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Breaking Down a Film Script: A 4-Step Guide

Close-up view of bunch of the colored pencils

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Breaking down a script is a critical part of the film production process. Without it, you could end up on set in need of a crucial element of the production that has been overlooked. That element could be something as big as a character without any lines or something as small as a prop. Regardless if you’re going to make your days and stay on schedule, a film breakdown is a necessary step in the production process.

This article will provide a comprehensive guide that will teach you everything you need to know. We’ll start by discussing what breakdowns are and why they are important. Then, we’ll walk you through the process of breaking down a film script step-by-step. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to breakdown any script like a pro!

What is a script breakdown?

A breakdown is a written summary of all the elements in a film script. It includes a description of each scene, the characters involved, the setting, the props, and any other important details.

Why breakdowns are important

Breakdowns are essential for several reasons. First, they help filmmakers and producers understand what a film will entail before they invest money in it. They allow for the budget and shooting schedule to be created and can be used as a guide during pre-production.

Additionally, breakdowns can be used to track changes made to a script throughout the film production.


How to break down a script

Now that you know what breakdowns are and why they’re important, let’s walk through the process of breaking down your script.

Step 1 – Reread and Review the script

Taking notes

It’s likely that you’ve already read the script, possibly many times, but this time you’re going to read it with special intent. In this reading, you will meticulously keep an eye out for any script formatting errors.

For example, any inconsistencies in the scene locations and their spelling. Likewise, watch for inconsistencies with character names and any important objects or props.

Step 2 – Split the script pages into 8ths

Historically, you would divide a script into 8ths with a pen and a ruler. By using a 1-inch wide ruler, lines can be drawn on the page quickly and easily. You simply start at the first written line and move down the page from there.

Today, modern script breakdown software will divide the page automatically upon import of the script.

Either way, once the script is divided, you can properly estimate the amount of time required to film each scene and thus utilize this information to budget and schedule accordingly.

The standard rule of thumb is that one page equals one minute of screen time, and the average production can film about 5 pages per day. A large Hollywood film will likely film 1-2 pages per day, whereas a micro-budget independent film could shoot 8 pages or more per day.

Because some scenes will be a fraction of a page or longer, such as 1 page and 3/8ths, you can use the divided eighths to tally your daily page count in order to keep track.

Step 3 – Note all Production Elements

During a careful reading of the script, you will need to note all of the Production Elements. This is not an act of speed reading, skimming, or reviewing, this is a close reading, paying attention to each and every word in the script.

Close-up view of bunch of the colored pencils

The notation process can be done with specialized scheduling software, directly in a screenwriting software such as Final Draft, or by hand with highlighters or colored pens and pencils.

Production Element Categories

Either way, the goal is to consistently note each and every Production Element and color code it by category. Here is a list of the most common categories:

  • Cast / Characters – This includes all characters in a scene, not just those with lines of dialogue.
  • Extras – This includes any background characters or crowd scenes. In essence, any non-speaking, unnamed characters that are in the scene.
  • Props – This includes all physical objects in a scene that an actor handles. For example, a matchbook that an actor picks up would be a prop, but a lamp on a desk that they do not touch would be set dressing.
  • Set Dressing – As mentioned above, this includes all the items that fill out the scene, but the actor does not handle. This can be tables, furniture, decorations, etc.
  • Costumes – This category is for noting any changes to a character’s clothing/costume or any special costumes that will be needed to complete a scene.
  • Hair & Makeup – Similar to costumes, this category is for flagging any changes to a character’s appearance or special hair or makeup requirements.
  • Animals – This includes any on-screen animals that are integral to the scene.
  • Vehicles – This one is very straightforward: any vehicle (car, motorcycle, etc) that is featured in the scene.
  • Stunts – Not just for action scenes, any physical action that could require a stunt person or a stunt coordinator should be flagged.
  • Sound Effects & Music – This category is for any sounds that an actor needs to hear on set. This does not include post-production sounds such as foley sounds. Also, any music that an actor would need to hear or perform on set.
  • Special Effects – any practical effects that will be performed on set. For example, rain, wind, fire, pyrotechnics, etc.
  • Visual Effects – any effects that will be created in post-production.
  • Special Equipment – Any equipment that would not be part of the standard equipment package for a film set. For example, a green screen, special rigging, or special camera equipment.
  • Misc. Notes – This category is for any leftover elements that do not easily fit into the above categories.

Step 4 – Create Script Breakdown Sheets

Now that you have all of the Production Elements noted and categorized, it is time to start creating your script breakdown sheets.

A breakdown sheet is essentially a custom spreadsheet that lists each Production Element in its corresponding category.

There are many different ways to format a breakdown sheet, you can use specialized software that will make the process as painless as possible, but that’s by no means required, you can also do it by hand just like the countless productions around the world did before the age of computers.

Script Breakdown Software

If you are using specialized software to track your breakdown, the software will likely have templates for creating breakdown sheets. This is by far the easiest way to create them and ensures that all of the information is neatly organized and easy to access.

Script Breakdown Template

If you are not using specialized software, you will need to handwrite your breakdown sheets or store them in a computer document such as a spreadsheet. This can be a bit more time-consuming, but it does have the advantage of being more customizable. You can format them however you like and include as much or as little information as you want.

Whatever format you devise keep in mind that it’s crucially important that each script breakdown sheet is uniform in its layout. For example, do not change the order of the categories, or include/exclude categories based on need. If a category does not have any elements in that scene, include it anyway so that each department can look through the script breakdown sheets quickly and identify their specific needs.

Free script breakdown sheet template

Conclusion

A script breakdown is an important tool for everyone involved in the production process. By breaking down the script, you can ensure that everyone understands what is required for each scene and avoid any costly surprises down the road. Additionally, breakdown sheets provide a detailed overview of all the elements that go into making a film, which can be helpful to properly budget and schedule the entire film production.

FAQs

What is the best script breakdown software?

The oldest and most popular option is Movie Magic Scheduling. This software has been around since the late 1990s, and it is specifically made for creating a script breakdown and film and television scheduling.

The second option is Studio Binder with their online software. Studio Binder offers a cost-effective subscription-based service that mirrors many of the features of MM Scheduling.
Another good option is Gorilla Scheduling. They offer annual and monthly subscription options. Similar to MM Scheduling, theirs is a software with a singular use, specifically created for film and television scheduling.

Lastly, we have Final Draft Tagger, which is a free addon that comes bundled with Final Draft screenwriting software. If you already have Final Draft, this is a free option available for you, but if you are not already a Final Draft user, we would not recommend this option over the other dedicated solutions mentioned above.

Why do you divide the page into 8ths?

A script page is usually divided into eightths of a page because it makes it easy to schedule your days. Most scenes do not break down into whole page numbers, so creating some fraction of a page is necessary. Eighths of a page in an amount that simply works well because it’s virtually impossible to have a scene take up less than 1/8th of the page.

Also, 1-inch wide rulers have been common since the birth of cinema, and so 8 widths of the ruler is an easy way to divide up the page quickly. Never underestimate the power of convenience and coincidence.

Can you do a breakdown with Final Draft?

Yes and no, you can do the tagging/noting of production elements with Final Draft, which is extremely useful, but you do not have the same amount of control as you do with a dedicated script breakdown software.

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