Blocking and shooting a scene can be a stressful activity. there are so many choices to make and different things you can do. How do you decide on the camera movement, angles, or just where the actors go?
Well, let's take a beat and look at how one of the greats, Steven Spielberg, does it.
Steven Spielberg, one of the most iconic and successful filmmakers of all time, is known for his masterful storytelling skills and visual prowess. A crucial aspect of this talent is his ability to effectively block a scene, creating a seamless and engaging cinematic experience for the audience.
Here's the thing: we can emulate Spielberg.
We can block scenes like him and explore the techniques and strategies Spielberg employs in his scene-blocking process, and how these methods contribute to his distinct filmmaking style.
So let's dive in together.
Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Seth Rogen, Julia Butters, co-writer/producer Tony Kushner, Keeley Karsten, and Sophia Kopera on the set of 'The Fabelmans'Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
The Importance of Blocking in Filmmaking
Before diving into Spielberg's specific approach, it is essential to understand the significance of blocking in filmmaking.
Blocking refers to the process of determining the movement and positioning of actors and the camera within a scene. This vital step in film production impacts various aspects, including storytelling, pacing, and audience engagement.
So why does blocking actually matter, and what can it deliver?
Effective blocking can heighten the emotional impact of a scene by ensuring that the actors' movements and expressions are appropriately conveyed to the audience. This, in turn, allows the viewers to become more invested in the story and the characters.
Blocking also plays a crucial role in visual storytelling, as it helps establish the spatial relationships between characters and their environment. It can help create visual metaphors, emphasize key plot points, and contribute to the overall narrative structure of the film.
Pacing and Rhythm
Lastly, proper blocking can contribute to the pacing and rhythm of a scene. By carefully planning the movement of both actors and the camera, a filmmaker can control the flow of a scene, ensuring that it unfolds at a suitable pace and maintains the audience's interest.
So how does Spielberg use all of this to his advantage?
'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Steven Spielberg's Approach to Blocking
Every director is going to have their own style when it comes to blocking. So what does Spielberg do that signifies his approach?
Spielberg's unique approach to scene blocking has contributed significantly to his success as a filmmaker. His methods combine both technical mastery and a keen understanding of human emotions and storytelling.
Collaboration with Actors
Spielberg is known for his collaborative approach when working with actors, often giving them the freedom to explore their characters and the scene. This approach allows the actors to contribute their own insights and ideas, resulting in more authentic performances and a greater emotional impact.
Trusting the Actors
One of the hallmarks of Spielberg's blocking process is his trust in the actors' instincts. He often provides them with a general outline of the scene and encourages them to explore different movements and positions. This collaborative process can lead to more natural and organic blocking that enhances the overall impact of the scene.
You can find magic when you open yourself to some improvisation.
In addition to trusting the actors' instincts, Spielberg also promotes improvisation within the scene. By allowing the actors to experiment with different approaches, he can identify the most effective blocking choices that enhance the story and the performances.
Once you know where the actors go, you can start to line up your shots.
Behind the scenes on 'Jaws'Credit: Universal Pictures
Long Takes and Master Shots
Spielberg is known for his use of long takes and master shots, which involve capturing an entire scene in a single, continuous shot. This technique requires meticulous planning and coordination, as both the actors and the camera need to move seamlessly throughout the scene.
The Spielberg Oner
A famous example of Spielberg's long-take technique is the "Spielberg Oner," a term coined by filmmaker Tony Zhou. This refers to a one-take scene that features complex camera movements and blocking, often incorporating several different angles and shots within a single, continuous take.
The Spielberg Oner showcases his mastery of visual storytelling, as it allows him to convey multiple aspects of a scene without resorting to traditional editing techniques.
There's also the Spielberg Face, which is a move into a close-up of someone staring in wonder. We also have the Spielbergian quality of movies in general, allowing us to invest in deep characters and to believe in something bigger than ourselves.
When employing long takes and master shots, Spielberg pays close attention to continuity, ensuring that the actors' movements and positions remain consistent throughout the scene. This attention to detail helps maintain the illusion of reality and contributes to the overall immersive experience of watching a Spielberg film.
Camera Movement and Framing
Spielberg's scene blocking is also characterized by his innovative use of camera movement and framing. He often employs dynamic camera movements, such as tracking shots and dolly shots, to follow the actors and enhance the storytelling.
One of Spielberg's signature camera techniques is the tracking shot, where the camera follows the actors as they move through the scene. This method allows him to maintain a continuous flow of action while also capturing the actors' performances from multiple angles.
If you know where your actors are going with blocking, you can follow them and get natural movements and improve as they go.
Another common Spielberg technique is the dolly shot, which involves moving the camera on a dolly track to follow the action within a scene. This technique can create a sense of depth and dimension, making the scene feel more immersive and engaging for the audience.
Emphasis on Spatial Relationships
Where are the actors in a scene, and how should the audience relate to them? Spielberg is simply the best at anticipating how the audience will react to certain things, and shooting his scenes to get the most out of it.
His blocking often emphasizes the spatial relationships between characters and their environment, using these relationships to enhance the storytelling and emotional impact of a scene.
Foreground and Background Action
One way in which Spielberg achieves this emphasis is by incorporating both foreground and background action within a scene. This approach creates a sense of depth and dimension, making the scene feel more dynamic and engaging.
Spielberg also pays close attention to the proximity between characters, using their physical distance (or lack thereof) to convey their emotional relationships and the dynamics between them. By carefully controlling the spacing between characters, Spielberg can subtly emphasize key aspects of the story and the characters' emotional journeys.
Spielberg behind the scenes on 'The Sugarland Express'Credit: Vintages
Examples of Spielberg's Blocking Techniques
To better understand Spielberg's unique approach to scene blocking, let's examine some specific examples from his films.
Jaws (1975) - The Beach Scene
In the iconic Alex Kitner-beach scene from Spielberg's breakthrough film, Jaws, we see a masterful example of his blocking techniques. The scene features a combination of long takes, tracking shots, and strategic character positioning to build tension and dread as the shark attack unfolds.
The result is a gripping and memorable sequence that showcases Spielberg's ability to engage the audience through expertly crafted blocking.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) - The Bicycle Chase
In this classic scene from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg employs dynamic camera movement and framing to capture the thrilling bicycle chase sequence. Using tracking shots and dolly shots, he follows the action as the young protagonist and his friends race to help E.T. escape from the pursuing authorities.
The result is a visually stunning and emotionally charged sequence that highlights Spielberg's mastery of scene blocking.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) - The Omaha Beach Landing
In the harrowing opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg uses his trademark long takes and master shots to depict the chaos and horror of the Omaha Beach landing during World War II.
The camera follows the soldiers as they navigate the treacherous beach, capturing their desperation and fear in a visceral and immersive manner. This powerful sequence demonstrates Spielberg's ability to use blocking to enhance the emotional impact and storytelling of a scene.
Summing Up How Steven Spielberg Blocks and Shoots a Scene
Steven Spielberg's approach to blocking scenes is a testament to his mastery of filmmaking and his innate understanding of human emotions and storytelling. By collaborating closely with his actors, employing innovative camera techniques, and paying close attention to spatial relationships, Spielberg creates compelling and engaging cinematic experiences that resonate with audiences worldwide.
His distinctive blocking style has not only contributed to his success as a filmmaker but has also inspired countless aspiring directors to explore the limitless possibilities of visual storytelling. As we continue to study and appreciate Spielberg's work, we can gain valuable insights into the art and craft of filmmaking and the power of effective scene blocking.