Screenwriting

The Mathematics of Your Script

Scene Count

Format the cells in the scene count column (at the right of the “Total” block) for plain numbers. This option is found in the Format menu. Go to Cells, then chose the category Number. This will prevent the program from turning your numbers into dates, decimals, etc. Add a 1 in the scene column for each scene. Use the SUM function (in your Standard toolbar) for the column and the form will automatically total the number of scenes. This function will also give you a new total automatically when scenes are added or deleted from the form.

A scene is all the action that is continuous in time and place. If the location changes, that’s a new scene. If there is a time jump, that’s a new scene. If actors enter and leave, that is NOT a new scene. If your screenwriter, AD or production people are inexperienced, your script may have scene headings in odd places throwing off the scene divisions. This makes the organizing of the story and the physical production confusing.

Sometimes a writer will write an action like: CU: THE BOOK IS ON FIRE formatted as a Scene Heading element. This will be read by automated production software as the start of a new scene, but it is not. It is an insert shot, a part of the scene that comes before and after it. If you see badly formatted action in the script, throwing off the automated scene tally like this, bring it to the attention of the first AD and decide together what’s to be done about it. If it is early in preproduction, the non-scene should be combined to make more sense.

Page Breakdown

The “Pages” column lists the page length of each scene and adds them together to get a total page count for the entire script. We measure page length in whole pages and fractions. The fraction we always use is the eighth of a page. We never call a half page 1/2 page. We call it 4/8 of a page. One and a fourth of a page is 1 2/8 page. If you are using a spreadsheet, format the pages column for fractions, using eights. Again this is found by using Format, Cells, Category.

What is an eighth of a page? Some pages of your script are probably longer than others. If a locked script has been revised, there are probably some A Pages, which are mostly blank. Flip through your script and find a page that you think is an average length for a full page. Lay your ruler vertically and measure from the top of the text (not counting the page header) to the bottom of the text (not counting the transitional notations). If that length is eight inches, then each inch of the script is 1/8 of a page, no matter how much text is on a particular page.

If the average page length is something less tidy than exactly eight inches, I use a graphic designer’s trick and measure the length with my ruler slanted across the page. Here is how to do that: If the page is more than eight inches tall, I mark off eight sections on my ruler that are each 11⁄2 inches long. Then I slant my ruler from one corner on the top to the opposite corner on the bottom, diagonally. The 12 inches of the ruler start at the top of the text and end at the bottom. The 11⁄2′′ sections are equidistant, there are eight of them, that makes each section 1/8 of the page.

Measure each scene and write its length in the bottom right corner above the dividing line. If a scene carries over to the next page mark the page length on each page in parentheses and the scene total without parentheses (see Figure 3.4).

Fig. 3.4 Measuring 1/8th pages; first in inches, then in 1/8ths of a page.

Fig 3.4 Continued

Scenes divisions rarely fall exactly on the 1/8 mark. Use your best judgment. Some scenes will be rounded up, some rounded down. It can’t always be exact (see Figure 3.4). Try to make each full page add up to 8/8ths. Here’s the exception: If the page has 12 short scenes, each scene should be given 1/8th of a page, for a total of 12/8ths on that particular page.

The ADs will have a page count by the time you are hired, but your count will be the official tally. Usually the AD’s count is made by a computer program and is approximate.

Some ADs will make their count based on daily production concerns, not total script length. For instance, if we have a 6/8 page telephone conversation, some ADs will give 6/8 pages to both sides of the conversation. We do have to shoot 6/8 pages twice, once on each side of the conversation, but I prefer to give each half of the conversation 3/8 pages. This way my total page count will match the total page count in the physical script, which makes my progress report more accurate. This system also gives a more meaningful relationship between the page count and the screen time.

Enter the page totals for each scene in the “Pages” column of the “Total” block. Assign the SUM function to the column, and your total page count will be added automatically. This will show up at the bottom of the page column in whole pages with the remainders in eighths. When you add new pages or adjust any scene’s length, this document will give you a new total page count (see Figure 3.5).

