So it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but this recent edition covers a subject I’ve been longing to write about but have not had enough direct experience to ensure I could describe accurately. Recently I was involved in a production where I had to work very closely with a script supervisor, so I now have a basic experience with it to help beginner filmmakers consider how to approach shotlists, storyboards, and scheduling. Like many 30MFS posts, this is more of an introduction to the concepts and how to think about it than a fully fledged technical breakdown of ‘how its done’ for professional purposes. It is for practice and experimentation, the specifics will always better be learned first-hand on set with a mentor.
It’s sort of ironic for these 30 Minute Film Schools that basically I am working backward toward screenwriting, script formatting, and storytelling structure itself. I will brush on a little bit of that but I have to hold off actual script design instruction until the next 30MFS. Perhaps in a sense this will be part 1 of 2 over the general broader topic, ‘Adapting Script to Screen’. Nevertheless it’s interesting to note that all of what I’ve written begins with a script and I’m essentially getting around to it last. Ultimately this is because I want people to write scripts thinking forward to how they will be constructed around visual storytelling. Many screenwriters actually are not fully in-tune with the visual elements of movie storytelling, which is actually why they’re preferred for productions because they give more room for the producers, directors, actors, and so on to make decisions for themselves. I’ll get more into that later.
WHY WE BREAK DOWN SCRIPTS
Basically what this new 30MFS is about is the exact same thing as the first one, How to Shoot a Narrative Film, is, except for the pre-production stage rather than the production or post-production stages. As you can see these things are all connected (if they weren’t, studio factory style production would have nixed the whole idea ages ago).
So a thought experiment here via a very useful anecdote. I attended a workshop with Thom Eberhardt where he described how he came to be a filmmaker. Part of his story involved how he transitioned from an editor to a director to a writer. Quoted from memory:
“I wanted to edit something better than what I was begin given to edit, so I figured the best way to guarantee I had something good to edit would be to direct it myself. Then I started directing and found myself wanting better material to direct than what I was being given, so I figured the best way to guarantee I had something good to direct would be to write it myself.”
When you’re directing, you’re directing toward editing, and when you’re writing, you’re writing toward directing. By extension, the script breakdown is the editor’s script, despite the fact that it’s really used by the production department on set. A script breakdown is basically to ensure the production includes all of the elements that are necessary to put together to create the final film.
You break down a script because a script is words and a movie is visuals. The breakdown is the first step toward visual, not literary, storytelling.
This gets back to a common theme underlying my 30 Minute Film Schools and why I write them, about the difference between anti-Hollywood intentions in indie filmmaking and understanding how to make a movie regardless of its commercial purposes or lack thereof, regardless of its budget or the size of crew. Many beginning filmmakers resist writing screenplays in correct format, performing script breakdowns, and are especially and very vocally resistant to things like shotlists and storyboards, feeling like they staple down the production into some set form (obviously homogenized and representative of an underlying hegemony, of course!) that takes away their opportunities for spontaneity and discovery while on set. This is not true at all; spontaneity and discovery will occur regardless of even Kubrickian levels of perfectionism, and these processes were designed as a tool to ensure that you arrive on set ready to shoot without worrying about if anybody forgot to bring a certain prop.
Another typical counter-argument I receive is the, “I don’t need a script breakdown, I have it all visualized in my head” argument. This is especially true as regards storyboards. Somehow people who want to become directors are commonly under the impression that storyboards are to tell them how to direct, not for them to show everyone else what the shot is supposed to look like. Script breakdown is all about communication, not about your super special director powers to see movies that don’t yet exist in your head and translate them to screen.
If anything, a shotlist for instance is a personal checklist just to make sure you covered everything, in case you get distracted during the production which is hundreds of times more likely than not. Why would you deny yourself the ability to make sure you’ve shot everything you wanted before you head off to the editing room and realize, “Fuck me, I forgot that one shot I planned for where….”
STARTING TO THINK ABOUT PRODUCTION DESIGN
From here on out I’m gonna have to skip around a bit, and I may even overlook important things that involve this process. Nevertheless the first part of script breakdown is to start thinking about production design. If you’re a zero-budget noncommercial indie filmmaker operating out of found locations (even guerilla style) and with whatever wardrobe and props the actors and you already happen to own, you still can benefit from at least going through the script to make sure everyone brings the things they need to bring so that you’re not waiting for two hours for someone to run off back to their apartment to retrieve something they’ve forgotten, all while you’re fretting about potential law enforcement coming by and asking awkward questions about why you’re on private property with a camera and people dressed in ridiculous get-ups. For a studio production, this is the point where they start figuring out what equipment and sets and wardrobe and special effects and visual effects and locations and makeup and so on and so forth that they need in order to give the movie a specific look, which means it ties directly into production schedule and budgeting. Regardless of your level of production, as a director this is the stage where you make the decisions on precisely how the movie is going to look.
