Breaking Down a Script and Scheduling a Film Shoot
Breaking down a script and scheduling the shoot are arguably the most important things to a film project. You don’t hear a lot about it though, because the work is heinously unsexy and tedious.
Nonetheless, breaking down and scheduling a script are important because film budgets are built largely from this work. A breakdown allows someone to itemize and list every single prop, actor, and location a script will need, as well as many other important elements. The schedule, built from the breakdown process, outlines exactly how long a film will take to shoot, when and how long each cast and crew member are needed, and many other tiny, yet monumentally important production details. Without these things, filmmaking on a large scale becomes a nightmare.
As I write this, I am only aware of one set of books which specifically details how to do this work. They are Film Scheduling , Film Budgeting , and the Film Scheduling/Film Budgeting Workbook . They are both written by Ralph Singleton. The methods used here to break down and schedule scripts come from these books.
One problem: these books were written in 1984. At that time, scheduling software did not exist. Singleton does a good job describing the fundamentals of this work, but he does so using colored paper, glue, and poster board. Conducting movie business with arts and crafts might seem like an odd idea, but most modern scheduling software is built to mimic this work. While the user interface may change, the principles are the same.
The principals of breaking down a script and then making a shooting schedule are actually fairly simple. And the good news is that if someone understands them, they can do this work with or without a computer. They also have a skill highly valued among film professionals.
Film scheduling is best learned by simply doing it, so this article will be scheduling a sample script. However, there are a couple things one needs in order to follow along. One is a small list of basic tools. The other is an understanding of what Singleton calls “scheduling parameters”.
The tools are as follows:
* A hard copy of the script
* A stack of Breakdown Sheets
* Red, Orange, Green, Yellow, Blue, Purple, Pink, and Brown crayons, colored pencils, or markers.
* Transparent Ruler
* Spreadsheet software, such as Excel or Open Office.
You will need a hard copy of the script because you are going measure the length of scenes with the transparent ruler, then physically mark the script using the colored pencils.
When you mark the script, you are recording the number and length of scenes, cast members needed, props, costumes, and other elements, and recording it on a breakdown sheet.
This is a breakdown sheet. There are many variations available freely online. But they all do basically the same thing. They each have a space for specific script elements to be recorded. Those spaces are also labeled with colors. The colors each have an assigned element, broken down thusly:
Red = Cast, Speaking
Orange = Stunts
Yellow = Extras/Silent Bits
Green = Extras/Atmosphere
Blue = Special Effects
Violet = Props
Pink = Vehicles or Animals
Brown = Sound Effects
Some elements are also marked with a circle, box, asterisk, or a black underline. Those items are also described below.
Sometimes you may find breakdown sheets with elements, color, and numbers listed. The numbers are budget codes, and they correspond to a line item in the film’s budget. Whether or not the breakdown sheets have budget codes should not effect the scheduling process.
Each element on the breakdown sheet is defined as such:
Cast, Speaking (Red):
Any person who utters a even a single word. On union films, this figures largely into how an actor is paid. There are also several other definitions, such as Supporting Players, Day Players, and Principals. However, this is something to worry about more when building a film budget.
It is advised that when marking the breakdown sheet, mark the first appearance of a character with a full name and in all capital letters. This will be useful later in the process. Also, if a character is a child, note the age of the child, and also list that child as needing a welfare worker/teacher. This is so that the production can comply with child labor laws.
It is important to mention that, as in life, kids complicate everything. When working with kids, you are not just hiring the child, you’re hiring that child, a teacher, and the parents. Labor laws also vary from state to state, which can have a direct effect on your shooting schedule. Hollywood can afford these headaches. Independent filmmakers cannot. As a rule of thumb, avoid child actors whenever possible.
Any hazardous action requiring trained professionals, such as fighting, crashes, falls, and physically dangerous activities. Stunts need stunt men and women. A script with a lot of stunts will need a stunt coordinator. Actors will most likely need stunt doubles. If this is the case, find the part of the breakdown sheet for “production notes”, and write “stunt coordinator”. Also list any stunt doubles under the appropriate cast members.
Extras/Silent Bits (Yellow):
These are roles which, while silent, still effect a scene, and with which speaking roles still interact. They are not wholly extras, because they are not just a part of the scenery. They might be a clerk at a register selling magazines to the lead character, or staff members in a control room scene.
