April 4, 2016

What Happens to Your Story when You Block the Same Exact Scene Differently?

We already know that blocking is an essential component of storytelling, but what we may not know is how powerful it can be in changing the tone, even meaning of a scene.

The latest video from John P. Hess of Filmmaker IQ demonstrates just that. In it, he runs an "experiment" that tests how different staging changes the emotional impact of a particular scene — the scene in this case is a simple, even boilerplate exchange between a detective and a police captain about details of a case. Watch and see how even with the same lighting and dialog the atmosphere and meaning of the scene changes based on how Hess chose to block it.

Even though the blocking in the five different scenes inspires an emotional reaction from the audience, the music used in each version can take quite a bit of credit, too. (And Hess acknowledges this.) Simply using the ominous music from the "Business Cut" in the "Sitcom" version would result in a totally different feel, albeit a confusing and conflicting one. Suffice it to say that music is a workhorse when it comes to eliciting emotions from a viewer. But blocking does more than get people to feel things. It tells stories.

Blocking, which is essentially where and how characters and the camera move about the set, can do so much for your story, including determine relationships between characters, convey power and dominance, as well as reflect a desired intensity for the scene. So, for example, how would you block a scene that had a couple on the verge of divorce having to work together to escape from a burning building?

Example Scene: Towering Divorce Inferno (a movie I just made up)

Well, think about the information your audience needs to know about this couple and the current situation they find themselves in:

  • They're considering getting a divorce.
  • But they still love each other.
  • Both struggle for dominance over the other.
  • They don't trust each other anymore.
  • But they kind of have to because...
  • They're in a burning building...
  • And must work together in order to escape.

Okay, how would you block that scene? Well, there's a lot to consider.

External Conflict

There's obviously going to be a ton of action because of the imposing danger and ticking clock: an inferno, flames, falling debris, and a building on the verge of collapse. So, to communicate the intensity and confusion of this external conflict, your camera movement could be very kinetic, with whip pans, tracking and handheld shots. Your characters could be running, hesitating before they jump over a flaming abyss on the 10th floor, ducking to avoid collapsing beams, etc.

Internal Conflict

However, there is still the internal conflict to address: the marriage that is on the verge of collapse, which is just about as terrifying as a burning building that is on the verge of collapse. How will your characters and the camera move to convey their conflicting desires to break up and work things out, to maintain power and independence, to be vulnerable and trust each other again? One way is to play with spacial relationships between the characters and the camera and between the two characters. 

So, one example would be to shoot the beginning of their escape with long and medium shots, because the further the distance between the characters and the camera tends to represent the emotional distance between the characters and others and the characters and themselves. However, in shots where the husband and wife must rely on the other to overcome a flaming, hellish obstacle, you can put the two closer together in a medium close-up or close-up, because the closer the camera gets to a character, the more emotional and introspective they appear to be. 

Example Scene: True Lies

I knew I had to provide some kind of film reference for these techniques, and the first film that came to mind was True Lies. Now, the scene I wanted to show you drew almost a perfect parallel to my fake Towering Divorce Inferno scene, but oddly enough, the only one I could find with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis was the infamous "Awkward Natasha Lap Dance." So, here's one between The Arnold and Eliza Dushku who plays his estranged daughter.

I don't think it's scientifically possible to have a more action-packed, high-stakes, emotionally intense scene than this — I mean — a guy flying a fighter jet with his daughter hanging off the nose with a murderous terrorist running up the back? Not only does Arnie need to get rid of this dangerous lunatic with the weirdest mullet anyone has ever seen, but he needs to make up for the years and years of emotional neglect he's been putting his daughter through. And he does it the way all good dad's do it, by saving her life.

