Making Blocking Decisions

One of the biggest questions I have seen asked on 360 video, second to editing, is blocking. Where do we put the actors in relation to the camera? How far away should everyone be? I provide, in this section, a breakdown of different elements that contribute to blocking and how they effect 360 videos. Then I will explain how these ideas can be turned into a system for making decisions during a shoot. I consider it a solid starting point for planning scenes, as well as a useful tool for understanding why a shot may or may not be working, blocking-wise.

First...

Old Rules Still Apply

Many blocking decisions, from theater to film to video games, stem from the characters physical relationship with each other, as well as the camera. Choices that are independent of the camera (or stage, or scenery, etc) are reasonably universal. One character leading the other through a scene to demonstrate a power dynamic, for example. 360 Video blocking shares many similarities with non-spherical video, and thinking about the 2 dimensional framed representation of a 3-dimensional space is - of course - the same.

Production Limitations

First, we must consider production and technical limitations. 360 cameras all have a minimum working distance, and many will have stitching artifacts at certain parts of the frame. When blocking a scene, aim to avoid entering these sections of the frame; only move across it quickly.

Next, consider your maximum working distance - around 15 feet for the Google Jump camera [[Naimark Tests]]. Varying by camera resolution, how far away is someone recognizable? Also, consider best-case playback resolution. Even if you deliver a massive image to a phone, it may end up being downgraded that due to streaming bandwidth or a device's native resolution.

Each camera has a sweet spot, where one is far enough away to avoid invading the viewer's perceived personal space and to stay in focus, but not so far to be too difficult to see.

Identify Constraints Around The Frame.

Are there places around the frame the characters cannot go? Is this for visually obvious reasons (the camera is against a wall, half the frame is inaccessible), visually non-obvious reasons (this area is dark and not important) or for narrative purposes (there is danger over there).

Diagram of camera near a wall

Establishing constraints is an easy way to influence blocking. The camera's position affects what positions are available. If one is having trouble coming to a sensible blocking arrangement, moving the camera may be effective. If a scene is too spread and unreadable with the camera in the center, for example, then putting the camera at the edge of the group may be an effective way to re-frame the actors. To justify this move, one could put the camera near a wall, or another large physical (or just visual) obstructions. Walls are not the only option, one could put the camera near the edge of a bridge or cliff, or place a camera next to an interesting - but static - object like a pillar, statue, car, or whatever is appropriate for the scene can direct attention while simultaneously establishing a bit of atmosphere. The goal is to direct audience attention away from an element.

Screenshot from A Ballerina’s Endless Day | The Daily 360 | The New York Times

Spacing

How characters are spaced around a scene, and their relative distances to each other, says a lot about the relationships that these characters have with each other. Essentially, the same psychology that applies to human body language is stretched around the 360 image. One good guy being interrogated by 3 intimidating bad guys? Place those bad guys together, facing one direction, and the lone good guy facing the other way, spaced apart from them. The fact that these characters are aligned in their motivations/purpose is clear.

360 video has its own concerns on top of standard group body language. The simple version is that because the audience can only rotate, the angular position around the frame is a significant factor to perceived distance. Even if two characters are physically close, if the audience has to move the frame around to see the other character, then that character is much "further" than a character the same physical distance away, but visible in the frame.

The first is if 2 characters can be seen in a frame at the same time. The audience can't emotionally connect two characters if they can't see both of them at the same time. Separating, likewise, is an effective way to communicate that two characters do not share motivations or a strong connection. This blocking arrangement can be subverted, such as with two star-crossed lovers whose families prevent them from being with each other, and the frame supports that feeling of separation, as the audience cannot see them together.

Two characters spaced further than the field of view The field of view is green, the two characters - circles - are spaced such that they can't appear in a single field of view.

Another 360-specific consideration is that there is no left and right edge of a frame. A character can't lurk in the corner of the frame, so many film uses of framing are useless here. The underlying ideas, however, can still be accessed. Instead of thinking about placing a weak character at the bottom of a frame, think about using the audiences motion. The character is still low, low enough that the audience has to look down on them to see their whole person, or look over to catch the character who is distant. If a shifty character is trying to distance themselves from other characters, moving back in a frame may not be as effective as moving around the frame - as the audience now has to keep an eye on them, just like the actors.