These are wholly background people. They have no interaction in the scene and no effect on the overall story in the film. These are the crowds of shoppers, or audience members, or packs of screaming fans that many films need.
Note that in union pictures, the classification of an extra changes from the east coast to the west coast. The west coast (LA and the like) participates in the Screen Extras Guild. The East Coast (Chicago and New York) does not, covering them under the Screen Actors Guild. If you wish to comply with union rules you must contact the appropriate union for your region.
Special Effects (Blue):
Special effects are defined as any effect which must be created. Far more than gore effects, gunshot squibs, or lightsabers, most special effects actually create things which aren’t that special. If you’re filming on a sound stage and you need a stove which actually works and cooks food, that is a special effect. If you have a scene which needs rain, that is a special effect (and an expensive one). Any effect that occurs naturally in life, but must be created for a particular scene, is a special effect. Be very careful when breaking down a script. Don’t take anything for granted. If a script makes a point of mentioning something, it will probably need to be created on set. Therefore, it is probably a special effect. Better to be prepared than caught with your pants down.
Props can be a tricky thing to classify. Technically, a prop is anything portable that an actor uses in a scene. However, if that same object is part of the decorations on the set, it is considered a set dressing. And to further complicate things, an actor could also retrieve something from a costume they are wearing. So how do you know if something is a prop, a piece of set dressing, or part of a costume? Fortunately, a bit of common sense prevails. An object becomes a prop when an actor picks it up and uses it. So if a room contains a single rose left on a table, that rose is considered set dressing unless an actor picks it up and offers it to another actor. If that rose is then affixed to a tuxedo, and that tuxedo figures largely in the next scene, the rose is considered part of the tuxedo costume in that next scene. All the while, each breakdown sheet should reflect that a rose is needed as set dressing, a prop, and then as part of a costume. Overlap in this case is not a bad thing.
Properly accounting for props can also require some continuity thinking. A character may acquire a prop in an early scene, and the script will assume that he has it for a number of pages until it specifically mentions it again. In this case, the prop still must be noted on all the appropriate breakdown sheets.
Vehicles and Animals (Pink):
It doesn’t make much sense that two completely different and complicated concerns are lumped together, but that’s how the film business works.
There are two kinds of vehicles: picture cars and atmosphere vehicles. Picture cars are the vehicles used by an actor in a scene. Atmosphere cars are any and all cars seen on the screen. Think of them like car extras.
It is important to accurately estimate how many and which type of vehicles will be needed during a particular scene. Wide angle shots will require more things on screen than a tighter one. Also note any specific additions or modifications to the vehicle, such as equipment or damage, so that the art department can dress the vehicle appropriately.
With respect to animals, all animals require handlers. For emphasis, ALL ANIMALS USED TO SHOOT A SCENE REQUIRE A HANDLER. Even gerbils and mice.
If an animal is required to do a specific action or trick, you then need a specially trained animal with an appropriate handler. Movies which star animals doing all kinds of nifty things often employ a group of identical look-alikes that are specifically trained.
Handlers are needed to instruct the animal to do its tricks, but more importantly to see to the animal’s care during a shoot. Film people, even interns and production assistants, are too busy to know whether or not a dog has been fed or walked. So someone must be there specifically to make sure the animals are treated humanely.
As with child actors, avoid animals whenever possible.
Circle any information pertaining to a character’s clothes or costume. Often multiple copies of a costume will be needed to properly dress an actor. This is often true when clothes are “distressed”, meaning that they are intentionally soiled or damaged to reflect an ordeal that the character has just endured.
Make up and Hair (Asterisk):
Mark any information about make up and hair with an asterisk. Make up and hair are important in establishing the time period of a film. Each major decade of the twentieth century has very recognizable styles. So do colonial and medieval eras in human history. Science fiction and fantasy films will also have very specific hair and make up.
Sound Effects and Music (Brown):
Any sound effect which must be obtained or recorded should be listed here. Look only for sounds specifically mentioned in the script. Sound designers and foley artists only need to know the sounds a script specifically name.
If there is a particular song mentioned in the script, note the artist and title. But be warned, song rights are a quagmire. In order to use that song, the production will have to pay for the legal right to do so. Song rights are obtained in two stages. First, one must obtain the right to use a particular song. Second, one must obtain rights to use a particular version of that particular song. Think of it this way: if it’s a song you know by an artist you’ve heard of, you probably can’t afford it.
