You’ve got a script. You’re getting ready to shoot. Before you go into production, you’ll need figure out how to break down your script.
Locations can be tricky when breaking down a script. It takes the eyes of a pro to identify “hidden locations.” A veteran 1st AD can address any location issues miles ahead. Fortunately, the author of this article is an accomplished 1st AD.
Right now, we’ll show you how to complete a script breakdown to get a handle on locations. By the end of this piece, you’ll be able to break down a script and be ready to focus on next steps to make your film with confidence.
1. Script breakdown basics
How to breakdown a script?
Let’s look at how to break down a script. Consider this your quick script analysis overview.
First, once you have a script, read it for yourself.
Your only goal with this step is to enjoy the script. For now, you’re an audience member. A pleasure reader.
Follow the story, characters, themes — get into it. Understand the big picture. Putting yourself in the audience’s position at this early stage will help your production in the long run.
Enjoy it now, because after this first pass, it’s all business.
From here, you will start dissecting the script, breaking it down into small pieces so you can shoot each part and put it together to make a finished film.
You’ll tag every element in every scene. Characters, costumes, props, and more. You’ll do this to determine technical and creative requirements.
So how do you it? How do you even start a script breakdown?
You can break down a script with a pen and a printout of your script. You can use spreadsheets. You can use PDFs.
These methods might work, but they’re confusing and tough to share. Jumbles of files, photocopies, and emails — script breakdown pitfalls that you can do without.
Intuitive all-in-one script breakdown software makes it easy. You can import your script, break it down, and share it with a single click.
That’s the basics. We’ll focus on specific location challenges involved with script breakdowns. Let’s move onto the next section right now and look at where locations can get tricky.
In any movie with one location, the breakdown can be simple. But as 12 Angry Men and other one-location films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope make clear, a single setting can house complex themes and action.
There are even situations where a single shooting location can hide another location. It’s crucial to be able to identify these and tag them in your script breakdown.
The goal of your script breakdown is to figure out all the elements that you’ll need to prep, schedule, and budget. One of the most vital elements to consider in your production are your locations.
Let’s take a look at the first kind of these “hidden locations” in the next section.
3. SPLITTING LOCATIONS
When Characters Watch Screens
Whatever your characters are watching, you will need to shoot it. This adds another location that may not have been clearly laid out in the script.
Watching home movies.
Observing a real-time special forces mission from a hidden command center.
It may seem like a small cutaway in your scene, but it’s an entire scene for you to prep, dress, shoot and edit (sometimes before principal photography).
So your script is hiding these scheduling monkey-wrenches.
What do you do when you’re breaking down your schedule?
Well, you will need to split up your scene and create a new strip for it.
After that, break down the scene with all the required elements (dressing, props, wardrobe, special effects, etc).
In essence: new screen, new scene. Your script breakdown sheet becomes your locations menu.
When you take this step, don’t forget to add a VFX technician as additional labor. You also might need a green screen element, or at least markers, that will later be replaced by the on-screen content.
You might also need to add a playback operator to your additional labor. This works if you have already shot the extra content (make sure to schedule it accordingly!) and want to see it played live while you shoot the scene.
For example, maybe you’ve already shot a SWAT team raid on a safe house. But you want characters to sit in a van and watch the raid on surveillance monitors as it unfolds in real-time. If so, a playback operator might be necessary when you’re shooting the van scene.
The idea is to set yourself up for a smooth production process. This can only happen if all your departments, all your collaborators, can prepare for every location.
This is why a script breakdown with an eye towards scheduling can make or break a shoot.
It’s up to you to line everything up.
4. SCRIPT BREAKDOWN CHALLENGES
When Characters Look Elsewhere
In a scene, no matter where your characters are located, they might watch something else in the distance.
They might watch through a window, stare across the street, or raise their eyes to look up in the sky.
In a script, maybe Farmer Joe pauses in his field to gaze upon a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the prairie. Or maybe Juliet leans out her window to find Romeo professing his love from the bushes down below.
On set, it’s a good bet that what Farmer Joe and Juliet will actually be looking at are cameras, equipment, and crew members.
This is where you will need to recreate your character’s POV. You’ll need to shoot what your character sees.
Sometimes, it will be practical. If the house you shoot in has an exterior that works for your story, then you can shoot Romeo right down there in the bushes. No need to move to a new location.
But many times, you will need to shoot in a new location.
This works a lot like characters watching screens. When you need to shoot the content that a character sees in the distance, you will need to address this in the breakdown.
Again, split your scene and add a new strip accordingly.
@shant - app image link here of the scene above.
New locations mean new budget and schedule considerations. Since you’re figuring out how to break down a script for locations, you’ll also need to budget and schedule these locations like a pro.
It’s all part of the same filmmaking process. Everything you do at this phase will set you up for a smooth production.
So by all means, do it right.
5. when characters drive
Rolling through a shooting schedule
Cars, trucks, vans, buses, RVs, roach coaches, and other vehicles can make for compelling settings. But tagging and planning a scene in a vehicle can seem daunting. The technical challenges and production logistics might scare you.
Don’t worry, we’ll make it easy.
When it comes to car and driving scenes, there are two big questions you’ll need to answer.
First, is the camera in the car, or is the camera on the road?
And, is the vehicle moving, or is it parked?
Often, the answer is both.
Whatever the answer, you’ll need to address it accordingly in your script breakdown. Cover every possibility.
A camera inside or attached to the car means you can set up your car shot (or your insert car shot) in a parking lot. This is straightforward.
A camera on the road means you’ll have to position your crew on the road, or on the side of the road. You’ll need to set up the shot for when the car passes by.
For production, a camera on the road, or outside the car, also means different location permits. It means different crew members, equipment, potential stunt drivers, and more elements to add to your script analysis.
That’s why it’s so important to understand how the scene will be executed.
The director and director of photography will help you determine exactly what the locations will be. If a director and a DP are not on board yet when you break down your script, break it down according to your best guess. Make a note to ask questions when key team members join the production.
Your script breakdown will be speeding along to production in no time.
6. GREEN SCREENS & PLATES
Scenes with Visual Effects
Scenes with visual effects need to be approached with unique location considerations. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to your location requirements when it comes to visual effects scenes.
It is most likely that you won’t have solid answers until you meet with the Director and VFX Supervisor.
Often, scenes that include a lot of VFX can end up having to be shot in a lot of different locations. These scenes will likely involve shooting on a green screen stage. They will also likely shoot at one or more additional locations to get the corresponding plate shot — or shots — to replace the green.
If present, secondary elements of the same scene will also need to be shot in seperate locations.
For example, a scene might require miniatures, which will need to be shot in a controlled location.
Think Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The airplanes in the movie are both full-size vintage planes and, at key moments, large-scale miniatures flying in the air by remote control.
A single aerial warfare scene in Dunkirk can employ shots from several locations:
1) A real cockpit shot against a blue sky on a tarmac or in front of a green screen.
2) Miniatures rip-roaring through the air.
3) Aerial shots looking down at the beach or at the ocean, to be seen through cockpit windows.
That’s three different locations for one shot. You’ll need to note this in your script analysis if you want to pull off a successful filmmaking mission.
Dive Deeper: How to Break Down a Script
Now that you know how to break identify the hidden locations in a script, you’re ready to dive deeper into script breakdowns. With all the moving pieces of a production, it’s easy to lost track of what needs to be done. A breakdown categorizes everything into production reports.
To brush up on your script breakdown chops, read on.