Breaking Down Your Script (with FREE template)
You have a script. Now you want to turn it into a film. The first step is to deconstruct that script into manageable, logical pieces.
For the uninitiated, film production is broken into 5 general stages: Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post-Production and Distribution/Exhibition. These stages must go in this order, but will naturally overlap.
Development involves writing and re-writing (and re-writing) the script, finding talent and raising capital. Pre-Production takes that script and figures out how to shoot it – breakdowns, schedules, budgets, crewing and everything up til the shoot day. Production is the time that you’re actually shooting the film – on-set, in studio, motion-capture etc. Post is another word for editing: video editing, sound editing and mixing, visual effect and music. Distribution (the hardest) is getting the finished film out there, including marketing, advertising and exhibition.
Hope that clears it up. For this series, we’re focussing on Pre-Production. Assuming you already have your script and key crew – Producer, Director, Director of Photography (DOP), First Assistant Director (AD) – we can begin. Check out these. three. links. for advice on proper script layouts and scriptwriting advice.
A script should be an emotional story. It should be entertaining and moving, so if you haven’t, go ahead and read the script as it should be for the first time – enjoy the story. Then we can dissect it.
As a general rule-of-thumb, one page = one minute screen time. Fast dialogue will read slower than it’s shown on screen (Aaron Sorkin-esque) or one line of action could take a few minutes (montages for example). But generally, a 90-min script will turn into a 90-min film.
Usually, it’s the Producer breaking down the script to get a solid grasp on the production. The First AD also completes a breakdown in more detail. It’s also advised that any other Heads of Departments (HODs) go through the script looking for their specific department details – eg Art Department, Wardrobe, Props etc.
First thing to check is the scene numbers and descriptions. Each scene is given a consecutive number. But sometimes scenes intercut with each other. Scene 1 may cut to Scene 2 then back to Scene 1. Is this the same scene or a new Scene 3? If it’s a new place or new time, it’s a new scene. Lock in those scene numbers – they’ll stay the same, even if you lose or add scenes later (to avoid confusion).
How long does a scene last? Before an accurate read-through, we need to mark each page into 8ths to measure. For your first time, do exactly that: from the top and bottom of the text (not the top and bottom of the page), halve, then halve, then halve again. You’ll have your scene split into 8ths and can mark each scene into how many 8ths it lasts for: 2/8, 5/8 etc.
This is not an exact science – it’s a rough guess. Once you get better, you can eyeball the length of the scene. If it’s a quick cutaway, it’s probably 1/8. If it’s a touch longer than half a page, call it 5/8 and give 3/8 to the next scene – no need to measure perfectly every time.
If a scene is more than one page, fractions come into play. Eg 17/8 is 2 1/8 pages, 31/8 is 3 7/8 pages. If the typeface you’re using looks confusing, try adding an extra space eg: 2 5/8.
Every page must add up to 8/8ths. Your total should add up to the total pages of your script. This information will come into play when you’re assessing how much you can schedule into one day, and in hindsight, how much you have shot and whether you’re on schedule.
A traditional script breakdown involves filling in a Script Breakdown Sheet. Either digital or physical, the sheet draws all the information from each scene into a standardised template. Film scheduling software like Movie Magic Scheduling or StudioBinder combines this step with the next, saving time. If you’re happy to spend the money, we recommend trying their software. If you’re on the cheap or just starting out, we have templates below for you.
Whip out your favourite colourful highlighters – physically marking up the script can help visualise elements and make sure you haven’t missed anything. There is an industry standard of colours for every element in your script:
- Red: CAST
- Yellow: EXTRAS (FEATURED)
- Green: EXTRAS (ATMOSPHERE)
- Orange: STUNTS
- Blue: SPECIAL EFFECTS
- Purple: PROPS
- Pink: VEHICLES & ANIMALS
- Brown: SOUND & MUSIC
- Circled: WARDROBE
- Asterisk *: HAIR & MAKE-UP
- Boxed: SPECIAL EQUPIMENT
- Underlined: PRODUCTION NOTES
Meticulously assess every element in the script, highlight, then add to your Script Breakdown Sheet. Elements don’t need to be doubled, eg once a character has been highlighted red, there’s no need to highlight every mention of the character in that scene. Next scene, you can highlight them again. Attention to detail is your friend here – missing a crucial prop or direction as seriously affect your shoot.
Every scene will have it’s own breakdown sheet – no matter how short. A ten scene script will have ten breakdown sheets. For complex scenes, add extra pages with the additional detail. Once all the elements are accounted for, we can begin importing the data to stripboards and start the scheduling process.
As mentioned above, Movie Magic Scheduling and StudioBinder have great software to help you with this stage. For a free Script Breakdown template, send us THIS email and we’ll send you Word, Pages, Google Doc and PDF downloads.
Next lesson will teach you the building blocks to schedule a film – priorities and challenges you’ll find along the way.
Thanks for reading. We truly value your feedback, so comment below with any questions or ideas. Also, if you think of anyone who could find value in our lessons, let them know.