How a Director Stages and Blocks a Scene


Hi! John Hess from FilmmakerIQ.com – today
we’re going to take a hands on approach and demonstrate how Direction and Blocking
can change the same script into a completely different scenes. To me, working with actors to create the scene
is the best part of filmmaking. When YouTube Space LA announced that they were hosting
a police set for use, I devised a little experiment to demonstrate just how important these choices
you make with your actors are to your film. In this demonstration, We will take a 2 page
script of a police procedural and shoot that same script five different ways by changing
the blocking and camera angles. This script is about as boilerplate as you
can get. In fact It took two drafts just to drain out every bit of subcontext from the
dialogue – a perfect clean canvas to inject meaning with blocking. We had one full day to shoot on the Police
set. To pull off five versions of the script, we had to move quickly. We relied on the overhead
set lighting – it was adequate – but this was really more of a blocking demo so I wasn’t
too concerned about changing the lighting. Camera wise, we used a pair of Canon C300s
usually shooting from the same angle but with different focal lengths. Doing it this way
creates twice the coverage per take and doesn’t require extra lighting or special blocking
that shooting opposing angles requires. It also simplifies the continuity a bit as your
wide angle shots will match your closeups. For sound I opted for the convenience of wireless
lav mics. In the past I have been skeptical about using lav microphones on crucial audio
application as I never thought they sounded that good. But this time around I tried using
the RODE lav mic connected to Sennheiser wireless transmitters. I had some glitching at the
end of the day as the transmitters started to lose battery power but the RODE lav mics
were so good that if one transmitter on one actor was glitching, I could always use the
audio from the other actor’s mic. The audio signal was recorded on an external Tascam
recorder at 96 khz 24bit audio. I did have a boom as a backup but it wasn’t necessary. So that’s a little bit on the tech – let’s
get into the fun part: Every experiment has to have a control – and
even though this isn’t a scientific experiment, I still wanted a base that could represent
essentially no blocking and simple over the shoulder back and forth camera angles. If
you’re just starting out this is the kind of blocking you might start with. I also directed
the actors to play as deadpan as possible – zero out inflections and emotions and just
state the facts – take a look. Captain. Detective. Make it quick. I’ve only got
a minute. Any news on the Mendoza case? Jenkins isn’t talking. He’s been in there for 15 hours. Only an hour before we legally have to release
him. And the forensics? Toxicology came back negative. Bloodwork is
clean and no fingerprints at the scene. Looks like we’re at a dead end. I’m not fan of dead ends. I don’t like
losing. We’re fighting the clock, Mendoza’s got
an army of lawyers breathing down our necks. If we so much as overstep this… Myers. Mendonza’s lawyer. What about him? If Mendoza is washing his hands – you find
the soap. That’s Myers – put a detail on him. I want to know every move he makes. I’ll put Nemie on it. If I’m right that snake will lead us right
to the prize. What about Jenkins? Let him sweat it out for an hour – then make
have a big showy escort take him back. Mendoza will think he talked. Yes Captain. Darren. Keep me posted – this unit needs this…
I need this. I knew in the edit room that this version
was going to be the weakest of them all. What what I discovered was that without really
any emotional queues from the actors, I was forced to rely much more heavily on editing
tricks to craft this scene. The first cheat is the dark music which underscores the intensity
of the scene. As for cutting I really want to emphasize
closeups for intensity. Once we are in the sergeant’s office, we open with a medium and
then go right into closeups on the actors face as the detective explains the dead end.
As the detective is about to give up, I switch to a medium shot, giving him some distance
some breathing room – only to come back to a close up when the sergeant starts presenting
her plan. In essence, the close ups are used to push tension and mediums let us back off
the intensity as you don’t want to be monotonous in tone. It’s this intercut between medium
to close up that create the tension that’s not being created in the scene. So this is what is meant by crafting the performance
in the edit – using montage and musical cues to create the feelings we want in the scene.