The audience has to do work to check in on this other character The audience has to do work to check in on this other character.

A character being captured or intimidated by henchmen can be enclosed on from the left and the right by the henchmen. The henchman can sweep around the camera, and continue to shrink the navigable space in the 360 frame that the character has access to, as that character loses hope. The amount of space that the audience has available between the henchmen shrinks, as do the options that the character has. In other words, the audience's freedom to look around the frame, around the character, represented that character's freedom of motion. Have three bodyguards stand around the camera, literally blocking out the visual space from the audience? They trap the character! The audience is still free to look around, but the obstacle - the henchmen - are blocking the character from the rest of the frame. Now the characters are all visible in one frame, and the scene is confined to a small segment of usable space - just like the main character.

These characters enclose on a third. The characters sweep past the camera, shrinking down the field of view which matters, directing the audience towards the character, and trapping the character in the "smaller" space.

There are many such examples, but the important thing to remember is to give up traditional notions of framing and find the appropriate parallel in terms of audience head movement. A caveat, however, is that audiences need reasons - character motivated, plot-significant, story-servicing reasons - to go through the effort of moving their head. These motions shouldn't be used just for their own sake, but always to help service the story at hand.

To dissect the spacing between two characters, first determine which category they fall into:

  1. Touching or visually overlapped
  2. Visible in frame, near
  3. Visible in frame, far
  4. Not visible in frame, near - just out of view
  5. Not visible in frame, far - significant effort/orientation adjustment to view both characters.

Different Spacing Distances It's also worth noting that the closer two characters are to each other, the more significant any change in distance is perceived as.

The amount of connection communicated is directly related to their distance, but it's important to note the jump that happens once two characters aren't visible in a frame (group 3 and 4). The impact is significant when the audience has to work to perceive both characters; when they are forced to make a decision about which character to look at any given time. Most likely, the characters are seen as separated emotionally or in motivation. The effect can be used more subtly, however, such as highlighting/emphasizing a particular point of conflict by framing the characters in this way when the conflict point rises to the surface of the conversation.

360 Wizard Battle by Corridor Digital Screenshot from 360 Wizard Battle by Corridor Digital.

In the above frame at the beginning of the short, the two wizards are seen together, bickering. It isn't until the moment one says "Are you trying to start something?", and when they start fighting, do they separate in the frame.

360 Wizard Battle by Corridor Digital Only one wizard visible at a time makes the fight feel more intense.

More than just supporting the rise of tension, the fight feels all the more chaotic and intense while the viewer has to quickly glance back and forth between the wizards. It works similar to how one might change the tempo of a film with traditional editing through faster cuts and greater variations in camera position. The head/frame motion that the audience has to go through in order to comprehend the scene is supported by - and supports - the story.

Distance is Pragmatic and Relative

When wondering about how far away to put somebody, the distance away the character is from the camera is going to have different effects on the viewer. I believe that these effects, isolated, are minimal. You can put a character close to making them feel intimate or far away to be distant, but isolated characters are likely to be influenced far more by other factors, visually, like their posture, facing direction, and position in the frame.

Distance may not be a good way to begin thinking about blocking a scene for 360 video. Instead, worry about distance pragmatically. Set working limits. Worry about is how well the audience can see characters. Are they so close the audience has to move around to "take them in"? Or so far away the audience can't make out much detail at all? Those questions are more likely to drive decisions behind the blocking of a scene than whether the character is accessible thanks to being close. They should be accessible because they are visible and not distracting!

While "Closer is more important" is a great rule of thumb, invading the audience's personal space can be uncomfortable and off-putting. So, again, set working limits on distances.

