What is Blocking?
Blocking a scene is part of a film director’s role when working on set. Here, we’re going to look at how to block a scene for a film set, including some top tips of how to block a scene as part of your own filmmaking.
Blocking a scene means to physically plan out how the action of a scene will take place. Where do the actors start? What do they do? What do they say? And when?
How to Block a Scene
Blocking a scene involves making decisions and communicating positions, actions, lines and instructions to all the actors, so they know where they are and what to do for each moment of the action.
It’s a similar process to blocking a scene in theatre, but on a film set, the director has to also consider the positions of the cameras and any limits in place. For instance, if an actor travels too far, they might leave the camera frame. The actors, the set, the cameras and the crew all need to work together in harmony to achieve the right vision.
Blocking is a huge part of working with actors on a film set. It’s important to always give actors clear directions, as it helps them to understand what is needed of them within the shot or the take, and helps them to deliver the performance needed for the camera. If an actor is unsure about where they are meant to be, or where they are supposed to move, it can lead to lots of issues with the footage and a lot of time being wasted with re-takes or extra rehearsals.
Remember, the actors can’t see what the camera crew or the director can, they’re reliant on good direction and good notes to guide them.
How to Block a Scene for a Film Shoot
Every scene on a film shoot should start with the blocking.
This might be from scratch – if it’s the first time all the actors and the director have been together to work on the scene, or it might pick up from any off-camera rehearsals. These are rehearsals that take place in rehearsal rooms away from the set and the cameras. Often they won’t have the set or many of the props or costumes etc to work with either, it’s just time for the director to rehearse and prepare the actors, ready for the shoot.
On set, the blocking will likely be for just one particular setup or one particular shot. Imagine an Establishing Shot, for a party scene, filmed in a Wide Angle. The director will block for just this one setup, instructing the actors where to stand in the scene and if they do anything in character.
After blocking, the crew can light the shot. This is followed by a camera rehearsal and then adjusted as the director feels is necessary. Finally, once the director is happy, the shooting can begin. Once the director is happy with the shot, the process is likely repeated again and again until all the different shots and setups have been worked through. (Imagine a new guest arrives at the party, we see them in a Medium Shot enter through the door…)
6 Top Tips – How to Block a Scene on a Film Set
- Follow the Plan!
Take the time to map out a storyboard and detail all the shots and the angles you want to capture. You might want to go even further and write this out as a shot list, you could even produce a schedule to follow to keep track of your timings.
When it comes to how to block a scene, having a plan will help to keep you organised and it will focus how you communicate with your actors, saving valuable shooting time. You don’t always have to follow it to the letter, but by having a good plan ready, you’ll be able to stay on track and collect all the shots you need for the scene.
When you’re the director, and it comes to how to block a scene, it’s easy to think all the ideas have to be yours, or that your way is always best. Listen to input from your actors, they might have great ideas too. Listen to suggestions from your DoP (Director of Photography) or camera crew too, they will often have lots of technical knowledge to share that will help achieve the exact shot you’re looking for. They will also be able to tell you if your idea (whilst it might be a great one) is likely to take hours to accomplish and will overrun your entire schedule.
Try to incorporate the suggestions that fit your vision. You don’t have to compromise, but you’ll find actors who are confident and empowered will deliver a better performance. Crew who feel listened to will be willing to go the extra mile for you.
Know your must-have shots from your nice-to-have shots. Which shots are key to telling the story?
When you’re thinking about how to block a scene, make sure to prioritise all your must-haves and then revisit any of the nice-to-haves once you know all your principle shots have been filmed. Don’t spend too much time blocking all the small details and pickups if you haven’t got your must-haves ready.
- Focus on the Storytelling
Whilst you’re blocking, rehearsing and shooting, stay focused on the storytelling. Don’t get distracted by too many details or ideas. Remember what is important for the audience and make sure you capture that.
Always position your camera and your actors so that the story comes across in the shot. Imagine you’re filming a scene with a countdown clock ticking… If we can’t see the clock on camera, it becomes irrelevant to the story. If it’s obscured by actors in the way, we lose its importance.
If in doubt, when you’re planning out how to block a scene, remember to follow Hitchcock’s Rule: “The size of an object in the frame should equal its importance in the story at that moment.”
- Be Realistic
Some setups can be nice and simple, with a shot taking just a bit of rehearsal and a couple of takes to get the right result. Other setups – think complex tracking shots, aerial shots, shots with big groups or – dare we mention – a dolly zoom – can take a lot longer to set up, will inevitably take a lot more rehearsal time and many more takes before you get a shot that’s acceptable.
If you’re thinking about how to block a scene, and your storyboard is full of complex shot types, includes lots of actors, lots of movement, etc, then make sure you allow plenty of time to block these out. What seems simple to you will take a lot of explaining, as well as a lot of trial and error for your cast and crew. Be patient, take your time and be prepared to re-take.
Blocking a scene is a multi-step process, so take it step by step and keep going until you’re happy with the outcome. If it’s helpful to break it down, then work with your actors first and plot their positions and their actions. Then spend time with the lighting, then the camera(s) and block out their positions too.
Keep going until you’re ready to rehearse. If you have the time, and you’re not sure about how to block a scene, then don’t be afraid to change your mind, either. If a better idea comes along, you can change your original plan and re-work the scene. If it looks better on camera and better tells the story, then it’s a good move.
Directing and how to block a scene is a fundamental part of our filmmaking programmes for young filmmakers. We teach filmmakers age 5-18 how to direct and shoot, not to mention star in, their own film productions. See more about our Film Courses >>