Many people are familiar with how characters, when they are first introduced in the script, are named in all capitals. Some people are familiar with how essential props that serve the narrative directly are also capitalized. This is formatting for script breakdown. The idea is that the casting director knows how many characters need to be cast and their general descriptions, the production designer/art director knows what the sets, locations, props, and wardrobe are supposed to look like, the DP and key grip know what the lighting and composition and colors are supposed to look like, and things like special or visual effects are planned for and designed in advance.
How this works is that someone literally goes through the script page by page with highlighters of various colors, each color representing the concerns of a specific department, and highlights passages to be extracted for the purpose of communicating what needs to get done. Apparently there’s some studio standard for which color highlighter represents which department or something, I don’t know that for sure but for the purposes of this beginner-level introduction that point is there for you to start thinking about how to use this process for your own benefit. Say you’re a one-man show and don’t see the purpose of highlighting separate elements in distinct colors since you know you’ll be doing it all yourself. Wouldn’t it at least be useful for you to write out a shopping list of things you want in your own movie, and have that shopping list divided between elements such as ‘locations’, ‘props’, ‘equipment’, and ‘special/visual effects’? Then you’ll know you’ll have everything on hand or, in the case of visual effects for instance, will have already planned ahead for which plate shots you need to fit in whatever compositing or 3D element you intend to insert.
So that’s really the first part of script breakdown, and it’s relatively straightforward and understandable in both how to do it and its purpose:
ED, a fifty-year old car salesman, enters his shop with a LOADED REVOLVER and a SUICIDE NOTE. His shirt is stained with tears. He sits at his cluttered desk and sets the note on his computer. The gun goes off, spraying the window behind him with red.
Ed, the revolver, and the suicide note are essential narrative elements that if they are missing will probably upset the story (maybe not the suicide note, but it does cut through tepid expository dialog, n’est pas?). Stuff like the cluttered desk and computer can be changed without significantly affecting the story. In the passage above, the casting director would like to know in advance about Ed, the props master would like to know about the revolver and computer, the art director would like to know about the window, clutter, desk, chair, note, etc., the special effects director would like to know about the blood, wardrobe would like to know about the tear-stains, and the visual effects supervisor would like to know about whether or not you intend for the gun to go off in frame so that he can start finding some good pistol flashes to composite over it. If you’re working professionally, the studio would like to know what all of this will cost. It would help you as an indie no budgeter to know how much it costs or find those things yourself as well.
Notice that the description tells a lot of story but leaves a lot up for the individual departments to be creative with. Ed as car salesman must be shown visually, so wardrobe could get in there with a polo shirt saying “Ed’s Used Cars” on his left pocket or something. ‘Clutter’ could be cigarettes piled over multiple ashtrays to show he’s been self-destructive for a long while, or merely a lot of paperwork to show he’s been stressed to his limits, and either way should visually inform the DP that Ed doesn’t feel like he has a whole lot of room to breathe, so to speak. Directors work with these different departments to make these sorts of necessary decisions so even a simple medium shot of Ed as he sits at his chair (leather high back or plastic lawn chair? This will inform the audience how successful he is as a salesman. Worn out or dust-covered? This will inform the audience as to whether Ed’s been around the office much lately. Etc.) will tell us things about who Ed is and why he’s calling it quits.
If you’re working for yourself, it will give you another opportunity to really visualize the scene and make sure you prepare for everything you want to express. Certainly you have an idea about what Ed looks like and the lighting, how he moves and how pleasurably abrupt the gunfire will be, but have you really looked at that room you’re converting into his office and thinking through how the color of the walls will effect how the audience feels about Ed? What the items on his desk say about his character? If you have those resources or need to rethink some more minimalist design, and how would that change how you shot it or directed performances? Think about the actors as well and what they have to work with, to react to.
In case you’re confused about my example and wondering, “Wait, does that fall under props or wardrobe or…?”, just remember that the art director is the key for that department so will tell the props and wardrobe people themselves. And again if you don’t have all those people, at least if you put one person in charge of those sorts of visual elements then you can focus more on working out your blocking and compositional elements. Which brings me to
SHOT LISTS AND SLATES
You want to cover everything so you want to get coverage. Again, for some reason this concept stands in the face of this bizarre and self-defeating tendency of beginner filmmakers to assume that they’re giving away control of their vision if they engage in such perversities such as making sure your film actually cuts together.
