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BREAKING DOWN A SCRIPT

Scheduling and budgeting are true art forms. Have no doubt in your mind that the process is not for the weak-of-heart or the organizationally-challenged. You need to constantly review the script, talk to the director, mediate between creative and technical forces and nurture the crew to bring out the best for the project.

This section is aimed at the process of breaking down a script, highlighting considerations you should make and move forward to the budgeting process. While here we will only talk about abstract and overarching topics.

There is no way a book, or even this website, could give you all the 'secrets' you need in order to do the job as a Line Producer or UPM. You gain this knowledge through experience. Simply put, you need to see it done and do it yourself in order to apply previous experience on your current project.  However, hopefully, with the help on this page, you will know what to be looking for.  Good luck.

 

STEP ONE: Read The Script

The first thing you need to do is actually read the script. Don't make notes. Don't think about things too much. Just read it and try to enjoy the story. You will end up reading the script through many many more times, so this initial reading should be for fun. Keep the technical issues for the next step.

 

STEP TWO: Marking The Script

The next step is to go through the script and start making your notes. You will want to start thinking about each scene and how you are going to shoot it. A pretty good method is to use different color pens and/or highlighters to signify various aspects of the scenes. An example color coding scheme:

  • Yellow Highlighter: Characters
  • Pink Highlighter: Locations
  • Orange Highlighter: Stunts
  • Items underlined in Black: Props
  • Items underlined in Red: Set Dressing
  • Items underlined in Blue: Wardrobe
  • Items underlined in Green: Transportation
  • Notes in pencil: Special Equipment / Crew

Of course, you can come up with your own scheme or circle items instead of underlining. The importance here is to do something consistently so you will know at a glance that a particular issue or item is present in the scene. Your script will look messy - but that's to be expected.

You may ask yourself, 'Why not just start inputting the breakdown info directly into the scheduling program?'. Well, you could, certainly. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. This read-through of the script allows you to think in more detail and not worry about filling in blank fields on the computer. You will then be able to quickly go back and enter everything into the breakdown software. Besides, this is only the third time you have re-read the script - there will me more times to come.

Line Producers and UPMs create a schedule in order to get a more accurate feel for the number of items to be shot, characters, prop and many other issues. One major piece of information gleaned from a rough schedule is the proposed number of shooting days.

OK, once you have determined how you are going to note things, you start with the fun stuff.

Page one, scene one and breaking down the script one line at a time...

 

  Where is the scene?

Not just where the script says it is, but where in the real world you may be able to shoot this. Much of this will be in the lap of the Location Manager, but you will want to start forming some ideas. Are you in a bedroom? A field of grass? On the surface of Mars?

Now, ask yourself if this can be a practical location or will you need to build a set. Both types of locations have their pros and cons. If you build a bedroom on a stage, you could make the walls wild1. This could also allow you to shoot late into the night and/or not worry about neighbors or allow for shooting Day-for-Night2. But still - you will need to actually build it. Where are you building the room? What will it take to dress it and have it feel 'real'? Don't forget to factor in the time to get the walls up and prep the room to shoot in. A built set could be lit early and wait for the shooting crew to come, whereas a practical location may need to be lit on the day of shooting while the rest of the crew waits.

 

Pause a moment now...

Take a moment to imagine the scene. Really get detailed in your mind. Are we moving the camera? What time of day is it? What or who are our characters interacting with? What do we not see that we might have to insinuate the idea that it is just off screen? What are the characters wearing?

Starting with these basic questions and others, we start to form a picture in our mind of the scene. Pulling the descriptions off the page and letting them soak in your creative juices. Now comes more detail...

 

  What cast members will you need?

Of course, you will most likely need all the cast who work in that scene, but this may not always be true. There may be a time that you can shoot a reverse angle and only need one or a limited number of actors. Assuming you need everyone, think then to the next step…

 

  What does having this actor mean to me?

