Blocking is a term that refers to the precise movement and positioning of actors on a stage, or film set, in order to facilitate a dramatic performance. The term is derived from the practice of 19th-century theatre directors who mapped out the staging of a scene on a miniature stage using blocks to represent each one of the actors. With respect to cinema, the term is used to describe the arrangement of actors in the frame. In this context, there is also a need to consider the movement of the camera as part of the blocking process.
In every shot of a movie, there is either a moving camera, or a static camera, or a combination of both. Whether it’s moving or static, one thing remains the same: proper blocking means blocking for the beats.
What is a beat?
A beat is a division within a scene in which the action takes a different turn, the momentum shifts, and one or more characters adapt, or change, to the shift. With respect to directing performance, the end of one beat and the beginning of another marks the moment that the actor must switch tactics in order to continue trying to achieve his or her objective. As a director, you have many tools at your disposal to depict the beats of your film. Blocking is perhaps the most fundamental tool. Your blocking not only physically reflects the beats in the scenes, it should also reflect the subtext of the scene–in other words, the meaning that lies beneath the surface of the physical actions. As opposed to a moving camera, which can emphasize shifts in beats with the camera itself, the static camera relies primarily on the blocking of the actors to delineate the beats and illuminate the subtext.
Michael Haneke is a master of blocking for the static shot, and this skill is on full display in his minimalist thriller “Cache.” On the surface, the movie is about a married couple, George and Anne, who are terrorized by a series of surveillance videotapes left on their front porch. Underneath the surface, there is a secret that lies hidden, a secret that is exposed in the following shot, the impact of which is underscored by the blocking of the actors. Here are the beats:
1.George sits alone in his bedroom in the dark (he even asks his wife, Anne, to shut the lights when she comes in). He is positioned between a pair of windows, crouching down close to the ground.
2. Anne moves into the frame, approaching the window frame right, her figure depicted in silhouette. While she approaches the lit area (the window), her body now appears darker than his. She peeks through the blinds, then turns to her husband and asks, “what happened?” She is attempting to do to him what she just did to the window: to peek inside.
He recounts to her the story of how he just visited his adopted brother and his brother killed himself in front of his eyes. She finally asks him if he called the police; he said he didn’t, that he simply left.
3. Anne crosses the frame, crossing George’s path, and sits down directly across from him on the bed.
She has stopped asking questions and is now starting to tell him what he should do: “You better report it to the police.” When George says that’s what his brother would’ve wanted — for him to call the police and for him to be involved publicly — he stands up.
4. George walks to the window at the left of the frame, turning his back to his wife and bringing his figure into silhouette. He looks like he is hiding something; he’s literally hiding himself. Anne asks: “What did you do to him?”
It’s as if she is accusing her husband of something — that somehow it is his fault.
He tries to deflect the accusation, reminding her that they’ve been terrorized by the cassettes that are being sent to them, and that he thinks his brother is responsible. He is looking for a way out as he looks out the window. When Anne interrupts him, saying: “George.” He stops.
5. George sits back down, where he was sitting originally, as he knows he can’t talk his way around this: he must tell his wife the truth. She knows he is hiding something.
He tells Anne how he manipulated his brother into killing a chicken when they were younger so that his family would get rid of him and put him in a hospital. He sits, hunched, dealing with the guilt surrounding a decision he made as a child that may have led to his brother’s suicide later in life.
6. Anne, sensing the guilt, walks over to George, putting a hand on his shoulder, comforting him -– they are both framed between the two windows, an equal amount of light (however minimal the lighting) on each of them — they are now both aware of the same truth.
Nothing is hidden between them anymore. But the darkness is still there, it lingers — as guilt tends to do.
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, Detour, was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, Don’t Look Back. His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter), is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy.