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How This Filmmaking Technique Can Improve Your Visual Storytelling

Blocking is an essential part of filmmaking that you can use in your illustrations and comics.

How This Filmmaking Technique Can Improve Your Visual Storytelling

I was familiar with the term “blocking,” but only had a general understanding of it. I never considered applying it in my illustrations.

Recently, while working on my comic, I was struggling to juggle multiple characters in a scene. It resulted in fragmented and disorientated pages. I needed a way to track the movement of each character which led me to learn more about blocking. 

What is blocking?

Blocking is the arrangement and choreographed movement of people and props in a scene.

The term “blocking” derives from the practice of 19th-century theatre directors such as Sir W. S. Gilbert who worked out the position of each character using a model stage and little wooden blocks. [1]

In theatre, blocking is the precise positioning of actors to facilitate the performance of a show.

Somewhere between Sir W. S. Gilbert and Sir A. J. Hitchcock the term was adopted by filmmakers, who considered the movement of the camera as part of the blocking process.

Blocking in comics is less discussed, but countless comic artists have applied this filmmaking technique to enhance their storytelling.

Why is it important?

Blocking is a tool for establishing or changing the significance of a scene. Careful blocking can transform a dull or confusing scene to one with interest and depth. Adding purpose and sub-text to each movement and interaction.

In addition to the subconscious implications it has many practical ones too. In film, it can inform where to position lights and cameras. In comics, it can help track multiple characters in a scene. Making sure details are consistent from panel to panel, retaining continuity and realism.

Now you know what blocking is and why it is important, here are 8 blocking tips to improve your visual storytelling:

Placement

The position of characters in a frame, in a setting or in relation with one another gives the viewer a lot of information before they even register body language, expression or dialogue.

A character placed in the centre of a frame gives them importance and power. Conversely, to indicate a less powerful character, they can be placed on the edges of the frame.

To clarify, I am using “importance” and “power” in relation to the scene, not the wider story. For example, a character could have importance if the current situation directly revolves around them. They could have power if they know something the others don’t.

An elevated character will imply dominance. Be it by standing while others are sitting, or by positioning them on higher terrain. A character looking down on another shows that they have control of the situation.

Adding distance between characters suggests unfamiliarity or even a disagreement, whereas characters closer together signify an understanding.

If you have two characters with opposing views, you can have the other characters stand behind the character that matches their ideology. If you have a group of characters in agreement, all except one, you can visually represent how their opinion disrupts the status-quo by having them walk through the group.

When deciding where to position your characters in a panel, consider the order of dialogue. Placing the character speaking first on the left can avoid awkward balloon placement.

A technique that is used to good effect in films is the match cut. Match cuts keep the focal point and/or motion continuous from shot to shot. It works particularly well in films projected on large screens, as viewers’ eyes can wander around the screen, but it is a useful tool in comics too. For complex scenes, a match cut can quickly guide the viewer to the intended focal point, panel to panel, before any meaning is lost.

Size

Size can change the perceived relationship between characters. It can also indicate a character’s command of a scene.

A small character in the centre of the frame may have importance but will appear powerless. For example, if a character is trapped in a cave with no way out.

A character large in relation to the elements around them, so big they are cropped by the frame, can feel imposing, even menacing.

Two characters the same size signals that they are equals. But you can have them get smaller or larger in relation to each other as their power dynamic shifts. You can control the weight relationship by positioning one closer to the camera.

Camera shots

If you are familiar with film terminology, you would have come across the three main shot sizes: long shot, medium shot, and close-up. The relationship between shots creates a sense of continuous space, emphasises cause and effect, and infers deeper meaning.

A Long shot, also referred to as a wide shot, is typically used to orient the viewer to the general mood and relative placement of subjects in the scene. They are often used for establishing shots and to inform viewers of a change in location.

Medium shots establish a character with their surroundings. Characters are framed from the waist up. It can be used to frame characters that have less power.

In a close-up shot characters are framed from the shoulders up. It brings us into a more intimate relationship with the subject, asking the viewer to pay attention to their expressions or dialogue. Use close-ups for characters in power.

An extreme close-up shot puts the camera right in the face of the character, often cropping out the chin and forehead. This shot is very intimate and invites you to consider what the character is feeling and/or thinking.

