Methodology for Blocking Actors

One of the most fundamental tasks of directing is the blocking of actors through space.  It seems relatively straight forward, and can be as simple or elaborate as the director demands.  The word blocking supposedly emerged from the 19th century tradition of theater directors planning and describing the movement and staging of actors with little wooden “blocks” on a model stage.

The term entered into the film vocabulary as theater directors transitioned and found work in the emerging cinematic arts.  The skill set of blocking the camera itself is something which I won’t write about here, today, because it is a topic too broad to begin to approach.

Suffice to say, the blocking of the camera is just as important in cinema as the blocking of the actors, though it is clear that in all texts I have read on the film director’s craft, much attention is given to the challenges of camera blocking, while significantly less attention is given to the more fundamental task of blocking and staging actors in three dimensional space for the two dimensional image.

If staging and blocking simply means the movement or lack of movement in space of an actor, as determined by the director, what is its exact consequence and how can it or should it be employed as a tool?

A Fundamental Approach to Blocking.

I was taught early on in my studies to approach blocking the way that dancers approach the problem of choreography.  It is extraordinarily important to study how movement through space by the human form has a wide range of aesthetic impacts.

The musicality of movement is absolutely essential for the director to make the most of his staging and blocking options.  The human form, in movement, through time, iscutting through space.  Add to this fact that the image is being compressed into a two dimensional form (in film) and you have the difficult task of translating a movement through three dimensional space into its transformed two dimensional quality.  Blocking is the fundamental task of sculpting the visual form of the narrative through movement in space.

I’ve found it very helpful to study choreography, and to learn the names of the great choreographers.  It is ideal to see dance choreography in person in three dimensional space, as it was intended by it’s designers, but when possible recordings of great and innovative works of dance can teach you a surprising amount about what the human form is capable of expressing through movement alone.

So naturally, if you have a dialogue scene between three people, you aren’t going to have one of the stand up and dance his monologue as a means of expression.  In conventional cinema that would be ridiculous.  No, classical narrative cinema is defined by subtleties.

The greatest thing that dance choreography can give you is the necessary perspective to critically examine the movement through space of your actors.  Suddenly, the significance of a head turn, or even a specific type of head turn will become clear to you.  You may realize the strength of having a particular word spoken with an actor’s eyes almost closed.

Micro-sculpting the direction of your actors may kill your performance, so that is not an advisable interpretation of these principles.  There is however the distinct possibility that as directors we may be faced with a performance we know is not working.  It is at that time that blocking can come to our essential aid.  The tool of movement is a fundamental aspect of your craft – one that you must train yourself to comfortably wield with an ease and skillfulness that is demanded of you as a member of t his most precise of pursuits.

What Blocking can mean for your actors.

Most directors are aware of the common adoration many actors have for props.  A rich amount of subtleties and nuances can be explored by the actor with prop in hand.  The principle is this: the work of acting is the externalization of the internal in a naturalistic way.

The same principle applies to blocking.  Movement is a channel through which an actor can attempt to communicate the internal externally.  When a performance isn’t working it can be extremely helpful to give your actors some new channel through which they can attempt to communicate the sincerity and integrity of their performance.

What they never tell you in film school.

Cinematographers study paintings, especially for lighting but also for composition.  This was one of the great learning experiences of my time in film school.  The masters not only understood composition and light, but essentially invented (or discovered) it.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few mentorships by working directors who have been taught more specifically out of the Russian theater traditions, little attention is given to the study of paintings for the purposes of blocking.

Before painting descended into the expressive and beautiful chaos of pure line, texture, and color, the human form was often used as an expression of shape.  The painter relied on placement of figures in order to receive commissions and tell “stories” with their paintings, keeping the patrons pleased, but utilized these figures in unique ways.  The painter recognized what the choreographer also works with – the human form has aesthetically beautiful qualities that can be molded and sculpted.

The painter’s work is of particular importance because the painter confronts the same difficult task that we ourselves must confront.  How do we approach three dimensional movement and compress it into a two dimensional form?

The use of intuition in harmony with principles is ultimately necessary for the final decision on what “feels” and “looks” right.  Some decisions we must consult the guidance of our souls, because though our minds may be articulate – they cannot feel what cannot be touched.

With these fundamental thoughts and principles in play, we can begin to discuss the three methods of blocking most frequently confronted.