As a Hollywood cinematographer, I always have to be on my toes and ready for whatever is going to be thrown at me. At times, it isn’t easy; at times, you have to make it up as you go, but the one thing that has never changed for me over the course of 25 years+ on set is that blocking is an absolute necessity in the puzzle that is filmmaking. Without blocking, we’d be flying blind into the eye of the storm.
Today, I’m going to deconstruct my 3rd feature film, Crazy/Beautiful (2001) directed by John Stockwell. This movie has a special place in my heart, due to John and I sinking as much detail, character emotion, and “blocking” into the film as possible. It essentially was a masterclass and a first-hand look at how important it is to break down a character’s perspective through action in the scene. Since graduating to do multiple features, TV series, commercials, and short films… I’ve always kept in mind what we did on this project!
Blocking a scene is when the director, director of photography, and the script supervisor get together 1-on-1 with the talent to break the scene down into beats. Essentially, we are taking the written action in the script and bringing it to life on location, figuring out shots, and vetting any problem spots along the way. It’s important for this to happen because it creates a foundation for creativity, and a direction in which to guide the rest of the crew.
Some directors don’t like to block the scene and let the actors solve the puzzle themselves, which can work at times! For me, I’ve always found blocking to be beneficial for everyone across the board. It helps you figure out camera placement, light placement, what lens will best emote the scene, where we might run into trouble, and the list goes on!
Originally, in this Crazy/Beautiful scene, we had Nicole Oakley standing at her locker packing her belongings. In the moment, Carlos Nuñez would enter through the doorway and approach her, meeting half way in front of the table.
After watching the first couple of blocking rehearsals, I turned to John Stockwell pitching the idea of her being on her knees and when Carlos comes in, all he would see would be a head over the top of the table. To me, this made her character feel more damaged and vulnerable to the world around her. It created an emotional perspective for Carlos as we establish him surveying the location at first glance. After pitching that, John looked to me said, “I LOVE IT!” and the rest is history…
The first tip with blocking and collaborating with a director is to push the ideas through them. Ultimately, some of them stick and some of them don’t. Be malleable and always, always, always think about the scene first and what’s necessary to get the most out of it. Collaboration is absolutely key in making sure you understand everyone’s perspective to create the best environment to work in.
So let’s break down the philosophy behind this scene and why I believe it worked in terms of blocking!
The first thing you want to ask is: what should the audience feel once they are engaged in the scene? Let’s break this down into shots and compositions. We are going to want to set up the scene in a well-composed wide, establish him entering the room, then cut to his perspective of her behind the table, which finally cuts back to the monstrous wide with Nicole standing up and Carlos meeting her behind the table.
These are our establishing shots in the scene. They put our characters in the location and express their level of emotion. Nicole looks broken and distraught as she kneels behind the table. Carlos moves with compassion, curiosity, and with purpose to find Nicole. He pulls the room into a more intimate setting as he approaches her.
Now, let’s discuss the coverage of when Nicole and Carlos start their dialogue. The second tip is to always meditate on how you want the coverage presented to the audience. There are multiple ways to tell a story in a movie. It depends on the lens choice, format (film or digital), coloring, lighting, and the plethora of other choices we have as filmmakers.…
Narrowing down what you think is essential for the characters and to add to narrative is the most important first step. Let’s consider a few different ways that other filmmakers in the past have covered scenes in a movie:
Stanley Kubrick was always known for what is called “hallway coverage.” He goes by unloading the frame as much as possible and dishes it out to the audience in an unbiased nature. This means that the audience has to become active participants and figure out whether the characters are good, bad, happy, sad, angry, and so forth…
For example, in his 1980 box office hit, The Shining, Stanley Kubrick designed the film to only punch in on the scene when absolutely necessary. He found that close ups should only be used when conveying new information or to emphasize a point, place, or thing. The theory behind this is that too much coverage will lose its value to an audience and when it’s time for a close up to have meaning, it will be rendered as unresponsive. This is absolutely critical in a psychological-horror film like this one!
