

Sometimes that's a good pace, some others it is not.

 

Although there is more about sequences and examples of shoots than blocking itself, the Master shots series by Christopher Kenworthy is a great (and quick) introduction to the blocking world.

I have always wanted to buy Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know, however, I don't know if it's any good or not!

 

Have a good day.

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