Yet, what is far more important when considering blocking is the relative distances between characters, and between a character and other objects in the scene. How far a character is away may be a nominal decision, but how far a character is compared to another character is not nominal at all! It's hard to read distance as meaningful, but relative distance is easily and immediately readable by the audience. This is important. Once a scale is established by the scene - closer, farther - then it's far easier for an audience member to interpret distance in a meaningful way. To this regard, characters that are closer are more important and demand more attention. Be wary of simply shoving lesser characters to the back, however. Characters in the background can, if there isn't a reason for them to be there or they seem out of place, arouse curiosity or suspicion and take up more attention than their distance would otherwise merit.

Character Distance is Relative Choosing between 1, 2, or 3 for one character is a far less important decision than choosing between position 1 or 3 of a second character, if the first character is at 2.

Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert: Great Performers | 360 Video | The New York Times It's clear who the main character is, thanks to a subtle use of distance.

Many 360 Horror films use distance as an effective way to film in layers. Different distances have different meanings in the world of the film. They can create a film world where the distance from the camera is equivocated to what the characters can perceive, for example. We can see/hear bad guys lurking in the distance, but they are past the threshold of what the characters, those ignorant doomed horror film characters - can perceive. This is an effective way to use relative distance. Once the bad guy is closer to the camera than the main character, or past this threshold, where the characters should notice something, and (if the rule has been established) tension is built. Something bad is surely going to happen!

Due to largely the wide-angle nature of 360 video cameras, distance away from the camera can be considered to be perceived logarithmically, as this is how size, perspective lines, and other depth cues vary. More or less. Vertical position in the frame plays a part, as does the type of camera system. Simply put, perceived differences between two character's distances from the camera are extreme when very close to the camera, but insignificant when they are both far away. The closer you are, the more dramatic differences in distance are.

In the diagram above, the perceived difference between 1 and 2 is far greater than between 2 and 3.

It's important to remember that, due to the nature of the optics and effort asked of the viewer - they must move their head more to observe closer objects - it is harder to separate characters the further they are from the camera. This is one reason closer objects are more important to the audience. The audience has to make a greater investment in following closer objects.

Open or Closed

When blocking out a scene, the characters position in the frame is being used to change how that character is perceived by the audience. While the actor's posture and direction are not really a part of blocking, it is tied together when making blocking decisions, and an actors posture must work with the blocking to communicate effectively. A character's posture can communicate an indescribable quantity of information, but consider one high-level attribute: openness. A character can be open towards the camera or closed off from it. This translates to facing their head and chest towards or away from the camera, most of the time. Are the actors hands outstretched and defensive, showing the palm, or arms crossed? Are they directing their body and attention away from the camera, or are they open, accepting, and welcoming?

Consider the following screenshot. Which character here is important? Clearly, the two on the left, thanks to them being open to the camera. We also clearly hear them speaking.

Eleven Little Roosters 360: Solo in Soho | Rooster Teeth

Later in this short by Rooster Teeth the focus switches from these two characters to a different pair. It does this switch by having the main characters move through the frame into a new composition, where they face away from the camera, and the new characters are the only ones opened up at the time the audio switches.

Eleven Little Roosters 360: Solo in Soho | Rooster Teeth

In addition to the standard interpersonal communication techniques from body language, the audiences ability to begin making observations about a character can stem from that character's direction. Audiences will see characters that are facing towards the camera as important while characters that face away as unimportant, all else equal.

A character's face and open posture tell the audience "this character matters", and one can use openness when stuck in a tricky spot. Say one is filming on a bus, and because of some future action, the camera can't be too close to the actor. There are extras that are closer to the camera than the main character. How do we communicate that this character is the one that matters? Lighting, focus/depth of field, or other such techniques may be technically impractical, or not strong enough on their own. We could have this character be the only character in the frame that is open to the camera. Say the camera is in the aisle of the bus, then all the extras should have their heads out the window or down at a phone/book, and their arms up, crossed, or blocking their body/faces in a closed off posture. The main character looks out the front window of the bus, and the audience can understand that they are the ones they should be paying attention to because they are the only ones that appear accepting of audience judgment/consideration.

Obfuscated or Easily Followable.

How easy a character is to follow or find will help determine which character in the scene an audience pays attention to. If the movements of a character are random, partially obscured, or otherwise difficult for the audience to predict, then the audience may be likely to look at a different character instead. One whose movements are more predictable, so the audience has an easier time following them around the frame, or looking elsewhere confidently able to look back to where the character is.

