The Subtle Art of Blocking a Conversation

'Good Will Hunting'Credit: Miramax Films
The main goal of filmmaking is to make a scene not boring, and that can be hard when two characters are just talking.

Movies are vastly made up of scenes of two characters just talking to one another. It’s why we are always talking about the importance of dialogue at No Film School. Of course, good dialogue is important, but how can you make two people talking visually interesting

Blocking is how you create interesting visuals while two characters talk to each other that would otherwise be very dull. The best way to think about blocking is like choreographing a dance. All of the elements on set should move in perfect harmony with each other. Staging the camera in relation to the movement of the characters in a scene is also important to understand to have clear continuity.

So what is the best way to block a conversation? Let’s break it down!

The triangle method 

The simplest and easiest way to film a dialogue scene is the triangle method. The triangle method looks like this: two characters that are talking to each other are filmed in a wide shot. Then, the camera films one character over the other character's shoulder, and you do the same thing on the other side. Simple, easy, and unfortunately not the most creative. 

Most directors use this method when they are not feeling the most creative or don't know how to cover that specific scene. It is a default way to shoot a conversation. 

Power Dynamics

Typically, there will be one character in the conversation who has more power over another character. The power dynamic can shift throughout the conversation, but there will always be a winner and a loser. I like to think of it as percentages, and the camera angle displays those power percentages. If the character is winning, the camera looks up to them, and if the character is losing, then they are being looked down on. 

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a masterclass at using camera angles to show power dynamics. 

Another way to capture power dynamics is by creating shapes in the frame with the actors. The shapes created in the frame control where the audience is looking. 

Have your actors in motion

A two to three minutes scene of characters talking can get pretty boring. A great rule of thumb to follow is to move your characters every 20 to 30 seconds. The motion doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. It could be the actor standing up and walking to the other side of the room. Not only does the movement show power dynamics between characters, but it also keeps the audience engaged with the scene. Motion keeps the scene interesting and can help drive a story forward if done well. 

When you’re shooting coverage for a scene, it is best to start with a moving master shot, a wide shot that is moving. Once you’ve got your moving master shot, then you go into coverage. Get your medium shots, close-ups, and whatever else you need for the scene to be dynamic and interesting to watch. Shots can be reused and look so different just by blocking the actors effectively. 

You can also do a walk and stop, which has two characters walking, being tracked by the camera until it reaches the end of its track which then the actors stop walking. This same action can be reversed, where the characters are standing still then they begin walking. 

'Back to the Future' Credit: Universal Pictures

Blocking and staging tips to keep in mind

A way to make a conversation between two people interesting is by filming behind the actions. This is actually really great for lighting because the shadow side of the face is usually close to the camera and the entire scene appears to be more dynamic. 

One common mistake that newer filmmakers make is breaking the 180-degree rule. When two characters are talking, draw an imaginary line between them, and try to not cross it.

If you cross that line and film people talking, then it will look like the two characters are not talking to each other when you cut it together. If you can’t split the screen in half and make it look like the characters are talking to each other, then you’ve done something wrong.

Another mistake is stacking actors instead of allowing them to have their own space in a scene. Try to not have the actors standing or sitting halfway behind somebody else. Check out 12 Angry Men if you want to see how to navigate that 180-degree rule with multiple people in a scene without having them overlap one another. 

'The Graduate'Credit: Embassy Pictures

A simple scene can transform once you understand blocking. The blocking process is a meticulous one, but it will help you craft a scene that translates the power dynamic and theme of the conversations between characters. Once you know the rules of blocking, feel free to break them, but only break those rules if it serves the story. Be creative with your blocking. When creativity fails you, then rely on the old reliable triangle method. 

Do you have any tips on blocking that I missed? Let me know in the comments!      

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