I find staging a scene, the most exhausting part of filmmaking. It seems the easiest but trust me; it is not. I have come across many films where they make the characters merely stand and deliver dialogues. They cover the whole scene blocking the camera at a fixed spot. It is lazy filmmaking, and many do it to get rid of the shoot quickly and hassle-free. Mostly the reason being, the whole day may have been wasted due to some breakdown or the cinematographer felt lighting the set up may be cumbersome. These are just one of the reasons but surely not the way to approach filmmaking.
What is the Role of Staging?
Staging is an essential function of any scene. The whole filmmaking process then works around the placing of the actors or camera. It depends on the story and the motivations of the character which creates drama. Staging is what takes the story forward and is a quiet player in creating audience engagement. It is like a base of a monument, and it is rooted under the scenes which are not comprehended by the audience. It is a tool of how to create magic, to set up the story and play with audience minds. A perfect staging elevates a film subconsciously.
Staging involves the placement of two things and its relation with each other. The first is the staging of actors and the second is the placement of the camera. These may seem easy but can be very challenging if the filmmaker has a cluttered mind.
How to stage a scene?
The film is first staged at the script level. Some scripts give elaborate descriptions of how a scene opens. Some screenplays elucidate details about the movements of the camera as well as the characters in the scene. It more or less gives clarity to the staging. But, some scripts are more verbose than staging details. If you read Quentin Tarantino’s scripts, not much is there concerning staging. As Tarantino writes his films, he need not put them on paper; the film is already in his head.
Staging happens in the Master Shot:
The staging of actors and the placement of the camera is decided on the master shot first. A Master is a shot which covers the whole scene in a single shot. If the scene is very long, the scenes have sub-masters.
The filmmaker first breaks down the scene and figures out his master depending on the location layout, the best angles to capture the drama efficiently and the movement of the characters in that arrangement at the beats of the scene. The film director decides on the character motion as he delivers a line or how he reacts to a line. The movements are smartly planned to lead the audience to where the director wants to take the story.
The camera is the eye of the audience, and they go on a roller coaster ride wherever the camera takes them. The move is just not a typical move, but a well thought out the pathway for the camera to travel and capture the story and the characters in the scene. Hence, the placing of the characters become very crucial so that the audience empathize closely with their arc in the story.
With staging, the whole crew and actors get better clarity of their responsibilities and what you expect of them.
Newbie’s Staging challenges:
When you shoot a movie with budget constraints, staging challenges keep propping up by the minute, and by the end of your film shoot, your head is about to explode. You hit the sack feeling exhausted.You gasp but feel lucky that the day is gone. Then, you suddenly wake up with a start when the alarm rings. You realize that you rarely slept and the next day has started. At the end of such hectic schedules, you are almost a zombie.
Every day brings a new challenge to you. The locations change, the actors change, and the styles vary. As a newbie, what keeps you going is the passion. Every site is a new challenge. There can be movement constraints for the actors, camera and the crew. You have a couple of hours of shooting time, but you need to cover three big scenes. The position of the sun is just not right when you are doing outdoors.The actor comes with a pissed mood. Your assistant has fallen ill, or the production team goofed up on the power supply. The problems pile up in seconds, and then everyone looks at you for the solution. In their eyes, you own a magic wand, and everyone expects you to swing it.
If you are not able to handle it all well, the actor loses trust in you and the crew, demotivated. Your biggest enemy is time. It runs faster than a cheetah. You dread, if you can’t cover this today, the film budget goes for a toss, and your film is an endangered specie.
So, smartly staging a scene is your virtue, and you have to efficiently use your resources keeping all the constraints in mind in no time. You are no more a creative person but a stressed administrator.
For a newbie, it can break the confidence, and many good filmmakers succumb to such pressures and end up making a compromised film.But, if you execute the techniques that delivers a blockbuster scene in the most adverse conditions,you are a rock star. So let’s take some clues from how big blockbusters stage their scenes.
How Big Blockbusters stage their scenes?
Comparing your scene to that of a Hollywood blockbuster is a bit far-fetched. Also, no Hollywood movie has a similar staging scene to another. It is a metaphor I used to raise your standard. If you keep practicing the process, in no time, the most complex process becomes second nature to you.
Here are few things to observe from Hollywood or any other language blockbuster movies about the staging of scenes.
Like the three-act structure, scenes to informally follow that rule. Every film scene has an opening to establish the setup and then the middle where you are in the middle of the drama and the final act to move the story forward. But, the opening of the scene is the most important as it is the first hook to engage the audience.
Observe how the scenes of the movies open? The opening depends on where the film scene is on the timeline. If, it is in the first act. They are more about expositions and setting up of the characters. They tend to open wide or try to establish the milieu of the story, or the lives of the characters. It also introduces the geography of the location and the positions of the actors in the scene.
In the second act, they tend to be crisper as the audience are aware of the setups and the characters. You can enter the scene in the middle of a conversation and also exit before the scene ends. You also have to be aware of the transition that can follow.
The third act the tides change according to the story. They build up tension or enhances the drama, Every approach also depends on the genre.
Keep the Frames Busy:
The hallmark of good movies are their scenes have energy and are very engaging. You see the camera is always on the move, following the characters. The shots are crisp, and the frames are composed perfectly. The subjects are in focus.
The staging of actors is also very crucial. Good Movies show how an actor organically moves or interacts with his co-actors and his environment. The camera always finds the best position to film the mood and the visual. The dramaturgy of the scenes heightens with the subtle placement and movement of actors. The camera moves against the action makes the scene more dynamic.
Multiple Camera Angles:
The blockbusters usually are high on budget, and they cover the scenes through multi-cameras. In a single small film scene, you come across many cuts to keep the energy going. They usually avoid the repetition of shots. Also, with multi-camera shoots, the editing looks seamless as the continuity attained with it is almost error-free.
Enhance the drama:
One must revisit Christopher Nolan’s Batman series where the climax is a payoff time to all the multiple setups he has woven in the screenplay. What is commendable is the interplay of the scenes and the staging of scenes. This technique takes time and needs excellent music too to enhance the drama. The transitions are seamless and fast. You can’t achieve this if you are not good at staging.
Many times, transitions elevate the standards of a film. Citizen Kane is one such significant example. If you can’t plan your scenes well, your movie will not stand out from the ordinary. These are not a complicated process, but a well thought out one. Also, you should go little adventurous on genres like horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Star Wars and James Bond movies used linear wipes which remains etched in your mind. Manoj Night Shyamalan opens his scenes from a black screen. Many of the scenes and their staging can be genre-centric.
Coherent Visual Styling:
Every big Hollywood movie has a distinct visual style of its own. It is thought out during the pre-production, and it carries throughout the film. While staging a scene, you see the coherence of that texture and style in the scenes. The character blend with that visual style in a subtle manner. Many movies use oblique screens if they are comic books adaptations. The staging of those scenes is a lot different than the usual ones as their lensing is different. The most significant challenge some movies undertake is when they decide to cover an entire action sequence in a single shot. Observe films like Birdman, Children of Men, and Hitchcock’s Rope. The whole movie is one continuous shot.
Observe the staging of some memorable scenes. Do a shot breakdown. Reverse engineer the process. Jot down how many camera angles they take to cover and how they shoot the master? Find the above pointers in the scenes and make your notes. Now you have the whole layout of the shoot. You will get a fair idea of the whole process. Now go and replicate that in a test shoot.