I never shoot without a shot list so I’m going to come off as biased. Nevertheless the shot list is not a rule, it’s not set in stone, it’s a guideline that makes sure you get everything you need. You’ll recognize the opportunities for additional shots and surprise elements when you are actually shooting. Your DP or you will see something you didn’t anticipate and it will either force you to change your shot or give you a bonus shot you are pleased to have. Perhaps the camera operator will notice something wrong and inform the DP and you’ll have to rework some of the blocking. Regardless, if you have that list there, you’ll be able to refer to it to make sure everything gets done.
If you’re working a professional set, there is a script supervisor whose purpose is to go over the shot list labeling every take you shoot, so that the editor (or editor’s assistant) knows what the fuck it is when they are working the dailies. This is the second time in 30MFS where I mention
GET A GODDAMNED SLATE.
Again, if you’re a no budget filmmaker doing everything yourself, often times the assumption is you operated the camera yourself, you’ll recognize the shot when you’re editing it yourself. Have fun tacking an extra unnecessary hour or two onto your post-production budget. All you need is a small dry erase board, some blank pieces of paper, something where you can write down what shot you’re doing and which take it is. The clapper, though theseadays considered kitschy and ridiculous, is there for audio syncing, so if you’re recording audio separately from the camera, you neglect the slate at the expense of at least a day of editing for every handful of minutes of the final product. If you don’t have a clapper, just have the person slating literally clap. Take it from somebody who has this horrible tendency to forget the slate, don’t forget the slate.
So real quick, since I’m already rolling in this aside, here’s how the slate works. Below I’ve included an image of a standard one:
‘Production’ is the title, or working title, of the movie you are making. In the days of film and prints helped the labs keep stuff straight. Theseadays with multiple project folders filling up precious harddrive space, helps you keep your own film projects straight.
‘Roll’ is the current roll or reel you are shooting; it used to be essential for sorting out film esp. for multicamera shoots, but it is still of amazing usefulness when you are sorting out which card or tape you recorded which footage on in the days of digital. Numbering them is common sense: the first card or tape is Roll 1, the second 2, and so on. Keep up with it correctly and you’ll know exactly where to retrieve your shots if the logged and captured copy on your computer somehow goes missing, corrupt, or in any way messed up and you need to get the original file sorted.
‘Scene’ I will explain below. They are not the same as colloquial usage. Most lay people misattribute the word ‘scene’ to what are called ‘sequences,’ as in, “I liked that one scene where he jumped off the cliff.”
‘Take’ is the number of times you’ve attempted to pull off this specific shot. An aside to this aside, you aren’t supposed to do multiple takes just to have them for coverage — different shots are there for coverage. Multiple takes are for performance or for going until you have the shot you want, and then it’s time to move on. Some beginner filmmakers do multiple takes ‘for editing purposes’ of the exact same shot, which doesn’t help editing one bit whatsoever. If the actors are not significantly changing their performances, then you’re only slowing yourself down. If you’re getting an insert, it’s downright ridiculous to have more than three or four takes (I will discuss inserts below). A rule of thumb is that you shoot until you get the shot you need, then you do one more take for safety (it used to be about if the film lab misprints the film and destroys the negative, now safeties are not as essential with digital copies but nevertheless I find them useful for for instance if you just didn’t notice the eyeline was off or something like that in the final take). The script supervisor will often mark the ‘best’ take, in the case of a larger production where it doesn’t do much good efficient use to print all the dailies when most of the takes will be completely discarded, so it serves the editors better to just have the one or two takes and move on. You’d think in the days of digital and huge file storage space this wouldn’t be a problem but thus far we still have digital intermediates and 4K workflows and colorization processes and so on that make printing every single take prohibitive to efficient editing. If you’re directing a five minute short on a consumer video camera it’s probably better to capture all the footage, because why not? If you’re directing something in excess of ten minutes on the RED One you might want to consider having a scriptee for best takes.
‘Director’ is the director of the production. Useful to you in no budget production in the sense of hey, why not? and also so that you can mark ownership of these digital files that are shots from your movie. Ironically these days the place where that would be most useful is in film school editing labs, where disconnected clips find their way into all sorts of corners of shared computer harddrives with no obvious label to discern their relative importance or who they belong to. But back in the day this was still useful for studios with huge labs of prints to sort out what film stock belonged to whom.
