Definitions: The process of plotting actors’ movements in a scene and corresponding positions and focuses of the camera.
History: English writer and lyricist W.S. Gilbert is credited with introducing blocking for actors when staging comic operas he co-created with composer Arthur Sullivan. Blocking takes its name from blocks of wood Gilbert moved on a miniature stage to plot and demonstrate actor movement. Until the latter half of the 19th Century, actors mainly fashioned their own movements in rehearsal.
The Silent Era
Film added “camera blocking” to the equation. W.S. Gilbert would have appreciated that writers took the lead in blocking films. During the silent era, written “scenarios” provided story lines that were broken down into scenes which described actor movement, including gestures, expressions, posture, etc., and prescribed camera shots, initially long shots, medium shots and close-ups. Once a scenario was greenlit by the producer, it would be presented to the actors, technicians and, if the director was not the producer, the director. However, most silent era producers—e.g., D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille—regarded direction part of the producer’s job description.
The Studio System
Then came sound. The director Louis Morneau opined that sound was invented too soon because filmmakers were just beginning to master storytelling with images. Sound did cause Hollywood initially to revert to its stage blocking roots. However, the rise of the Studio System established direction as the profession responsible for coordinating actor movement with camera blocking. And not surprisingly, many of the actors recruited for “talkies” came from the stage. Unlike the early days of silent filmmaking, whose “stage actors” were burlesque performers disposed to exaggerated facial expressions and gestures, stage actors now came from the “legitimate theater” and were accustomed to taking direction. Meanwhile, camera blocking remained the responsibility of screenwriters throughout the life of the studio system and beyond.
A film actor’s ability to “always hit his/her mark” became a measure of professionalism. A mark was the designated spot to which the actor was to move in order to coordinate with blocking for the camera, boom microphone and lighting. Ingeniously actor Spencer Tracy made a signature mannerism out of approaching the camera pensively looking down, stopping and looking up slowly. Audiences little realized the mannerism enabled Tracey to easily hit his mark.
End of Classic Hollywood
Hollywood film production would begin to change following a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered studios to divest themselves of theater ownership. Studios’ inability to afford contract writers, directors and actors would eventually make free agents of all. And this, among other things, gave rise to auteur theory, i.e., the idea that a film should reflect the director's personal creative vision. In 1950s Europe, auteurs included Federico Fellini, Igmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut. In Hollywood, directors Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Joseph Mankiewicz, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock dominated the decade. All these directors, American and European, doubled as producers. All but Hitchcock were screenwriters. All assumed responsibility for actor and camera blocking. Meanwhile, Hollywood screenwriters qua screenwriters were able to concentrate on the literary side of scripts, which became known as “master scene scripts.”
In a way, storyboarding is film’s version of Gilbert’s blocks. It depicts key shots in the story as a comic book would and includes arrows and/or other notations of actor and camera blocking. It was originated by Walt Disney in the 1928 animation of “Plane Crazy” and was SOP for Disney productions afterward. Filmmakers adopting the storyboard included producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming, and production designer William Menzies, who together storyboarded “Gone with the Wind” (1939). But no director was more committed to storyboarding than Alfred Hitchcock, who hired artists such as Saul Bass and Harold Michelson to create images that blocked films in detail. With the development of digital special effects and digital animation, and the frequent need to integrate each with live actor movement, storyboarding has become a popular tool for blocking.
Hollywood Lexicon Index