You could be lucky and able to carry a stable of crew and equipment for the entire show, but chances are you will need to wisely pick and choose the dates you will need to bring in items to accommodate an actor. This could mean bringing in the actors "team", which means actors preferred hair, makeup and/or wardrobe person or even an assistant. If you are shooting at a location which is not the actors' hometown, you may need to bring this team in as well. Does this mean that you may need more rental cars, bigger trailers or more heads to feed at catering? Yes, perhaps all of that and more.

 

  What props, set dressing or wardrobe might I need?

When imagining the scene in your mind, you need to ask yourself many questions which will later be fleshed out by a director. Let's take, as an example, that our set is a bedroom. It's morning and our hero character is getting up. The script calls for him to wake and toss the alarm clock - smashing it against the wall.

We should immediately recognize that our $7 alarm clock now should be budgeted at perhaps $28 to give us some safety in case the actor actually breaks the clock on the first take. This is called having doubles3. You will work with your Propmaster to ensure that only those needed are opened for the shoot and that any unused doubles are returned to the store for a refund. In the meantime, for budgeting - let's think we have to spend the full $28.

Do you feel that the character is wearing pajamas, clothes from the previous day or is he naked? If he is naked, should we consider a body double? These are sometimes demanded if the actor is of a public stature to feel they 'do not do nude scenes', while some actors may not have a problem with it, as long as it is not excessive.

You can add as much detail to your minds-eye picture as you see fit. Keep in mind that it may be nothing like what the director may want to see - but for now, you have the creative license to imagine. Try to keep to the letter of the script, with balance to having the scene be realistic.

 

  What special equipment might I need?

Special equipment is any piece of hardware or otherwise, which you do not normally have from day-to-day in your package. This could be a 24 frame sync box for shooting a CRT TV, the actor's triple pop-out trailer, an additional camera or as in our example - lighting.

We may have imagined our hero waking up with sunlight spilling in through an open window. If you have the perfect location with a window facing the rising sun and a crack crew ready to shoot during the 15 minutes of opportunity while the light is right - then good luck! Otherwise, you may need to see about artificially creating the sunlight. Controlling light in most any scene will be of critical importance for you to consider as you go through the script, attend location scouts and are actually shooting the scene.

Remember earlier when we talked about practical locations? Well, let's say we need this location to be practical for whatever reason. We need to get light from our 12K into the room. This means that the location may not realistically be on the 20th floor of an apartment building. If it's down lower, will you have to close off traffic on a street to mount your light in the right position? Where is the generator for this light?

 

  Will you be needing any special or additional crew?

  • Sometimes you will have the need to bring in a specialist for a shot or additional crew to augment your regular crew. You should have an idea while doing the breakdowns as to when and where these people may be needed.
  • Do you have a big extra's day and will need additional AD's or more catering crew?
  • Is this location far from basecamp and need more transportation shuttles?
  • Are you working with animals?
  • Need some extra Grips or Electrics to help rig?
  • Need to bring in a few more PAs to help with a lockdown?
  • Perhaps this scene is the only time you need a gennie and, thus, a Gennie Op.

Special circumstances are nearly endless and it will take time to recognize when to call for them. The other thing to consider is perhaps days you can cut your crew and save a day on certain people. 

Allow me to say one thing about inserts: You should definitely schedule them. When you shoot a film, you shoot it out of order and go from scene 3 to 87 to 35 in one day. You need to do this for hundreds of reasons including actor availability, location issues, props readiness, time of day and others. This often causes confusion on what is and what is not complete - so keep tabs on everything you need to shoot to complete the film.

For our ongoing example, you should create a separate breakdown strip that is a close-up of the bedroom wall as the clock bashes into it. We do not need to plan to waste the entire crews time to get this shot on the day we shoot the actor getting out of bed. Shoot it later with a B-Unit, Splinter Crew or on a day dedicated to pick-up shots. Of course, if there is some reason you need to shoot it there, don't forget it. A strip will alert every one of productions needs and intentions.

Another issue brushed over a lot is photos. Let's say there are photos of our hero's girlfriend on the bed's nightstand. We will need to create those photos. Be sure to add her to the cast list - perhaps she is a character that never appears in the film - she still needs to be cast and then photographed. When scheduling the show, ensure the photos are taken with enough time for props to have them printed and framed too. Keep in mind that the director may want to use photos of his wife there - but you still have to get clearances for the photos use and ensure props gets the photos in time.