There is an exception to this rule of thumb, however, and that is if the obscured or unpredictable character has been interpreted as a curiosity. This is a likely danger, and whether the audience decides they don't need to care about a character, or if they are driven to learn more about them is a fine line to walk. Playtesting is an easy way to determine this, as situations vary highly. A rule of thumb is that it's probably okay for the character's movement or position to be unpredictable if their reason for movement is easily understood. Basketball players doing drills in the background of a conversation may be unpredictable and difficult to follow, but the audience easily reads and understands the basketball game. Thus they are not curious or more interested in that than what we want them to pay attention to (provided the basketball drills aren't themselves too interesting, that is). If a character's presence and movement have no clear motive, then the audience may become deeply curious about what they are doing there. When this curiosity goes unanswered, the audience may become frustrated.

Caveats and complications aside, making a character easily followable is a simple way to drive audience attention and empathy to that character, and give the audience the ability to examine more subtle details about the acting, costume, dialog, or what-have-you, instead of spending their time concentrating on the characters movement or position. If the movement itself doesn't mean anything, then needlessly complicating or confusing the matter does not help the story, or the audience's ability to understand the story.

Static or Moving

This one is simple. Characters that are moving demand more attention, but also raise more questions. One can't simply make a character move in order to draw attention to them. Although this happens, movement requires motivation.

Where are they going? Why are they walking? A character with well-motivated movement shows little trouble for the audience, while a character whose movement doesn't seem to make sense can be annoying to follow in 360 video.

Say a character stands up and walks over to a credenza during a conversation. Why did that happen? The audience has to put much more effort to follow characters than in traditional film. It's an investment and should pay off. The audience needs to feel like they made the correct decision. The audience has to decide to follow the character to the credenza. They have to actively work to update their mental map of the scene as the character moves. If the character is just pacing the room without cause, then the audience may grow frustrated with the effort being asked of them. Worst case: they disengage, annoyed at being 'tossed around', and stop watching entirely. Don't underestimate the active and mental effort required for an engaged audience to follow a scene! If our character walks over to the credenza and pours themselves a drink? Then it's fine, the movement had a motive and - hopefully - some plot or character significance as well.

Characters that are not moving have their own considerations. The first is that if the audience knows they can be comfortable looking away from the character and taking in more information from the scene. If there is more information (plot, atmospheric, metaphorical, etc) in the scene, which there hopefully is, then this can be a strong way to communicate about a character while giving control to the audience in order to provide a richer experience.

If a character is to begin moving during a scene, it is most likely important to telegraph this movement. One simple way is to have the character start moving somewhat towards the camera before they move across to wherever they are going. This way they stay in the same spot in the frame, yet they clearly have initiated a motion and the audience knows to pay attention to where they will go.

The Google Spotlight Story Rain Or Shine uses a different approach.

360 Google Spotlight Story: Rain or Shine

The animated film is split into different scenes at different locations. To switch scenes without cutting, the camera begins moving slightly before the character, leading them to the next spot. It's a simple and effective way to telegraph where the character is headed and give the audience one less thing to worry or think about as they navigate the frame.

The only exception is when the character tries to hide from the rain cloud that is tormenting her. In this case, the character moves before the camera, hiding from not just the rain cloud, but the audience - who has to catch up and find her. It's a clever way to subvert the rule the film established to better tell a story.

Character Gaze

Simply put, characters eyes are big arrows pointing towards things the audiences are also likely to look at. If 3 characters all turn to look at a fourth, then that fourth is where the audience will look too. If you don't have a reason otherwise, then characters should look where they are going. They should look at characters who enter rooms and at characters who are saying something important. If a scene isn't working, ask yourself if it's the character's gaze that is at fault.

Screenshot from Sandboarding in Peru | The Daily 360 | The New York Times *Two characters looking outwards directs our attention elsewhere, to the landscape, as well. *

A consistent use of character gaze allows a more spread out blocking, as it's one simple and self-justified way to direct the audience's attention around the frame without more obvious or conceited methods of manipulating the audience's attention. Character gaze should, without other reason, be an indicator of what the blocking of the scene is. Characters in a conversation look at each other, giving the audience a guide to the location of each speaker.

