Friday, June 14, 2013

Blocking and Storytelling

The term "blocking" means the same thing whether you're talking about film or theater. Basically, the term refers to how the characters move through the scene and how they interact with their environment, including props, furniture and whatever else can be helpful in telling the story.

When blocking is used well--especially in conjunction with good staging (and by staging I mean the placement of the camera)--it can make the difference between a series of events that are merely shown to the audience, or a powerful story that unfolds in an emotional and dramatic fashion.

I still remember exactly when I first realized this. Before I went to CalArts, I tried to see as many "classic" movies as possible to try and learn whatever I could about film making. I would always watch those films with an eye towards asking myself why the film makers made the particular choices that they made. Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" was one of the films I saw during that time, and there was one scene in particular that really turned on a light switch in my head when it came to how blocking could be used as a powerful tool in telling a story and creating drama.

In particular, what I learned while watching the scene was not just how blocking could help tell the story, but how the movements and postures of the characters could help illustrate the "gear shifts" of the scene: in this scene, as the conversation develops, the movements of the actors (as well as the placement of the camera) are used to separate the "phrases" of the conversation into sections to show us when one thought is ending and another is beginning, and to emphasize how the intensity and drama are ratcheting up as the scene proceeds. Through the whole scene, the blocking is used to support the underlying subtext of the script, which is exactly what blocking should do: illustrate the visual meaning of what is happening in the story.

If you haven't seen the film, it's definitely worth checking out. It's extremely well made and there's a lot to be learned from studying the way the film is put together.

I wish I had a clip of the scene that I could post, but I can't find one online anywhere. Instead, I will used some screengrabs that I found at the Hitchcock Wiki. But the techniques that I'm talking about are much more effectively illustrated by watching the film, so see it if you can. This scene takes place about 54 and a half minutes in, depending on which version you're watching (there are at least two different versions of the film that I know of).

In this scene, the Robert Walker character unexpectedly shows up at a party. There's tension in the scene because he's committed a murder with the knowledge of another character at the party (the Farley Granger character). Robert Walker plays a guy who is strange and unpredictable, and the Granger character is afraid that Walker's character will do something to embarrass him and possibly reveal the murderous pact that Walker has thrust Granger into. Also, Patricia Hitchcock is a guest at the party, and she happens to be wearing glasses that are similar to a pair worn by a woman Walker murdered earlier in the film. This will end up having an effect on Walker at the end of the scene.

If this sounds confusing, I apologize...I haven't seen the movie in years and I hope my description is accurate. Anyway, you don't really need to know all that to understand my points. If you want to read a better synopsis (with spoilers), here's the Wikipedia page for the film.

So as Walker mingles at the party, he introduces himself to a federal judge. He asks the judge how he is able to sleep at night, knowing he has sentenced convicted murderers to death.

Granger and Patricia Hitchcock watch Walker from across the room. They're trying to figure out what he's up to.