So, if you (re)watch The Shining, you’ll see that the movie hangs on these wides and mediums. What Kubrick did to keep the film interesting was to employ new tech for the time — the Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown. Applied with his strict style for coverage and married with this new form of the moment, the film created a haunting tableau that weaved through the maze-like Overlook Hotel.
Another distinct style of coverage comes from Steven Soderbergh’s acute sense for establishing and composing in odd angles. Let’s breakdown his Cinemax series, The Knick, for a second.
Throughout his body of work, Soderbergh has done an excellent job of finding new ways to tell stories through unconventional framing/compositions and cinematic execution. Essentially, his approach is similar to Kubrick’s, but he wants to feed the audience the character’s good and bad attributes.
Soderbergh does a great job of putting the audience in the perspective of the characters. Even in the close ups, where we might only see facial expressions, you still have a sense of the world and the action evolving around them. He creates intimacy without isolating the field of vision. He creates perspective where a character might not even be. At times, this view feels omniscient and at other times, it feels deliberate. It’s an interesting concept which you will see implemented by filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Roger Deakins, and Sean Bobbitt. It takes time to understand and nail this approach, but when grasped, it is deadly.
So, back to Crazy/Beautiful… I took the best of both worlds in this film. At the beginning of the scene, I practiced the hallway coverage approach with Nicole and Carlos. I let the action play out completely unloaded through wide shots and unified perspective. Once they met up at the table, I went for the intimacy of the relationship.
My goal was to build up to Carlos’ delivery of “I love you.” This is the pinnacle of the scene and everything before and after revolves around his expression and his/her acceptance to love one another.
For this scene, I felt that the 40mm lens would be absolutely perfect to get coverage on the Over-The-Shoulder. The reason for this decision is that with the 40mm, the audience is going to feel like they are still far enough away, yet close enough to be immersed. It’s such a fragile moment and I wanted those emotions conveyed tenderly.
Before we really dive into the context of the scene and how we plan to break it down, we really need to understand the 180 Degree Rule. In layman’s terms, the rule is to properly shoot A/B coverage on two or more subjects to maintain proper framing and location in the scene.
This is designed so you don’t confuse the audience and also to create a seamless edit point between shots and characters. Once you cross the 180° axis, then you will get shots that can’t be A/B coverage anymore.
In the framing of the shot, you want one subject to be looking camera left and then the other subject looking camera right. This applies whether they are looking at or away from each other in the scene.
Here is an example from Waist Deep and how we utilized breaking the line to create chaos and action in the scene:
If you happen to jump the line, then you could end up with shots that don’t match in the edit and that will displace their location. Now there are times where you’d like breaking that line, crossing that line, and bending the rules! Just because you don’t adhere to it, doesn’t mean you are creating cinematic sin. If you do it, make sure you have a reason why! Maybe it will cause an emotional moment? Surprise and jar the audience? Put emphasis on a moment and make them realize? Get creative and give it a shot.
Now back to why I chose the 40mm and the difference when using a wide vs. a telephoto lens and what it expressed.
A wide angle lens is going to feel a lot different than a telephoto lens. Telephoto distances us from the subject slightly and wide angle pulls us in.
My next tip is to know what you want the audience to pay attention to and stay fixated on. With a lens that is too wide for a scene, it can come off as distracting. Too much can enter into frame and you’ll feed the audience unnecessary information. This can misguide or interrupt your scene, creating an uneven flow. To fix this, you can do one of two things — move in with the camera or change the focal length. Remember that these two options have two different effects on the image!
By moving the camera in, you are going to distort the image a bit. Things at the edge of frame can enlarge and unbalance the composition. On the other end of the spectrum, changing the focal length can compress the image, making a more intimate yet flattering look. It all depends what you are looking for and the mood of the scene. For me — changing the focal length closed in and created that intimate feel that I needed for the scene.
