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Blocking a Scene
 by: Peter D. Marshall

When I was a Second AD (many, many years ago) I learned a valuable lesson from a dolly grip on how a film set works. Very simply, every film shoot is divided into four parts:

1) Block - determining where the actors will be on the set and the first camera position

2) Light - time for the DOP to light the set and position the camera for the first shot

3) Rehearse - camera rehearsal of the first set-up with the actors and crew

4) Shoot - shooting the first scene (then repeat the process)

Blocking is the first, and most crucial, aspect of this 4-part sequence. When you first start directing, blocking a scene can be one of the hardest - and most embarrassing - parts of your job. Get it wrong here, and you could waste valuable shooting time trying to get out of the mess you created!

a) Director Prep - Before you step onto any film set, you need to first do your homework on Script and Character Analysis. In the last two articles, we talked about Understanding the Script (what the story is about; the themes; the story points) and Character Development and Analysis (the development and objectives of the characters).

b) Blocking a Dramatic Scene - The first thing I do when the actors arrive for a blocking is to get them in a group and read the scene: no moving, no "acting" - just reading the scene through. This makes sure everyone is on the "same page". (Sometimes actors do not have revisions and this is a good time to find that out.) Also, by reading together, the actors start to feed off each other - and you get to watch the process.

After the actors read the scene, I ask them to show me what they want to do. I just step back and let them go for it. If it is a set no one has been in before, I take a few moments to discuss the physical lay out of the room - the door an actor will come through; a window they can walk up to; which desk they can sit at etc.

The actors then begin their first walk through - they read the scene and walk around the set to get a feel of what they want to do and where they want to be. During this initial blocking, I try not to make any suggestions to the actors - it is important that they show me what they have in mind. Remember, this is the first time the actors have been together on the set and they need their time to explore. As you watch the actors, you get a feel for what they want to do, where they want to go and how they are relating to each other.

On the next blocking, you begin to make your changes. Maybe you want an actor to sit in a chair by the window instead of on the couch; you ask an actor if it would be okay to pace beside an actor and not in front of him so you can save a set-up; you make a suggestion to an actor to move across the room instead of standing by the door etc.

Once you have discussed the scene, and everyone agrees with the suggestions, the actors do it again. This time, you begin to figure out your camera placement based on their movement and what you first had in mind. As the actors go through the scene, you walk around them looking at all your camera positions. Usually the DOP is with you to discuss camera set-ups and positions. This is also a time where you can stop-and-start the actors - move them around to get a better background. During this blocking, a camera assistant will place marks on the floor whenever the actors stop.

When everyone is satisfied, the actors leave and you discuss the first set-up in more detail with the DOP and the camera operator. When the DOP begins to light, you go over all your set-ups with the First AD and the Script Supervisor.

c) Blocking Tips - having a shot list will help you during the blocking process. The shot list is like a map: it gives you a path to your destination but you don't always have to follow it

- let the actors show you what they want to do first, then, when you make a suggestion, it is based on something you have already seen

- in Television, speed is essential, so try and block some scenes so that your action takes place in one direction (to avoid turning the camera around for reverses)

About The Author

Peter D. Marshall has worked in the Film and TV Industry for over 32 years. In 2000 he created as an online resource center for Filmmakers where you will find filmmaking tips, articles and directing workshops. Peter also publishes the free monthly ezine, "The Director's Chair."

This article was posted on October 29, 2005


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