Visual storytelling is one of the main reasons film exists, so why not use it to its full potential?
There are almost infinite amounts of ways to tell a story. Each shot is an opportunity to tell that story with a richness that lies just below the surface. This subtext can be created by combining camera placement, movement, and the act of looking to show and tell the audience what they need to know.
Although there are endless ways to tell a story, most directors default to standard coverage, making most movies look the same while saying very little. Blocking and staging can increase the cinematic energy and convey a deeper meaning visually. When these two elements work in harmony, the scene can be rich with subtext.
Steven Spielberg—Minority Report
In the scene when John Anderton (Tom Cruise) and Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) first meet in Spielberg’s Minority Report, the camera starts with a close-up shot of the wooden pre-crime ball. Fletcher (Neal McDonough) explains how the technology works, acting as a quick exposition dump for the audience. Then, Witwer brings up the ethical conundrums that face the pre-crime initiative, asking if it is right to arrest someone who would commit a crime before they’ve committed it.
The staging changes once the ethical question is asked. The physical positions of the characters represent their personal beliefs—those who believe in the technology on one side, and those who find faults in it on the other. John Anderton walks in the room, stating his belief in predetermination, clearly putting him on the side with those who believe in pre-crime technology.
Spielberg cuts to the next shot, placing the camera behind Fletcher with Anderton and Witwer on either side of him. This neutral shot shows the audience that both characters are equally matched, forcing the audience to pick a side.
Anderton takes over the scene, proving his theory of predetermination to Witwer before taking a seat. He is comfortable with his beliefs and takes charge of the moment with this subtle power shift. Then, Witwer takes over, stealing the comfort Anderton casually claimed by stating that he has a warrant.
Spielberg was able to change the meaning behind the blocking through dialogue and body language. The dialogue shows who has the high ground, but the camera placement is constantly neutral, only changing to highlight a character’s control over the room.
Stanley Kubrick—A Clockwork Orange
Kubrick is a master at creating subtext in his work. This could be credited to his time as a photographer, creating compositions that tell an entire story without changing.
His approach to filmmaking is similar. Each frame tells a full story within the larger story at play. Staging becomes critical to Kubrick’s work, and we can see that in a simple scene in A Clockwork Orange when Georgie (James Marcus) tries to become the alpha of the Droogs.
At the start of the scene, the Droogs are sitting in a triangle, only breaking their shape once Alex (Malcolm McDowell) comes down the stairs. The members all look up, directing the audience to follow their gaze and look at Alex as well. The lines also created by the stairs, shadows, body placement, and Alex’s cane also frame Alex as the main character in the scene.
The first cut of the scenes happens as Georgie walks over to Dim (Warren Clarke), introducing his shadow before his body walks into frame. Georgie leans in, and his shadow’s mouth stops right at a crude drawing, showcasing his lack of awareness. Staging Georgie and Dim together tells us where allegiances lie within the gang.
When we cut to a new wide shot, the pointed end of Alex’s can is aimed at Dim, creating tension and a point for the audience to focus.
Everything in this scene is at work: the shadows, lines, the jockstraps, the cane, and the shapes support the scene’s mood and character’s personalities.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu—Birdman
Birdman is full of oners, or long takes. They are masterful at building a scene up to the moment that shifts or moves the story forward. Oners are like a dance. The scene has to be perfect, and the actors must know their choreography before the camera hits record. Iñárritu shows us how to change the composition within the shot without cutting.
In this scene where Sam (Emma Stone) takes Mike (Edward Norton) to the costume designer’s story, a mirror is placed in front of Mike to extend the audience's view of the room. Mike stands in front of the mirror, gawking at himself, while Sam stands in the background, almost blending in with her surroundings. In another part of the frame, Lesley (Naomi Watts) comes in talking about her busy schedule while not fully observing the world around her.
Iñárritu always keeps the mirror in focus, letting the audience know that Sam is still in the room even if she is mentally somewhere else. As Lesley begins to talk poorly about Sam, the camera shifts into her perspective, moving further away from the mirror which forces Sam to become invisible in the frame. The camera stays with Lesley for one reason: her reaction.
The expression on Lesley’s face was always the end goal of the scene. Her reaction gives the biggest payoff in the end, and Iñárritu knew this is where the owner needed to go. The oner doesn’t give anyone space to breathe or recognize what is happening at the moment until the next cut. The blocking and staging of the set design and characters helped aid in the big reaction that propels the story and character dynamics forward.
These examples show you how to create a richer storytelling experience in a medium that is like no other. Films allow filmmakers to create feelings within the frame rather than telling the audience through dialogue or narration. Blocking and staging around tools to creative and innovative filmmaking that is often taken for granted.
Spielberg, Kubrick, and Iñárritu show us that blocking and staging can represent a power shift, guide the audience with lines and shapes, and create an impactful reaction shot by changing the composition within an oner. There are many other ways to build up the theme or mood through the camera, you just have to be bold enough to try something unconventional.
What is your favorite example of blocking and staging used to elevate a story? Let us know in the comments!