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How is it that films make a conversation between two people feel so dynamic and interesting, even when the characters are stuck in the same room for the entire scene? It’s called blocking.
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a short definition of the meaning of blocking in film:
Blocking in film is the placement and movement of actors in relation to the camera–the scene’s choreography. Blocking is used to tell the story by staging the characters’ actions to mirror the subtext of what’s happening on screen. The movie’s director might map out, a.k.a. block the character’s actions in a scene before shooting takes place.
You need to block your character’s actions so that they can be lit by the lights and shot by the camera in a way that best communicates what’s happening on screen. Once your scene is blocked, and your cast and crew have rehearsed the movements, you are ready to shoot!
There’s much more to blocking than just how to do it; for instance, we’ll look at some creative blocking examples to explain and inspire how to use blocking to better tell your story.
Let’s dive in!
What is blocking, and why do you need it?
Blocking is when a director maps out the characters’ actions in a scene before they shoot the scene. When a director blocks a scene, you are placing the actors and camera crew in a way that communicates your vision for how the scene should play out on screen.
Blocking is vital. Without blocking, the actors wouldn’t know where to stand, the camera wouldn’t know what to focus on, and the sound recorder would get the boom in the shot!
Blocking is also one of the main ways for directors to tell their stories visually. While a writer might write blocking into the script, a director will alter, add their own, or completely invent blocking that fits their own vision for how the characters and the camera move together.
How do you block actors?
To block your actors, have the actors walk through the scene’s dialogue and actions as written. Let them do what comes naturally to them inside the space you are shooting.
A scene may not work the same as written in the actual location you are shooting in, so while the actors run through the scene, start or stop to make adjustments along the way.
Once you are satisfied with the actors’ physical placements, mark off their positions so they can return to those same spots at the right time every take.
If you are working with big-name talent, you might do this process with stand-ins and bring the actors on after you’re ready to shoot.
Then once the actors have the scene down, you can bring in the camera.
How do you block the camera?
You can block your camera by placing your camera in a select position to capture the actors according to your vision. This often includes camera moves, be it a camera pan, tracking shot, or dolly in or out that you need to rehearse with the actors as they move throughout the scene.
After you mark off the actor’s positioning (as described above), it’s time to bring on the camera crew. Run through the scene with the camera operator, practicing any camera movements required for the shot.
Remember that blocking and placing the camera isn’t just for capturing the action. Where you place the camera will convey to the audience what to pay attention to, so block the camera to capture what is most important in the scene.
Lighting after you set your blocking.
Once both the crew and the cast know what will happen, work with the DP (Director of Photography) to light the scene, accounting for any shadows that come with the blocking you just staged.
You may need to make adjustments to the blocking depending on your lighting limitations, so be prepared to take a little extra time before you shoot to rehearse once or twice more.
This is especially true when lighting for camera moves like a dolly in or tracking shot.
Do shot lists help you with blocking?
Yes, having a shot list will definitely help you throughout the blocking process, but be just as ready to make adjustments to your shot list as you are to make adjustments to your blocking once you get on set.
You’ll probably have some new ideas once everything is set up. Or you might run out of time to fit everything you planned into the schedule. Either way, be ready to improvise!
How do you use blocking to tell your story visually?
You can use blocking to visually tell the story by staging your actors and camera in subtle ways that tell their own story about what’s happening between the lines.
Good directors use blocking to convey information about each character, how they are feeling, and what their relationship is to the other characters.
As their feelings and relationships change throughout the scene, good blocking reflects these subtextual, internal struggles, staging the characters (or camera) to take action.
So much of human communication is nonverbal, and the same is true for film storytelling. Film is, after all, a visual medium.
Examples of famous movies that use excellent blocking to tell a story.
Here are a few famous examples of how blocking tells the story between the lines to inspire you to think outside the box.
Director Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather is one of those “must watch” films for every aspiring filmmaker due largely to Copolla’s mastery of the craft.
There is so much that is said in every scene without ever being said out loud, as is customary in the film’s not-so-fictional criminal world of the Corleone family, where an assassination can be ordered with a simple turn of phrase or nod of the head.
Check out this scene from the end of the film, and how Copolla decides to block this moment between the film’s protagonist, Michael Corleone, and his wife, Kay Adams, played by the legendary Al Pacino and Diane Keaton (shared by Youtuber 800mEric):
Watch how Copolla stages Michael sitting down while he is berated by Connie (played by Talia Shire). When Kay asks him about his business, he gets up and starts pacing. It’s an anxious moment, punctuated by his bestial, “ENOUGH!” which locks them both in place.
