The 8-Step-Process of Script Breakdown

Words By Peter Marshall

One thing to keep in mind during this 8 stage process is that you should always start at the beginning of the script and work through each step to completion before moving on to the next step.

The reason for this is simple: as you read and re-read the script many times, not only will you get a sense of the flow and rhythm of the scenes, but you will usually discover something you never saw on the last reading.

Other than reading through the entire script first, you don’t have to follow the exact order as I have laid it out. The whole script will eventually be marked when you have finished, so the order is somewhat irrelevant. Just find whatever method you are most comfortable with and stick with it.

1. Reading the Script
The first thing you do is find a quiet place and read the entire script through without marking it. Of course, if something comes up as you read and you want to make a note, do it.

It’s very important that you read the entire script from beginning to end first because before you start to break it down, you need to know what the story is about and what happens to the characters – and it could also be the only time you will enjoy it!

2. Numbering the Script
You then start again at the beginning of the script and number it all the way through. Now if the script has already been numbered, still go through this process because you may find scenes that need to be split up.

For example: take a scene that involves a character walking from the outside of a tall building, entering the elevator on the main floor and then magically appearing in the Penthouse Suite.

In the script, this scene could easily be described and numbered as one scene. (Don’t forget what I said earlier about the first scripts you read are story scripts.)

Since it is highly unlikely that the director will follow this character all through his journey to the top floor, you should break up the scene from the Exterior (or at least from entering the elevator on the ground floor) and create another scene when he comes out in the Penthouse Suite.

It is always best to revert to the First Assistant Director’s number system early in pre-production because once the script is “locked” (re: you can’t change the numbers) you will then be into scene omits and adding A’s and B’s to all the scene numbers you want to change.

Keep in mind that the writer will now have to revise the script to your numbering system because you are helping to turn the reading script into the shooting script.

3. Marking the Set Descriptions
Now go through the script again and mark the Set Descriptions (locations) with a Colour marker.

Example: EXT: OFFCE BUILDING – DAY

This is called Slugline.

4. Marking the Characters
Next, go through the script, and every time a character appears in a scene, mark their name with a another marker.

If an animal plays a major role in a movie, I will give them a Cast number and mark them in the same Colour that used for the Cast as well.

5. Marking all Other Elements
Now go through the rest of the script scene-by-scene and mark all the other script elements you need to account for with a green marker. (ex: extras, props, stunts, special FX, visual FX, picture vehicles, animals, stock footage, video playback, photographs, hair, make-up, wardrobe, special equipment, music playback etc.)

NOTE: You can use one colour for marking these elements or you can use as many colours as you want for all the different elements. It’s up to you.

6. Page Count
Now get out your ruler and write down the Page Count for every scene in the script. The best rule of thumb for figuring out this count is the traditional method of 1 inch = 1/8 page.

7. Script Days
Script days are the number of “time transitions” or “movie days & nights” that appear in the story. (These are not the same as DAY or NIGHT on your Set Descriptions.)

I like to mark the Script Days last because it gives me time to read the script several times to get a sense of the “time transitions” between each scene.

Because you have to do this in your first week of prep, you will have to make a guess at many of these “Day/Night” breakdowns. It’s only when you go through the script with the director that you will get his thoughts on the movie’s time changes.

You also want to compare your Script Days with the Script Supervisor, Costume Designer, Hair and Make-up. The Script Days are very important for all these departments because it gives them a sense of how many changes they have to create per character. It also affects the Budget as well.

8. Number the Cast List
You don’t put the cast (character) numbers on your script, but you need to record them and then input them into your schedule. This will then create the number system you will use for the Cast Day-out-of-Days (I will explain more later).

When you start to number the cast, you must first remember the POLITICS of this business. In other words, which actors get the numbers 1, 2, 3?

On most shows this will be pretty obvious. But “when in doubt – run and shout.” If you are not sure, ask the producer to number the first couple of cast for you. For example: in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, who would you mark as #1 and #2 on the Call Sheet?

Other than the first 2 or 3 spots, you can number the cast anyway you wish. I prefer to number the first 10 cast in “order of importance”, and then I mark the rest of the cast in “order of appearance” in the script. Which ever way you do it, just keep it consistent.

NOTE: During prep, make sure all script changes go through the 1st AD before they are distributed. Because you make many notes on your script based on location scouts and department meetings with the director, your script should be considered the “prep script bible.” Also, as soon as the script supervisor starts, make sure she gets a copy of the latest revisions and a copy of all your notes.

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