Special Equipment (Boxed in Black):
Motion pictures are shot with a camera, a microphone, and a recording medium. Special equipment is any additional equipment needed to achieve a certain shot. When a camera zooms into a close up, it needs a zoom lens. When something is shot from high above, that shot requires a crane or a helicopter. When shooting on film, slow motion calls for a special motor on the camera and extra film stock. Sometimes a script will specifically call for these kinds of things. Often a director is left to make these kinds of decisions. Ask the director. Some directors may have pre-prepared lists. Others may not. Either way, this kind of equipment can be among the most expensive on set, so make sure to obtain this information and mark it.
Sometimes special equipment, or even special props require a technical advisor. When filming Titanic, James Cameron employed the use of Russian submersibles which were needed to take footage of the actual Titanic wreckage. In that case, the line producer needed to make note of the submersibles, as well as the technical advisors needed whenever the script mentioned footage of the underwater wreck.
Examples of props that may need additional technical advisors include military gear, ancient style weapons, or special personal equipment.
Production Notes (Underlined in Black Pen):
These are extra details associated with any of the previously mentioned elements. These are also additional questions, requirements, or thoughts that a line producer has for a particular scene. Discuss all of these items with a director.
Having filtered all of this information into the breakdown sheets, the line producer will then transfer it all onto a production board. Singleton used paper, glue, and poster board to build a production board. I have instead built a production board template using an excel spreadsheet. My design is by no means perfect. But it is functional and it includes all information from Singleton’s example. Improvements are welcome and encouraged.
It is during this stage of the scheduling process that Singleton’s ‘scheduling parameters’ become important. However, these parameters don’t make much sense until someone actually uses breakdown sheets, marks a script, and uses that to build a production board. For that reason, I have decided to breakdown and schedule the short film script Subtotals.
Subtotals is a short film I wrote in college. It is based on a piece of flash fiction of the same name, written by Gregory Burnham. I wrote it without permission from the author, and its use here is also without permission. (I’ve been unable to find any way to get in touch with him. But I’d love to hear from him.) Because of this, I claim no copyright on it. Nonetheless, it is a good scheduling sample because, despite its five page length, it is surprisingly complex.
This is a copy of the Subtotals script.
This is a scanned copy of my marked script.
This is a scanned copy of my breakdown sheets. You might notice some mistakes.
My final production board can be found below.
Before any marks are made to the script, before any production notes are taken, before any color hits the script page, one must first count scenes and measure their length.
A scene, as defined by Singleton, is “a unit of action which takes place in the same location over the same period of time”. For example, a man walking into a coffee shop, ordering a drink, and sitting down, could be considered a single scene.
Scenes change when one or more of the following happens: a shift in location, a large shift in time, or a large change in the number of characters. Continuing with the coffee shop example, a cut to the the grocery store next door, a cut to later that night, when the man leaves the shop, or the introduction of his five best friends would all signal the end of one scene and the beginning of another.
Having identified individual scenes, it is also important to measure the length of a scene. The unit of measurement here is in pages, and pages are further broken down into eighths of a page. This is because of screenplay formatting, where each page has roughly eight inches of copy. Therefore, scenes are said to be measured in “eighths”.
One inch of copy equals 1/8 of a page. So a scene 4 inches long is said to be 4/8. Do not reduce your fractions. A scene is always measured in eighths.
Likewise, do not use improper fractions. If a scene is a page and a half long, do not mark it as 12/8. That scene is 1 and 4/8 pages, or 1 – 4/8. Also, do not mark a full page as 8/8. Mark a full page as 1.
The minimum length any scene can be is 1/8. Even if a scene is technically only one line mentioning that a character opens a beer, that scene counts as 1/8 of a page.
Marking the Script
Finally, the process of marking the script can begin. When filling out breakdown sheets, much of the information is self explanatory. Here’s an explanation for the things that are not:
Breakdown Page # and Scene #:
Generally, these numbers will be identical. The only times they won’t be is if a scene is added or deleted. If a scene is added, the new scene will be assigned a number and letter “22A” for example. If a scene is deleted, it will be marked “Deleted” or “Omitted”. In either case, do not change any of the other scene numbers. The breakdown page numbers will change, however, because the breakdown sheets still needs to track this additional information.