It’s okay but to me, that’s boring filmmaking and really a waste of our talented actors. Keeping our actors and camera locked down,
here’s what you what happens when you free them up to interject some inflection and do
a little “business”: Captain. Detective. Make it quick. I’ve only got
a minute. Any news on the Mendoza case? Jenkins isn’t talking. He’s been in there for 15 hours. Only an hour before we legally have to release
him. And the forensics? Toxicology came back negative. Bloodwork is
clean and no fingerprints at the scene. Looks like we’re at a dead end. I’m not fan of dead ends. I don’t like
losing. We’re fighting the clock, Mendoza’s got
an army of lawyers breathing down our necks. If we so much as overstep this… Myers. Mendonza’s lawyer. What about him? If Mendoza is washing his hands – you find
the soap. That’s Myers – put a detail on him. I want to know every move he makes. I’ll put Nemie on it. If I’m right that snake will lead us right
to the prize. What about Jenkins? Let him sweat it out for an hour – then make
have a big showy escort take him back. Mendoza will think he talked. Yes Captain. Darren. Keep me posted – this unit needs this…
I need this. There is a term that I’ve heard used in
directing before or perhaps I just made it up: Business. It sort of stems from question
of what should an actor be doing when he or she is not delivering dialogue – watch most
first year actors and you’ll see them freeze when not speaking. Now that you’ve seen the scene a couple
of times, you should be familiar with the main objective of each actor. The detective
is there to deliver the bad news that Jenkins isn’t talking, the sergeant then comes up
with a plan to proceed forward. Business is adding a secondary objective something that
can but doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the main objective. For the detective
I gave him a pencil to play with – This is not exactly an objective but a prop to manifest
his angst in the scene. For the sergeant I told her to search the
desk for a missing envelope- and at the point where she realizes that Meyers is the key
to the case to suddenly find what it was she was looking for. Sort of a visual metaphor
of the scene itself. With this bit of direction something really
interesting occurred. Watch the eyelines between the two actors. After the initial greeting
the two actors do not meet eyes.. When the sergeant asks for news, the reverse shot shows
the detective looking down. When the he returns his eyes to her, she’s looking away – They
avert their eye contact unitll… bam… she makes a break in the case- that’s the first
time they lock eyes and except for a glace off here and there they stay locked on to
each other for the rest of this scene, they went from being lost to now being in sync. Now I wish I sit here and take credit for
that bit of direction. But I can’t. It wasn’t something we even discussed on set – it just
happened naturally because the actors had something to do besides sit and talk through
the case – The result is a completely unexpected but completely natural bit of visual storytelling
with deeper context. This is why filmmaking is so much fun – but we’ve just started… Now it’s time to open up the blocking completely
and really experiment with a “one shot” version of the scene: Captain. Detective. Make it quick. I’ve only got
a minute. Any news on the Mendoza case? Jenkins isn’t talking. He’s been in there for 15 hours. Only an hour before we legally have to release
him. And the forensics? Toxicology came back negative. Bloodwork is
clean and no fingerprints at the scene. Looks like we’re at a dead end. I’m not fan of dead ends. I don’t like
losing. We’re fighting the clock, Mendoza’s got
an army of lawyers breathing down our necks. Myers. Mendonza’s lawyer. What about him? If Mendoza is washing his hands – you find
the soap. That’s Myers – put a detail on him. I want to know every move he makes. I’ll put Nemie on it. I have a feeling if I am right that snake will lead us right
to the prize. What about Jenkins? Let him sweat it out for an hour – then make
have a big showy escort take him back. Mendoza will think he talked. Yes Captain. Darren. Keep me posted – this unit needs this…
I need this. Let’s change gears for just a bit and talk
about production choices. I went into this variation wanting to test out different types
of camera stabilizers: a standard over the shoulder rig, a center of gravity stabilizer
with the Steadicam Zephyr, and a brushless motor gimbal style stabilizer. The version
you just watched was shot on the Steadicam – a device I had never used before but I have
had extensive experience playing with and modifying a Glidecam 4000 over the years.
