Hello readers! Ladies, gentlemen, highly intelligent animals, join me as we enter the mind of a man by the name of Reginald Rose, a screenwriter working in good ole’ Hollywood over half a century ago. You’ve just written a screenplay you’re feeling prettaaay good about by the name of “A Dozen Furious Males” which, after some thought, you’ve decided to rename as “12 Angry Men,” about 12 jurors trapped in claustrophobic, tense, frustrating deliberation over the fate of a boy on trial for murder. About 95% of it takes place in the jury room, and you, being Reggie, are pretty proud of the snappy dialogue you’ve rocked to keep the action moving.
But you’re starting to lose a little confidence in yourself. Are people going to be able to sit there and actually … care for an hour and a half? While these jury bros stay in the same place for almost the entire time?! It sounds like absolute cinematic limbo fit for the likes of only the most sinful of viewers. Even with this guy who’s supposed to direct it, this Sidney Lumet guy, it just sounds … boring.
But there’s a simple solution; have the actors … move. Better yet, have them move and have those movements actually mean something.
This is the nature of blocking, or the staging of actors in production. It’s another facet of filming, like color and framing, that goes underappreciated, but has a huge impact on our understanding of the story we’re watching, as well as the characters in it thanks. This is thanks to some of the cornerstones of blocking, such as actor positioning, movement, and body language.
Now You’re Talking My Language: Body Language
This is one that we all know about, but again, may go unnoticed when we’re actually watching something. Think of that classic image of little Charles Brown as he mopes his way through … Peanutville (Does anyone actually know where they live? Is it in our reality? Who knows?). It is the very epitome of sadness, like pure sadness distilled and projected onto a screen. The music that accompanies it helps, but if Charlie was standing up straight and just strolling, chest out, and that music was playing, it simply wouldn’t be as effective as seeing him in full tilt mope-age, shoulders slouched, head hanging. His body language elevates the scene to a level of despair unbeknownst to the visual media prior to.
In a bit of a more practical scenario, check out this shot from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” (We may hear a lot more about Spielberg, the man is the absolute king of blocking, despite my opinion on the quality of his movies, but I digress). This shot takes place right after the titular BAMF president has just torn into his subjects in what is a truly awesome scene thanks to some rarely seen great acting from Daniel Day-Lewis. Anyway, the scene is still smoldering from Lincoln’s verbal lashing, and you can tell something just went down based on their body language alone. Lincoln is standing tall and proud; the two men seated at the table avert their eyes, as if just scolded, which they were; and while the other two men standing in the scene are a bit harder to read, even the smallest subtleties betray their emotions, as one has his hands clasped in front of him (very non-confrontational) and the other is clutching the chair, one can imagine for support. It’s all subtle stuff, but key to good direction in a production.
I Like to Move It, Move It: Movement
Let’s compare a couple of scenes, continuing with our theme of scolding carrying from our “Lincoln” scenario. The first is from Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” which features some pretty awesome acting as Denzel’s character, a … complete monster, tears into his son after he asks if his father likes him. Warrants a verbal assault, right? The audacity!
The following scene is from my favorite movie evaaa, “There Will Be Blood,” which ends in a rather epic scolding itself as depraved oilman Daniel Plainview belittles his nemesis, the weaselly Eli Sunday, and threatens to take an unauthorized sip of Eli’s proverbial beverage.
Which scene worked better? I’ll admit, they both feature some phenomenal acting, but while Denzel’s scene is fairly well praised, the scene from “There Will Be Blood” has praise that is outright laudatory, and while the writing certainly helps, the blocking helps as well as director Paul Thomas Anderson utilizes the concept of movement very well.
In the scene from “Fences,” there’s little to no movement. It’s still tense, for sure, but that’s mostly due to Denzel’s acting. Besides that though, the scene is very static. Then you have “There Will be Blood.” It’s not like Daniel is running around in circles or doing jumping jacks or anything, but he does enough to spice the scene up. He pokes, prods, even shoves Eli a little. He sort of sways when he speaks, creating some suspense as he almost seems like an animal itching to pounce on his prey. He even goes for a stroll to further mock Eli. All of it works beautifully to create a tense confrontation leading to an explosion of violence. It simply wouldn’t have worked as well if Daniel and Eli were pulling a “Fences” and standing across from one another talking.