Uniqueness/Position in a pattern

Patterns - and breaking patterns - is an old and fairly self-explanatory use of blocking to indicate a character's relationship to other characters, or their position in the story.

In 360 video, there are some patterns to be aware of. The first is radial symmetry. When characters are equally spaced and distanced around the frame, no one character stands out as important. What's more than the lack of single driving character, is that the audience is highly likely to scan the scene continuously. The composition implies a continuous flow to the scene, and audiences tend to look around with this flow. A character separated from such a pattern is very likely to stand out and be discovered by the audience fairly quickly.

Radially Symmetric Blocking Diagram

Screenshot from NYT Mag and WITHIN: Walking New York

Further, take note of is recognizable floor patterns that, thanks to the perspective distortion of spherical video cameras, do not behave like they might in a film. For example, picture characters evenly spaced in a grid. Which one matters most? Presumably none. But, depending on the camera location, some are going to be larger in the frame than others, as the non-radial pattern falls victims to the nature of the optics of 360 video. So the pattern can still convey higher level ideas about conformity and place - ideas the audience is likely to take a moment to think about; while still drawing attention to particular (larger/closer) characters (things that are not thought about but interpreted by the audience's subconscious in the flash of a frame).

Gaze Direction and Simplifying The Scene

Gaze is just one way to simplify a scene's arrangement into a more understandable map for the audience, it serves as a standout example.

The audience assembles a mental map of the scene and tries to keep track of the various elements in the scene. The audience has to make decisions to turn their head left, right, or not at all. If we can present information to the audience in such a way to coincide up with the way the audience ultimately has to interact with the video - rotating left or right, we can be more effective in getting "out of the way", where the audience spends less time thinking about what to follow, and more time engaging with the video.

Imagine a line extending from the camera to the character in question, and a line from the character along the path that the character is looking. If the character is looking at the camera, then these lines overlap. Consider the angle that these lines form. If the angle is small, the character is looking past the camera, behind the audience. If it is larger, the character is looking left or right.

Character Gazes directs the audience attention Cyan, the character looks right; yellow the character looks across; and magenta the character is looking left, from the view of the camera. If the character is looking in the leftover space, they are looking away from the character. The audience can't see their eyes and is already looking in the direction the character is looking.

It can be hard to tell if a character is looking "left" or "more left", but very quick and easy to interpret a character as looking "left" or "right", from the camera's perspective. By ensuring that the characters on the screen are looking to the left or right of the camera, in addition to just looking at whatever is they are looking at (by manipulating the blocking), a filmmaker can be much more clear about the action going on in the scene. Looking at/across the camera, slightly left, or slightly right to the camera, can sometimes be difficult to read for the audience; since they are not merely looking "off screen", but at something, the audience may feel inclined to turn away and look at.

Let's say there are two characters at a table having a conversation, the camera is between them, but offset. A third character enters, walking towards the table - perpendicular to the line drawn between the characters, from behind the camera. Both characters at the table turn to look at this character.

Diagram of above example

The character to the left of the camera's gaze is slightly right, and the character to the right of the camera's gaze is slightly left. Now the viewer has to decide which direction to turn their head around to look at the newcomer and would like to have some estimate of where this character is. They don't know to turn left or right - which is essentially the only decision that needs to get made at any given moment! The audience having to stop and consider, or make an arbitrary decision, is a hesitation moment that takes the audience out of the world of the film and into the world of the medium. Not ideal.

Having the character "circle in" to the table, however, allows the gazes of the characters being approached to match up, and easily directs the audience's attention in the right direction to see the approaching character.

Diagram of above example

Gaze direction amongst characters allows not just for the audience to turn left or right. It also allows the audience to better create a mental map of the scene in their heads. Drawing imaginary gaze lines to their intersection point and determining where a character is from the gaze of others is a complicated piece of trigonometry. I don't know about you, but complicated pieces of trigonometry don't sound ideal for an element of filmmaking that should feel invisible! Instead, of think about clockwise and counter-clockwise gaze directions - using blocking to simplify the map that the viewer makes in their head of a scene. All they have to remember is the relative positions the characters are to each other around the circle - not precise locations, angles, or other difficult arrangements.

