Blocking and Matching Coverage (Sample)
- April 17, 2019
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
For this part of our Keyframes focus, I’m going to walk you through an often difficult area – blocking and matching coverage.
This is a sample of one of our most popular lessons so if you like it, you can purchase the whole thing, 20 minute video, articles, diagrams and examples from Blocking and Matching Coverage
As a Hollywood cinematographer, I always have to be on my toes and ready for whatever is going to be thrown at me. At times, it isn’t easy; at times, you have to make it up as you go, but the one thing that has never changed for me over the course of 25 years+ on set is that blocking is an absolute necessity in the puzzle that is filmmaking. Without blocking, we’d be flying blind into the eye of the storm.
Today, I’m going to deconstruct my 3rd feature film, Crazy/Beautiful (2001) directed by John Stockwell. This movie has a special place in my heart, due to John and I sinking as much detail, character emotion, and “blocking” into the film as possible. It essentially was a masterclass and a first-hand look at how important it is to break down a character’s perspective through action in the scene. Since graduating to do multiple features, TV series, commercials, and short films… I’ve always kept in mind what we did on this project!
Blocking a scene is when the director, director of photography, and the script supervisor get together 1-on-1 with the talent to break the scene down into beats. Essentially, we are taking the written action in the script and bringing it to life on location, figuring out shots, and vetting any problem spots along the way. It’s important for this to happen because it creates a foundation for creativity, and a direction in which to guide the rest of the crew.
Some directors don’t like to block the scene and let the actors solve the puzzle themselves, which can work at times! For me, I’ve always found blocking to be beneficial for everyone across the board. It helps you figure out camera placement, light placement, what lens will best emote the scene, where we might run into trouble, and the list goes on!
Originally, in this Crazy/Beautiful scene, we had Nicole Oakley standing at her locker packing her belongings. In the moment, Carlos Nuñez would enter through the doorway and approach her, meeting half way in front of the table.
After watching the first couple of blocking rehearsals, I turned to John Stockwell pitching the idea of her being on her knees and when Carlos comes in, all he would see would be a head over the top of the table. To me, this made her character feel more damaged and vulnerable to the world around her. It created an emotional perspective for Carlos as we establish him surveying the location at first glance. After pitching that, John looked to me said, “I LOVE IT!” and the rest is history…
The first tip with blocking and collaborating with a director is to push the ideas through them. Ultimately, some of them stick and some of them don’t. Be malleable and always, always, always think about the scene first and what’s necessary to get the most out of it. Collaboration is absolutely key in making sure you understand everyone’s perspective to create the best environment to work in.
So let’s break down the philosophy behind this scene and why I believe it worked in terms of blocking!
The first thing you want to ask is: what should the audience feel once they are engaged in the scene? Let’s break this down into shots and compositions. We are going to want to set up the scene in a well-composed wide, establish him entering the room, then cut to his perspective of her behind the table, which finally cuts back to the monstrous wide with Nicole standing up and Carlos meeting her behind the table.
These are our establishing shots in the scene. They put our characters in the location and express their level of emotion. Nicole looks broken and distraught as she kneels behind the table. Carlos moves with compassion, curiosity, and with purpose to find Nicole. He pulls the room into a more intimate setting as he approaches her.
Now, let’s discuss the coverage of when Nicole and Carlos start their dialogue. The second tip is to always meditate on how you want the coverage presented to the audience. There are multiple ways to tell a story in a movie. It depends on the lens choice, format (film or digital), coloring, lighting, and the plethora of other choices we have as filmmakers.…
Narrowing down what you think is essential for the characters and to add to narrative is the most important first step. Let’s consider a few different ways that other filmmakers in the past have covered scenes in a movie:
Stanley Kubrick was always known for what is called “hallway coverage.” He goes by unloading the frame as much as possible and dishes it out to the audience in an unbiased nature. This means that the audience has to become active participants and figure out whether the characters are good, bad, happy, sad, angry, and so forth…
For example, in his 1980 box office hit, The Shining, Stanley Kubrick designed the film to only punch in on the scene when absolutely necessary. He found that close ups should only be used when conveying new information or to emphasize a point, place, or thing. The theory behind this is that too much coverage will lose its value to an audience and when it’s time for a close up to have meaning, it will be rendered as unresponsive. This is absolutely critical in a psychological-horror film like this one!
So, if you (re)watch The Shining, you’ll see that the movie hangs on these wides and mediums. What Kubrick did to keep the film interesting was to employ new tech for the time — the Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown. Applied with his strict style for coverage and married with this new form of the moment, the film created a haunting tableau that weaved through the maze-like Overlook Hotel.
Another distinct style of coverage comes from Steven Soderbergh’s acute sense for establishing and composing in odd angles. Let’s breakdown his Cinemax series, The Knick, for a second.
Throughout his body of work, Soderbergh has done an excellent job of finding new ways to tell stories through unconventional framing/compositions and cinematic execution. Essentially, his approach is similar to Kubrick’s, but he wants to feed the audience the character’s good and bad attributes.
Soderbergh does a great job of putting the audience in the perspective of the characters. Even in the close ups, where we might only see facial expressions, you still have a sense of the world and the action evolving around them. He creates intimacy without isolating the field of vision. He creates perspective where a character might not even be. At times, this view feels omniscient and at other times, it feels deliberate. It’s an interesting concept which you will see implemented by filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Roger Deakins, and Sean Bobbitt. It takes time to understand and nail this approach, but when grasped, it is deadly.
So, back to Crazy/Beautiful… I took the best of both worlds in this film. At the beginning of the scene, I practiced the hallway coverage approach with Nicole and Carlos. I let the action play out completely unloaded through wide shots and unified perspective. Once they met up at the table, I went for the intimacy of the relationship.
My goal was to build up to Carlos’ delivery of “I love you.” This is the pinnacle of the scene and everything before and after revolves around his expression and his/her acceptance to love one another.
For this scene, I felt that the 40mm lens would be absolutely perfect to get coverage on the Over-The-Shoulder. The reason for this decision is that with the 40mm, the audience is going to feel like they are still far enough away, yet close enough to be immersed. It’s such a fragile moment and I wanted those emotions conveyed tenderly.
This has been a sample of Blocking and Matching Coverage – for the full version, including 20 minutes of video coverage where Shane guides you through every aspect of Blocking and Matching Coverage get to the lesson on HurlbutAcademy.com now!