Usually where the scene takes place. “House”, “Arena”, “Mothership” Are all good examples.
Usually what happens in the scene. “Man opens fridge”, “Man fights giant lizard”, or “Man kicks aliens in groin”.
When marking a script, remember to underline with the appropriate color. Do not highlight. If the script is photocopied, highlighting can eventually obscure the text on a page.
And with all that, you should be ready to go.
Marking and Breaking Down the Subtotals Script
One of the reasons I chose Subtotals was that the script is only five pages long. But, within those five pages, I identified 19 distinct scenes requiring 24 different actors, including children and babies. Many of these scenes measure at only 1/8, yet they also require substantial preparation.
There are some problems with the script. I wrote it using the Times New Roman font, instead of Courier. It is also formatted incorrectly. As a result, measurements on the pages are slightly off. Fortunately because this is such a short film, and many of the scenes themselves are only 1/8 page, this does not effect things too much. However, this could be a big problem if this script were feature length.
The script is also sometimes vague and confusing. One character in particular is referred to by two different names. This made correctly accounting for this person important, because you do not want to end up hiring two different actresses for the same role.
I also mistook the difference between a background extra and a silent bit part. You will note that my breakdown sheets sometimes have groups of people circled with an arrow pointing to a different box. This is an important distinction, particularly in paying hired actors.
Nonetheless, the process soon became second nature, and it went like this:
1) Identify specific scenes and measure them.
2) Mark the script page with both scene numbers and measurements.
3) Find any and all elements present in each scene.
4) Underline and mark them as needed.
And that was basically it. After that it was time to place them on a production board.
The Production Board
Instead of building my production board out of paper and glue, I built it as an Excel spreadsheet. There are several scheduling software suites now widely available, however they are all very expensive, virtually no one is available for training in its use, and there is no true universal standard.This template, however, functions exactly as Singleton’s. Permission is granted for download and personal use, although I am sure there is room for improvements.
Building the production board basically means deciding which scenes get shot when. This sounds simple in theory but it can be a major headache in practice. This is where the “scheduling parameters” come into play.
The scheduling parameters are the priorities that a line producer gives when considering how to build the production board. The order of this priority goes like this:
If at all possible, you want to use a location only once during a shoot. Returning to a location is often highly inconvenient (read: expensive) and very likely impossible. So the first priority given is to where a film must be shot.
Similarly to locations, you also want to get the most our of an actor while you have them. Actors, famous or not, can also have very demanding schedules. On union productions, actors are often paid whether they are used on set or not. So you want to get the most value for your budget and avoid wasting the actor’s commitment to your production. Therefore it is important to schedule actors in as large a block of time as possible, putting them in as many back to back days as is realistic.
On union films there are many rules involved with scheduling actors. Actors need at least 12 uninterrupted hours between call times and 58 uninterrupted free hours on weekends, so no night scenes can be followed directly with day scenes. Child actors can only work a few hours each day. If the size of a role changes, that means a different pay scale. And lastly, actors can only be taken off, and then placed back on a film’s payroll once. In other words, your the shooting schedule can only include one block of unused downtime for a union actor. Otherwise, they get paid whether or not they are used on set. This is done to protect the actor’s time.
#3: Day and Night Shooting:
Try to shoot as may days back to back and as many nights back to back as possible. On union shoots, this becomes a factor when scheduling time off for cast and crew. Again, minimum time off means that you can’t immediately go from night scenes to day scenes.
#4: Interior or Exterior:
Try to shoot all exterior scenes before shooting interior scenes. The reason for this is weather. If the weather does not cooperate, you have a chance to shoot indoor scenes and get your missing footage later.
Shooting in sequence means shooting in the chronological order of the script. This makes it easier for actors to do their job.
Kids are a huge pain in the ass. Depending on where you are shooting, they may only work certain hours and certain conditions. They require parents and tutors. They require consultation with guild offices.
#7: Change in Time Period:
On science fiction and historical films, large sets are often needed in order to establish setting. Large sets also means many large costumes. Such things need a lot of preparation. People don’t just build a set and then just wait for a movie to show up. They must be built during the production process, and that construction must be accounted for in the schedule.