‘Camera’ is the DP. Sometimes it changes in a shoot and it’s worth mentioning for television purposes that the directors and DPs change, which justifies continuing those labels. For no budgeters galore, a new favorite thing is ‘web series’ to showcase their ideas and even personal development as a filmmaker, in which case it’s useful to have information like which DP you were working on during which shoot marked down as well. So the tradition continues.
‘Date’ is immensely more important than you think. At first you’re all like, ‘What, it doesn’t matter if this was shot in June or July, it’s all the same movie!’ but then you have that moment in the editing room where you’re all like, ‘Holy shit, was that day three or day four of shooting where….?’ and now you understand why this shit is slated.
‘Day’/‘Nite’ — was it a day shoot or a night shoot? It’s important to keep track of, because sometimes you’re shooting day-for-night or lighting a night shoot to look like day, etc.
‘Int’/‘Ext’ — again, it may not be as obvious as you would think once you get into close ups and inserts and so on.
‘MOS’ — means the take was shot without sound. Funny story behind this where all these German directors went to Hollywood to escape Nazi Germany? And so they’d say, as the tale goes, ’Ve’ll shoot this mit out sound!" And so slate boys and scriptees would jokingly label MOS instead of WOS? There are a lot of interesting little in-jokes in movie production, and in fact a book written entirely about this tendency . One of my favorites is C47s, this technical term for an object normal people call ‘clothes pins.’
‘Filter’ means the DP placed a filter over the lens. This is to make sure the DI or film lab or whatever don’t go screaming back to the producer (or you) about some strange messed up look on the footage that needs to be fixed. Helpful to remind yourself if you’ll be doing the logging and capturing as well and don’t have that moment where you’re like ‘Holy shit that looks blue oh no oh no oh… oh right, it’s supposed to.’
‘Sync’ means it was shot mit sound.
With all that stuff labeled, you will know what each clip contains before you have to scrub through the whole thing to find ‘that one shot’ you are looking for. Also it’s the first step to good workflow, as then whoever is capturing and logging the footage can literally name the digital files after the shots they contain, once those files have gone through the DI (digital intermediate). The helpfulness of this information for post cannot be understated.
Bring a slate.
So the shot list, you now see, is basically there so that you know how to label the slate. It is an outline of a scene’s coverage, in the technical senses of the term. Thus:
Again, colloquial usage is inaccurate. A scene in movie production terminology is a change in location or time. You can have entire acts of the movie contained in a single scene, strictly speaking. ‘Scene’ is why scripts are formatted like this:
“INT — ED’S OFFICE — DAY”
Let’s say after Ed shoots himself, his body goes undiscovered until the janitor’s night shift. Thus:
“INT — ED’S OFFICE — LATER”
is a new scene. Or say his shot was overheard by a pedestrian in the street outside. It’s a different scene, because:
“EXT — STREET OUTSIDE ED’S OFFICE — CONTINUOUS
A PEDESTRIAN hears the sound of a gunshot…"
Or say we leave Ed behind because now we need to get into what’s going on with his family
“INT — ED’S FAMILY’S HOUSE — DAY”
Or we then flash back to why Ed’s feeling all suicidal recently.
“INT — ED’S OFFICE — THE PREVIOUS DAY”
Etc. Those are all scenes. So the easiest way to go about script breakdown is to go scene by scene, and then go over those scenes page-by-page… or, more accurately, eighth-page by eighth-page is standard. But before I get into what that means, I do want to point out a couple of more weirder differentiations of scenes than my examples above. One is to look at the movie Twelve Angry Men. Theoretically, that entire movie is only one scene, because it’s all in one location (a jury room) at one time (during a court case). However, it would be impractical for that production to even attempt to call it all ‘Scene 1’ as it would make a workflow mess out of the whole thing. So they have what I believe is called ‘French Drama scenes’ (I may be misattributing this word) where the characters coming and going differentiates the scene. So when it’s three characters debating in a corner, that’s one scene, and then when a forth joins them, that’s another, and then when the four rejoin the others, that’s a third. Just recently I worked on a short film where three characters are in an RV, but one of them spends a large amount of the playtime in the RV’s toilet. That made four scenes out of one: the two scenes where all three are together in the same space (one scene comes at the end of Act 1 and the other comes at the beginning of Act 5), one of just two of the characters alone in the RV space, and one of the single character isolated in the bathroom.
Another scene change is when there is a substantial stylistic change happening. Say it’s a single character in a room as he’s mentally breaking down. There’s the scene where he’s okay, the lighting is soft, the compositions are balanced, he’s making coffee or whatever. Then there’s the scene where the lighting is high contrast, the angles are all dutch, weirdness insues. You should probably break down each scene separately as, after all, they require substantially different ‘set-ups.’
