It’s easy to think of a script as something that, once made, should be set aside and left unaltered until production starts. And, don’t get me wrong, this train of thought makes sense.
The script is what you refer back to when making decisions about hiring talent, booking locations, assembling a crew, and checking off all the other pre-production boxes. So, naturally once the script’s made, the idea of changing it in any way can set off alarm bells in your head.
What if your team has to redo the entire shot list? Hire a new actor that wasn’t previously budgeted for? Cancel one location reservation and find a new one?
Major revisions — we’re talking add-a-new-character-to-the-script major — can definitely offset production from a time and budget standpoint. But the good news is that revisions during pre-production rarely, if ever, change the trajectory of the entire production.
Take the shooting script, for example.
This is one of the most important iterations of a script or screenplay, but it has to go through several rounds of revisions before it can really be useful to a production team. (So, the last thing you want to do is create the first draft and call it a day.)
For any type of video production — filmmaking-related or not — a shooting script is a document that you’ll want to take with you into production. This guide will break down exactly why.
A preview of what we’ll cover
- What a shooting script is (and isn’t)
- A classic shooting script example
- How to write a shooting script for any production
- The revision protocol for shooting scripts
What a shooting script is (and isn't)
Shooting scripts are designed to make the production team’s lives easier when filming starts. It’s different from a spec script or any other script you would make to flush out a video concept and jumpstart pre-production.
Unlike a spec script, you’re not trying to catch the attention of potential investors and producers with a shooting script. You already have these roles filled and the funding you need by the time this script is created.
Instead, your focus is on building an actionable production plan.
Here’s what this looks like for a typical film production: A director and cinematographer consult the original script and other pre-production documents (i.e., shot lists, storyboards, treatments, etc.) and then create the first draft of the shooting script.
This first draft includes information from those other documents. That could include specific camera shots in the scenes, directorial notes, movement for things like tracking shots, or basically anything else that the production team needs to know when filming. You can even include callouts for green screen lighting or other VFX that could have a big influence on shot composition.
The script gets more detailed and specific with each new revision, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) ever replace those other documents. Ultimately, it just makes it possible for the director to avoid constantly juggling multiple documents at once.
(And as someone who knows firsthand how chaotic production can be, you know that’s definitely a main perk of the shooting script.)
A classic example
Before jumping into the rest of this blog, let’s take a look at this page from the shooting script for Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, courtesy of No Film School:
Upon first glance, this shooting script looks like any other standard script. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice some extra detail in the scene descriptions and one line in particular: “E.C.U. of fingers rifling bills in a wallet.”
Shot descriptions like “E.C.U.” (aka extreme close up) are included so that the director, camera operators, and anyone else with a copy of the script know that this is a priority shot.
You’ll notice that this script doesn’t include an excessive amount of camera shot descriptions — on this page there’s just one — and that’s because the shooting script isn’t meant to offer a shot-by-shot breakdown of the entire film, commercial, client video, etc.
Technically speaking, you could include as many shot descriptions as you want. But you and your team will still rely on the shot list when it comes to planning each scene via specific camera shots and angles.
If you skim over other pages in this same script example, you’ll also notice the line “MEMENTO Pink Revisions - 9/7/99” at the bottom of certain pages. This is one way that script writers keep track of different versions of the same shooting script.
It’s one thing to know what a shooting script is and it’s another to create one yourself.
So, to help you navigate this particular script writing process, the next section will outline everything you need to know about making your own shooting script — regardless of what type of production you’re working on next.
How to write a shooting script for any production
Maybe you produce video ads and commercials for brands. Or maybe your specialty is YouTube content creation and/or videography.
Whatever the scenario, shooting scripts aren’t exclusive to filmmakers and can be used anytime video production is involved. The only caveat is that your approach to writing a shooting script could change from project-to-project.
For instance, you’d naturally spend less time writing the script for a 30-second ad spot than you would for a 10-minute short film. You might also have less revisions to do and different types of production notes to include.
It’s up to you to decide how thorough and detailed your script should be, but before you can do anything else, you need to have a good understanding of the shooting script basics.
Specifically, you need to know what information goes in a shooting script and how the revision process works. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
The basic components of a shooting script
A shooting script generally follows the same industry-standard formatting rules as any other script: 12-point font, set margins, scene headings (INT. or EXT.), dialogue structure, etc. (If you want to know more about the technical side of this process, check out this blog post.)
To create the shooting script, the director and cinematographer read over the original material and discuss how they want to make the big jump from script to screen.
The focus here is less on the quality of the script’s plot (since that’s already set in stone) and more on the logistics of production.
For instance, you want to make sure that your production team has everything they need (i.e., gear, information, structure, etc.), and that the production has a clear direction.
One of the best ways for you to do this is by including three things in your shooting script: camera shots and angles, directing cues, and additional notes.
1. Camera shots and angles
One of the main priorities when creating a shooting script is identifying which camera shots and angles will help you capture every on-screen moment exactly how you want.
Maybe you want to reveal a subtle change in a character’s facial expression and believe that an extreme close up will convey that better than any other shot. Maybe you want to emphasize the power dynamic between two characters and the Dutch angle is your go-to choice.
Specificity is important when writing a shooting script but remember that you don’t have to be heavy handed when adding camera shots and angles to this document. (The earlier example from Christopher Nolan is a prime example of this.)
As you line the script and make note of the different shots you want to use, include the most important ones in the shooting script and add the rest to the shot list.
2. Directing cues & additional notes
Every production needs structure, and that’s true whether you’re working with a small or large crew. Documents like call sheets and shot lists are made to give the cast and crew direction so that they can do their best work once they arrive on set.
The same goes for shooting scripts.
Since this script will be handled and used by the director and crew members, it only makes sense to include the most relevant information for them (i.e., directing cues and additional notes about the shoot).
Think of this as your opportunity to visualize and then plan out the set design, costume design, lighting preferences, stunt work, and acting directions.
Adhering to a revision protocol
It’s up to you to decide how much detail you do or don’t include in the shooting script, but something that doesn’t change from project-to-project is the revision process.
As told by the late American director Howard Hawks, “You can’t fix a bad script after you start shooting. The problems on the page only get bigger as they move to the big screen.”
To get the most value out of any production, you’ll need to revise and rework the shooting script a time or two (or 10) before you’re ready to roll the camera. Fortunately, there’s a set protocol — or, specifically, a color scheme — for this process.
The Writers Guild of America West (WGA) has established a set order for revision colors for scripts, beginning with blue and ending with cherry.
Each new revision is assigned a new color, so if you revise your shooting script four times, you will have four separate scripts marked as blue, pink, yellow, and green revisions (exactly like you saw with the Memento example).
If you need to continue revising after the cherry revision, you’ll mark the next versions as “second blue revision,” “second pink revision,” etc.
No matter how many rounds of revisions you go through, the bottom line here is that a good shooting script doesn’t come together overnight.
In order for your team to have everything they need to make production go smoothly, you need to be very intentional when drafting, revising, and finalizing the shooting script.
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