Why make a viewer try to figure out what angle a character is at when one can just suggest "left" or "right"? 360 cameras are already projecting 3 dimensions onto 2, so we can use this to our advantage and use blocking and cinematography to simplify a scene. We can use characters movements and gaze as codified signals, easily readable "turn left" or "turn right" actions. These actions are the same physical decisions that the audience makes.

Block characters together in such a way that the audience makes repetitive or similar decisions when trying to find the same character in the frame. We should be making decisions as easy as we can for the audience to make (and importantly, we should not be making the decisions for the audience).

If multiple characters are going to be gazing at or across the camera, not to the left or the right of it, then the audience is likely to turn either direction to look straight behind themselves. This can be used intentionally - put the new object there! - or in a way that subverts or manipulates the audience's gaze. For example, a horror movie that gets the audience to look the "long way around" and be surprised when the don't see the bad guy until they turn back to find the original character murdered.

Consistency in Blocking

When I teach photography and the rules of composition to students, I often use the expression "follow every rule but one". If a character is moving in a direction, facing that direction, easily followable, and predictable. The relationships are clear and there is little dramatic meaning embedded in the blocking. Meaning, interest, and engagement often come from a juxtaposition, unpredictability, or other such conceptually synonymous concept. This is perfectly fine! Our role as filmmakers is to communicate effectively. Yet, in some cases, it's totally fine to break some rules, as we ultimately use this to communicate not just to the audience, but with them.

What happens if a character walks backward, or suddenly runs without cause. What if the character is hard to follow? If they are like Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka, trying to descend a short set of stairs?

If we can reveal the motivation for some 'rule breaking' blocking after the fact, and use blocking as a way to introduce interest and curiosity. We can then engage the audience, as opposed to disengage them.

We can use the effect that the audience has in line with how the story should be interpreted. If a character is hiding or running from someone in a horror film, then it's probably okay that the character is hard to find in the frame. This aligns the characters motivations: "Where are they?" with the audiences: "Where are they?". This is clearly effective!

When confusion strikes a character we can saturate a frame with movement from every direction. Then we have all the more powerful revelation and clarity when something stands out. The girl in the red dress scene from the Matrix is an example of such a use of blocking and framing to give the audience the same experience as a character.

The point is, these observations are to be understood and from there, creative decisions are to be made. As long as a filmmaker is working with intent and purpose, and can justify the blocking of a scene, then they can make whatever decision they wish.

Larger Groups

All of the same elements apply to large groups as they do single or 2 actor scenes. It can be difficult for an audience to hold their mental map of the scene, and the character's location in the frame, for more than 3 actors.

One approach is to keep groups together, modeling them like one would a single character - they face the same direction, react to the same things, and so forth.

When faced with such a situation, it can be helpful to arrange the characters into groups that can be summarized by the audience as a single "actor". Through lighting, costume, posture, or - of course - blocking and spacing, it can be communicated to the audience that they only need to worry about where that highlight character is, for a group, and not where each member of that group is, or what that groups arrangement is.

Having the character's spaced together, move together, face the same direction, gaze towards the same direction; and non-blocking similarities like appearance allows for the audience to have to track less information as they watch the scene, and have an easier interpreting the scene.

Grouping characters together - simplifying the blocking - is an easy way to simplify the perception of a scene without simplifying the script, acting, or other perhaps more influential or important detail.

Conclusion

Blocking a scene doesn't have to be an impossible or challenging proposition, but decisions must be made with intent. Understanding these basic underlying premises will surely help one break down what is - and isn't - working with a scene. From there, more intelligent decisions can be made blocking one's own scenes in 360 video.

There is more to be said, certainly. Coming up soon: A survey of standard blocking arrangements, and more to be said about larger groups of people in a scene. Lastly, I will propose a system of sorts for breaking down the blocking of scenes.