#8 and #9: Time of Year and Weather:
Or more accurately, local seasons. Depending on where the film is being shot, local weather can present any number of considerations when filming. Also consider how much local daylight is available. Are there any unusual weather patterns this time of year? Account for the season when making your schedule.
#10: Special Effects and Stunts:
Special effects and stunts can be extremely time consuming. Things we see commonly on film and television, car crashes, explosions, and kung fu fights, all require massive preparation. It is not unusual for certain stunts lasting a few seconds to require a full day’s work.
#11: Second Unit:
A second unit is a second film crew that goes around and gathers additional footage. While the main crew is filming the main cast, the second unit will gather establishing shots and additional footage. Films employ second units as a time saving device. But they are not always needed, and they can also be expensive.
#12: Special Equipment:
This is the same special equipment described for the breakdown sheets. Often this equipment needs to be specially rented, and may also have limited availability. Some special equipment needs its own specialized technicians, and they may also have limited availability.
Where is the film actually being shot? The proximity of one location to another figures largely into a schedule because the cast and crew will have to find a way from one place to the other. If you schedule two different locations on the same day, that may mean that cast and crew must drive across town in order to complete a day’s work.
– Anything else that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Any number of things can derail and influence the scheduling process.
Building the Subtotals Production Board
Here is the final production board I came up with for Subtotals. Some notes on the process are below.
Some things made scheduling this script easier. Some made it more difficult. One the one hand, only one scene in the entire film is an exterior. On the other, there are an extraordinary number of scenes, and therefore a large number of unique locations.
When making this schedule I assumed that studio space was available to be dressed for the various scenes and rooms. Whenever possible, I also made sure that a location could account for two scenes, such as on day two. The Ex Girlfriend waves to the camera from high school. That high school’s auditorium could provide a good stage for the Young Man’s graduation scene.
A lot of the shooting days are relatively short, often shooting only two scenes measuring 1/8 page. This is because I figured many scenes would require a lot of prep time, but I also assumed an 8 hour shooting day. Part of this is because this is a relatively small film. Part of this is deliberately diverging from Hollywood procedure. Modern films shoot 16, 18, even 20 hour days. I won’t get into the business or political reasons for this. It’s just what they do. If you’re making a Hollywood film, you might too. But if you’re not, your shooting day can be as long as you want, and I see no reason no to let people go home to their families. (Research tends to show that well rested filmmakers are better filmmakers.)
I scheduled the exterior scene last because it isn’t vital for the story, it is the script’s most technically complicated scene, and it allowed me to give the male lead a solid block of set time.
In a pinch, the shoot could do without all nine babies in scene 12, and all the complications that would entail. A single baby, or even a doll, could be dressed up nine different ways, saving money and possibly time. But for the exercise I decided to proceed as if I had access to nine babies.
When looking over the script, I discovered that scenes 10 and 11 could be collapsed into one scene. If I had decided to collapse the scenes, this could have potentially changed the rest of my breakdown sheets and the production board. In such cases, simply listing one of the scenes as “omitted” could easily avoid this confusion. My solution here, however, was to give them both the same slot on the board because it allowed me to collapse the scenes without having to change any records. This may not work in every case, but it seemed OK to do here.
Some scenes are given their own day, such as the sex scene and the wedding, yet are listed as 1/8 page. This is again to anticipate prep time. Depending on how the director wants to shoot the scene, the actors may need extra time to get comfortable. And in order to set up a wedding reception, a banquet hall needs to be recreated in at least some detail. If days like this wrap early, the director can either decide to forge on and work ahead of schedule, or simply end the day early and save the production money.
From the final production board, a river of other paper work begins to flow. It would be impossible to describe and detail all of it here. Samples of it all can be found in Singleton’s Film Scheduling/Film Budgeting Workbook. It is presented without any explanation, however, so it can be frustrating trying to understand it all.
It is possible to schedule a feature length motion picture script using everything found here. If you are an independent filmmaker, breaking down a script makes a movie feel real like nothing else. If you’re looking for work, this is a very valuable skill to have.
Nonetheless, if any of this article looks like Greek, or if you just don’t have the stomach for all this Type A work, that’s OK. Just respect that motion pictures don’t just fall out of the sky when one writes a script. They require a lot work and a lot of planning. This is the kind of thing that separates the wannabes from actual filmmakers and professionals. So don’t blow if off. Do it right, or find someone who can. The results will speak for themselves.