‘Set-ups’ are all the various shots taken from a certain perspective. Basically, and I’m being really basic here, a set-up changes when you move the camera to a new position on the set or location, because now the lighting, composition, and blocking will all change. Oftentimes there is only one shot for one set up — a dolly or Steadicam shot, for instance, or one of those epic long takes. Sometimes there are multiple shots to be achieved from one set-up, for instance when you simply change lens on the camera to punch into closer shots, or you intend for two different actions at two different times to have the exact same matching angle. If you’re shooting handheld and loose, perhaps it doesn’t serve much to be overly worried about if you’re in the same ‘set-up’. But for script breakdown purposes, it’s useful to be cognizant of set-ups because then you can shoot more efficiently.
Think about it like this: You are going to be shooting a dating scene at a table. At one point the guy switches sides of the table to try to get close to the girl, but the girl rejects him and moves to the other side. A very basic set-up to capture all of this would be to get one lateral set-up of the entire conversation and change of position, then get one set-up of the guy’s initial perspective and one set-up of the girl’s reaction shots. But when they change position, just keep the set-up of the girl’s reaction shots to now become the guy’s… Shoot everything from one set-up, then change set-up and shoot everything again, then change set-up and shoot all the reversals, then maybe throw in for some inserts which may or may not require new set-ups.
Or back to the RV shoot I did recently, it was a lot easier to set up all the lighting and camera for one half of the RV, shoot everything that happens in that half of the RV over several different ‘scenes’, then switch sides and shoot everything that happens in the other half. This was substantially easier than if I would change set-ups for every shot. In fact, to be flat out honest, the film would have never been completed if we did not adjust our shot list to accommodate set-ups.
Scenes and set-ups are why movies are not shot chronologically very often. The RV shoot was four scenes: three people, two people, bathroom, three people. We shot the two scenes involving all three actors, let two of the actors rest for the rest of the night while we finished the one scene with one person. That way two actors were not waiting around wasting their time (and our money) while we shot a single actor isolated. Then, because we were finished with the one actor, he could go home and onto his next project (starting the next day) while we got the two actors for their scene alone for an additional night shooting. So the scenes we shot were in the order of 2, 6, 5, 4. If we had shot chronologically we would have wasted a substantial amount of these actors’ time, our own money, and set-ups, and again I state unequivocally that the movie would have never been finished.
This is why directors must make decisions about what shots they want so that the other departments aren’t spending hours upon hours changing set-ups on his or her whim. You will frustrate these people and they will leave your project if you, true story I heard about a production last year, try three or four different set-ups without ever rolling a single take just to ‘see how they look on the monitor.’ If you want to go about that method of shooting, at least shoot the footage so that you can learn something in the edit room. You’ll still frustrate people with overcoverage, but hopefully you’ll only do this earlier on in your career until you get to the point where you know what shots you need and how to ask for them.
SHOT LIST AND COVERAGE
We still have yet to get to how shots are labeled and why. We had to clarify scene and set-up so that we could clarify ‘shots’. Shots are labeled first by the scene number, then by a letter indicating separate angles or compositions. A shot labeled simply with the number of the scene and no letters indicates a full, wide coverage of the entire scene, and is highly recommended as urgently as I can impress upon you. That way, no matter what angles or shots you plan for, you always have the wide shot to cut back to for total coverage of the scene and even reference for spacial issues and continuity.
So let’s say you are shooting scene 7, the date scene around the table example I mentioned. Shot 7 is the wide that covers everything that will happen during that scene. Shot 7a will be the medium shots of the man before he moves in on the woman. Shot 7b will be his close-ups from that perspective. Shots 7a and 7b are one set up. Shot 7c is the woman, shot 7d is her close ups, shot 7e is the two-shot from when the man moves in, shot 7f is when when she moves away and he’s left alone. Shots 7c through 7f are one set-up.
You are not quite sure if you want a two shot or a close-up for the woman’s reaction to being touched. So Shot 7f1 is when she moves away in a two-shot, shot 7f2 is when she moves away in a close-up. You have both options but the ‘f’ indicates that it’s the same action, so your editor doesn’t try to cut the movement into the scene twice.
The man, when he moves in, puts his hand on her shoulder. You decide you want a close-up of that touch. So shot 7pu is called an ‘insert shot’ or ‘pick up’, ‘pu’ for short. Shot 7pu2 would indicate a different, separate shot.
