Directing

What’s So Good About Being a Script Supervisor?

I am a script supervisor, outside, on location. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I’ve been up for 20 hours. The sun will rise before we can finish the scene, which is making everybody grumpy. It’s so cold that my hands hurt. I’ve needed to pee for the last three hours. It starts to rain. I will get 10 hours off, including travel to and from home. I will come back the next day to do it again. Why do I like this so much?

Every member of the cast and crew contributes to a film’s production, but script supervising is one of the few jobs on set where you can see, where you are able to understand and help shape, the big picture. I used to work in the camera department. In between my work I would try to get a little time to watch the director, actors and cinematographer, hoping to understand what they were up to. These chances were rare, as they are for most of the crew. As a script supervisor, that stuff is exactly my territory.

As collaborative as filmmaking is, everyone on the shooting crew ultimately serves the director. For that to work, the director needs many lieutenants. There is a web of authority that centers on the director and spreads out to the shooting crew. The camera, electric and grip crews get direction through the cinematographer. The set dressers get their direction by way of the production designer, etc. Each department has a head that works with the director.

Even though we don’t have a department, script supervisor is one of those positions near the director. Just as the assistant director oversees the physical production of all the departments, the script supervisor oversees the story and context of all the other departments. We sit next to the director all day. We understand how he or she wants the story to flow. We articulate and influence that flow. We manage and facilitate the information necessary to make that happen. We pass this information on to the rest of the crew.

This is the best thing about being a script supervisor: Our specialty is storytelling. It is our job to understand the bones and the spirit of the story. We imagine all the little bits of the movie we are making. What they look like and sound like, how they move and how they impact each other when they are put together. We carry around a living, growing movie in our imagination. This is continuity, and a whole lot more.

WHAT A SCRIPT SUPERVISOR DOES

There are three basic parts to our job. First, we analyze and supervise the script. Second, we are in charge of continuity. Third, we are technical advisors for the grammar of filmmaking.

Supervising the Script

A typical feature film will take months to shoot. During that time, the cast and crew will make tens of thousands of decisions. It is easy for anyone to get lost in the details. The script is the road map of the story and we script supervisors help our fellow filmmakers stay on track.

At the most basic level, we “hold book” as they say in the theater, following the dialog and action in the script as it is being performed on set. We remind the cast and crew what is on the page and what happens just before or after the current scene in the script.

The more sophisticated part of supervising is analyzing the script. Before shooting starts, we study the script for clues that reveal how the story moves through time, space and emotion. We note key moments in the storytelling, flagging and resolving discrepancies. We understand the director’s intent in these points and disseminate that information to key crew members.

During shooting, we make sure that whatever is important in the director’s vision of the script gets into the film in an appropriate manner. We track and catalog what we shoot and adjust the road map as the story evolves.

In Charge of Continuity

Movies are almost never shot in story order. Instead we record little bits of picture and sound whenever it makes the most financial sense. It is the script supervisor’s job to make sure that all these little bits will work together after the editors assemble them. Good continuity on set is essential for a good narrative flow in the final cut.

There are two kinds of continuity, matched action, which is continuity within a scene, and progressive action, which is continuity between scenes. Both kinds have many aspects, which we will cover later in detail. Here is a short introduction.

Continuity Within a Scene: Matched Action

Script supervisors match action within scenes, so that two or more camera angles taken at different times appear to be different views of the same moment. This includes matching the movement and dialog of actors, the placement and handling of props and set dressing, the choice and arrangement of wardrobe, of make-up and hair and sometimes of light and atmospheric conditions.

Continuity Between Scenes: Progressive Action

We track big dramatic arcs from scene to scene. We chart physical, emotional and logical developments from the beginning to the end of the story. Script supervisors make a timeline for the story that includes every scene, and sometimes, action that happens outside the script. The entire crew will use this timeline to plan lighting and wardrobe changes, set dressing, make-up design and the like.

Technical Advisor for the Grammar of Filmmaking

There is a language of cinema that, like all languages, has grammatical rules. Each film uses grammar differently, in its own fashion. This difference is one of the things that make filmmaking an art. We script supervisors are the on-set authority of standard film grammar and a back-up for our own project’s unique film grammar.

BASIC SCRIPT SUPERVISING SKILLS

Understanding Cinematic Language

It is essential that a script supervisor understand how films are constructed and how the director sees the particular material at hand. From the outside, it might look like script supervisors are secretaries taking dictation. Some think of us as filmmakers who try to make everyone follow “The Rules” of coverage. We do take a lot of notes and we do know the rules. But if we were just writing down everything we see in front of us, our notes would be too vast and chaotic to be of any use. If we only knew the rules by rote, it would lead to frustration and tedious filmmaking.

Artistic and Personal Sensitivity

Because we act as a safety net for the cast and crew, including all of the big creative players, we often have to bring to their attention mistakes they have made or things they have forgotten. This takes a lot of tact and personal, as well as artistic, sensitivity. We need to know how to approach as an ally, not a critic. We need to recognize when to give a note so it doesn’t interrupt an actor or crew member’s concentration.

Good Organization

Script supervisors track thousands of details. All those details have to be understood and organized so that important information is quickly available on set and clear in the editing room. A script supervisor needs to be attentive, logical and creative, able to follow, adapt and design systems, and must be succinct in spoken and written language.

Paying Attention for Long Periods of Time

Most film workers have a rhythm of intensely focused work broken by periods of down time. That is almost never the case for script supervisors. We pay attention all day long. When we are not shooting, we are prepping, reviewing or writing notes. A good script supervisor will use breaks in the action to anticipate a problem or question before it is asked; and will be ready with the answer as soon as a question comes up.

Intensity and Ease

We script supervisors don’t have an area of our own authority. We watch and assist everyone else’s work. This takes a delicate balance between intensity and ease, which is essential to almost every task we do.

Sometimes we have a technical objection that stops the work cold. Often there is a question that only we can answer, the entire crew waiting to hear what we say before they can resume work. We must speak up and be clear and confident in our opinions. We must also be ready to let go of our objections entirely when the director does not share them.

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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