There is a gap that meant a lot of importance to me and the director on this scene. When Carlos says “I love you,” we really wanted that to mean something to the characters and to the audience. When composing the shot, I didn’t want this gap to be too narrow or too wide. I wanted it to fluctuate and be rhythmic with their dialogue and expression. Right when Carlos is about to say it, we are basically at his eyeline waiting for Nicole’s reaction. This creates that emotion that rolls through the scene.
The next thing we have to do is match coverage for Carlos and the best way to do that is the old fashioned way – with a trusty tape measure!
I’ve made it a rule on my sets, whether you are pulling off a monitor, off the barrel, or whatever… You are always going to give me an exact distance from the film plane to the subject’s eyes. This way, when we are doing reverse coverage, we are able to exactly match those shots and finesse them here and there.
These are simple tips and tricks to get the most out of your coverage. It isn’t always easy knowing how to shoot a scene, but here are a few words of encouragement from a director who knows his coverage:
People will say, “There are a million ways to shoot a scene,” but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong. — David Fincher (Dir. Seven, The Social Network, Fight Club)
Now get out there and take a crack at it!
-Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Here’s what we’ve learned:
- Collaboration is key during blocking rehearsals:
- Usually it’s the director, director of photography, and the script supervisor with the actors during blocking rehearsals.
- Remember, by the end of it, you all want to be on the same page. This will cut down confusion on set and will give a plan of attack for the rest of the crew.
- Give suggestions, but remember that at the end of the day, the director will have the final say. That shouldn’t deter you from giving your opinion whether it makes it in or not.
- Make sure that the blocking is comfortable and works well with your talent. Ultimately, they are going to be the ones executing it.
- Breaking down a scene into blocking will translate into your coverage:
- Figuring out the coverage of a scene can sometimes be a daunting task. Make sure you are there to see how the scene breaks down into blocking. From there, plan out your coverage.
- Some things to consider when creating your coverage is to really take in the space, whether you are shooting interiors or exteriors. Think about how you can express the space you are shooting in.
- Figure out the mood of the scene and the purpose of the scene. Do you want to see more or less of your surroundings? Do you want to be more intimate?
- Knowing what lens to use can change the way your story is told to the audience:
- Take time to figure out your lens choice for the scene.
- A lot of times you will be using more than one focal length. Whether you are going to be wide or telephoto — understand that they depict different emotion.
- A wide angle lens is going to feel a lot different than a telephoto lens. Telephoto distances us from the subject slightly and wide angle pulls us in.
- Consider the logistical issues that each lens might cause during the shot. If you are too wide, you can cause the audience to lose focus. Figure out your points of interest in the scene. That way, you can find ways to accentuate them in the “mise en scene.”
- Make sure you understand the “180° Degree Rule” and how it applies to your coverage:
- The rule can sometimes trip you up when you have more than two subjects to cover. Take it slow and figure out the best way to work with the line that is established in the coverage. Remember that you want to be able to shoot the proper coverage for the edit and for it to edit together seamlessly.
- When considering whether to break the rule, think about how it will affect your scene. Will it bring out a new piece of information? Is it to create chaos? It’s always great when you can start bending the rules, but make sure it’s justified.
- Never break rules until you fully understand them. You always want a base to go off of.
- Once you have your blocking down and an idea for what your coverage is going to be, think about ways you might want to move the camera:
- Moving the camera can add life to your scene.
- Figure out what type of emotion you want to convey when moving the camera. Do you want slow intimate dolly moves? Kinetic and aggressive handheld shake? Whimsical, yet ballet-esque MōVI movement? The options can be endless, but figure out what will work best for the scene, even if you decide on a restrictive and claustrophobic locked-off feel.
- Take into consideration what the logistical challenges of each type of movement will be. Dollies can be more demanding with time and crew power – you have to hit your marks, get focus right, and make sure the talent are on the same page. The MōVI can be a bit more freeing, but can be harder for the ACs when pulling focus. These are things you are going to face and learn as you progress in your career. Everything has it’s pros and cons.