’pu’s can also indicate what are called ‘cutaways’. While the man and woman are talking, a restauranteer is listening in to their conversation, unbeknownst to them. The camera will ‘cut away’ to him listening in, without continuity issues with how the man and woman are moving or speaking. Cutaways and pickups are useful coverage in the case that you accidentally make a continuity error or a jump cut, because it fills in space between cuts, but they can also increase the drama or create unique relationships in scenes. For instance, in the RV movie I cut away to a exterior lightning strike during scene 4 because I messed up continuity on where the characters are looking between scenes 3 and 4. They were shot on different nights so neither I nor the actors remembered the specific blocking. But in scenes 2 and 6, there are purposeful inserts of hand movements to increase how the characters are communicating in more than dialog. They help with continuity, sure, but were planned for in advance for dramatic purposes.
‘B-roll’ footage are inserts without actions or dramatic purposes for editing. The RV had computers with unique graphics we designed, and the characters at one point look over a computer print-out. We shot b-roll of these details in case we needed them, and in fact we ended up needing the computer print-out but not the computer displays (there was an action that revealed them much better). Sometimes b-roll isn’t even shot by the primary director of the movie, but is 2nd unit photography. The director and his actors and crew move on to another location, and before the set or location is broken down the 2nd unit goes in and shoots b-roll, just in case.
Plate shots are for visual effects. They are typically, but not always, static or very controlled movement shots that isolate specific elements so that those elements can be ‘composited in’ afterward. Greenscreen shooting is, in a sense, plate shots of actors, while the backgrounds are plate shots of, say, 3D landscapes or whatever. Sometimes, hey, a plate shot is the actors running around the lower third of the frame with enough space in the upper two thirds to frame in fighter pilots or giant robots or whatever. I am not sure how plate shots are professionally labeled but so far I’ve been labeling them as inserts.
The initial shot list is going to be basically an outline of all the angles and compositions the director wants to cover. The script supervisor turns it into a spreadsheet that she then (and it’s almost uncanny how often the script supervisor is a she) uses to write notes on each take. Typically the notes will be some variety or form of
“7b: MCU Male; take 1: hair messed up.
7b: MCU Male; take 2: best take.
7b: MCU Male; take 3: safety, eyeline check; sound OS”
She works with whomever slates to make sure it’s labeled and called out correctly (calling out the takes while slating is important for labeling and syncing audio), and works between the production department and art department to ensure visual, not editing, continuity. In other words when a sandwich on the table during the date suddenly jumps from near the man’s side to the middle, the director often gets blamed for his inattentiveness. But the director is really friggin’ busy working with the actors for performance, the DP for composition and blocking, and the AD for set management and keeping up time. It’s the job of the script supervisor to note where the sandwich belongs and its various state of being eaten between shots, especially as they jump around between set-ups. Typically the scriptee works with a on-set photographer to ensure specific continuity.
Keep in mind that for compositional purposes, things like staging, props, and even entire sets are ‘cheated’. This means that the candlestick display that looks so beautiful in the wide shot is actually in the way of the actor’s face in his close-up. So it must be cheated, either out of frame entirely or balanced in the frame with his face, in a manner that both visually ‘matches’ the space of the table and his physical proximity to the candle, as well as the candlelight and respective shadows itself. However, once you go to the woman’s medium shot, now the cheated candle has jumped way out of its place. It needs to be replaced in its original position or perhaps cheated in the opposite direction.
Again, for some awkward reason newbie filmmakers misunderstand these terms and feel like they’ll show off a better eye for detail if they refuse to ‘cheat’, or something. They misunderstand the idiom and the result is that you can’t see the actor’s face for the continuity of the candlestick, or when they observe that problem they change the angle entirely, like raising the camera above the candlestick, which changes the nature of the shot — now we’re looking down on him, and that means something entirely different in a visual language than a balanced close-up. It may even lend itself to just an uglier composition. Uwe Boll didn’t cheat in BloodRayne, which is why he shot a sex scene that you can’t see because the table is in the way. The music is swelling and you know from the previous shot that they’ve begun to kiss, but right now you’re looking at out of focus wood grain.
Even if you don’t have a scriptee, having that shotlist helps you refer back to how things were set up before, so that you’ll remember to place things in the correct positions as you go. Also, you should always be prepared for reshooting, so having some cheap digital still camera on set for these continuity purposes is always helpful. You cannot always rely on your own footage for reference — reshoots, for instance, often happen precisely because that footage was lost.
Shot lists are broken down by ‘eighths.’ A scene is some certain pages long, and each page can be divided in halves, fourths, and eighths. Because of page formatting, eighths really are not that much material to cover, but then again actions in the script take longer shots than the sentences fill up space, and dialog takes shorter than the space they take. It’s because of the average between actions and dialog that we get that general rule of thumb of one page per finished minute of edited film, each page/finished minute taking an hour to shoot and an hour to edit.
