View Full Version : What do you find the hardest when staging your scenes?

Aaron Koolen
04-10-2005, 05:32 PM
Hi everyone. I've been dabbling for a couple of years, mainly in general videography, and have done a couple of informal, non serious shorts. I find the process of directing damned hard and for me staging and blocking is very difficult. Probably cause my repertoire and understanding is very small.

What I tend to find hardest are the "master" shots - the wider ones. Trying to visualise (And shoot) a rather open area with many actors, always to me comes out very static and boring. Guess, what it is, is that I find it hard to stage the start of a scene.

Does anyone have any tips for working out master shots and going about the process of staging? Do you try to get into mids and closeups quickly? Any hints on art direction?

Also, what do you guys find the hardest part about your blocking? Changing screen direction? reverses? 2 person scenes, 3?

Just after some general info, insights, your own problems, whatever.


04-10-2005, 10:51 PM
I find everything difficult.

As it is with art, there are endless opportunities, so how do i choose, and how will i know it's the best...answer: I won't know...so i might as well jump into it and trust my inner sensabilities. Hopefully myself and others will appreciate it.

J.R. Hudson
04-10-2005, 11:49 PM
I agree; my experience this far has been not being planned enoug in pre-production. I'm not experienced enough like some old pro that can just come onto the set and go "Oh yeah; that's it. That's what I'll do."

Im finding I need some extensive planning before hand (storyboards and shot list's) in order for my blocking and staging to to be smooth.

Aaron Koolen
04-11-2005, 01:13 AM
Yeah, that's where I think I'm failing miserably. I tend to do projects quickly, last minute or for some sort of quick turnaround competition - needless to say I'm never really happy with the results. I find the visualisation pretty damned hard to do in my head. Guess that comes with practice... I'm thinking some sort of 3d program might be a handy tool.


04-11-2005, 09:50 AM
I have no intention of doing anything longer than 10 minutes or so for the foreseeable future (and most will be MUCH shorter than that), so what I have done/will continue to do is shoot everything multiple times from the different angles then figure out what I like best in post.

For instance, the next one will be mostly a kid and Mom talking in the kid's bedroom...so I'll film the scene ON SON, then ON MOM, then TWO SHOT. In post I'll decide when to cut from one to the next, which should be Ls and which should be Js, etc.

NOT recommended for longer projects (but it could be done that way...tape is cheap), but for short ones? Why the heck not? At least until I have a firmer grip on DPing/Directing.


04-11-2005, 11:49 AM
I have trouble if I don't do a solid storyboard in preproduction. I just forget things otherwise and have to make due with what I have in post. My memory is really quite bad (sadly). I usually don't have a problem with visualizing the shot I want and how it would cut together with other shots. I'm not very good at coming up with these on the spot though as I like to think about all the different approaches I could take and what effect they might have on the viewing experience. If I don't do enough preproduction work I'm in trouble.

I also tend to have trouble with wide shots. It can be quite hard to get a nice clean, nondistracting wide shot. This is where I have to spend most of my time thinking.

Aaron Koolen
04-11-2005, 12:18 PM
Same here. Wide shots suck and I wonder why? Maybe it's the lack of controlled set that's usually the case with my shorts. I might do some tests, shoot some uncontrolled wides and then redor, this time fixing the set a little and see how it goes.


04-11-2005, 04:31 PM
I forget stuff too. I always get a FULL wide in-case I have a tricky cut later and have to go back. I try and shoot from different angles (low/corner). You don't have to shoot a wide at a right-angle. Just always follow the line of action (who’s talking) cover as much as possible, the actors may get bored but better to have too much in the edit than looking for stuff in the outtakes. Consider your actions and block accordingly (is it fast paced?) bigger movements. Cross the line if your doing handheld. Shake everything up a little. Don’t settle for a boring wide you just want to get away from.

Jim Brennan
04-11-2005, 05:23 PM
Wide shots can be far from boring if they are staged well, and used appropriately. IMHO they are part of what makes a film a "movie" instead of a TV show. Lots of old films did it. Watch movies like the Big Sleep, Gone With the Wind, The Thin Man, ANatomy of a Murder, Rope...it goes on and on.

The current trend is qick cutting, CU, and Med CU, and 2 shots. That's not a bad thing, but if you mix it up a little, and learn how to use a wide shot and a master, they can lend an interesting look that is missing from many current films.

Answering the question though: For me it's having confidence in my creative choices. The only thing that will make that better is better prep, and more experience.

Aaron Koolen
04-11-2005, 05:27 PM
Yeah, you're right there. I'm sure some people can make good wide shots ;)

Regarding prep - you're right on the money. That's always been one thing I've found hard. I am finding, as I enter the whole "filmmaking" thing, that I have to change who I am. I am normally a rush and do it sort of guy - I can't be that if I want to make good stuff. Or if I do want to be that, I need a shitload more experience so I can do it well!

