"Pay attention!" Bob demanded, waving a donut at us, next Betsy comes in and shows everyone the microwave and Randy's going to say 'It looks really reliable!' and we'll get a shot from above with the marching band – you know – marching around and playing something, and Betsy, or maybe Gina, yeah, Gina. – Gina throws five heads of broccoli into the microwave and says 'and roomy!' and that's when the juggler with the unicycle comes in."
"Juggler?!" cried out Misty, "you never said anything about a juggler!"
"We don't have a juggler?"
"We don't have a juggler!" Misty was nearly in tears, as she was in charge of props and extras. Bob looked puzzled. "I thought I mentioned the juggler. Maybe I didn't. Ok, so Betsy'll just say something about how energy efficient it is and we'll call it a day."
"How energy efficient is it?" asked Betsy. Bob's look went from puzzled to worried.
It was at that point that Mark and Larry, the guys from the microwave company, fired us all and went to Bigsby's Video on the other side of town to do their commercial.
"It's because we didn't have the juggler," Bob said later that night after his sixth Shirley Temple while we all commiserated in the cheapest bar we could find.
"No it's not," I said, "we got fired because we didn't have a script."
"A script?!" Bob set down his glass and motioned to the waitress for another – he was hitting the grenadine pretty hard – "audio… video… script… format…." he muttered in a seeming daze – then snapping out of it continued, "why would we need a script for a 30-second TV spot! Don't you think I can keep a 30-second spot straight in my head?"
Everyone who has been doing video for any length of time knows that script writing is important, though they might not have a formal idea of how to write a video script. We're going to look at making scripts for video productions, from small 30-second spots, to epic dramas; there's something for everyone.
Scripts – How Formal?
While there are very particular formatting demands made for certain types of scripts, they don't necessarily have to be in a particular format with a certain font, indentation or line spacing if you're working by yourself or a small group of friends. As long as you're clear, a script might be as simple as a shot list with notes:
- Betsy comes in and shows everyone the microwave.
- Bob says "It looks reliable".
- Gina microwaves broccoli in it.
- Get coverage from multiple angles and closeups.
This might be all you need if you're shooting things on a small scale and don't need approval from anyone before you start. However, the more complex your shoot, the more important a script becomes and the more reasonable it is to format your script the way other writers do.
One reason for very exacting specifications of some scripts are because they're used to gauge the length of a movie where each page of a script averages out to one minute of screen time. This allows producers and directors to gauge the length of a production simply by looking at the size of the script on their desk. Twelve point Courier News is typically the standard font because of its ubiquity, clarity, and the fact that it's a monospaced rather than proportional font (meaning a capital "M" takes up as much space as a lowercase "i").
Other Types of Scripts
Typically scripts use a screenplay format which looks like a play – people's names, their dialogue, and directions about what's happening. There's another common script format called a "two column" or "A/V" script, which has – two columns, one with narration and the second column with a description of what's happening in the video. This might be:
The mighty moose wanders the mountain-top, looking for food. It remains one of the most memorable sights a lucky tourist will see as the sun sets in the background.
- Start with wide shot of scene.
- Cut to various shots of moose wandering around.
- Closeup of moose's head as he lifts it to look around.
Whichever format works for you, theatrical play, A/V, or a simple outline, scripts have a number of benefits to your production. There are books, websites and screenwriting software galore, which will deal with the minutia of formatting just a few clicks away. Let's look at some of the reasons you'd want to use a script and what it'll do for your production.
- Scripts Help Formulate Ideas: The script writing process helps to get your thoughts down and organize them, looking at the relationship between shots and ideas can often help you see the bigger picture and create a better arc to your story.
- Scripts Help Prevent Accidents: Scripts make sure that there are no unexpected props or camera angles. If Bob had written a script that included the words "Juggler / unicycle" the production team would have known beforehand that they needed to have one. Likewise if the script calls for a crane shot, or a cake or lines spoken in French, your team will know that they need props or a dialog coach; moreover there's a chance to nix it if someone realizes it's unnecessary or too expensive.