Movement in blocking is especially helpful when dealing with groups of people as well. We talked about “12 Angry Men” already, which benefits greatly from its twelve characters constantly moving, whether their outright pacing or just scratching their faces, whatever; movement makes the scene more interesting.
Check out this scene from, ugh, “Jaws” (#overrated #comeatme) from Steven Spielberg. This scene could have been pretty vanilla if everyone in the town hall meeting just sat there completely still and hooted and hollered about their various gripes. But Spielberg’s got everybody moving, and it works beautifully, making both the frame more active to our eyes and creating a sense of chaos. It also works beautifully in contrast to when Quint begins to speak, as everyone suddenly screeches to a halt, further emphasizing the importance of what it is that Quint is saying. Quint also steadily dominates the frame from the rabble of disgruntled denizens, which is an excellent example of our next concept.
This Is The Remix to Position, Hot and Fresh Out the Kitchen: Actor Positioning
Let’s harken back, as much as it PAINS me to do so, to the aforementioned scene from “There Will Be Blood.” Besides the body movement that we talked about that elevates the blocking of the scene, there’s another form of blocking that does so as well -- actor positioning. Look at how little baby Eli his slouching over, averting his eyes from Daniel, while Daniel looms over him, leaning forward. It ties into that whole predatory thing that we spoke about before in the scene, where Daniel is absolutely relishing the opportunity to quite literally lord himself over Eli.
This is a technique that is used often in production, where certain characters may be meant to look small and weak, while others are meant to look powerful and mighty. With this aspect of blocking you can show the relationship between two characters without having them say one word.
Look at this shot from the indie cult classic, “Iron Man.” In this shot, Robert Downey Jr.’s character Tony Stark (look, I know barely any of you have seen the Marvel movies, but bear with me here) has just been captured by terrorists, and he’s dwarfed in the scene by his ominous hostage takers. He’s still centralized, so we realize he’s the most important character in the scene, but his positioning in the scene renders almost completely powerless.
The same can be said for this sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” No, I won’t ask you to watch the entire video, you impatient monsters, but I will summarize it. The scene is basically one man asking a retired detective, Jimmy Stewart, to take on a case for him. The scene is Blocking 101 because of the shifting power dynamics that occur in it; at one point the detective is in power, standing over the man while the interview occurs. But at one point the man is in power, at one point not only standing over the detective as he sits but standing in a raised room nonetheless, as if he is literally putting on a show (which, we find out later, he actually is, as he’s lying out of his posterior).
But perhaps one of the best scenes we can see this with is from a movie I know I talk a lot about, I know, being “Citizen Kane.” But there’s a reason many believe it to be one of the best movies of all time; the film checks all the boxes of incredible production.
Watch this clip from the film below, one that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, where Charles Foster Kane’s parents prepare to essentially give their son away to a banker. From the onset this scene is an incredible example of blocking, another scene where you can mute it and understand the dynamics of the family.
Kane’s mother is dominating the frame early and later in the scene, showing that she is the judge and jury in the scene and in full control. Kane’s father, meanwhile, is always pushed to the side of the frame or behind his wife, showing that he simply has no control whatsoever in the situation and is a virtual non-factor. Little Kane himself is just playing in the background, but sometimes just disappears, and appropriately so, as he seems to be barely anything to the adults as opposed to an actual person. All of this achieved by just moving the actors around in a specific way. These folks could have just been standing in the middle of the room for two minutes, but instead Welles chose to tell a story via blocking in their motion, body language, and positioning. This is the difference between a great production and an aight production, folks.
And that’s it for this week’s blog boys and girls! If you enjoyed what you wrote check out our website for the rest of our blogs! But if you enjoy watching people stand completely motionless and speak in productions, this may not have been the blog for you, and for that, my sincerest of apologies.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you kids next week!