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.
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.
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.