There you are! Done...with the first scene. Now repeat this process for the next 120+ scenes and you will be ready to move to the next step. Of course, there are other questions you need to ask about the scene and you will learn them as time goes on.

 

STEP THREE: Enter The Breakdown Details Into A Scheduling Program

Now that you have done all the questioning of the scenes, you are ready to open your preferred program and enter the information. Be methodical. Enter everything you can think of and made notes for. Don't assume that other people will understand anything.  This step is covered in more detail in "The Breakdown Sheet".

 

STEP FOUR: Schedule Your Project

Now you go through the process of moving scenes around into a shooting order. A lot of decisions about order will depend on locations, actors and other things that are - for the moment - completely unknown and out-of-your-hands. So, the only thing you can do is group like scenes or locations. Don't fret too much - the only time you will have a locked schedule is after you yell, "Wrap!" on the last day of shooting. Seriously.

BREAKING SCENES & USING PARTS

I addressed this briefly in Script Numbering, but it's important so I am going to repeat myself.   As you numbered your script and re-slug any scenes which need it, you also made some mental notes of how you may need to "part" the scene.  This is when you break the actual scene down into more bite-sized pieces.

These parts follow the same general rule: A new part is dictated when the scene moves to a new location or time, but in a small action that may not warrant a full scene dedicated to only that one part.

Here are some examples you may want to break a scene into parts due to the scene being partially broken by an intervening action, flashback or the sequence 'bops' around quickly...

 

The Flashback / Flashforward

A character is sitting in a diner and sees someone. Suddenly we (the audience) is whisked away to another time, in the form of our characters memories. In this case, you may want to leave this flashback/flashforward numbered as one scene, but break the scene into parts. For example, the part with our character in the diner would be "Scene 18 p1" and the memory will be "Scene 18 p2".

The Phone Call

This is the classic one. A character is talking on the phone. If you show both sides of the conversation, you are technically moving to a new location - which should trigger a new scene number (slug line). However, for the sake of clean scene numbering, a more elegant way is to call break this sequence into parts and call, for example, "Scene 56 p1" the initial location and "Scene 56 p2" the other end of the line. Making two different strips, you can more easily schedule and consider elements needs for each side.

Additionally, you can use a part to function as a pick-up note, pre-production need or other items you'll need to make the scene whole.  For example: 

The Photograph

A character opens his wallet to show someone a picture of his kids.  This action could be a stock photograph which the Property Department supplied (and cleared!) - but for the sake of this example, let's presume that the picture is of another actor in the project portraying this character's son.  If you were to part this scene to be "Scene 21 p1" with the character showing the picture, and "Scene 21 p2" as a photo shoot needed with the kid in wardrobe and perhaps playing fetch with a dog - then this allows you the ability to not forget that you need this element.

The POV (Point of View) Shot

A character is in jail and he decides to look out and see the city skyline, taunting him.  Well, this happens within one scene - but you ae shooting the jail cell on a stage, and there's no way to get the POV shot when you shoot the scene.  So, if you part the scene to be "Scene 89 p1" in the jail cell and "Scene 89 p2" as the POV which you'll shoot on another day, or perhaps with a splinter crew only - it will afford you that flexibility when scheduling.

BE CONSISTENT: If you do break scenes, be sure to break scenes for the same reasons throughout the script.

TERMINOLOGY

1: Wild Walls: In terms of set construction, these are parts of the set surroundings which can be moved to give way for the camera, equipment or crew access to the set.

2: Day-for-Night: This is the practice of shooting during the day but somehow acting on screen as if it were night. Commonly this means blacking out the windows. night-for-day would be shooting at night and doing things technically to act as if it were daytime. This could mean extra lighting.

3: Doubles: These are items which will you need to have multiples of. This could be many shirts because the character gets shot or more bread that we have to toast in the scene. Having doubles of things is a safety in case the first take on a shot does not work right - there are other items to be used.

 

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