Learn How to Break Down a Script from a Cinematographers POV

by Barry AnderssonLeave a Comment

I spend a lot of time talking to fellow filmmakers and cinematographers discussing movies or commercials and how they were lit. We also discuss what influences us  visually ranging from magazines to the great artists through history. We are all trying to gain inspiration, trigger an idea to help us on a production we are working on or any other number of reasons.

All feel a lot of these discussions fall under the inspirational category and often operate more like a brainstorming session. I have never gone step by step with someone else and how they practically prep for their job of DP'ing a script.  That was an idea I found intriguing when I ran across this article.

Nathan Blair is a cinematographer that wrote an article explaining his approach to shooting the last short film he was the director of photographer on. He talks through every step from first receiving a script all the way through the pre-production phase. Here are some of the stages he discusses in the article:

– First ask the Director or Producer what the film is about
What I found interesting is how little a lot of filmmakers want to tell the DP about the story. It is almost as if they assume the DP doesn't care or doesn't need to know what the story is. The DP is a key member of the team that will be assisting the filmmakers in telling the story. Without the total buy in from the DP they would be working on two different versions of the story at the same time.  That is a recipe for disaster. Make sure the whole creative team is on the same page and you have a much higher chance for success.

– Check the page count and formatting
This one surprised me as it seems like the last thing a DP would care about is whether or not a script is too long or too short. Or for that matter if the formatting is off in the screenplay itself. The reason he looks at this as this gives the DP a clue as to how experienced the filmmakers are that he might be working with. Not to say that working with inexperienced filmmakers is an automatic no go but it at least gives you some information as to how hard your job might be or how much you will be relied on during the production.

– What is the tone of the film
This is where the DP first gets to start thinking about the lighting pallet they want to work with. The get to look at the characters, the struggles and the settings for the story. From there the DP can decide to match the tone or to go ahead light opposite the tone for other reasons or effect. For instance if there is a character that is dark instead of lighting them dark you might choose to light the character naturally. This can lull the audience into thinking that character isn't as dark as they are and helps sell a surprise later in the film.

– What are the special requirements (or are there any) that will be needed
This is a technical consideration. If there are shots that will require special effects, equipment or special sets to be built the DP needs to know so they plan accordingly. If the story needs an arial shot and that wasn't planned for that is impossible to fake the day of the shoot.  Be prepared is the best motto.

– What is the timeline of events in the story?
Depending on what timeframe the story unfolds, that will impact how you want to light and what changes you might want to add over time. Are the seasons changing? Does it take place in one night? Think through a visual progression that you as the DP can work with to help visually tell the story.

– Talk to the director about his vision and see where they agree/disagree
At the end of the day the director's vision will be the final vision. So after working your notes and developing some ideas the next step is to talk to the director and see where you are agree and disagree. This is the final step before production to make sure you are in sync with the overall vision of the story and you are ready to go.  A good director will want to collaborate with a DP who is talented and brings great ideas to the table.  Don't view this step as compromising or something you have to cave into.  Be strong in your ideas and fight for them.  The director will appreciate that.  Just know when to say when and get ready to do what you love- shoot!

What are your steps in prepping a film? Please let us know. In the meantime. Happy shooting!

From the Lens: Breaking Down A Script As Director Of Photography

Via scriptmag.com:

To be honest with you, at first glance I always check the page count and formatting. I don’t want this to make me sound pretentious in some way. Believe me, I’ve worked with screenplays that would make a professional screenwriter vomit, and that’s OK with me. The thing is, these clues are just a couple early warnings about how experienced the filmmaker is, and how intense the project might be. Sometimes despite these signs, the project could pan out very smoothly. Most times, it doesn’t.

When I first read a screenplay, there are three key elements I take note of:

1) Tone.
What’s the overall tone of the film? In other words, do I imagine this film as bright, or dark? At this point I try not to start immediately thinking of details. This is a very general decision– the first one I make.

Still shot from 'Impasse' - John T. Woods and Jennifer Fontaine. Directed by Michael Bekemeyer

Still shot from ‘Impasse' – John T. Woods and Jennifer Fontaine. Directed by Michael Bekemeyer

To determine this, I often think about the genre, and the characters I’m working with. When reading the script for Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s Impasse, in the first scene, a line read “She shifts her face to the side, revealing eyes whose soul has long departed.” It was a pretty clear indication of a dark tone! It prompted me to start imagining each scene as a dark image. Yet, the realism of the story, and the dialogue within it, told me to hold back from making it too edgy, and allow it to look naturally gloomy rather than a stylized effect.

This little detail is the first step to my creative process, because it’s probably the broadest stroke I can make. Similar to a painter choosing their undercoat, I must first choose my tone.

Continue reading the full article at Script “From the Lens: Breaking Down A Script As Director Of Photography”

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(cover photo credit: snap from scriptmag.com)

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