James Cameron uses similar blocking techniques I mentioned earlier, like capturing action in long shots and emotion in close shots, but he does something interesting here. He uses the concept of lateral movement to reveal the growth of Arnold's character. He's got the terrorist to his back (regression, bad) and his daughter to the front (progression, good). Does he put his job first (again) and kill the threat, or does he put his daughter's needs first for once? (Her need, let me reiterate, is to not die from falling from a fighter jet.) Job of family first — which will he choose? That is staging that works perfectly to visually represent a character's internal and external conflicts.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

That video on staging and blocking is epic! The scene where the sergeant is seducing the detective was the most interesting. Unfortunately, you have to sacrifice a bit on cinematography if you want to have more dynamic blocking. This is why they had to shoot the last scene all in wide shots. But, better to have more interesting character movement than "perfect" cinematography and rely on editing techniques to spice it up.

In reality, if the audience can forget about the camera movement and focus on the action, it will make for a better story and retain interest.

April 4, 2016 at 11:53PM, Edited April 4, 11:54PM

0
Reply

John Hess videoes always seem a bit too shallow for my taste.... Also hard to tell how much of this is resultacting.

Personally I'd go with this instead:
http://www.hollywoodcamerawork.com/da_index.html

April 5, 2016 at 1:09AM, Edited April 5, 1:09AM

0
Reply
avatar
Torben Greve
Cinematographer
632

.

April 5, 2016 at 4:31PM, Edited April 5, 4:33PM

0
Reply
mcguffin
147

You comments always seem to be a bit too spammy for my taste.

April 5, 2016 at 4:31PM

4
Reply
mcguffin
147

oooh patronising and plugging an expensive box set of tutorials. Double win!

April 8, 2016 at 12:06PM

0
Reply
avatar
Jake Gorton
Producer
290

They're a great set though, and they don't become a series of theatresports genre replays.

April 9, 2016 at 12:02PM

0
Reply
Stu Willis
Write. Direct. Post.
88

Amazing video.
This one is really helpful and inspiring.
Thanks

April 5, 2016 at 4:53AM, Edited April 5, 4:53AM

0
Reply
avatar
Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
542

This was great, thank you for the share.

April 5, 2016 at 5:41AM, Edited April 5, 5:41AM

6
Reply
avatar
Paul-Vincent Alexander
Storyteller
86

An interesting experiment... I enjoyed that. But seriously, you are running around with a crew and 2 C300's and you can't figure out how to correctly use a Movi....actually looked more like a Ronin ...maybe that was it!

April 5, 2016 at 11:30PM

0
Reply

Yes, it was a Ronin. I've had some one in comments tell me that the C300 doors play well with the C300 because of the shape.

I still stand behind my opinion on brushless gimbals.

April 7, 2016 at 11:14AM

0
Reply

It's the first time I've heard that opinion voiced about brushless gimbals and got to say I totally agree.

Unless you can afford to have 2 dedicated ops (preferably who own the MoVi/Ronin and know it inside out) there is no point having one on even a relatively high budget commercials shoot. They suck up time like nothing else and time is one thing we never have on set/location.

Fine if you schedule a day just for the MoVi shot but if it has to work in around your schedule it's too risky.

Well said sir.

April 8, 2016 at 12:12PM, Edited April 8, 12:13PM

0
Reply
avatar
Jake Gorton
Producer
290

Really appreciate and enjoy this video! Very informative and well done. An added bonus was the very useful real world stabilizer comparison and comments.

Kudos to John Hess and company!

April 7, 2016 at 4:25PM

4
Reply

As a long time location sound recordist, your comments about Lav's being fine, and boom as backup is the worst advice you can give anyone 'getting into' production. Relying on Lav's, renders you what we have here, the typical claustrophobic amateur feel to a video. Brings the video down. I understand this is for blocking training, but in any case, Always boom and use boom unless it's absolutely neccessary to pull from the lav track. Audio is usually the biggest let down in all B grade / indie productions, a good boom track can transform a performance and save a scene....

Awesome video on blocking though, learnt a lot from it :-)

regards

Prahlad Strickland

April 8, 2016 at 2:55AM

2
Reply

Great video. I would love to see a scene directed by famous directors just to get an idea of how they would do it differently from each other.

April 10, 2016 at 10:21PM, Edited April 10, 10:21PM

0
Reply
Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
355