What Is Blocking In Film, And How Do You Use It To Tell A Story? (With Examples)

Published:
Updated:

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 maps out, a.k.a. “block,” the character’s actions in a scene before shooting. You also block the camera and lights. Blocking tells the story by staging the characters’ actions to mirror the subtext of what’s happening on screen and can be used for dramatic effect.

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.

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 be shown on screen.

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.

Blocking and camera shots and angles

In addition to blocking the actors and the scene’s actions, there is also “camera blocking,” which refers to the camera’s precise camera set-up and movement to help tell the story.

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.

You can read more about camera shots and angles in this guide.

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.

You must block your character’s actions to being 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 focused.

Blocking determines the character placements and source of the lights for the production designers, gaffers, and best boys to set up. Read more on these film set roles here.

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 is 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 it struts 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.

155564650 s

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!

Important things to remember when blocking actors.

To block your actors, 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 your shooting location.

So, while the actors run through the scene, start or stop them to adjust to fit the real-world scenario on the shooting day.

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.

Remember that 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.

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.

Read more tips on how to be a good director.

Use blocking as subtext.

Actions must 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, motivating that movement around an emotional beat is a good idea.

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; absorbing that idea will help your blocking and your relationship with your cast.

How to block the camera in a scene

147171635 s

You can block your camera by placing it in a select position to capture the actors according to your vision.

This often includes camera moves, be it a camera pantracking shot, or dolly in or out that you must rehearse with the actors as they move throughout the scene.

Remember that this action needs 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.

Bring in the camera crew and rehearse the camera movements

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.

Depending on your lighting limitations, you may need to adjust the blocking, 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.

Use shot lists to help you with blocking

Having a shot list will help you throughout the blocking process.

But you need to be just as ready to adjust your shot list as you are to adjust your blocking once you get 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 to use blocking to tell your story visually

76587970 s

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.

The Godfather.

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 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 paces. 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).

Not moving an inch, Michael is greeted and joined by his fellow mobsters as they swarm around him.

Kay is left to watch from the end of the long hallway; there is so much distance between them.

Then, Michael shuts the door on her, shutting her out from his double life as the newly crowned crime kingpin, Don Corleone. The chef’s kiss is an epic ending for an epic film.

If you’re into gangster movies, you might like this breakdown of what makes them so popular.

Citizen Kane

Speaking of epic, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is one of history’s most revered cinematic classics.

If you’ve ever taken an “Introduction to Film” class, you know this movie.

To watch more films and learn filmmaking independently, check out our list here.

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.

Inglourious Basterds.

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. 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.

See in this shot from film-grab.com how the villains are revealed feet first in this excellently blocked introduction.

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:

Pay special attention to how characters move (or don’t move) when they control the narrative.

When a character makes their power play and dominates 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 even more.

As he introduces, 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 that surely wins 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.

This scene is from director Jeremiah S. Chechik and writer John Hughes’ classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

This scene is a picture-perfect example of using 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.

If you’re into comedies, you should check out these comedy classics.

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, please share them in the comment section below.

For more about how to write a film that works (worth blocking), check out our article here.


Author

    by
  • Grant Harvey

    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.

    View all posts

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.