I'm only really now starting to realise the enormity of making a film. How much effort must go into each scene and setup, over and over again, to fill an entire 90 minutes (or more nowadays). That takes a lot of staying power and focus.


04-12-2005, 04:39 AM
I'm thinking some sort of 3d program might be a handy tool.


Lightwave is perfect. Any amount of lights. I intend to use it for massive actions setups in future.

04-12-2005, 11:19 AM
I find "Grammar of the Film Language" by Daniel Arijon an indispensible book for learning how to stage scenes for the camera. He illustrates a myriad of situations with possible camera setups for coverage. I got it more than 12 years ago and I keep going back to it to keep the possibilities for staging fresh in mind. I've never taken it on a shoot (I also never storyboard) but use it to just get me thinking in the right direction. If an actor is tuned in, the blocking is really going to affect his/her performance. I try to see what they'll bring to the space first and then block to support or bend the performance toward what I'm looking for; always trying to keep in mind how I can cover the scene with the camera.

04-12-2005, 11:25 AM
I try and control the blocking. Set's a pace/ guidelines for the actors to submerge.
Mix it up. If the scene's flat switch the blocking to get things back on track.

04-12-2005, 11:40 AM
I am doing pre-production for my first feature and Film Directing Fundamentals : See Your Film Before Shooting by Nicholas Proferes is probably the best book in the subject I've read in the past few months. check it out

04-12-2005, 11:56 AM
If you come with a good idea of what you want you'll definitely save time. I usually have an idea of what I'm looking for but I find that letting the actors free to explore first at the very least makes them feel more connected to the scene. And almost always they will contribute some important element that I haven't imagined on my own. I'll even go as far as trying to make the actor feel like he/she came up with a choice that I want them to do even if they haven't. Somewhat devious I admit, but it makes for a confident actor. And a confident actor turns in a better performance. But this is all a matter of directing style.

04-12-2005, 02:54 PM
If you come with a good idea of what you want you'll definitely save time. I usually have an idea of what I'm looking for but I find that letting the actors free to explore first at the very least makes them feel more connected to the scene. And almost always they will contribute some important element that I haven't imagined on my own. I'll even go as far as trying to make the actor feel like he/she came up with a choice that I want them to do even if they haven't. Somewhat devious I admit, but it makes for a confident actor. And a confident actor turns in a better performance. But this is all a matter of directing style.

Anything to get that performance! I tell them that they shine...joke.

04-23-2005, 11:03 AM
I cant stand storyboarding. I will sit on my bed with my eyes closed for hours though, thinking of the shots, and then the day before i really try to nail it down, then when im on set shooting i do that shot but at least half the time i do something totally different and i end up using that. I need to be there and see it, then i setup the camera and some lights, stage the people, move the lights, move the camear, stage them again and then its good. I guess what im saying is i do it by the good ol' gut feeling.

Erik Olson
04-23-2005, 11:48 AM
I'm having a hard time transitioning into narrative from documentary - and definitely don't want my work to have that handheld, run-'n-gun aesthetic in everything I do.

I have become incredibly flexible and creative in achieving a shot doing adventure-travel acquisition, and, at the same time, developed some very detrimental work habits. When we shoot documentary footage, we tend to take what we can get and rarely stage images unless absolutely necessary. That's forced me to work fast, because the mentality is, "...once it's happened, the moment is over." If you spend time to recreate it, you're likely to lose something else of importance by turning the other way.

Prior to this most current work, I was lucky enough to work on really good looking single-camera film shows like Nash Bridges and a half-dozen features, where I was able to pick up on workflow guidelines and what, minimally, must be captured to tell a story. We never did pick-ups on that show - a testament to the producers and two directors who worked multiple seasons with us. In fact, our DP folded into the director's slot on season 3 - 5 if I recall correctly, with the operator moving into the DP slot to fill his shoes.

What really stuck with me was the amount of time that went into breakdowns, shotlists and storyboards, and how religiously they stuck to them once they were approved. Set-ups were spartan in their acquisition, and often times, we would use tracks, cranes and Steadicam for masters. This isn't necessarily a good rule for a feature with a ten-week principal photography schedule, but it worked well for us.

Bridges was a show with roughly 24 locations per 10-day episode on top of the stage work we did on three permanent sets, I certainly learned how to work fast.

Through this episodic experience, and the consistency in storytelling we achieved, I truly believe the best narrative work follows a strict shooting agenda set forth visually in boards and on a list prepared by the director and DP in conjunction with an experienced editor.

Deviating from your sketches too far might win you a great moment here and there, but the exception more often compromises the greater show and its requirements. I think we all might be concerned that we don't get enough in the can - I worry about this a bit.