Walker's odd questions about murderers and the death penalty seem to make the judge uncomfortable and he leaves. But Walker's been overheard by the woman sitting on the sofa to the left and she engages him on the topic of murder.
And so the first "phrase" of their conversation begins. She says (and I'm paraphrasing), "you seem awfully interested in murder". And he answers, "no more than anybody more than you, for example." She laughs and says, "Me? Oh, I'm not interested in murder". And he says, "oh, come now...everyone's interested in murder" as he sits down next to her.
As he transitions from standing to sitting down next to her, we get the first "gear shift". There's a real palpable sense of energy shifting...he sits down and the scene becomes more intimate than it was before, when he was standing and there was a space between them. Also, as Walker sits down, the camera moves down and over to reveal another woman sitting next to the first lady. A great use of camera and composition; I love how the original shot of Walker and the judge felt like a two shot between them...but then the lady on the left spoke and we realized she was there, and it became a two shot between them as the judge left. Walker sitting down to be on her level and the camera shifting to encompass all three of them talking feels fluid and gentle...a soft beginning to contrast the later parts of the scene that get more jarring and dynamic. Also, this flat shot of the three of them facing us in a line is very undramatic. There's no depth, it's symmetrical, and the camera is wide. Those choices make it a flat and undramatic composition. So as the scene goes on, Hitchcock changes things up and gets more depth in the shots. He also starts to place the camera closer and closer to the characters as the scene goes on, so that the intensity can build.
This flat and not very dynamic staging is used because it's the right visual representation for the dialogue that takes place here. It's still the opening, casual phase of the discussion. Walker teases the giggling woman by saying something like, "oh come now, haven't you ever wanted to murder someone? Just for an instant? When you were really angry at your husband, for example?" (again, I'm paraphrasing the dialogue).
She denies it at first but then, as he prods her some more, she just laughs and he takes that as assent that she's thought about killing her husband. Walker gets up and moves over to take a seat across from the ladies as he says, "So, you're going to do a murder. But how? That's the fascinating part..."
The fact that he gets up and crosses to a seat sitting across from the two ladies is the precise moment where I realized how important blocking was when staging a scene, and that as a film maker, blocking is an important tool at your disposal. In real life, there's no earthly reason at all that you'd ever get up and move to a seat across from someone in the middle of the discussion. But it makes total sense here and really adds a lot to the scene and opens up possibilities for more dynamic shots as the scene unfolds. When watching the film, the movement of him changing places really gives a sense that things are starting to get more intense, and works perfectly with the dialogue, which is also getting deeper and more intense. His move separates this new, more intense "phrase" of the conversation from the previous "phrase" of the conversation, which was more casual. And you can see that by moving, he has created a more dynamic shot with more depth than the flat setup of the three of them sitting in a row.

Also, think about the fact that there are two ladies on the sofa, instead of just one. There's no reason for that that comes out of the story. As you'll see, the extra lady (the one on the left) never engages with Walker or has anything to do with the scene. So why not just put the one lady on the sofa?

If that were the case, then you'd be going from basically a two shot (Walker and the judge) to a two shot (Walker and the woman). The addition of a second woman on the sofa allows you to create some variety of shots so you can go from two shot to three shot and back to two shots again as Walker becomes more focused on the primary woman. Also, that progression really helps the scene build and give it a feeling of progression. To go from three shots to two shots to one shots (as the scene does as it goes on) gives a feeling of heightened drama and tension.

Now we can cut to this reverse shot below. Still a three shot, but it's dynamic and has depth. The ladies on either side of Walker gives him weight and makes him the solid center of the composition (this screengrab was missing on the Hitchcock Wiki so I re-used one from a later scene. Same composition though).

A reverse shot featuring the ladies on the couch. Obviously, you couldn't cut to a shot where the back of Walker's head bisected the middle of the frame and the two ladies were on either side of the frame. So this is a nice solution. Notice that it's still a three shot.

As we cut from three shot to three shot, the ladies are coming up with a few different ideas for how they would pull off a murder and get away with it. The tone of the conversation is still pretty light. The ladies clearly haven't given this topic the kind of consideration that he has and he pokes holes in their theories about murder pretty quickly.

Now, the staging goes to another, higher gear as we go from three shots to two shots. The shots are becoming more intimate and have more and more energy. The depth in them gives them a dynamic feel and a good sense of drama. The conversation has become more intense and the shots reflect that. from here on in, the conversation is only between Walker and the first lady he spoke to. Here, she suggests a more detailed, thought out plan for murder that involves driving someone to a secluded spot, killing them and setting fire to the vehicle to destroy the evidence.
Walker is unimpressed with her plan. He points out that you would then have to walk home.

There's a disappointed reaction from her here that was not represented on the Hitchcock Wiki. I'll reuse this screengrab so you can get a sense of how it cuts.

So then Walker makes his pitch for how he would do it (and, as it happens, we've seen him murder someone this way already). He says the hands are the best tools...simple, silent and quick. He offers to show her what he means...

