Three Legs of Film Directing – Camera Blocking

– Posted in: Directing the Camera

I like to look at film directing as having three major legs, each comprised of many skills sets.

In this post, I’m going to pickup where the last post left off and get into camera blocking.

If you haven’t read the last post it’s called “Three Legs of Film Directing – Performance”.

You might want to jump over now or at the end of this post. Click Here

Inside Circle 2.0

On the surface, film directing can be perceived to be as easy as shooting coverage of actors “acting” and editing these shots into a sequence that looks and sounds like a movie.

  • Is this directing?
  • Where is style?
  • Where is point of view?

While this isn’t the kind of directing that will win awards, it is unfortunately the way most new filmmakers approach directing. That is, until we learn to motivate our shots with point of view, sub-text and “question-answer” patterns. We simply set the camera up to document dialogue from different angles and call it camera blocking.

Here’s the heart of the problem.
Unschooled directors almost always try to make a movie that will entertain from the start. I know, because it’s exactly what I did for too many years and it’s exactly what I want to to save you from doing.

I’m convinced that today’s DIY filmmakers are missing an important step that film school students don’t. This step involves isolating and practicing specific directing skill-sets before jumping into a “final-form” project. Almost all of us do it because we want to make a movie instead of learning a skill. But it’s deadly and will hold you back from doing your best work.

Just think back to the movie Karate kid and “Wax on – Wax off.” Daniel just wanted to fight but Mr. Miyagi knew he needed to master the skills before he could compete.

In the previous post, I looked at how to isolate and practice the skills associated with “Directing Performance”. So, in this post, I’m going to look at the dynamics of “Camera Blocking” and how a director can develop this skill-set.

This practice has changed the way direct films and videos which has opened new and bigger opportunities for me.  So, I’m extra passionate to share and hopefully empower you to leverage these proven methods and techniques. Lets take a look!

Camera Blocking a Closer Look

The most important thing to remember when it comes to camera blocking is that “motive determines behavior.” Now what in the world does that jargon mean?

Stick with me, it will be worth it!

Motive

When I say motive, I’m talking about the inner world of the character. Not what they say, but what they are not saying. This has to do with the needs, wants or fears of the character. Often these needs are unspoken and are only conveyed in the subtext.

Determines

Another way of saying this is to say it dictates or controls what and how something is done. This “how” can relate to the camera setup and or movement, or it can relate to ‘how” the actor plays a moment.

Behavior

This consists of action, activity and anything physical the character or the camera does or the way in which the character say’s a line.

What is camera blocking?

The simplest definition of camera blocking I can give is to say, “Camera blocking is the relationship between the camera & everything else in the room.”

[bctt tweet=”Camera blocking is the relationship between the camera & everything else in the room.”]

When determining a camera setup, everything must be taken into consideration because all things in and out of there frame effects how the viewer interprets each shot and how each of these shots relate to the one before and the one after.[bctt tweet=” Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out. – Martin Scorsese”]

It’s that simple and that complicated.

They say “A Picture is Worth a thousand Words.”

[bctt tweet=”If a single picture speaks a thousand worlds, what does a moving picture sequence say?”]

This is a profound concept and will take new directors a while to fully appreciate. But trust me this, epiphany is like a zen koan, once you grasp the power of this simple phrase everything changes.

This is when camera blocking becomes a crazy powerful storytelling tool.

So, if we move forward from the understanding that everything in the frame conveys meaning or a thousand words, then it’s easy to understand that camera blocking implies meaning and must carefully take all things into consideration including:

  • lighting
  • window placement
  • extras
  • props
  • physical activity
  • time
  • budget

Now while all these things must be considered, the primary consideration for determining where you put the camera is:

  • what’s important in the scene
  • what’s the scene’s story objective
  • what are the individual character objectives

Camera placement can easily enhance or distract an audiences understanding of what the scene is really about and what each character is thinking and feeling.

A scene is often made up of multiple shots from multiple camera setups with the edited result being a series of sequences. Upon close examination each of theses shots is capable of establishing a question or it helps to answer a question.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Lets assume we shoot simple close up of a character named Cindy looking off screen, this simple shot asks the question “What is she looking at?”

Now follow that shot up with a medium-tracking and a close-shot of a man, let’s call him Norman, walking into the room and we’ve answered the question. If the screen direction and eye-lines are correct the cut tells the audience that Cindy is looking at Norman.

If Norman swaggers into the room, the audience may be wondering how Cindy feels about him. Nothing needs to be said and we don’t need to cut back to Cindy for the audience to become engaged. It may even be better that we don’t cut back and let the moment live in the mind of the audience.

Now, if we add “audience knowledge” then the audience knows that Norman has a dark motive for being in this room. They will be even more likely have an opinion about what Cindy is thinking and feeling or they may be concerned for Cindy?

This is an extremely simple example of how motive, determines, behavior and how this determines camera blocking.

It’s easy to think that camera blocking is documenting the actions and words of the actor by recording it with the camera – it’s not.

Documenting would give you a series of shots that when edited would look and sound like a movie sequence but these shots would lack additional layers, story juice and thus viewer engagement.

The script might simply say “Norman enters a festive party.” And upon reading this a director might simply shoot a wide shot and let Norman walks into the room and then to the bar before cutting into a close-shot for a conversation with an old friend.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting the entrance this way. But if we instead shoot it with the previously mentioned tracking and close-up shot sequence we’ll be adding another story layer. And this could be an especially helpful layer if; two scenes from now, Cindy (the contractor) meets Norman (her new client) face to face for the very first time.

How would you block this “meeting” scene?

When and how would you disclose this discovery to the audience and to Cindy?

Would you want the audience to know before Cindy?

Or, would  you want the audience to first see Cindy’s face looking (the question)  and then cut to an over the shoulder shot revealing (the answer) Norman.

There’s no right or wrong way to shoot this. But not understanding what’s at stake and taking advantage of every cinematic story element available will leave the scene weak if sub-text and sub layer story-juice.

If the goal of the scene is to create emotional engagement and to deliver plot information, then camera placement hinges on knowing what emotions you want the audience to experience and what point of view you want them to connect with. This also effects possible rhythm and timing aspects of the scene.

Don’t be fooled by the “everydayness” of a sequence.

Subtext exists in the most common situations. Film directors can’t take anything for granted and you must be on the lookout for opportunities to infuse “subtext” and to construct “question-answer patterns” whenever possible.

These dynamics are best uncovered and conceived during the director’s script analysis.  This work is essential to keeping your audience engaged and entertained.

This is camera blocking!

If you haven’t read the last post it’s called “Three Legs of Film Directing – Performance”

You might want to jump over now or at the end of this post. Click Here

Did you find this post helpful? Let me know what you think. If you like what I’m doing share the link with a friend or send a tweet. Let’s engage!