- Scripts Show That You're Serious: The video industry is very competitive and you're often dealing with people who have very limited time to make decisions and have many production companies to choose from. Your packaging, website, and script are all things that can show how serious a player you are at a glance. Turning in a polished and properly formatted script when the other guy shows up with some Post-it notes stuck on his sleeve will show the client who's willing to spend the time and attention their production needs.
- Scripts Help Communication and Streamline Revision: After your client gets your script, it's easy for them to comment on specifics and to shape your production long before you get to the set, they can get a concrete handle on your ideas and the way you want to present them. On professional productions with lots of script changes, new pages will be printed in different colors; for instance the first revision might have white pages with changes on them, then are replaced by pink pages, the next round of changes may come on blue pages, etc. So everyone will know that their script is or isn't current based on the color pages they have. For this reason it's a good idea to put your script in a three-ring binder rather than stapling it.
- Scripts Help Multiple People Work on a Project: Often, videos are made by people who don't live near one another, or who are working on other projects before the shoot – having a script that can be sent to everyone will let you hear from your lead actress that she's afraid of heights and will need a stunt double for the water tower scene; from your property master that the bonfire you have in scene six will need a permit from the fire marshal; and will let other people comment on pace, dialog or other things that are important to them.
- I Don't Need a Script, I'm Just Shooting My Kid's Birthday Party! Even the seemingly most disorganized of shoots can benefit from a script. When shooting something like a birthday party, having a script beforehand that spells out not what people will say, but things you want to get and what order you want to get them in – this can be extremely helpful. A script for a birthday party might look something like this.
- Exterior setup shots of house.
- Titles: Junior's Tenth Birthday, January 11, 2012
- Video montage of photos of all of Junior's previous birthdays.
- Mom in front of the house, she says "Welcome to Junior's birthday party! We're at the Baxter household and we have a swell day planned!"
- Baking the Cake: have grandma tell the story of her cake recipe, closeups of cake being made and going in oven.
- Wrapping Presents: have mom tell the story of how much Junior wanted a bow and arrow while she wraps it, have her speculate on what Junior will say when he opens it.
- Interview with Junior: ask him what he wants, have him talk about each of the friends he's invited.
- Interviews with Friends: ask name, age, how they met Junior and what they like best about him.
- Games: get medium and wide shots, get shots out the window of the third floor showing the whole croquet setup and hedge maze.
- The Cake – bringing the cake out, follow grandma from kitchen.
- Pan the table before the candles are blown out, get medium shots of faces.?-Shot from across the table as Junior blows out candles, shoot second camera on wide shot of room.
- Two cameras during unwrapping, wide shot of room and closeup of Junior's face.
- Recap – after guests have left, ask Junior how his day was, have him tell a story about grandma, ask which presents he likes the best, ask what kind of party he'd like the next year.
That's a pretty elaborate video for a kid's birthday party, but this kind of road map helps plan your shots, sets the story that you're going to tell, and makes sure you'll have all the coverage you'll need to edit a great video together.
The Internet is littered with screenwriting software and they've been around for a while. In 1983, the Write Brothers, Stephen and Christopher, released the first screenwriting software, Scriptor which has been sold several times over the years. Their current screenwriting software, Movie Magic, shares the stage with other applications like Final Draft and ScreenForge as well as a number of free and not-free templates for Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. A few minutes on Google can help you find the right one, or you can make your own by setting up paragraph styles in your favorite word processor.
Having a script helps you not only get your ideas down clearly, but helps get input from other people before everyone is on the set and things start to get too expensive. It's a very important tool for general preparedness, even when your plan is as simple as "show up and see what happens".
Your homework assignment is to look at some scripts online or from the library – take a look at formatting and organization, see how the dialog, description and camera positions have been described, use what you've learned in your next production, and let us know how it goes in the Videomaker forums!
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.