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How to Break Down and Production-Proof Your Script

As creatives we can be guilty of dreaming bigger than our budgets, a problem which hits home once the script is finalised and we engage with the rest of the pre-production process.

It’s something I’ve had multiple run-ins with this past year in my roles as screenwriter, storyboard artist, concept artist and production coordinator for a locally produced short film and trailer due to be released in 2017.

My experiences have taught me the value of revisiting the script with the calculating mindset of a 1st Assistant Director to identify how the words on the page will impact the project’s shooting schedule and budget.

Steps to Production-Proof Your Script

There is an established practice when breaking down a script and the method is the same regardless of whether it’s done manually or via digital screenwriting programs such as Final Draft (Tagger).

Once you have the finished script, the steps involved are as follows:

1. Number each new scene as it appears. Place a number to the far right of every scene heading (slug line) to indicate the beginning and end points of scenes.

2. Divide each page into 8-inch segments. This works best for the US Letter paper size (8.5 by 11 inches) so Australians will need to work to the equivalent measurement.

3. Create a list of what you need for each scene. This should include everything from props, makeup, SFX and lighting to cast and crew, etc. Leave no stone unturned.

4. Construct a production board. Also known as a stripboard, here’s where you’ll pin up all your scene segments and reorder the events of the story so you end up with the most economical way to shoot the film.

5. Develop a shooting script. Work from the reordered stripboard and use it to your advantage when you come to the meticulous task of crafting a shooting script.

6. Work out who will be doing what. All that’s left to do now is make decisions about who will be responsible for what and how much work everyone involved will take on.

You should now have a complete picture of how to approach and handle production — what you need to buy, what you need to film, what equipment or props you will need and for how long.

That said, what I do want to touch on even more so than the process is its relevancy where short independent films are concerned.

So let’s answer the big question: is a script breakdown still necessary or useful for a low or micro-budget short film?

Factors Affecting the Feasibility of a Script Breakdown

While I agree that a script breakdown is incredibly useful in getting others besides the screenwriter to know the material inside and out, I believe you can get away with a less intensive approach to breaking down a screenplay.

I’m not sure if the importance of the script breakdown has been oversold and then perpetuated by Hollywood feature filmmakers moving back into the independent film community to make the films they want to make, but it seems like a thought-process reminiscent of big-budget moviemaking philosophy.

If an independent project follows the business model of filming a teaser trailer to promote the film via crowdfunding, there would be considerably less ground to cover.

And since the vast majority of independent productions typically use only a handful of locations and cannot justify hiring a team to construct custom locations and backdrops due to monetary concerns, these items would likely be left out of the script breakdown anyway.

But in remembering the purpose of a script breakdown, which is to identify the various elements needed to pass production, I can’t see it ever being wise to entirely sidestep the process.

The fact is independent filmmakers must have some sort of clear process in place to identify what assets are needed when and how any resources should be allocated.

Issues Potentially Impacting the Creative Process

As the devil’s advocate, I fear independent screenwriters may become risk averse and choose to water down their ideas in the first draft, continuing to do so with subsequent revisions, all to make the script more producible.

It’s critical that screenwriters do consider the budget side of things, but remain resilient in the face of today’s competitive marketplace and seemingly overwhelming odds.

The last thing the industry needs is for innovative ideas to be shelved before they have a chance to reach an audience outside their creators.

Final Advice for Screenwriters

To end, I feel it would not be in any screenwriter’s best interest to break down their own script once finalised.

My advice? Write without fear and leave the technical aspects of producing your script to producers and assistant directors whose job it is to worry about these things.

Good luck!

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