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

Posts Tagged with…

Reader Comments

  1. Video & Art

    very good lesson !!!! thank you. The only thing is missing is only the focal length of the lenses in each shot to have an idea of the "view" that specific focal length creates!

  2. SuperGramph - Maximum Fun

    I must say that the second version was by far the best and the actors were authentic. It didn’t see that in the other parts of the explanation :/.. but I know no time, the topic was blocking and there were 5 different setups – amazing what you guy did :D. Thanks also a lot for the Tipp with the business – everything makes sense now 😅..

  3. 909sickle

    "If you want to be a filmmaker, you've got to make films." I wish I could convince my aspiring filmmaker friends of this. Everyone seems to think, "If you want to be a filmmaker, you need lots of really expensive equipment, a big budget for actors and sets, and your rent to be prepaid for 2 years."

  4. John Doe

    For me being utterly new to this (with this detailed explaination) – it's mindblowing. I got here by "accident", for some reason YouTube mention it – and it was right. I've already watched a few vids of this channel but this one is especially fascinating for me. How a (simple) script, thoughts, metaphors, actors and technology create a scene, how this all works together. What people think of while doing this, how actors – act. It's an true art form (not that I haven't thought so before – but now I know a bit more about why). Thanks, it brightend my day 🙂

  5. Leslie Schwartz

    On the nose – narrative dialog … some of it appears to be from the wrong person … and bad casting … the woman's face is too young … the man would be the better manager, older face, she could be a more sympathetic character. If the characters are to reflect the circumstances, long hours no results, fatigue, people searching for a solution, their body language and dress did not carry this image thru.

  6. Jon Dalrymple

    Hi John, I thoroughly enjoyed watching your video even although I'm not involved in film making – not even as an amateur. One thing I would have liked was for you to explain what you meant by the term 'blocking' at the start of the video. Maybe if you're into film making this is a common phrase but it left me scratching my head a bit – and still does. Anyway, thanks for the entertainment. Regards, Jon I.M. Dalrymple.

  7. Jake N.

    @ 6:03 what kind of a bullshit angle is this? You tried to focus on the actor's shirt? I'd be focusing on the man's face, or on the woman's face to capture her reaction while the man approaches her office. That's all personal preference and view, but still. I loved the one take version.

  8. Bill Rappe

    I like to get some opinions on this short film that my friend directed we are actually making part 2 and it's in the final editing right now. https://vimeo.com/133618531

  9. Stop & Think

    Enjoyed seeing your varied approaches to blocking and shooting this scene. It was most illuminating and helpful. One minor observation. In your description of the "180 rule," you used the theatrical stage term, "upstage," referring to the action moving forward towards the cell bars. In theater speak, "upstage" refers to movement away from the audience (camera) deeper into the rear of the stage. You should have said "downstage." This theatrical direction goes back to the time theater seats were on a flat floor, before inclined audience floors. In those early days the stage was slightly slanted uphill from front to back to allow audiences to better see action on the rear of the stage, Hence the phrase, "Upstage." "Upstaging" also refers to one actor moving upstage, forcing the other actor to turn his back to the audience.

  10. Jon Campos

    I remember in the 80s when it was trendy to use steady cams that wobbled, or to shoot a scene with one camera that bounced from one actor to another. It was very difficult to watch, even if the show was good.

  11. TotallyMature

    Those actors were really impressive given a deliberately flat script. Though I bet great editing and everything else helps. 😀

  12. Colin Frangos

    Not to take anything away from this (it's about blocking, not writing), but I do find it funny that he keeps calling her Captain and you keep calling her Sargent. In most departments, he would answer to (and she would be) a Lieutenant. A pedantic point and hardly a criticism – it really does not take away from the value of this video at all – but it does stand out to me.

  13. lilmil

    I don’t like the comedic vibe, the more intense one was better. Also this is the best video you guys made. Make more like these

  14. Randall Paul

    One of my actors sent me this. I really enjoyed this. The S blocking adds to the Dynamics of the ambient. The 180 rule? I break often. It can work. The point is… don't stay in a box because of rules Great job. John. Detailed.

  15. Tristan V

    THIS IS JUST AMAZING!!!!!! And where the heck are your 3 mill views, this is the best online lesson i´ve seen so far. There is your like sir and my subscription!!!! Congrats!!!!

  16. Kevin Chambers

    Such a great class and education! Thank you so much for this amazing material! I feel as though your videos are pack with information that is vital for filmmaking. Best online filmmaking classes ever!!!

  17. Lore Reloaded

    haha ok at ~21:06 I laughed as I saw what happened (wont spoil).. Ok that was subversion that we need in our movies.. Rian Johnson needs to watch this.

  18. Stöpfel W.

    What an awesome video , the steady cam oner scene was my favorite I would want to shoot the scene that way , the no cut scene let’s the viewer stay in the moment without the slightest interruption which transports the tension the best IMO 👍🏻

  19. Alexis Papageorgiou

    Really enjoyable and your passion for the technical aspect can even make lenses interesting. But the story is as important as the actual task of the realization of an idea – directing. I'm a screenwriter and I would like to point some things that I hope will help and not be misinterpreted as dismissal. Your vision of the police station is completely different to the viewers. Therefore, having them stop at his desk doesn't serve the purpose required. It just makes everything appear manufactured, even if in reality you're totally allowed to do so. Now if this is a series, and we've already learned the diagram of the station, then it's ok but still looks a bit synchronized that he catches up to her while she's exactly next to his desk… If he was holding the envelope it would've worked better in my opinion. When you have a character coming up with something brilliant, or simply, something important the other character didn't think, it's important to show a reaction. The detective doesn't react to the two brilliant ideas the captain has (going after Mendoza's lawyer and letting him go with a significant police escort). He only reacts in the second blocking with the little smile and the "yes captain …". And he's supposed to be a detective … She could've been more strict with him for not thinking of either and create tension between them in the serious takes. Then you have him walking away with his head down, motivated to not f up from there on in and instantly you have the chance for character arc plus you build up the captain as someone who casually comes up with great ideas and expects everyone to at least come close, and with this power play, I'm guessing that the blocking should change … You make her a bitch type, not literally like in the light porno version :). In the light porno version, this is either the first time she's making a move on him or this is something common. He's acting like it's the first time and she's acting like they're playing this game all the time. (A simple solution to this is to have him reluctantly knock on her door to provide the case update … The pencil was genius.) Finally, when the acting is bad, I don't think close-up is a good idea. Love your videos and thank you for coming up with that 25-minute all movie credits explanation …

  20. I come from the Future

    Great video, thanks a lot.
    Only difficulty as always after studying this kind of background information is to be able to let yourself fall into a movie without analyzing it. 😯😉

  21. Opportunity Knocks Media

    I couldn’t watch this whole thing because of continuity issues, the actor keeps caller her Captain and you keep referring to her as Sergeant.

  22. Ashmeed Mohammed

    the sargent, i thought she sounded weak, not like a person in authority. the hand on face made her looked overwhelmed, like she cant even.

  23. Smug Anime Girl

    First version: the actress' psychotic, Charles Manson-like eyes creep me out…
    Third version: with that bad dialogue it's almost as if it's a deadpan parody of the genre 😂

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *