2 Examples of Brilliant Scene Blocking to Inspire You

Here's why you should take the time to stage your film's action.

“There is as much meaning in the blocking as there is in the dialogue.”

At one in the morning, we were still reviewing coverage maps for our upcoming shoot.

It was then – toward the end of a long pre-production day spent examining the relationship between the camera and the characters in each scene of our film – that I remembered a video essay I saw last year, breaking down the blocking of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo.

It’s an ingenious analysis of how careful choreography contributes to the meaning of a story:

Throughout, Hitchcock stages both his camera and characters with remarkable creative intent, externalizing the drama implicit in the dialogue.

Essentially, Gavin manipulates Scottie into playing into his plan to murder his wife. The scene begins with Scottie in control – Scottie moves leisurely around the space, like the retired detective he is, while Gavin lures him in with a relaxed posture and the illusion of sincerity. When Scottie sits down, the power changes hands. Gavin rises and tells his story, towering over Scottie. A camera move frames both men together – showing how the camera is just as important to the blocking as the characters – after which Gavin climbs a few steps and wanders around a stage-like space. Scottie watches, with Gavin wandering as he describes his wife’s wandering. Eventually, Gavin steps down into the lower room to engage Scottie in conversation one last time, literally leaning in as he sets the trap.

There is as much meaning in the blocking as there is in the dialogue. Hitchcock uses the language of film, not just language with words, to tell his story.

Let’s take a look at another example. Four minutes into this video essay, we’re treated to an analysis of David Fincher’s blocking of a conversation involving three characters:

Like Hitchcock, Fincher uses the language of film to convey the drama. “Three characters, three relationships, all staged for the camera to see.”

As I was reminded that late night during pre-production, blocking is a powerful tool in every filmmaker’s toolbox. The temptation to figure it out on the fly can be strong, but it’s usually a good idea to plan blocking in advance. Staging a film’s action effectively takes time. You have to sit with the script and determine what’s happening in the scene, beat by beat, then translate your findings from words on a page to a visual dance of camera and characters. Ultimately, blocking will impact your shot coverage and help guide your actors in their performances.

Yet, today, blocking is not always considered. Some years ago, The New Yorker film critic David Denby lamented the state of Hollywood in a piece for The New Republic. “The best use of space is not just an effective disposition of activity on the screen,” Denby wrote, “It is the emotional meaning of activity on the screen.”

What audiences feel about characters on the screen is probably affected more than most of us realize by the way the space surrounding the people is carved up and re-combined. In John Ford, the geographical sense is very strong – the poetic awareness of sky and landscape and moving horses, but also the attention to such things as how people are arrayed at a long table as an indication of social caste (the prostitute at one end, the fine lady at the other)…

 

Directors used to take great care with such things: spatial integrity was another part of the unspoken contract with audiences, a codicil to the narrative doctrine of the scriptorium. It allowed viewers to understand, say, how much danger a man was facing when he stuck his head above a rock in a gunfight, or where two secret lovers at a dinner party were sitting in relation to their jealous enemies. Space could be analyzed and broken into close-ups and reaction shots and the like, but then it had to be re-unified in a way that brought the experience together in a viewer’s head – so that, in Jezebel, one felt physically what Bette Davis suffered as scandalized couples backed away from her in the ballroom. If the audience didn’t experience that emotion, the movie wouldn’t have cast its spell.

 

This seems like plain common sense. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet spatial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did – matching body movement from one shot to the next – is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move…continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied – cheated without knowing why – then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head.

From “How Alfred Hitchcock Blocks a Scene”

Said differently, you have been deprived of blocking – of that mastery of film language that helps to render the emotional meaning of activity on the screen.

Don’t deprive your audiences, friends! Follow in Hitchcock’s and Fincher’s footsteps – stage the action and mind spatial integrity. Such creative intent will pay dividends.

 Michael Koehler, with


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