It took about 45 minutes of playing with the Steadicam to get it balanced to the point
where I could get the shot. Now I’m not a full time Steadicam operator by any stretch
of the imagination and after flying for about a couple of hours and twenty or so takes to
get the choreography right, I really doubt I will ever be a full time steadicam op..
but the Zephyr was a real pleasure to fly and I got results that weren’t too bad. This was the first scene we shot after lunch
– after an hour, the actors and myself were satisfied that we had a solid take with the
steadicam. During this time, my second cameraman Chris had been working on getting the brushless
motor gimbal stabilizer to work. It was still acting wonky on us so I gave him a little
bit of time and reshot the scene using shoulder mount system. Having some experience in the event and broadcast
world, shooting shoulder mount is really intuitive and almost liberating for me. I know exactly
how to point the camera at what I want to see and I know how to move to create an interesting
shot. With handheld, pulling focus and even pulling zoom is pretty easy – you would need
a wireless follow focus system when shooting with the steadicam. But as you can see in this side by side, the
motion is stylistically different. With a steadicam you float with the actors – shoulder
mount introduces bumps with each step which gives it more of a documentary feel – think
shows like The Office which have more of a fly on the wall feel than an omniscient point
of view that steadicam offers. So after spending 30 minutes reshooting the
scene with shoulder cam, we gave the brushless gimbal stabilizer one more chance. I first
let my second cameraman Chris take a shot at the scene but he hadn’t walked the camera
move before so I took the realm. I was tired but on the very first take the gimbals just
weren’t going to cooperate with us. After one take and my arms completely giving out
at the end of the run, I made the executive decision to move on without the shot. This experiment illustrates something that
really isn’t talked about much with these brushless motor stabilizers. I’ve seen some
spectacular footage in press releases, but the fundamental truth about Brushless motor
stabilizers is they are a high tech solution to the camera movement problem. Each brushless
motor, each battery hookup, the computer software, the wireless control, the accelerometer – all
of those are single point failures which means if any one of those fails, the whole system
fails. On the contrary the center of gravity stabilizers
have just one single point of failure – the gimbal – there’s no other moving parts – they
are very low tech solutions to the camera movement problem. Does this make the brushless motor stabilizer
inherently bad? Of course not, but it does make it less reliable and more tempermental
on set. Flying a center of gravity stabilizer, although requires skill and practice, takes
a lot less muscle and once you have it balanced you have to do very minor maintenance on it
to keep working throughout the day Because we were shooting on the C300 using
a Cine lens, I think our problem was we had too much weight for the setup. We also didn’t
have the passcode to get into the software so we really couldn’t say we gave the brushless
motor stabilizer a fair shot. But in the real world with all the imperfection
that comes with it, maybe we did. Let’s switch back to the blocking. Since
there was going to be no cutting in this shot, you have to block the movement to create little
individual compositions and them link them all up through movement. I wanted to demonstrate
the power relationship between the sargent and the detective which means I wanted her
to always be leading him along. As a result she is always closer to the camera. Notice that as they discuss the details of
the case at his desk she puts her hand up to her face in frustration – this is a shield
from bad news, ultimately turning her back on him completely and not making eye contact
until she comes up the solution. From here, I wanted her path to take us around
a corner desk by the jail cell and into the sergeant’s office creating an S movement.
