Breaking down a script means analyzing a script in order to identify all the elements needed to make what’s on the page a reality. That’s actors, angles, actions, extras, props, shots, cameras, and basically anything else you can think of that’s going to affect your plan when you go to shoot.
Script breakdowns usually happen between some combination of the director, the 1st assistant director, and the director of photography. The breakdown is a vital step in understanding what the shoot will require, and therefore essential for things like casting and, sometimes most importantly, budgeting.
To help you get a sense of this, let’s take a look at the first lines of an actual script. This is an excerpt from “Out on the Town”, a commercial we did for ParkMobile. Generally, we’re focused on the actions and mise en scene, though knowing how many people have speaking roles is also an important aspect.
A wide shot of a busy restaurant has a lot of implications for what this shoot will entail. That’s fitting, as it’s the first line of the script and establishes the location to the reader. It tells us what’s needed to pull this off.
Right off the bat, we know we need a location that is–or can pass as–a busy restaurant, and extras to fill out the tables in the background. When you know the location, that helps you determine the number and type of lights you need, which in turn influences what type of package you’re putting together for gear and electric.
This is an establishing shot, and we elected to lock the camera down on a tripod to shoot it. You might consider a slow tracking shot pushing in on the talent, but then you’re adding a dolly to the gear list and that stuff costs money you might not have in the budget.
Finally, this scene is short, so there’s no reason not to run through the whole thing in the wide, so as to give the editor flexibility later on.
We need actors to play these five people. We know roughly what they need to look like.
And, we now know that the waitress has a speaking role, which influences casting.
So, we established that the first shot is a wide in a busy restaurant, and it might not be easy to recognize the speaker at first glance, or draw attention to her. We know this line is important because a) it’s the first line of dialogue in the spot; and b) it elicits an immediate and visceral reaction from Bob, and he flees the restaurant to go feed the meter. The importance of the line helps us decide whether or not we need a close up of the waitress delivering the line.
Due to the import of the line and the potential crowding of the wide shot, getting a close up seems like a good idea. Now, it’s possible that, if you add a second camera, you can get both the wide and the close up at the same time. But, there are a bevy of reasons why you might choose not to do so.
By shooting the close up as a pick-up later on, you eliminate the need for a second camera, thus saving a lot of money. The only downside is the continuity is slightly more difficult to ensure (entropy is a thing), but given the benefits–particularly that of not adding a second camera–it’s well worth it.
Bob’s speaking role is confirmed. We also know we need an actor capable of pulling off a horrified realization look to comedic effect.
Bob leaves the restaurant, which means we need a secondary location. He’s running through the streets to feed the parking meter before his time expires, so we need a street, presumably in a somewhat metropolitan area.
From a shot perspective, this is similar to the waitress in that Bob’s reaction is essential to the story. We know we want a close up of him as the horror of a potential parking ticket washes over him. Seeing him leave the table, then cutting to the exterior of the restaurant is an easy enough progression to follow, so we don’t need to add an additional shot of Bob leaving. The original wide shot and close up, followed by an exterior shot are enough.
This is just a rudimentary taste of the work that goes into a full script breakdown. If you watch the commercial, you know that a wild party breaks out soon after the unfortunate Bob departs. That section of the script brings the aspect of props to the fore, as well as expanding the cast to include a “Mayor” and a cackling meter maid. Even so, this is a very simplistic example. Breaking down a feature film script is going to be far more complex, but the elements will be the same.
Every sentence of the script gets scrutinized for the elements needed. As you can see, a single line of a script contains a multitude of elements. That’s always going to be the case. Scripts are blueprints; they’re enough to get the director/client/reader to see the scene in their mind in the most concise way possible. In a well-written script, there’s going to be a lot to unpack. The details are often implied, and only are made explicit when essential. Everything else is up to the folks who are actually shooting the thing.
It’s important to be meticulous when you’re doing a breakdown. There’s nothing worse than arriving on set only to realize that you actually need five more shots than you planned for, and now you’re three hours behind before you’ve even begun.
You also don’t want arrive at a scene, in which a lucky restaurant patron receives the Key to the City, and realize that you skipped over that little detail. Now, your set decorator and every other able-bodied person is scrambling to track down a giant gold key at the last minute.
To visualize a scene in your mind perfectly before you ever get on set takes practice. Some people might not ever be able to do it. That’s why being a director or a DP is hard. That said, thinking about scripts in these terms is a good place to start. When you read anything, PRACTICE. Think about the details that make the scene feel alive in your mind. Are you seeing two characters speaking from a certain angle? Is it a two shot? A tracking shot? Shot/reverse shot? Are they at a fine mahogany table, or a crappy, collapsible thing? All this comes into play during the breakdown.
And, if this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea… Well, hey, that’s what we’re here for!