Breaking Down Your Script -or- How to keep from having a breakdown later

June 22, 2009 - by Jeff Freeman

A feature film can have literally hundreds of scenes that have to be shot in any number of locations. Breaking down the script is essential to budgeting, scheduling, and ultimately shooting. If you are working on a short film with only a few scenes, it is still a good idea to go through this process. You'll be surprised at how many elements are involved in a simple short. In the end, you'll have a checklist of things you need for each scene, and by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, you'll be reasonable sure you won't miss anything.

You should dedicate one page per scene in your film, and a scene is basically the portion of action that is shot in a single location at a single time, such as The Kitchen, or The Office on Day 1 Afternoon, or Day 3 Morning. Let's look at our breakdown page.

  1. Basic information about the production

    1. Date - can be good if things are going to change

    2. Production Company - business stuff

    3. Production Title - the name of the flick

    4. Breakdown Sheet Number - very useful if there is more than one scene sharing a sheet (make sure to give example later)

    5. Page Count - down to the eighth of a page, because 1/8 is roughly one inch of the page

  2. Basic information about the scene

    1. Scene Number - in the script, could be more than one scene in a sequence [ex. Script has girl getting ready for date inter-cut with guy walking up to house. Put all the guy-walking-up-to-house scenes together on one breakdown page; they all have the same elements

    2. Scene Name - the location as it appears in the scene header

    3. Int. or Ext. - are we inside or outside??

    4. Description - short phrase that identifies the scene (usually one main action) and makes it easier to remember

    5. Day or Night - is the sun involved or not?? Notice the colour code. Use coloured paper, or stick-on tabs

  3. Elements of the scene - the colours and shapes correspond with the notation in the script

    1. Cast - Red

    2. Stunts - Orange [anything that could even possibly be dangerous, or will take a bit of working out]

    3. Extras/Atmosphere - background people

    4. Extras/Silent bits - people who don't say anything, but factor into the scene

    5. Special Effects

    6. Props - things the actors use, as opposed to set dressing which consists of objects that are not touched by actors]

    7. Vehicle/Animals - not cars you use for crew/equipment, but those that appear in the film, called 'picture cars'.

    8. Wardrobe - something specifically called for in the script

    9. Make-up/Hair - specifically from the script

    10. Sound Effects/Music - include if it will impact the shoot (a character sings on screen and you want them to lip sync to a track previously recorded)

    11. Special Equipment - out of the ordinary stuff you have to have to get the scene

    12. Production Notes - anything you need to remember for the shoot

  4. Rearrange the pages into groups based upon their colour (D/N/I/E) and begin to work through them, putting together scenes that have the same elements. If you only have your friend's car for one day, you want to make sure you shoot it out!

Another nice thing about breaking down the script in this way, is that as you gather the elements together for your shoot, if something becomes undoable, or you get a better idea, you can incorporate it into the script and change the breakdown pages to match. That way, you're always up-to-date.

I can't say enough about pre production. The more prepared you are, the better the shoot will go and the more time you'll have to be creative. Doesn't that sound like just about anything you do? And the less you leave to chance, the more shoot-able your script will be because you'll be able to make changes to your characters and your story before you start to shoot. It sucks to have a scene shot, then find out that you'll have to change it to match a new rewrite that was based on a location or an actor or a car you couldn't get.

Tell me your stories of how a breakdown helped you or could have helped you.

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