The Shooting Script: What It Is and How to Make One
The shooting script is a fundamental tool for film production, yet many aspiring filmmakers are a little hazy on what exactly it is. Especially for Screenwriters, the word “script” implies that they should know this document, but as we will see, there’s a good reason why Writers often never get their hands on a shooting script.
But for anyone looking to make a professional path for themselves in the production area of entertainment, understanding the use and importance of a shooting script is key. The information below will help to discern what sets a shooting script apart from a conventional screenplay and how filmmakers can build one for their production projects.
In our exploration of shooting scripts, we’ll discuss:
- Basic shooting script breakdown
- Importance of shot designations
- Other shooting script considerations
- Flexibility in filmmaking
Basic Shooting Script Breakdown
Every once in a while, news comes out about a Director who has filmed their project in chronological order. But that is incredibly rare. For economy of time and financial resources, most movies are filmed out of order. That being said, imagine the confusion if a production crew tried to film scenes out of order with the original screenplay! Hence, a shooting script.
Basically, a shooting script is a script that is ordered according to how the Director, Cinematographer and other pertinent members of the production crew have decided is best for the project. As mentioned, time is a significant consideration. Even the most modest film can have expenses that go into the thousands of dollars on a daily basis. If a production can shave off a week or even a day by shooting all relevant scenes in the same location in a single block of time — rather than taking down the set and then coming back weeks later to rebuild it — that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
Schedules might also necessitate the order of a shooting script. Consider the coordination that has to go into films with a large ensemble cast. Especially if the Actors are in high demand, they may have a narrow window in which they can be available for a shoot. For that reason, the Director and Cinematographer may have to reorder certain scenes to accommodate their schedules, all considerations that will go into a shooting script.
Another major factor that can influence a shooting script is location. Outside of trying to save time, a particular location, such as those abroad, might necessitate that the Director and the rest of the production crew reorder the shooting script. For instance, let’s say that a production is expected to run three months. However, there’s a need to film in a certain location where winter is approaching. To avoid inclement weather, the production might decide to film there first with the hopes of getting the shots they want without having to worry about snow or colder temperatures.
Availability for certain locations could also impact how the shooting script is ordered. Especially popular destinations, such as the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building, might require that productions use their venues only on certain dates. All these considerations will go into how the final shooting script looks.
It’s for all these reasons that even seasoned Screenwriters may not have a clear idea of what a shooting script is — because they don’t write it! Unless the filmmaker in question is a Writer-Director hyphenate, the person who is responsible for writing the story must eventually hand off their screenplay so that the Director and Cinematographer can reshape it for production.
However, when the Writer of the script is indeed also the Director on the project, there might be more latitude in terms of what is used as a shooting script. As Writer-Director Sarovar Banka explains:
“I do create a shooting script, but sometimes I will jump straight to a shot plan or storyboarding. My feature A Decent Arrangement was somewhat unusual because I knew I would be directing it. So from my early drafts, my script ended up being a typical script with also some notes on how I envisioned it as a Director. I wrote these notes and ideas as I was writing the script.”
There’s the old adage of “we’ll fix it in post,” but it can be a quite expensive correction to make. That’s why having a well-detailed shooting script is often a make or break production tool.
Importance of Shot Designations
Changing the order of the scenes shot for a film is just the first step in creating a shooting script. Why? Because it still doesn’t tell the production crew how the scenes will be filmed.
When watching a film, viewers often aren’t aware of the many different types of shots that might be used for even a single scene. But it can be a truly eye-opening experience to count them. Especially in modern cinema, camera shots have become more varied, which is all the more reason why they must be noted on a shooting script.
For the production crew, the shooting script is very much like an architectural blueprint. From it, they must be able to understand how the film is going to be “built.” So while reordering scenes to group them according to location is important, so too is breaking down each scene shot by shot so that every frame is accounted for and ordered in the most economic fashion.
That means that typically all long shots will be filmed together if they’re for the same scene. So too with medium shots, close-ups or any other kind of shot. Most professional shoots will also have the running time for each shot noted on the shooting script. Having this information detailed out is essential to the production running smoothly without any confusion about what set-up the crew is expected to get ready.
Hand in hand with noting the shots used in each scene is highlighting where special effects might be required. Special effects have gone from being a relative novelty in films to standard tools used in not only large summer blockbusters but also quiet character pieces. But as common as they might have become, the professionals who understand how to film and execute them are still an absolute necessity on set. That is why blocking out where a special effect will be used is critical to a film’s success. An On Set Visual Effects Supervisor or Coordinator must be present to ensure that the scene is shot in accordance with what will be needed later on in post-production. If a day of shooting comes where that expert is missing, it could have serious ramifications once that footage gets into the hands of the people who are creating the visual effects. There’s the old adage of “we’ll fix it in post,” but it can be a quite expensive correction to make. That’s why having a well-detailed shooting script is often a make or break production tool.
In a similar vein, the shooting script should also designate where special stuntwork might be done. Just as with any special effects, stunt work should never be attempted without the appropriate experts present. That means both the Stunt Person to perform the stunt — as opposed to the Actor they may be stepping in for — and the Stunt Supervisor to make sure that the stunt is carried out in a safe manner. Making sure that these designations are clearly marked in a shooting script is key to a production that goes off without injury or other issues.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of a shooting script…with one minor disclaimer. Rarely does a project not change course during production. It could be because of weather. Or perhaps the Screenwriter is asked to come in a rewrite a scene. Or a financial backer withdraws their support and certain costly locations can no longer be used.
Other Shooting Script Considerations
Much has been said about the where and how of shooting scripts. Equally important is the “what” — what is the audience going to see? In this case, that refers to the production design, the costumes the Actors will be wearing and even notes on acting details.
A common refrain regarding the importance of preparation has already come up for shooting scripts and making sure the production design team understands what is required of it is no exception. That is why noting what will need to be built or bought for each scene is a fundamental consideration when drawing up a shooting script. Especially sets that might take time to build or those that play a particularly important role in a scene should be discussed well ahead of the day they will be required for the shoot.
The same holds true for costumes, and given how much time it can take to create an intricate period dress or superhero outfit, knowing in advance what will be required from day to day and scene to scene can help to ensure that there are no time-consuming or expensive hiccups throughout production.
Flexibility in Filmmaking
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of a shooting script…with one minor disclaimer. Rarely does a project not change course during production. It could be because of weather. Or perhaps the Screenwriter is asked to come in a rewrite a scene. Or a financial backer withdraws their support and certain costly locations can no longer be used. Anything and everything can happen on a production, which is why flexibility and fluidity as it pertains to a shooting script is critical. Regarding his own project and shooting script, Banka notes:
“I think what we had was worthwhile as a blueprint, but there were so many production constraints and changes that often we would decide to cover a scene completely differently. Still, I think it’s a good idea to be as prepared as possible so that you can use that as the basis of your work.”
Important words of advice to keep in mind for any filmmaker. Be as prepared as possible, which is why a shooting script is a fundamental filmmaking tool. And while a production might have to adjust to one or more unexpected circumstances, the shooting script can always be the blueprint from which a creative professional can reroute their filmmaking course.
- “Shooting Script.” ElementsofCinema.com. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
- Miller, Greg (8 September 2014). “Data from a Century of Cinema Reveals How Movies Have Evolved.” Wired. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
- Hellerman, Jason (11 July 2019). “What’s a Shooting Script and How Do You Create One?” No Film School. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
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