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What Is a Script Breakdown?
In filmmaking, a script breakdown is a thorough analysis of a script that identifies and categorizes all the elements needed to properly prepare for the production process. Early in the preproduction process, a film's producer will typically make a basic, scaled-down script breakdown for budgeting and creating a preliminary schedule. It's then the job of the first assistant director (1st AD) to create the more comprehensive main script breakdown, which they use to generate the full shooting schedule, shot list, stripboards, and individual scene breakdowns.
Before the age of personal computers, you had to break down a script by hand using physical paper script and colored pens. Today, scheduling software and screenwriting software make the script breakdown process easier than ever.
Script Breakdown Step 1: Divide Script Pages Into Eighths
The first step in the breakdown process is to draw lines across each page of the script in order to divide it into eight one-inch sections. This gives you an accurate idea of exactly how many pages each scene is. Before the advent of digital script breakdown software, you'd have to use a ruler and pencil to draw lines across the script pages. Today, this step is extremely simple since computer software automatically does it for you.
This step allows the production team to more precisely estimate how long it will take to shoot a scene. On average, a page in a Hollywood script equals about one minute of screen time and a film production will normally shoot around five pages per day. Instead of eyeballing pages and saying that a scene appears to be about two and a half pages, you might determine its true length is two and three-eighths pages. Page count accuracy is key to making sure you don't schedule too many or too few scenes in a single day.
Script Breakdown Step 2: Isolate Production Elements
The crux of breaking down the script is slowly and carefully reading through it and isolating every production element into its proper category. Your breakdown software should already assign every element its own color code, and all you need to do is highlight the text in the script and tag that item to its appropriate category. If you're breaking down the script by hand, you can use different color highlighters instead. There are 15 categories you'll need to tag in the script:
- Cast members: Highlight the character name for all cast members (any characters who speak).
- Extras: Also called BG (for background), extras are any characters who don't speak. You may want to further divide this category into “featured extras” and “atmosphere.” Featured extras are characters who don't speak but have a more prominent role in a scene (like a waiter delivering food to the table of main characters). Atmosphere is a group of extras meant to fill out a space (like fans in the stands at a sporting event).
- Props: A prop is any object that an actor interacts with.
- Vehicles: This category includes all on-screen cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, helicopters, etc.
- Animals: This category includes all on-screen animals. In addition to the animals, the production will need to hire an animal handler or trainer.
- Set dressing: Any item that helps flesh out the set to give it the correct appearance. For example, furniture, decorations, potted plants, etc.
- Music: Any music that the film's characters actually hear or perform. In other words, diegetic music. This category does not include songs on the soundtrack that aren't played in the actual world of the film. It's important to flag this element so you can have playback available on set for actors to hear during filming.
- Sound effects: Any sound that's important to hear on set. This category does not include sounds added in postproduction.
- Costumes: Flag any unusual pieces of clothing or if there's a change in a costume's continuity (e.g., a shirt is covered in blood or a character spills a drink on their pants).
- Make-up and hair: Note any make-up or hair look that differs from a character's usual appearance. For example, a wound on a character’s skin or wet hair after a character showers.
- Stunts: Any special feat that requires a stunt coordinator or stunt person. May require special equipment as well.
- Special effects (SFX): Any practical effect that occurs physically on set during filming without the use of computer graphics. For example, pyrotechnics, fake rain, and animatronics.
- Visual effects (VFX): A VFX element is anything that requires the creation or manipulation of on-screen imagery that does not physically exist in real life. Any shot that needs a green screen will be a VFX element. Some breakdown software refers to VFX as “optical effects.”
- Special equipment: Any special equipment needed to execute the director's vision, such as an underwater camera or a drone.
- Miscellaneous notes: A category for any leftover elements that you're unsure how to categorize. You can also leave a note if you have questions about anything in a scene.
Script Breakdown Step 3: Generate Breakdown Sheets
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Once you finish isolating all your production elements, your final step is to list and categorize all the elements into a detailed breakdown sheet for every scene. Based on the elements you tagged, your breakdown software will automatically generate this sheet for you. If you're breaking down the script by hand, you can download a free breakdown sheet template and plug in all your information. The formatting for your breakdown sheet should include the following for each scene:
- The scene heading (e.g., “INT. RESTAURANT - DAY”)
- The scene number
- Page length of the scene written in eighths (eg., "⅜ pgs" or "3⅞ pgs")
- Every production element you tagged in the script, organized into the element's specific category
When you're finished with your script breakdown sheets, you'll have a comprehensive document that you can reference to help generate your daily call sheets. In addition, all key crew members in each department can use the script breakdown to ensure they're fully prepared for every shoot day.
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