A script supervisor during the breakdown stage of above, the one where areas are highlighted, will also draw long lines vertically along the script to represent coverage. Horizontally the page will be broken down into its eighths. So the actual script itself will be gridded in its own way, which is why margins and spacing are so important to script formatting. So for instance, shot 7, the wide shot for full coverage, will cover the entire scene and the line will be drawn on the far left hand side of the left margin. Then shot 7a will start at the top of scene 7 and go down maybe some determined number of eighths. Shot 7b will start where 7a cuts off and continue for another few eighths, and so on. Shot 7pu1 will cover the tail half of 7a and the second half of 7b, or something. Squiggly lines beside dialog indicate that during that shot that dialog is off-screen. Your script breakdown should not look like only one single, broken line where every shot starts where the previous ends… there should be overlap, not from just the wide coverage to the rest of the shots but also leader into each separate shot. You ‘know’ that the shot will cut when he gets up from his chair to move in to touch the girl, but if you shoot only until he starts to rise and then cut camera, then roll the next take as he is rising only, then in editing be assured you’ll suddenly have him jump from sitting position to rising position by some unaccounted amount of air despite your best intentions and obvious skill as an observant director. Shoot the entire stand up from both perspectives. Or for instance you figure the dialog will cut when he finishes his statement and go immediately to her response, but if you don’t record the dialog shot from both sides of the shot/reverse-shot, suddenly when you’re editing for continuity or a good reaction shot you’re either editing out necessary dialog you don’t have coverage of, or suddenly like voodoo the dialog has disappeared entirely, no matter how much you are 100% sure you remember getting that take.
Storyboarding has a variety of uses and one of those uses are why its so frowned upon by naive directors. That use is when a director storyboards just to visually check that the shots will cut together correctly and look like what he or she intends. Of course, since directors are total geniuses with minds of pure gold, they never have to double-check their own shotlist to make sure that the compositional elements will pan out as intended. That’s just crazy talk. A gifted visionary can see the whole movie in his or her own head, fuck storyboarding.
But for what it’s worth, sometimes it’s useful even to the director to look over the storyboards to remember how the whole thing is to be blocked and composed.
But one of the most significant uses of storyboard cannot be argued away by delusions of visionary-ness. And that is that if all else fails and you’re having a difficult time explaining the shot you want to your crew, you can grab the storyboards and point. “THAT, it needs to look like THAT.” Storyboards in this manner are essential for choreography, production design, special effects, and visual effects. Say you want a ninja fighting a dinosaur. The ninja will be shot in real life but the dinosaur is 3D. You need the storyboard so that you know where to frame the ninja when you’re shooting it so that you have room for the dinosaur. The storyboard must be delivered to the visual effects team so that they can know how you want the dinosaur to look, where it must be framed in, and how it mixes with the action of the choreography. Nowadays more and more storyboards are less like comic books and more like animated movies. Sam Raimi storyboarded the entire production of Spiderman in 3D animation.
And, of course, storyboards are helpful for the editors. If they know what the first frame of a shot is intended to be and they have the shot there, they can more quickly determine that frame and get it into the workprint without having to guess what your intentions as director are.
Storyboards can be as much as straight-up handed to the art director and DP with the instructions, “Make it look like this.” The more visually fantastic your movie is the more visual references you will need to communicate your desires. It does no justice to say, "I need an arch in the background, make it marble looking, alien, and ancient’ if you really REALLY want it to have some specific angle in the framing of the composition that envelopes, say, a character’s body type in foreground so that they visually match. Easier to just draw the damn thing so everybody’s on the same, literal, page.
Visual references are one of those underlying controversies of visual media production that expends far more critical ink than their practical worth. While people debate on line how much The Matrix should be criticized for ripping off a graphic novel the Wachowskis brought on set to show the production designers, the production designers are glad they had something to work off of so that they didn’t spend millions of dollars and uncounted labor hours building this:
to look like this:
only to have the siblings Wachowski go, “But that doesn’t look anything like what we wanted!” and the production designers say, “You wanted a vicious looking mechanical squid!”
Concept art is there for that purpose and is much more understandable and goes undebated. So why the aversion to storyboards? Storyboards are concept art meeting shot-lists — they are the ability for every person on the production, no matter which level they are working at, to simply look at a graphic representation of what is needed and know how to work toward achieving it.