Lines

Lines, whether literal or implied, can set a mood, guide the viewer’s eyes, and reinforce body language. 

Literal lines can be the ones painted on a road or the contours of a building. Whereas implied lines can be created by a row of trees or the general directions of their branches.

Vertical lines suggest height and strength. Guiding the viewers upwards to the sky, they are great for giving a sense of grandeur and inspiring awe. When a character’s posture follows a vertical line, it can make them look assertive and unshakeable.

Horizontal lines suggest calmness and stability. A horizontal line feels peaceful. When a character adopts a more horizontal position, it can convey restfulness or submissiveness.

By contrast, diagonal lines suggest instability. They usually make a composition feel unsettled and evoke movement. Diagonals are dynamic and chaotic, making them great for action scenes and scenes of tension.

Consider how your established lines in one panel affect the next, or the page as a whole. You may be able to create a harmonious path guiding the viewer from one focal point to another.

Eyeline

Readers will naturally follow characters’ eyelines, so it’s important to consider their position.

A character looking in the same direction as the visual elements can show determination and focus. A character looking in the opposite direction to all the visual elements can show independence. 

Placing a character’s eyes above the horizon line can show dominance, especially when looking downwards on a character. Placing a character’s eyes underneath the horizon line will have a diminishing effect.

A good way to indicate a character’s lack of power in a scene, is to position all the other character’s eyes higher.

Keep your characters busy

Nothing is duller than two characters just talking to one another. A back and forth of head shot after head shot. Give your characters something else to do. They could be cooking, stroking a cat, looking for a file. Keeping your characters busy will break up the monotony of dialogue-heavy scenes.

Their actions can also be used to signal a gear change in a scene. It can be as obvious as standing up in an attempt to show power or sitting down to concede. It can be as subtle as closing a book. The insert will subconsciously signal to the viewer that something has changed.

When a character is walking, consider the direction they are going. When a character moves from left to right it is perceived as positive and things are going well. When a character moves from right to left it is perceived as things are difficult.

Any action in a scene should progress the same direction for momentum and clarity, unless to imply a dramatic turn.

Crossing the line

There’s a famous rule in filmmaking called the 180-degree rule, which helps the audience keep track of where the characters are in a scene. When you have two characters, or a character and object, the rule dictates that you draw an invisible straight line between them. The camera is positioned on one side of the line and within a corresponding 180-degree working space. The camera cannot cross the line.

180-degree rule

Following this rule ensures that characters are looking at each other when cutting between shots, as opposed to both facing the same direction, looking into the abyss. 

When dealing with multiple characters in a shot, think of them as if they are on a stage. Draw the invisible line somewhere in front of all the characters. 

In film, there are multiple techniques to move the line, but most of them involve following the movement of a character, which is difficult to emulate in comics. The best way to move the line in comics is to use a bridge shot (also known as a cutaway or neutral shot). For example, you can interrupt a conversation with a shot of a door opening. Then, a new line could be drawn from the door to the two characters.

You can however choose to break the 180-degree rule for effect. Breaking the rule can add an element of disorientation for the viewer, which may be what the scene requires.

Tools

Now you know the importance of blocking, moving your characters through a scene and camera positions, you may be asking yourself, how are you supposed to keep track of all that?

There are a few easy ways. The first harkens back to Sir W. S. Gilbert and his wooden blocks. Draw, or build, a small stage and use blocks, or figures, or salt and pepper shakers to represent your characters.

The second option is to draw a floorplan of the setting and mark on the floorplan where your characters and camera will be positioned and the path they may make.

My last suggestion is to use 3D tools. There are many good ones out there, some for free. I found Magic Poser Web to have an easy learning curve.  Position your characters, pose them, move the camera and take a screenshot.

Wrapping up

For the most part, blocking in comics shares many principles of composition but with a layer of visual language learnt from years of watching films and shows. The practice of blocking has changed how I approach drawing comics. Instead of working out the best composition per panel, I look at the scene as a whole. I imagine the cameras following my characters on a set, each panel is a single frame, and I choose the best shot to tell the story.

I hope you found these tips useful. I have included some further reading if you want to learn more about blocking. Let us know in the comment section if you use blocking in your work and if you have any more blocking tips.

References

  1. “ILLUSTRATED INTERVIEWS, No. IV. MR. W. S. GILBERT” https://gsarchive.net/

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