Block or Die: Lessons from Orson Welles

Overhead blocking can save time and money—and maybe your entire production.

If you're a director, you’re the only person involved in the making of your film who knows how every piece of the puzzle will fit together in order to realize your unique vision. And there's no better way to announce your artistic presence than by pre-blocking.

You can pre-block for camera (where the camera stands or moves) and for action (actors' movement) by making shot lists with overhead plot diagrams. The pre-blocking process can make or break your film.

In my last article, The Top 13 Things New Filmmakers Should Think About But Rarely Do, the number 11 tip was "Block or Die." A little dramatic, but I think it’s appropriate. Blocking is crucial indeed. Here are some ways to do it well.

Pre-blocking with overhead floor plans

Pre-blocking with overhead floor plans is one of the simplest but most misunderstood and disregarded parts of the pre-production process. Anyone can sketch the diagrams; you don't have to be an artist to do an overhead plot. I'm living proof of this! I like to do them by hand on graph paper, but there are a lot of drawing apps out there. And whether it's a no-budget, low-budget, or big-budget shoot, pre-blocking and shot lists do not increase your spend by one penny. Good preparation doesn't cost a thing.

The perfect example: Orson Welles

Orson Welles was a master at dynamically staging scenes. Because deconstructing a perfectly choreographed scene is one of the best ways to analyze how blocking for camera and action were utilized, let’s reverse engineer a terrific scene and ask ourselves, "What did Orson do?"

Not unlike a human or animal anatomy class, below is a detailed examination of one scene from Citizen Kane, which enables us to study the structure, position, and interrelation of its various parts—otherwise known as the mise-en-scène. It's broken up to discover how and why these pieces fit together to give audiences an overall experience. We’ll watch this short scene twice; the second time, with my breakdown.

Overhead blocking diagrams and shot lists serve several extremely important purposes:

  1. Communication
    Foremost, they are essential for clear and concise communication between the director and the department heads, as well as for a more efficient shoot, staving off potential time-related disasters that could derail or kill your film.  Many ill-prepared directors have spent valuable shooting time arguing with their DP about what the next shot should be. The DP doesn't want to design your shots. That’s not their job. It's your job. And it allows them the freedom to come up with other ideas and shots that can only make your film better because you'll have the have extra time. Time burns money and there are never enough hours to shoot a lower-budget film. 
  2. Saving  time (and therefore $$)
    The best way to gain more time is to prep with diagrams and shot lists so everyone is on the same page. Sure, you can make a shot list consisting of Master Shot, CU Shot, Reverse CU Shot, Over The Shoulder Shot, Reverse Over The Shoulder Shot, Two Shot, maybe a Dolly Shot or two—and now you're into 20 takes and an entire day’s shooting. That method is archaic and was designed to make filmmaking less like art and more like manufacturing. There is a misconception that preparation is stifling. 
  3. Increasing creativity
    The Overhead Blocking Diagram will allow you to be lean, nimble, innovative, quick to adjust to problems, and open to greater creativity. You will think in more artistic and resourceful ways and cut out unnecessary "coverage" shots. Fewer shots mean more takes for your actors—thus, more creativity. Plus, the cast, crew, and financiers will know who's in charge by seeing how you prepare.  

Think like Orson

Imagine if Welles had shot Citizen Kane with the standard of our day: Master Shot, Shot, and Reverse Shot.  Would we be talking about it? I think not. Be bold, be unique, and be courageous. You will be rewarded.     

Bryan W. Simon is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed director, writer and educator. Bryan directed the big screen adaptation of the Tony® Award winning Broadway play, 'Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!' and the groundbreaking comedy documentary 'I’m No Dummy.' In addition, Bryan directed the celebrated indie feature 'Along For The Ride' and is the Co-Producer of the Seminar Series presented by The American Cinematheque in Hollywood.  

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Your Comment


How many times I told you to not cross the line Orson !!?

November 18, 2016 at 4:05AM

Tiago Carvalhas

I received an email from a filmmaker that wanted a real world example about how pre-blocking worked for some other filmmakers. Here’s what I told her:

I was invited to screenings of two very low budget feature films by first time filmmakers. Very different films, but with identical budgets of just 75 thousand, same size casts, few and simple locations and each had a two-week shoot. One critically acclaimed, a festival darling and widely distributed. The other, atrocious and left for dead, never to see the light of day. Through people I knew that were involved in these two different productions, I got a keen sense of what the biggest mistake the dead-on-arrival film made and one of the greatest reasons the other succeeded. The successful film was pre-blocked with shot lists and prepped meticulously. They had plenty of time to shoot their vision, and with the extra time, added amazing additional shots that the cinematographer suggested. The unsuccessful filmmaker constantly argued with the DP, who felt he was forced to step in because the director was so ill prepared. The director started the blocking process on the set, which not only sucked the life out of the production; it also left no time to shoot everything. Shot selection and design must emanate from the character, which the successful filmmaker accomplished by using the pre-production stage to establish his blocking. This, however, was woefully missing from the unsuccessful film which lacked any consistent vision and was plagued by missed opportunities.

There are many reason’s why a project can end up in the dumpster of filmmaking. There is no doubt that if the film is not prepped properly there is a cascading negative effect that is nearly impossible to overcome.

December 14, 2016 at 10:51AM

Bryan W. Simon