So there’s that whole debate about originality in imagery and every mechanical squiddie baddie looking like every other one, but everything visual looks like everything else. The most memorable and bizarre of monsters are amalgams of living creatures, and as we move away from minotaurs and griffins and toward xenomorphs and predators, that’s just monsters visually referring to previous monsters visually referring to real life biological amalgams.
Yet again, even if you’re a one man no budget show, having the storyboards can help with your own work. You are doing some little effect, say you want lens flare in the sky to represent a state of mind passing over a character as he walks down the street, and it flickers in and out between shots for specific purposes, but the sun is at a bad angle for flare and you know you can insert it digitally, the actor isn’t understanding how he needs to stay in a certain portion of the frame and you need to make sure you get the composition right, so you whip out the storyboard. End of discussion, let’s shoot.
So in the end, storyboards are more about the reference rather than the rule, which is the roll of previsualization. The more spontaneous your shoot, certainly you’ll rely less on shot lists and storyboards, but nevertheless having them is more valuable than not. Like in any other part of production, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
A BRIEF COMMENT ON SCHEDULING AND BUDGETING
…and in the end, all this preliminary breakdown will help you make sure you get everything done in the time allotted, regardless of if you’re a one-man show or working a studio feature. If you know what the set-ups are going to be and which shots you’ll get from them, you won’t waste time reframing and reframing until you’re satisfied, you won’t waste time comparing shots in the editing station to see which actually fit continuity and storytelling purposes, and you won’t waste time on set arguing with anyone about what needs coverage or not. You’ll know what resources you absolutely require on which days you can shoot, and you can actually schedule cast and crew around their own availability. You’ll have a better idea of how long it will take, and if you find yourself finishing things early you’ll know what you can jump ahead to complete, and if you start running late and know you will not be able to get back to a place you are shooting at for another day or your actor is on the last day of his contract you’ll know which inserts or close-ups or whatever are essential and which shots can be dropped. You’ll have a better idea of how long the movie really is, and how long it will take to actually finish. Once money starts getting involved, all of that will help you know your budget. It will also have the simple effect of reducing time-suck and monetary cost by making communication on and off set more effective and direct.
Scheduling and budgeting is its own craft, and historically those softwares that break down scripts for you for these purposes have never been as accurate as a human UPM. A human knows the director or at least can refer to his or her history to see how they shoot, how long it takes, and how much it costs, a software merely projects averages based on assumed ‘everything else being equal’ which doesn’t match the realities of production needs at all. In fact, film production is rife with voodoo and chaos theory. It’s probably the single most attractive artform for Murphy’s Law. Previsualization techniques deriving from script breakdown cut through substantial percentages of error and chaos.
Ultimately the job of ‘directing’ a movie is the process of turning a script into something that can be edited into a visual piece. Script breakdown can thus be defined as the first step of directing, the logistics of the project. It’s the moment that turns words into vision.
An interesting underlying conflict in cinema and its history is this issue of cinema’s attachment to scripts, words, literary devices then instead of being ‘purely visual.’ This is one compelling incentive behind the idea of removing the words completely from the equation and working out the visual nature of the medium on its own terms, to remove it from its literary base. In terms of commercial film production that of course won’t due because no studio can afford letting people run around shooting millions of dollars of footage without a written down explanation of what they are shooting, which is known as a script. In the experimental nonnarrative world it’s unclear how anyone would even write a script, and much of what experimenters do defies word-based explanation (sometimes this very defiance is received by audiences as randomness or pointlessness, but to be fair language doesn’t define all of reality or experience, so your lack of ability to verbally explain something doesn’t necessarily make it nonsense). It’s in the sort of midway area between experimental, personal filmmaking and the logistical needs of feature length product that you get this gray area between what is better written down, and what needs to just naturally evolve from visual virtuosity and performance. It’s for that reason that independents resist the process of previsualization, thinking that it is mere procedure.
It’s better defined as communication. Sure, some things can’t be explained in words but most communication requires it. Sure, you want that uncanny visual experience that the audience cannot define in a mere IMDb review, but how do you lead the actors through that? And above all, since filmmaking ALWAYS requires time and energy, a decision needs to be made over whether the production is better served being planned out in advance or if you are willing to take the time to work through and extrapolate opportunities in the moment with your cast and crew. Preferably you’ll have a good enough understanding of both to know when to use either tool. Shot lists and storyboards can often be more freeing than spontaneity, and spontaneity can often be more entrapment than freedom. Either way you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner, is the point.
Thank you so much I have learned a lot from this and yes I made the same typical mistakes which now I will learn not to. Many thanks Santi
Indeed, thanks a lot, Dib!