Because of Mama

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Blocking Your Shots

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Directing the Short Film: Blocking Your Shots

    When you write a screenplay, you have shots in your head. Fade in: you have a visual that you can see, and that you want get to the page. But later these written images need to be translated to the screen. In other words, they need to be translated into certain kinds of shots: wide shots, medium shots, long shots, tracking shots, dolly shots, and so on. (If these terms are unfamiliar to you, please refer to our Film Glossary.)

Maybe the first rule of blocking shots is to:

let the needs of your story determine which shots you will or will not use.

   Don't choose shots in order to prove how slick or innovative you are. At the risk of alienating some of our friends who are Directors of Photography, we need to say here: Impressive camera work is nice, but if your shots don't arise from the story and its needs, the audience knows it, and turns away. The best camera work is the work that the audience doesn't notice. In other words, camera work should always serve story.

    The second rule of blocking shots is to:

trust your instinct and your common sense.

Do you need an establishing shot? Go wide. Do you need to establish a relationship between two people? Use a two-shot. Do you need for a character's feelings to fill the screen? Call for a close up. Do you want to establish a moment's lyrical quality? Use a dolly and don't cut away. Do you want to establish a moment's hectic quality? Use lots of short shots, from different angles, and a lot of cutaways. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine what shots will best serve a moment in your story.

And yet, the third rule of blocking shots is to try to:

avoid the obvious.

   In other words, while instinct and common sense serve you well, you don't want to sequence your shots in ways that are boring or predictable. Think about television soap operas and their overuse of close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots. You don't want your film to look like that! Within the limits of common sense there's still a lot of room to be creative. Use your creativity - but again, use it to serve (not dominate) the story.

    To best manage the blocking of shots, most directors create a storyboard. A storyboard looks like a comic strip of shots. It helps you to see the story: how it's all going to come together, where shots are missing, or where you have unnecessary shots. On the set you may forego your storyboard - you may be hit with inspiration or (more often) with the real limitations of the shoot. When it's late in the day and you're behind in the shooting schedule, it's amazing how the best-planned shots fly out the window.

    Sometimes, it's for the better. One of our favorite shots in Because of Mama was dictated by necessity. The shot is the first one in the concert scene. Slava has fallen asleep back stage, waiting his turn to go on. The director had planned a series of shots, but it was late in the day. He didn't have time to execute his storyboard, and he would lose the location the next day. Accordingly, he had to cram all the information into one shot. In it, we hear, off screen, the sound of polite applause. Another young musician comes off stage and sits down in despair, signaling to us that Slava isn't the only child who is under pressure to perform. The camera pans right, to reveal a sleeping Slava, who looks like an angel, embracing his cello. Ludmilla comes out, and the camera pans up to her. She's frantic, rousing him, reminding him to play with feeling. We pan back down and then follow Slava as he trudges heavily up the stairs with his cello. All this is revealed in one shot, economically, with nice movement, conveying all sorts of information.



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