Script Timing

Along with the scene and page count, we track our progress during production using screen time. One of our tasks in preproduction is to estimate what the screen time of the finished film might be, scene by scene and for the script in total.

You will need a quiet, private place for the timing, a stopwatch, a pencil and the same hard copy of your script. Start at the beginning of the script and read the dialog out loud. Imagine all the action. Get up and walk around the room if it helps. See what the camera sees as it pans across a vista; notice when you get bored during transitional action so you know how much shoe leather3 to cut out. Act out the entire movie, scene by scene, trying to imagine how the director and editor will use the screenplay. For consistent pacing, try to time the entire script in as close to one sitting as you can. Don’t drink too much coffee. No wine or beer!

Start the stopwatch at the beginning of each scene and stop it when you feel it is time to cut to the next scene. Write that time in the top right corner, just below the dividing line of each scene (see Figure 3.4). Do this for all the scenes in script. Don’t add them to your breakdown yet. The extra step will bog you down and may affect the tempo of your reading.

After you have timed all the scenes to your satisfaction and written them on the paper page, it is time to enter them in the breakdown. Format the cells in the “Time” column of the “Total” block for Time (not Time of day). Add the SUM function to the column as before. Enter each scene’s running time, scene by scene. Again, once your form is set up, changing any scene’s running time will automatically give you a new total time for the whole script (see Figure 3.5).

Fig. 3.5a At the start of a job. (a and b A simplified Page/Time/Scene Tally form at the start and end of a job. From Syriana.)

Fig. 3.5b At the end of a job. (a and b A simplified Page/Time/Scene Tally form at the start and end of a job. From Syriana.)

Ideally, you will have had a conversation with the director about pace. If not, schedule one. It should only take a few minutes. He or she might tell you some films you can watch as a reference before you start. If your story is a period film, chances are the pace of the dialog will reflect the speaking habits of the time: rapid fire in the 1920s, laid-back in the 1960s, etc. Scenes without dialog are harder to nail down (“Atlanta burns!”). If the movie has a lot of action in it, ask if there are storyboards. These can help you imagine non-dialog scenes with more precision.

Some script supervisors time a script two or three times and use an average. Still it’s a guess. Any director or editor will tell you that the length of a film keeps changing until the picture is locked. All you can do is use your best, informed imagination.

Studios and producers will often use our pre-timing to judge if a script is too long or short. This is important on low budget films, which are always short on shooting days; and also on big action projects, where every shot is really expensive. It’s a good thing to think about even on dramatic, character-driven films. If the running time is too long, subplots and characters may have to be trimmed or dropped in the edit.

When script timing is needed very early in preproduction, a script supervisor may be hired just for a day or two to do a cold timing of a script. Some projects are predictable enough to use a pre-timing this way. If the project is a genre film, if its star is a known comedian or character actor, if the director has a signature dramatic style you can get pretty close. An established episodic TV show is pretty easy to get right with a little research.

If your director is new or trying something very different, if the production style is fluid or has an unusual tone, the pre-timing is only a general guess. Even then, if the pre-timing is consistent and carefully done, it can be a good reference for tracking the accumulating screen time of any production.

I always give my pretimings, scene by scene, to the editors. Sometime around the 2nd or 3rd week of production they have enough consecutive scenes to start comparing my guess timing with the running time of their rough cut. If there is a big difference between the two, it is really good to know. If, in my pre-timing, the total running time is an ideal length (whatever that is for the production) but the rough cut is coming in much longer, the director may decide to tighten up the pace, cut down the ad libs or drop some scenes.

Once I was on a film with a director who wanted to make changes to the shooting script but didn’t want to work it out with the studio. The dialog changed a lot during production. After the 3rd week, our running times were 25 percent shorter than my pre-timing. If we kept going that way, we were not going to have enough screen time for a feature. Once the director was aware of this, she started making some scenes longer by adding more non-scripted dialog, something she wanted to do anyway, and we had a nice movie at a good length.

Excerpt from Beyond Continuity: Script Supervision for the Modern Filmmaker by Mary Cybulski © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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