Visual Storytelling Basics 1: Blocking
Identify the subtext—the emotional life of your characters—then visualize it through blocking and body language. This is the first step you need to take in your directing. This approach really didn't exist until the 1930s in cinema.
It began in the theater. In 1898, just after the birth of cinema, Konstantin Stanislavski—along with his business partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko—would open the Moscow Art Theater with a production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull (1895) to wide acclaim.
The actors behaved naturally, unlike much of 19th century theater that utilized large gestures and bombastic declaratory performances that were over the top, a style that may have worked well with the melodramas of that time, but would not work with such new plays as Henrick Ibsen's A Doll’s House (1879), August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888), as well as Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1895), among others. You could say that these new naturalistic dramas needed a new style of acting.
In the photograph, below, of The Moscow Art Theater's 1903 production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1903), the actors appear natural, exhibiting a style of acting that expressed everyday behavior. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, novelists, such as Émile Zola, wanted to take the naturalism he was writing in his novels and transport such psychological realism onto the stage—to reflect the author’s observation of society from a “scientific method” approach “in the same way that the science of chemistry is the study of compounds and their properties” (see Zola's “Naturalism on Stage”, 1881).
A photograph from The Moscow Art Theater's production of The Cherry Orchard, expressed a new type of naturalistic acting style. (Photo from: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/an-introduction-to-stanislavski.)
Take a look at Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery, which was released the same year as The Moscow Art Theater's The Cherry Orchard, in 1903. Here are two stills from Porter's film:
In this scene, above, notice the exaggerated pointing of the actor in the middle and hunched over actor on the left, as well as the actor’s head turn on the right. This isn't how people behave in real life—it's like the exaggerated forms of theater performance of the 19th century that Stanislavski turned against. Just compare this image to the photograph from The Cherry Orchard production, above.
It gets even better in this scene. Yes, this is a still from an actor leaping up in the air, and throwing his gun, after he gets shot.
You can watch the film, here:
As a period piece of film history, this is a strong film, but it's not the kind of acting we want to see in films today. What I find compelling is how, in his 1898 staging notes for Chekhov's The Seagull, Stanislavski envisioned natural behavior among his actors in the setting he envisioned. We can discover this in his extensive notes for this production. In Chekhov's play, he writes how Trigórin, a writer, has won the heart of Nina, and she gives him a gift. Trigórin kisses the medallion. He is about to leave and she says that she hopes he will think of her sometimes. Trigórin replies that he will. The dialogue from the play follows, here:
Trigórin: I shall think of you as you were on that lovely day—remember?—a week ago, when you wore that summer frock .... We had a long talk and—there was a white seagull lying on the seat.
Nina (thoughtfully): Yes, a seagull ... (A pause). We can't talk here any more .... Someone's coming. Please, let me have two minutes before you go. Please do ...
So, in translation, this is what Chekhov has written at this moment in the play. But what does it look like? We may not have production photos of what this moment looked like on stage, but we do have Stanislavski's notes of how he wanted it to look like. And this is where the beginning film director and cinematographer can learn some lessons from a master director at the birth of a new form of theatrical acting that would not influence film until the 1930s. In his staging notes at the point where Trigórin tells Nina that he will think of her after he leaves, Stanislavski writes this in the margins:
Another pause. Trigórin resumes his old seat and bends over a little towards Nina. Nina looks up quickly at him in alarm. A pause. "Yes, a seagull," Nina says with a a troubled face.
The blocking notes sets up the emotional good-bye in a visual way, translating Chekhov's dialogue into physical blocking that visualizes the story. It gets more interesting at the pause Chekhov writes after Nina says, "Yes, a seagull." Stanislavski writes:
Another awkward pause. Nina jumps quickly to her feet and is about to leave the room, but Trigórin stops her by catching hold of her left hand. Nina stops without lookin at him (she stands with her back to him, her eyes fixed on the ground). A pause. Trigórin puts her hand gently to his lips. A long kiss. Nina gently frees her hand and walks away quickly. She stops at the stove, tracing something pensively on it with a finger, then she turns round quickly, goes up to Trigórin, finishes her speech rapidly [the "We can't talk here any more" section] without looking at him, and goes out at once. A pause. Trigórin follows her with his eyes and kisses the medallion.
Where Chekhov wrote, "A pause", Stanislavski fills this gap visual storytelling, the physical action, gestures, and body language that says more than the dialogue ever could. It physicalizes the inner life (the subtext) of these two characters in deep psychological turmoil—their feelings for each other.
This is what makes good cinema (as it does good theater). This is the foundation of making a good film. It begins with understanding what a character wants and what they do to get what they want. What gets in their way? How do they overcome that challenge?
Once you know the characters (their emotions, what their feelings are for each other), then you can visualize the blocking—make visible the inner emotional life of characters. The first step in visualizing these emotions include writing down the blocking, body language, and gestures of the characters.
The second step is the cinematographer's job—the composition through lenses (the topic of my next post).
Chekhov's play text, translation, and Stanislavski's notes from:
The Seagull Produced by Stanislavsky. Ed. S.D. Balukhaty. Trans. David Magarshack. Dennis Dobson, LTD, 1952: 214-215.
Kurt Lancaster is a filmmaker who has worked with clients in the United States, Sweden, Turkey, Italy, and Jordan. He is a professor of Creative Media and Film at Northern Arizona University. He has written several books on filmmaking, including DSLR Cinema and Basic Cinematography: A Creative Guide to Visual Storytelling. Kurt earned his PhD in Performance Studies from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.