Directing POSTS

Staging for Film

Unlike the theater, we are not staging (also called blocking) for a proscenium, which has the audience outside of it. Nor are we staging for a theater in which the audience surrounds the action in two-, three-, or four-sided arenas or might actually sit on the stage. In each of these cases each member of the audience has but one point of view from a static position. In film, we are staging for an audience that can be anywhere because the camera can be anywhere. Therefore, as you become more visually proficient, you will move toward an integration of staging and camera. Often you will visualize a shot, then stage the action to get it. However, for teaching the craft of staging, i have found it best to keep it as a separate process—just as long as we bear in mind that in film we are staging for the camera!

Staging has eight main functions:

  1. The most obvious job of staging is that it accomplishes the functional and obligatory physical deeds of a scene. In other words, it renders the action, as in, for example, “Jack and Jill go up the hill. . . . Jack falls down. . . Jill comes tumbling after,” or (in Shakespeare’s King Lear) “Lear dies.”
  2. Staging makes physical what is internal. When staging is used in this way, it helps make the psychology of a character more available to the audience. In an overt action scene, or even in an entire action film, there might be very little need for this kind of staging, but the more psychological the scene—the more inside the head of the characters—the more a director will call upon this function of staging.
  3. Staging can indicate the nature of a relationship, and it can do it quickly and economically, as in, for example, a man sits behind a large desk while another man stands in front of it. Coming upon this staging without knowing anything about the two characters, we would very likely assume that the man standing in front of the desk is a subordinate. Now, if we came upon a different staging—a man sits behind a large desk, another man sits on it—we would not so readily assume that the man sitting on the desk is a subordinate. Hitchcock uses this latter staging in Vertigo (1958) to help make us aware that the man behind the big desk in this big office with the big windows is a close friend of Jimmy Stewart’s character. A great deal of backstory is accomplished very quickly by beginning the scene in this manner.
  4. Staging can orient the viewer. It can familiarize us with a location or point out a significant prop. One way of doing this is to stage the action so that our character’s movement in the space reveals the relevant geography of the location. In this way the viewer can be apprised of a window that our character will later jump from or a door that someone will enter, or they can discover a prop that will have a significant bearing on the plot. An example of this is the hypothetical rifle hanging above the mantel, which Chekhov referred to in discussing dramatic craft. In Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away . . . By an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August (1974, Italy), the director introduces the varied geography of a deserted island while keeping the narrative thrust of the story continuing unabated so that the audience receives the expository information (location geography is most often expository information) without realizing it. “Oh, the island has high cliffs, and sand dunes, and look, there’s a tidal pool!” Later, when these various locations are used, this expository information will not get in the way of the drama because the audience has already digested it.
  5. Staging can resolve spatial separation. “Separation” occurs when a character is shot within a frame that does not contain the other characters (or objects) in a scene. To “resolve” this separateness—to define, clarify, or reaffirm for the audience where a character is spatially in relation to another character or object—a shot that places the disparate characters/objects in the same frame is needed. Staging can be used to create this shot as in character a walking into Character B’s frame.

Resolution of spatial separation can also be accomplished with the camera, without a change in staging, by cutting to a two-shot or group-shot that includes character a or b, or a group, or an object. It can also be accomplished with a camera movement; the camera pans from Character A to Character B. Although each character remains in separation, the “linkage” established by the pan will satisfy the audience’s need for spatial clarification.

6. Staging can direct the viewer’s attention. It can make the viewer aware of essential information. Hitchcock uses staging for this purpose in the Vertigo scene. To force us to concentrate on the intricate and essential plot points—facts the audience must be aware of to understand and enjoy the story—Hitchcock does exactly the opposite of what you might expect. Instead of the “expositor” planting himself in close proximity to Stewart, Hitchcock has him begin to roam. In fact, he roams into another room of the very large office suite so that Stewart and the audience are forced to concentrate their attention on what is being said.

7. Staging can punctuate actions. It can be used as an exclamation mark, but it can also be used to formulate a question or to supply a period in the middle of a shot. In Gandhi (1982, Britain/ India), director Richard Attenborough uses staging to emphasize the action contained in Gandhi’s (Ben Kingsley) dialogue during a political meeting among different factions of India’s elite. The meeting takes place in a large living room, and everyone is sitting comfortably in a horseshoe-shaped pattern. A servant enters with a tea service, and Gandhi stands, moves to the servant, and takes the tea service from him. Gandhi proceeds to talk and serve the teacups. The punctuation through staging goes like this:

Political point/teacup served/period

political point/teacup served/period

Political point/teacup served/exclamation mark

8. And of course, staging is used in “picturization”—in helping to create a frame for the camera to render. An example of this is the tableaus of Yasujiro Ozu in Tokyo Story (1953, Japan).

When staging is used to accomplish the functions discussed in points 4 and 5, that staging must be in accordance with points 1 or 2. If they are not, the character’s movement will be arbitrary because it is unmotivated. In film, no one sits, no one stands, no one moves a step, unless they are fulfilling the dictates of the story’s overt action or are making physical that which is internal.

What about using staging to liven up a scene—to get the characters off their duffs? True, it often does liven up a scene to have our characters get up and move around, but only if we can justify the motivation for that movement. The greatest anathema to dramatic tension is arbitrary behavior!

Excerpt from Film Directing Fundamentals: See Your Film Before Shooting by Nicholas Proferes © 2008 Taylor & Francis Group.  All Rights Reserved.

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