How to Break Down a Script for Production

Film production at any level is a complicated process. When working on your own, or even with a small team, there’s a lot on your plate. The script breakdown, daunting as it may seem, is an integral part to keeping all of your ducks in a row.

What’s the Point?

The organization a script breakdown brings will assist in your scheduling and budgeting, and it can help on the set in terms of giving actors directions. Once you’re done, you’ll know the script inside and out. You’ll have been forced to think through the multiple ways you want a scene to play out, so you’ll be able to handle any questions your actors may have during filming.

You’ll have been forced to think through the multiple ways you want a scene to play out, so you’ll be able to handle any questions your actors may have during filming.

Measure and Label

The first job is to get an idea of how many scenes you have and the projected run-time and shoot time for each. To get started, you need to divide your (properly formatted) script into eighths. This entails literally drawing straight lines across each page of your script, cutting the page into eight parts and numbering the scenes as you go.

This process gives you a more accurate idea of how long individual scenes will be, how many you have, and approximately how long it will take to film each one. If you have a scene that runs onto a second page, it’s tempting to call it a page and a half. Measured out, however, it may only be 1 and 2/8. If there’s only a couple lines of dialogue, the timing is shortened even more, so your “page and a half” realistically becomes one page in terms of set scheduling.

What to Breakdown

When you’re done measuring the eighths, it’s time to figure out the different elements you’re looking for within the script; the things you’re breaking down:

Location/Set Dressing – It’s important to know where you’re going to be shooting and what kind of sets you’ll need. Old-timey Western bars, for instance, will need specific set dressing and props.

Characters/Extras – Knowing how many characters appear in each scene and roughly how long they’ll be on screen will aid in scheduling your actors. This part of the breakdown also forces you to think ahead about when you might need extras. Restaurants will likely have other patrons aside from your main cast and party scenes aren’t very convincing without guests.

Wardrobe/Makeup – Where there’s a cast, there will be a need for makeup and costuming. Keeping track of when characters need specific wardrobe or makeup eliminates on-set frustrations.

Special Effects – If you know a scene will require special effects — practical, makeup or computer generated — mark it down. If you need blood packs or green screens, it’s important to know beforehand.

Stunts/Special Equipment – If part of your scene requires stunt work or special tools — camera cranes, pulleys, an underwater rig — that’s important to notate which scenes require them.

Every script comes with its own requirements, changing the elements you’re keeping track of. Different projects have different needs, and it’s something keep in mind when you’re starting. That said, the list above includes fairly standard things to look out for every time.

Highlighting

Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to find them. Assign each element a specific color. Then, all you have to do is highlight the keywords associated with those elements as you go through the script. Whether it’s using actual highlighters or the highlight function in your screenwriting software, it’s time to get colorful.

Go through your entire script, eighth by eighth, and highlight all the elements with the colors you’ve selected. Some parts may use multiple elements, in which case you’ll use several colors to highlight. For instance, a single action may include stunts, makeup and special equipment.

Breakdown Sheet

Once the keywords are highlighted, it’s time to log everything on your breakdown sheet. These don’t have to be complicated and there are plenty of templates out there to fit your needs. You need at least one sheet per scene, with text boxes for each element you’re keeping track of. All you do is input the highlighted elements into the correct box on the sheet.

Breakdown sheets are the culmination of all the work you’ve put into your script breakdown. They’re quick visual reminders of everything you’ll need for a given scene within your script, giving you a better idea of the schedule and budget you’ll need to account for.

Going Beyond

You’re done! It’s a lot of work, but there’s no time to pat yourself on the back. Take everything you’ve gathered from your breakdown and put it to good use. Use the breakdown sheets to develop your scene strips and production board in order to earnestly begin working out your shooting schedule and budget.

Once production begins, keep that colorful breakdown script handy. In the hustle and bustle on set it’s easy to forget elements/ideas for specific scenes. Keeping your breakdown close provides excellent reminders throughout the process. In just about every phase of production, the work you put into the script breakdown will pay dividends.

Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist who has plied his talents in web content for a variety of entertainment websites focused on movies/gaming. 

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Jordan Maison studied Post-Production and art in college and has plied that knowledge for various websites over the years. On top of this he's a writer with work seen in Videomaker, Pure Nintendo Magazine, Cinelinx, Star Wars, Guinness World Records, and an official artist for various Topps Trading Card licenses.

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