At the same time, you should have cut the picture in your mind a dozen times before each shooting day, building-in every cutaway and push and establishing shot. Who's moment is it? Why are we extremely close on our talent, or conversely, shooting a character in isolation from across a crowded room? What am I saying with each shot? How do we unconsciously influence our audience by shooting something in a certain way instead of just "getting it in the can" through heaps of retakes and spent stock?

I think you can read a lot of the direction into your script if you become emotionally tied to the character's feelings and a given scene's situational context - using the camera to simply emphasize what is happening.



04-23-2005, 02:53 PM
Great post Overland. I'm reading composition/ form at the moment are you from the school of unconsciously selecting skeleton content and form or are you consciously aware of such decisions and what about working on Nash, was composition, (to add to the story), discussed much?
I only ask as you seem to think about content on many levels.

Erik Olson
04-23-2005, 04:24 PM

Well, because I've only been on the periphery of directing narrative, I'll just take a shot at that for what it's worth.

Bridges was shot efficiently without apparent regard for rules of coverage. It was more like - what do we need and want to see here? What must be conveyed? How did any one set-up fit into the story, pacing and trademark art direction?

On the matter of how shots were planned, the sides were basically shooting scripts from very early revisions on, with every shot mapped out in courier. Almost no scenes ever ended up on the floor. One to three takes was the rule, five was a blatant exception.

There were guidelines: the paramount order was - no static shots, the camera was kept moving always, whether through a small crane shot, tracking move / dolly or handheld or stabilized or a dutch roll out.


04-23-2005, 05:09 PM
That's great emergency planning for you. It is Television after all with it's time restraints. Covering basic action, shows stylistic elements (glamour springs to mind vs the streets) and always covering your ass in edit (easier cutting with movement) and a solid script that doesn’t require deviation. A good cameraman will enhance/ understand most aspects of thematic composition, even if only subconsciously.
1:3 ratio sounds about right, unless it's a heavy action sequence.
I bet it was great experience working with a tight crew. Very early on I started working with a really conscientious/ creative DP and I love that work ethic.
First and last on set.

04-24-2005, 03:49 AM
As far as blocking and pre-vis, I still think the best exercise is still photography. You can't get the dimention and nuance from a computer program. If you want to learn how to assemble shots get a few people together and have them drink coffee around a table. Grab your Digital Still camera and start taking pictures. Angles and compositions will start apperaing in front of you. Shoot them. Then begin to move your subjects and direct them into other configurations. You will begin to see what works and what dosen't. As well as what you like and what you don't. Also you don't wave to have a crew to do this or a script. Just some friends and a camera. Play with depth of field, play with arragments of one, two or all three people. Try to get inserts of cups, fingers, cigarettes, eyes. Your imagination will start to take over and eventually you will have a clear vision of how you would shoot it in motion. When you look at all these images start to make mental notes as to wich go together. Try to edit in your head and create a photo story board. After that exercise start carrying your sill camera everywhere. When you see a composition you like snap it. Try to figure out what about it works and what doesn't. Then see if you can translate it into a moving shot. You can read for years about Two Ts, Cowboys, MCUs, pushzooms and the like but nothing compares to the act of seeing and capturing images from your own eye. Your vision is what makes you the director.
Develop that and your much closer to your goal.

05-16-2005, 09:20 PM
maybe that's why there's more of an emphasis on cu and ms's now adays, it is difficult to get ws to look good. just watching the (especially first 15 minutes of)
the good, the bad and the ugly the other day, and noticed in most of the
wide shot's leone(?) had the characters disappear, a leg here or there obscured for a
few moments by a bush, 4 charaters walking towards each other in a large expanse,
hidden behind some wagons and then reappearing again, 2 men seen passing at the end of an alley. break it up, that was good to realize, cause somehow i'm
always wanting to make sure the audience can see everything? why? i think i was overly concerned for them, 'oh no, they might miss something'. let them wonder, plus it hides the sometimes bareness of a ws while making it more dynamic.

05-17-2005, 04:22 PM
Recently, I finnished a short Western with 30+ actors. During the shoot, I used the same approuch as Rsbush; payed attention to the shape of action, lines, perspective and things came out great! The trick is to let everyone involved to contribuit, yet not run things.

05-17-2005, 06:45 PM
Staging shots is pretty difficult and the best way to get around this barrier is to rehearse. Rehearsing a scene will give you a sense of how it plays out and when the natural areas for actions and pauses are in the conversation and you can almost block it like a play. Then if one is doing a master, just move the camera so one can see all the actors and action and shoot away. Of course you're probably going to want to go into coverage too, so as a director when the actors are rehearsing the scene, it's probably a good idea to walk around the scene and get a feel for which angles will tell the story the best. Of course you have to juggle the performance aspect as well, and the sound, and the... well you get the point. Directing's tough, guys!