...and asks if he can borrow her neck. She is a little nervous about this proposition, but agrees.
There's another great moment here that isn't quite represented by the screengrabs...but there's actually a pause in the conversation where Walker takes a break and picks up his martini to take a drink. Nothing happens by mistake in a movie so obviously it was a deliberate choice...and it works really well to represent yet another "gear shift" and the pause build anticipation and dread in our minds. We know he's strangled someone already, and we know he's unpredictable and unhinged. Will this lady survive the demonstration? Will the secret between Walker and Granger come out and ruin Granger's life before he can extricate himself from Walker's clutches? As the audience ponders these questions with anticipation and dread, it's the perfect moment to let Walker pause and take a drink. It stretches out the moment of suspense for us. In fact, I think the scene would be much less effective without this particular moment. It creates a nice separation before the final "phrase" of the scene.

As we continue with two shots, Walker places his hands on the lady's neck and tells her to try and cry out. He says, "I'll bet you can't do it". Behind the lady, out of focus and barely noticed by us, Patricia Hitchcock moves into frame, watching Walker and trying to figure out what he's up to.
As Walker wraps his hands around the lady's neck, he looks up and spots Patricia Hitchcock. He is startled, and we cut to his point of view...
...of Patricia Hitchcock, who has glasses that remind Walker of his earlier victim. This is the first shot of a single person since the scene began. So you can see how intensity and drama were built by going from wide three shots, to closer three shots, to two shots, and now to one shots.
The camera pushes in on her face to emphasize the glasses.
Back to a one shot close up, the closest we've had yet, which makes it very intense and dramatic.
Walker is so focused on the girl that he's forgotten his hands are on the neck of the older woman. Presumably, reminded of the moment when he strangled a woman earlier, he closes his hands more than he meant to. Offscreen, the old lady chokes and she begins to struggle. A close up of Walker's hands and her neck follows.
Here are the shots that follow, as Walker passes out, onlookers come to the aid of the older lady and Patricia Hitchcock wonders about the meaning of all that she's witnessed.

I hope my descriptions were clear and that you were able to grasp the overall idea of what I'm trying to say. Seeing the film is very helpful for getting a feel for what Hitchcock is doing and how the shifts of energy work and how they help dramatize the story. I really can't overstate how important blocking can be when you're trying to tell a narrative in a visual way. Audiences look for order and meaning in everything you put on the screen, and when blocking is haphazard--or fights the subtext of the story--it can be detrimental to the scene and the story.

In a future post I will talk about a couple of instances where I have been able to use blocking in order to help fix story problems in scenes that I storyboarded.


tomsaville said...

Great write-up. Makes me want to check out Strangers On A Train again.

Clémence Liberge said...

Very insightful! Looking forward to the next articles. I'm really curious to see in what instances you've used blocking in your storyboards.

Quentin Lebegue said...

So good! This is exactly the kind of stuff that makes me love movies so much. Thanks for sharing!

Norman Rafferty said...

Your essays on this subject matter are always awesome.

Related to this, I found this essay about Moebius, and how his comics found different ways to block the action relying on vanishing points and space:


Super post. I found the link to the scene.
Thank you so much for your insight. Defining and providing tangibles to those principles is absolutely invaluable.

Purna said...

wonderful.. Thank you Mark ..each and every posts of this blog is like a never ending class to me.. so much to learn.

Ben Williams said...

Great post, Mark. I just have two questions about the scene.

Firstly, why can you not cut to a shot where the back of Walker's head bisects the middle of the frame and the two ladies are on either side of the frame? I have seen sort of shot in films before and thought it was acceptable.

Secondly, at the end of this scene Robert Walker and the lady he is strangling cross the 180 line. Why do you think Hitchcock may have done this?

Thanks for the help.

Male Standard said...

I really enjoy your posts!! they are interesting and worth reading!

Nick Bygon said...

I can't wait to read the rest of your posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I like reading your blog and I LOVE Strangers on a Train.

Anyway, your blog has a lot about the different techniques of producing a film, like storytelling and editing, and so I'm wondering if you've read this post about lighting an animated film by Bryan Konietzko and/or if you would like to comment on it. It sounds like something you'd be interested in perusing.

The post:

Mi Li said...

Eyes open,Very useful as usual,thank you very much!

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