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Tips for Blocking Dialogue

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/29/2010

Here are some tips for how to arrange actors engaged in dialogue and block the entire scene.

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    Difficulty of Video Blocking

    Blocking can be a difficult concept for those new to narrative film, mainly because it seems difficult enough just to keep them in frame and make it continue to look compelling. This is even made even more difficult with excessive dialogue as this requires more technical attention. There is a specific balance you have to maintain while blocking between the actuality of the story space and the ability for the camera to pick this up accurately. To do this your blocking actually ceases to be built on the physical properties of the real world and is instead on its own rules inside the story space as viewed through the monitor. This sounds more confusing than it is, and once you realize that all the motions you have need to be in the context of how they are shown on the screen while talking you will begin to find it fairly intuitive.

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    Setting Motion Up

    The first thing is you have to think about how you will actually motion the characters. This means how the characters will interact naturally. This is not how they will end up in front of the camera, but it will give you a general idea for how you are going to position the camera. Make sure that the actors have the freedom to work with each other and to keep the physical relationships natural, but begin to place physical limitations on them. This will force them to modify their movements inside the master framing that you are developing.

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    Since you are focusing mainly on blocking their dialogue you will not have to deal with extreme movements, so in this way you may want to consider standard ways that dialogue scene are often framed. The two shot, which is simply both actors in frame at the same time, is standard for two people talking. You can work with this at various level of closeness, but the principle remains the same. Here you can force them to remain somewhat stationary with their body generally faced forward. If there are three people you can try to do a three person line, but this is often unnatural. Instead you can try to triangulate them in front of the camera so they are all at different distances and all visible, even though this may make pulling focus a little more difficult.

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    Those principles are always going to be good for master shots of dialogue, but coverage will be a little different. Since the coverage of dialogue is usually medium shots to extreme close ups of certain people talking with only a hint of the other person you can allow them to accentuate their body language even more. You will not want to cut back to the master in mid motion, but during blocking you can give them slightly more freedom.

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    Planning for Movement

    If you are going to have them move around quite a bit you need to make sure that the dramatic changes in physical location need to be made aware to everyone on the crew. The sound people are either going to have to position the boom operator so that they can follow them or modify the approach with something like a wireless lavalier microphone. Likewise, the camera operator is going to have to remain mobile as well. Every blocking choice you make during heavy dialogue will dramatically affect everything your crew has to do to capture all the audio and video.