Kay, meanwhile, keeps her cool and asks him one more time if the rumors are true. Michael lies and welcomes her into a hug. Here’s where the blocking gets outstanding.
Kay leaves the room while Michael sits on the edge of his desk (showing his power).
Michael, not moving an inch, is then greeted and joined by his fellow mobsters as they swarm around him.
Kay is left to watch from the end of the long hallway; so much distance between them.
And then, Michael shuts the door on her, shutting her out from his double life as the newly crowned crime kingpin Don Corleone. Chefs kiss – an epic ending for an epic film.
Speaking of epic, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is one of the most revered cinematic classics in history. If you’ve ever taken an “Introduction to Film” class, then you definitely know this movie.
Classics like Citizen Kane are classics for a reason, and this masterpiece scene, shared below by Youtuber mort367, is another textbook example of excellent blocking.
Watch how in the scene, Kane’s titular character, played here by Buddy Swan as an eight-year-old Kane, is seen playing out in the snow through a window while the adults inside decide his fate.
The adults move through the scene as their power dynamics shift, ultimately leading to the moment they go outside to tell Orson his fate.
Both acting and blocking work together to transform what looks initially like a cruel move by Kane’s mother to send young Kane away into a heart-breaking decision of steely resolve to save him from his abusive father, punctuated by Welles’ choice to end on a close-up of her.
If you know the film, then you know this scene has a double meaning. One of Kane’s happiest memories is also the moment of inception of the trauma that defined the rest of his life.
Nothing is harder to block for visual storytellers than a scene of a few people sitting in a room talking. It’s the bane of directors the world over – except for Quentin Tarantino.
In the director’s alternative history World War 2 classic Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino wrote himself pages and pages of 10+ minute scenes of dialogue to shoot. A master of building tension, however, Tarantino keeps the audience in suspense the entire time. How?
Blocking, of course!
Consider the scene in the Nazi-occupied french bar, where a handful of our heroes are undercover as nazis when a group of off-duty nazis stumbles upon them on their night off.
Introducing the threat in this way creates an ominous presence from the moment they enter the scene, quite literally honing in on our heroes from above and trapping them in a stone room with nowhere to go.
The scene is long – longer than this 14 minute clip provided below by Youtuber HeyItsThe80s – but it’s a masterclass in how to build tension with blocking. In particular, watch the clip below – after the nazis start to get suspicious of our heroes and start asking questions.
Pay special attention to how characters move (or don’t move) when they are in control of the narrative.
When a character is making their power play and dominating the conversation, they are loose and easy going.
When a character is nervous, and on the edge of their seat, they quite literally freeze up, like in this still of two characters from the film, one feigning confidence and the other frozen stiff in fear.
One of the best parts of the scene is when the power dynamic shifts thanks to a reveal. Tarantino uses the camera to block off a character who has been hiding in plain sight all along, revealing him in this shot at the exact worst moment for our heroes, ratcheting the tension up even more.
As he makes his introduction, all other characters fall silent and still, leaving us to wonder if this means the end for our heroes. As he arrives at the table, he towers over the others. But no worries – they have an answer to his question and win him over.
But as it seems all is well, one of our heroes, played below by Michael Fassbender, makes a fatal mistake, and, well, you’ll have to watch the scene to see how it all plays out.
From the character positioning to the camera placement to the precise editing and cross-cutting, this scene is a cinematic classic and one to surely win you over to the power of a well-blocked scene of a group of people sitting in a room talking. Boring? Not in the slightest.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Lastly, this scene from director Jeremiah S. Chechik and writer John Hughes’ Christmas classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a picture-perfect example of how to use blocking and editing together to capture the comedy and horror of an all too familiar feeling: family gatherings.
Check out the clip shared by Youtuber Jeffbekeris below.
Everything from the initial blocking of the innocent victims – I mean Griswolds – sitting in wait, ears perking up at the sound of the doorbell, to the slow zoom in on the front door, to the way the in-laws descend on the family-like zombies picking off prey.
At the same time, the choppy editing cuts from claustrophobic close-up to claustrophobic close-up, ALL work together to convey the anxiety of hosting family for the holidays visually. I’ve never seen a more accurate scene in my life.
That’s all you need to know about blocking!
That’s all folks. I hope you found this article helpful? As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to share them in the comment section below.
To check out more films to watch to learn filmmaking on your own (and not just blocking), check out our list here.
For more about how to write a film that works (that’s worth blocking), check out our article on the subject here.
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.