How can the best 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.”
A good director uses film blocking to turn even the most mundane of situations into a compelling masterclass in dramatic tension, using only camera angles, camera movement, body language, and the precise staging of actors.
These subtle and often unnoticed tools are how the best directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Chantel Akerman, and Steven Spielberg show themselves as master filmmakers.
By using blocking effectively, they keep us completely hooked to our chairs and waiting to see what happens next.
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 tell your story better.
Let’s dive in!
What is blocking, and why do you need it?
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a short definition of the meaning of blocking in film:
The term blocking in film refers to the placement and movement of actors in relation to the camera, i.e., the scene’s choreography. The movie’s director might map out, a.k.a. “block,” the character’s actions in a scene before shooting. Blocking tells the story by staging the characters’ actions to mirror the subtext of what’s happening on screen.
In addition to blocking the actors and the actions of the scene, there is also “camera blocking,” which refers to the camera’s precise camera set-up and movement to help tell the story.
Blocking and camera shots and angles
A great example of camera blocking is using specific camera shots to communicate information about the story.
Medium shots are used to highlight a speaker and their body language;
Long shots give the audience a sense of distance from the subject.
A wide shot to take in the magnitude of an entire scene or a close-up to highlight a subtle facial expression.
Blocking, lighting, and actor movements
Even the placement of a light source can be considered part of blocking, as crew members need to place lights strategically to light the characters as they move throughout the scene.
Blocking is one of the top filmmaking techniques taught in film school because it determines what happens on a film shoot and how that action will get shown on screen.
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.
For example, blocking helps the focus puller keep the main characters in focus.
Blocking determines the character placements and source of the lights for the production designers, gaffers, and best boys to set up.
Blocking ensures continuity in film
Blocking also determines the script supervisor’s actions to ensure continuity between takes.
For example, if an actor moves their hand a certain way in one take and not another, it will be difficult for an editor to cut the two takes together to make a scene feel continuous.
Blocking used for dramatic effect
Blocking can also be used for dramatic effects, such as when a camera pushes in towards a subject as they run away, or even run towards, the screen.
The camera can whip as an actor turns their head.
It can look up at an ominous foe as they strut into frame.
Or it can look down from above, tracking the action below with a crane, helicopter, or drone programmed to follow a specific sequence of movements.
How to block actors in a scene. First step: Blocking Rehearsal.
Blocking is decided in what’s called a “blocking rehearsal.”
During this rehearsal, the director maps out the characters’ actions in a scene before they shoot the scene.
At first, the actors’ movements are determined and restricted to follow a preset path.
Minor adjustments are made, and the actors are released so the camera team can light the first shot.
Once the scene is blocked, the lights are set, the camera positions are determined, and the frame is found (so the boom operator can steer clear of the shot), the cast and crew rehearse the movements one or two more times to find perfect harmony.
Finally, everything is ready to shoot!
The role of the director in blocking
Blocking is vital to the director.
When a director blocks a scene, they place the actors and camera crew in a way that communicates their vision for how the scene should play out on screen.
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!
But blocking is also one of the main ways directors can visually tell their stories.
While a writer might write blocking into the script, a director will alter it, add their own, or completely invent new blocking that fits their vision for how the characters and the camera move together.
Things to consider when blocking your actors
To block your actors, first, have the actors walk through the scene’s dialogue and actions as written on the page.
Let them do what comes naturally to them inside your shooting space.
A scene may not work the same as written in the actual location you are shooting, so while the actors run through the scene, start or stop them to make adjustments along the way to fit the real-world scenario on the shooting day.
Remember that this action will need to be repeated for the whole scene, so factor in the rules of composition into your camera setup.
For example, the 180-degree rule will restrict where to place the camera once your first shot is finalized.
You may want to start with a “master shot” that captures the scene’s movements to lock them in place.
This ensures you have a single shot that covers the whole scene in case you run out of time and have to move on to the next scene or need to cut between different takes of the same close-up shot in the edit bay.
But camera placement isn’t the only consideration for blocking.
Use blocking as subtext
Actions need to be motivated by intention, meaning blocking is as much subtext as visual storytelling.
These are the layers of film and how the language of cinema communicates to its audience.
For example, if you want actor movement in front of a large window at some point, it’s a good idea to motivate that movement around an emotional beat.
Actors need to act like people would in real life. Based on the details of the scene, what would make the principal actor want to move away from who they are talking to and gaze out the window?
To communicate this intention to the actor, give them an action to play, not an emotion. “You want to escape these angry men, so escape to the window. Maybe even consider jumping out!”
Using verbs instead of feelings to communicate is one of the subtle details of an actor that many film directors miss; if you absorb that idea, it will help your blocking and your relationship with your cast.
X marks the spot
Once satisfied with the actors’ physical placements, mark off their positions so they can return to those same spots at the right time every take.
Keep in mind if you are working with big-name talent, you might do this process with stand-ins instead.
In that case, you’ll only bring the talent on after you’ve already blocked and are ready to shoot.
Then the real actors may have to rehearse the scene a few times to get it down.
If there are any background actors, they will also have to rehearse the scene, but you’ll work with your second assistant director to place them once the camera and lighting have been set.
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.
Apply this logic to your first scene on set to build the habit of thinking this way every time.
Lighting after you set your blocking.
Once 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 adjust 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 the camera moves like a dolly in or tracking shot.
Do shot lists help you with blocking?
Yes, having a shot list will help you throughout the blocking process.
But you need to 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 on the day.
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, their feelings, and their relationship with 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; 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.
Meanwhile, Kay keeps her cool and asks him again 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.
You know this movie if you’ve ever taken an “Introduction to Film” class.
Classics like Citizen Kane are classics for a reason, and this masterpiece scene, shared below by Youtuber mort367, is another 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 combine to transform what seems 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, this scene has a double meaning.
One of Kane’s happiest memories is also the moment of the 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 talking in a room. It’s the bane of directors worldwide – 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, 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, literally honing in on our heroes from above and trapping them in a stone room with nowhere to go.
The scene is longer than this 14-minute clip provided below by Youtuber HeyItsThe80s, but it’s a masterclass in building tension with blocking.
In particular, watch the clip below – after the nazis start to get suspicious of our heroes and ask questions:
Please pay special attention to how characters move (or don’t move) when they control the narrative.
When a character is making their power play and dominating the conversation, they are loose and easygoing.
When a character is nervous and on the edge of their seat, they 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 hiding in plain sight all along, revealing him at our heroes’ worst moment in this shot, 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 while 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 a claustrophobic close-up to a 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.