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Thursday, 29 September 2011 15:14

Shot Lists, Blocking and Floor Plans

Written by  Valentina I. Valentini
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shotlist_blocking_clay-liford-by-allison-vIn the world of independent films, creativity is key. Every indie director and cinematographer knows that when you don’t have the budget, you better have the know-how ─ especially when it comes to shot lists, blocking and floor plans.

“Production is a difficult beast ─ even on a good day,” says Robert Ballo, senior lecturer at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Ballo has been teaching cinematography to both graduate and undergraduate USC students for nearly 19 years and has been a producer and cinematographer for 25 years. “With shot lists, it’s a creative give and take as to what each person feels they need in order to cover the scene effectively to tell the story,” explains Ballo. “Personally, I don’t use storyboards or any sort of software to make my shot lists, and I don’t ever tell anyone to either. There are programs out there that you can use, but I don’t find them necessary.”

Ballo makes the point that the reality of shooting a film occurs on the set. It’s about what happens once you get the actors in and the lights on and the crew ready, because what’s on paper doesn’t always end up on film. “It’s about having the shot list ready with probably a little more than you need, and then it’s about being confident and flexible enough to deviate from that,” says Ballo.

shotlist_blocking_jt-mollner-by-john-allen-phillipsFor Clay Liford, an Austin-based indie director and cinematographer, it’s all about collaboration mixed with creativity. “The two people I rely on most are my director of photography and assistant director,” explains Liford, whose films Earthling and Wuss screened at the SXSW Film Festival. “The AD arguably knows the script better than I do by the time we’re shooting.” After the script is locked, he meets with the DP at the location and blocks out every shot.

“Unless there are really big effects involved, I do dialogue-driven shot lists ─ not so much action-based,” says Liford. “I use storyboards only if there are effects that have to be composited in later ─ like if I'm shooting a specific background plate that some CG will be added to in post. I try and stay away from [a] master shot [and] reverse shot and find creative ways to work away from that.”

Like Ballo, Liford believes that being prepared is key. “I usually always know what I need and want going into it,” he adds. “I think it’s a good idea to go into it all with a solid plan, because that gives you room to experiment.”
J.T. Mollner, a Los Angeles-based indie director, sees the benefit of blocking strategies and explains that there seems to be two ways to block. “I’m still learning and growing so I’m not set on one way or the other,” says Mollner. “The first way is to let the actors do their thing in the rehearsal and see where their characters take them. The second way is to block it for them so that we can have the lighting and everything ready. On low-budget films you don’t really have the luxury of the first option, so I have everything ready to go and plug the actors in, like pawns on a chessboard.”

Mollner recently shot Sugartown, a dramatic film about American soldiers lost in the Iraqi desert. This project was particularly challenging when it came to blocking. The production essentially did away with a shot list, since it was planned to have scenes shot all in one take with Cinematographer Gavin Kelly following the soldiers through their actions. “It was all blocking, a sort of improvised dance in a sense,” recalls Mollner. “We took one whole day to rehearse and then did all the shooting the following day.”

shotlist_blocking_bts-from-sugartown-by-crystal-mIt should go without saying that blocking is an essential part of doing a good job in filmmaking. It’s a logistical, technical and creative must-have aspect of the production process, as it helps the actors to get into their roles while allowing the crew to see what’s going to happen — it also allows the operators to place the cameras appropriately.

Shot lists are just as important, but floor plans don’t seem to be necessary for every filmmaker. Of course, every director works differently. “Every now and then you have a complicated scene, maybe with complicated blocking and a lot of [line] crosses and the potential to break the 180-degree axis,” says Liford. “In that situation, having a floor plan, or what I call a top-down, really helps because you can draw lines and see exactly where you can and can’t move and where you can and can’t have the cameras and equipment.”

Mollner admits to not using floor plans and says that he’s talked to some directors who barely make a shot list at all. “For me, I’m really visual and the visual aspect of the film is as important as the actors, says Mollner. “I come from the Scorsese or Kubrick school of filmmaking, where the shots are really a character in the film. I sit down with the script for days or weeks, depending on the length of the script. I go through every line and establish a picture in my head of exactly how I want the film to look after the edit. My shot list consists of very specific camera movements and angles, lenses and descriptions of what I want. I know that once I’ve done my shot list, my job is pretty much done before I get to set, except for working with the actors.”

In independent filmmaking, planning for shot lists, floor plans and blocking in preproduction is essential, as it allows DPs and directors to be well prepared — it also offers filmmakers the chance to take advantage of the creative process that happens on the set. “[Saying] ‘roll camera,’ that’s the easy part,” says Ballo.

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