Advice for the no-budget film director

If I was asked to give one piece of advice to the no-budget or low-budget film director, or even someone producing a web series, low budget TV – just about anything, what I told them wouldn’t be about performance, wouldn’t be about camera, wouldn’t be about any technical departments: it would be about what I consider the largest barrier to speed and efficiency on set: blocking. You rarely, if ever, see it covered in a making of, and it never seems to be talked about when discussing film making with new and up and coming directors, but it is one of the most vital elements of the production – especially if people are working for free.

What is “blocking”?

Blocking is described as such on Wikipedia: “In theatre, blocking is the precise staging of actors in order to facilitate the performance of a play, ballet or opera.” This basically means setting up exactly where the actors are as they perform. The benefit to everyone is being able to see a performance from beginning to end, whether watching an entire scene or just parts of one. The actors are able to become comfortable in the performance space, camera and lighting can see clearly what will need to be done to capture the scene or sequence, and and changes the DoP may require can easily be integrated into a scene.

Blocking is not just the actors though, as depending on the shot the camera itself may have complex blocking, which can have a domino effect to other departments. If the camera needs to track back through a door into another room as a performer walks in, what lights do we need and what lights may become visible in the move? Where will the soundie stand? Where will the director and other production people be to ensure they aren’t visible? Especially in complex scenes these can be tough challenges to overcome in budget filmmaking where there may not be the luxury of the video village where the director can observe from afar, or internal house sets where walls can simply be pulled away to create room once they’re out of shot (seriously, it’s super cool to watch – I tried to find an example but can’t! Basically the same principle as the Old Spice ads…)

The other important part of it is that not everyone may necessarily be great at visualising a scene. What makes sense movement wise in your head may look congested and unnatural in action. This is why blocking is critical. It also helps kids to feel more confident if you’re shooting with kids (never work with kids or animals!)

In my experience first time directors or young directors either have no idea what blocking is, or don’t place enough value on it. Especially on a low budget production where you may have one or two people trying to run a set with everyone asking questions about every conceivable thing, adding drawn out conversations about actor placement into the mix can make for very long (and trying!) days. Blocking isn’t just great for visualising the movement of the performers, it’s also a perfect opportunity to rehearse, as well as show the crew what’s about to happen so when you say “we’re doing the slap!” all the crew who haven’t read the script aren’t just standing around wondering what you’re talking about. Better yet if you can block scenes ahead of shooting days – taking that time with the actors and the DoP could save literally hours on set. Then its a case of rehearing it a few times while equipment is set up, and then getting rolling.

There are plenty of great resources about blocking online. If you’re planning a film, don’t underestimate the power of people knowing exactly where they’re supposed to be – and definitely don’t underestimate how much time can be saved if you aren’t having “creative differences” in the middle of a shoot whilst trying to figure out where someone will be!

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