Blocking Actors with Camera Movement
The first post on this blog talks about Spielberg’s use of multi-point reframing. To expand on that idea, let’s talk about using that technique specifically for blocking actors in a dialogue scene.
To understand the evolution of this method, we need to back up and establish its origin: it comes from the tradition of theater, where multiple things happened on stage and the audience had to choose where to focus their attention. Film directors adapted that idea, preferring to let a scene play out in longer wide shots –– letting the audience choose where to look instead of dictating their view with an edit.
Spielberg explains this technique in the following clip from 22:30 – 23:30:
Spielberg is correct in calling the style "old-fashioned." Giving the audience complete freedom of where to look can quickly become ineffective if the frame stays static and the shot goes on for too long, since viewers may lose patience. Fortunately, Spielberg and other directors were smart enough to evolve the style to incorporate camera movement. This combines the best of both worlds –– longer shot lengths so the audience can still choose where to focus their attention –– and motivated camera movement so the frame changes throughout (which keeps viewers engaged). This style was used frequently in older films, especially in musical numbers. Check out this clip from Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, starting at 18 seconds:
Here's another example, this time from a dialogue scene from Orson Welles's THE TRIAL:
Unfortunately, this formal technique has all but disappeared from modern filmmaking for multiple reasons. Firstly, it's a very difficult skill to execute. It requires extremely precise coordination between the camera operator, focus puller, and actors –– who have to hit blocking marks so specific that it can feel restrictive to their performance. (Spielberg, the most prolific practitioner of this technique, has been criticized by some actors –– particularly Liam Neeson during SCHINDLER’S LIST –– for turning them into “puppets.”)
Consequently, very few directors utilize this skill in movies or television, instead opting for simple cuts or less complex scene architecture. This is also due to decreasing audience attention spans, where the “solution” is to add more cuts:
So where can you find newer examples of the style seen in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE TRIAL?
Interestingly, the answer is to watch television shows from the late 20th century. This era and format of production created a confluence of factors which encouraged frequent use of the technique. Older TV production schedules often moved at a breakneck pace (generally speaking, they’d shoot a 45 minute episode in about 7 days –– that’s half a movie per week). The only way to stay on schedule was to either:
A) execute dozens of camera set-ups per day
B) combine as many camera set-ups as possible into one shot
Option B makes the most logistical sense. When each set-up requires moving lights, cameras, and crew around –– a process that can take an hour or more –– it’s much more efficient to create one evolving master shot that covers as much as possible. It may take longer to set up a massive shot with multiple reframes, but if it knocks out two or three pages in one take, it saves tons of time (and therefore money). Consequently, cinematographers and producers championed this technique as a great way to stay on schedule.
Check out this clip from STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE's second season. This is essentially 7 shots in one, all coordinated precisely by moving the camera and actors around in relation to each other to get a new frame. It moves much faster than the clip from THE TRIAL and also contains more aggressive camera movement:
Here’s a timecode breakdown of all the shots:
:00 – Close-up of wine bottles
:01 – Close-up of Quark’s disapproving reaction, connected with camera tilt-up
:06 – Medium two-shot of Quark and Garak, motivated by blocking change and dolly move
:17 – Medium two-shot of Quark and Bashir, motivated by blocking change and dolly move
:25 – Single medium close-up of Garak, motivated by blocking change
:37 – Medium shot of all three characters, motivated by Bashir sitting down (notice how Quark appears between them now)
:55 – Close-up of Garak, motivated by him leaving his chair
Again, that’s seven (7) separate shots in one set-up! Aside from the logistical efficiency, I’ve always appreciated this skill for the technical detail it requires to execute properly. That being said, I’m sure this was a bit restrictive to the actors. They had to memorize their dialogue AND hit precise tape marks on the floor so they stayed in focus at all times –– as well as move the correct amount in relation to the camera.
It’s way more interesting to use camera movement and blocking to tell the story instead of static shots or plain cuts. The pre-J.J. Abrams STAR TREK shows are full of examples like this, as are other single-camera television productions from the 1980s and 1990s. I encourage you to check them out!