At first she had trouble with this direction because she needed a motivation to take an
indirect path – so I had her drop off an envelope on the desk. You can’t see it in the take
but it makes sense for her character. Unfortunately that area by the jail cell is
really darkly lit so I had them scurry through that spot as fast as possible. When they get
to the office she ends up being bathed in light while he is wrapped in shadow a perfect
visual symbolism of their relationship. And once again, a good visual metaphor that
occurred completely out of dumb luck. So far we’ve been playing this scene like
it was straight out of something like Law and Order – let’s try something a little
different: Captain. Detective. Make it quick. I’ve only got
a minute. Any news on the Mendoza case? Jenkins isn’t talking. He’s been in there for 15 hours. Only an hour before we legally have to release
him. And the forensics? Toxicology came back negative. Bloodwork is
clean and no fingerprints at the scene. Looks like we’re at a dead end. I’m not fan of dead ends. I don’t like
losing. We’re fighting the clock, Mendoza’s got
an army of lawyers breathing down our necks. If we so much as overstep this… Myers. Mendonza’s lawyer. What about him? If Mendoza is washing his hands – you find
the soap. That’s Myers – put a detail on him. I want to know every move he makes. I’ll put Nemie on it. If I’m right that snake will lead us right
to the prize. What about Jenkins? Let him sweat it out for an hour – then make
have a big showy escort take him back. Mendoza he’ll think Mendoza talked. Yes Captain. Darren. Keep me posted – this unit needs this…
I need this. First up you’ll notice we went from using
a cinemascope style 2.35 aspect ratio to a more spacious 1.77 aspect ratio – the 16×9
television standard. You tend to see many comedies employing a less wide aspect ratio,
it’s offers a little more vertical space for actors to work with. Because of this it
feels a little friendlier. The other obvious choice change up was the
music which certainly adds a more light hearted feel to the scene. Having just shot the oner, I really wanted
to block a scene that had a lot of movement.. The sergeant’s objective here is to romantically
engage the detective, but still do her job. The detective’s objective is to just get
out of there once he realizes what’s going on. One thing I really like to play with is reversing
eyelines and positions. In the beginning of the scene, the sergeant circles the detective.
He constantly turning to follow her creating this power dynamic between the two similar
in what we saw in the oner. As she closes in romantically, I had her move
into the foreground and close the blinds. The details of the case that the detective
are spouting aren’t important – I’m letting them play out in the background. What’s
important is how why she’s doing what she’s. I let it play in this two shot because that’s
emphasizes the subtext of the scene. Now when she returns to him we have reversed the blocking
which creates a new objective for the detective. He’s got his orders and now he needs to
get out of there – but she’s in his way. So as she’s playing with him, he can sheepishly
try to get to the door – This interplay only made possible because we reversed the blocking. Which then sets up this little door slamming
joke -something the actress improvised in one of her takes. So like a mouse caught in a trap, she’s
all his and even though the sergeant does still bring everything back to the police
work at hand, she teases him at the end by invading his personal space and playing with
his… um… pencil. Subtext. Originally I had planned to shoot a version
where the detective was actually the bad guy in the case – sort of a twist on the show
Dexter and use the camera to get increasingly closer and closer into his face like a noose
tightening around his neck. But since we were having so much fun with
comedic versions and we needed something with a little more energy I scrapped that idea
because it felt it too subtle considering what we had just done. Jacked up on the free
YouTube coffee and the cookies we had at craft services, I let the actors all come up with
a funny version of their own: Captain. Detective. Make it quick. I’ve only got
a minute. Any news on the Mendoza case? Jenkins isn’t talking. He’s been in there for 15 hours. Only an hour before we legally have to release
him. And the forensics? Toxicology came back negative. Bloodwork is
clean and no fingerprints at the scene. Looks like we’re at a dead end. I’m not fan of dead ends. I don’t like
losing. We’re fighting the clock, Mendoza’s got
an army of lawyers breathing down our necks. If we so much as overstep this… Myers. Mendonza’s lawyer. What about him? If Mendoza is washing his hands – you find
the soap. That’s Myers – put a detail on him. I want to know every move he makes. I’ll put Nemie on it. If I’m right that snake will lead us right
to the prize. What about Jenkins? Let him sweat it out for an hour – then make
have a big showy escort take him back. Mendoza will think he talked. Yes Captain. Darren. Keep me posted – this unit needs this…
I need this. THE SITCOM Originally I had planned to shoot a version
where the detective was actually the bad guy in the case – sort of a twist on the show
Dexter and use the camera to get increasingly closer and closer into his face like a noose
tightening around his neck. But since we were having so much fun with
comedic versions and we needed something with a little more energy I scrapped that idea
because it felt it too subtle considering what we had just done. Jacked up on the free
YouTube coffee and the cookies we had at craft services, I let the actors all come up with
a funny version of their own:>Clip

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