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Arts & Entertainment

How to Block a Scene: Blocking Actors for Film and Stage

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

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Whether you’re in still in film school or an experienced director, determining the blocking of a scene can be one of the most intimidating and frustrating aspects of directing. Blocking isn’t only about working out sight lines and stage movement—it also determines where you want your audience to look and how you want them to emotionally engage with a scene. From your very first shot to the last time you yell “cut!” during a shoot, blocking should be at the forefront of your mind as a director.

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What Does It Mean to Block a Scene?

The term ‘blocking’ is thought to come from a practice of 19th-century Victorian-era drama, when theatre directors such as Gilbert and Sullivan would plan their productions by first creating a miniature stage model. Then, the two of them would use thin blocks of wood to represent the actors and the resulting stage pictures.

Today, the term has evolved to mean working with performers to figure out the actors’ movements, body positions, and body language in a scene. In cinema, the blocking process also involves working out the camera position and camera movement, and can impact the lighting design, set design, and more. It is thus an essential part of the planning process during preproduction.

What to Consider When Blocking a Scene

Blocking can be an art unto itself, and is similar in many ways to the choreography of a dance. What are the characters actually “doing” in the scene? How can their motions embody the text? The movements of the actors can be crafted during the rehearsal process in artful ways that reveal additional subtext in the dialogue, as well as reflect the relationships between characters, direct the focus of the viewer, and create effective compositions for the camera.

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5 Tips for Blocking a Scene

When it comes to blocking a scene, the possibilities can feel endless. There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to move your camera and stage your actors, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed by all the potential options. These tips will help make the task feel more manageable and help you achieve what you want out of a scene:

  1. Plan in advance. It can be tempting to try to block a whole scene on the fly, but effective staging of a scene takes time and planning. Constructing shot lists and storyboards will help you work out your actors’ positions and camera angles in advance so that you go into your shoot day with a clear plan. This is especially important if you are a first time director working without a big Hollywood budget, as having a clear ground plan for your first scene on can make the shoot day quicker and more efficient.
  2. Let your actors inform your blocking. The process of ‘blocking’ is essentially an act of choreography, where every action is motivated by something the characters think, feel, want, or need. Begin by talking to your actors about each character’s motivations and feelings. Next, use blocking rehearsals work out the characters’ movement through space, and concurrently experiment with the placement and framing of the camera in relation to the performers.
  3. The scene should inform camera placement. Motion picture blocking is an act of composition, where appropriate frames and camera angles are chosen so as to accentuate the emotional themes of the story. You therefore need to focus on the positioning of actors as well as the camera in relation to the actors. The framing for a shot of a character crying out “I do not belong here!” may need to be rendered in close-ups, medium shots or wide shots depending on whether the character is pleading directly to another character, or shouting to the heavens for dramatic effect. The process will involve considerable give-and-take, leading to adjustments in cinematography, the actors’ body positions, and blocking to better fit the framing of a shot.
  4. Give actors “business” during scenes. Screenwriters have to cover a lot of emotional ground in a scene so it’s good to give your actors something for their character to do. If they stay too focused on the other actors throughout the scene, it can often cause the screenwriting to feel unrealistic. One way to avoid this is to give the actors some “business.” If normal life is happening during a scene, it will feel more honest and human.
  5. Remain open to adjustments. It’s helpful to have a plan, but try to maintain flexibility and openness to your team’s instincts, and allow for unexpected discoveries. Helpful blocking notes for the next scene can come from a variety of sources. As actors grow more familiar with their character’s inner life, for instance, the blocking for your scene will likely change and evolve. Sometimes, the slightest adjustment in stage directions – moving an actor slightly upstage, downstage, stage left or stage right, for example – can have a major impact on the visual storytelling of the scene.

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