The script breakdown is a fundamental tool for transforming a finished screenplay into an actionable production plan. With so much importance placed on a single document, it’s no wonder that getting started on breakdown sheets for your own film can be more than a little intimidating.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case.
In this post, we’ll make breaking down a script as easy as possible. We’ll show you what script breakdowns and breakdown sheets are, teach you how to do a script breakdown on your own, and even provide you with a sample script breakdown template that you can modify for your own production workflow.
Let’s start with an important resource.
Before we dive into the details, take a moment to download Wrapbook’s free script breakdown template. This sample script breakdown template can be used to get your production on its feet as quickly as possible. It contains a color-coding guide for production items, a scene breakdown template, and can be used in conjunction with this post to start breaking down a script quickly and efficiently.
You can download the script breakdown template here. We recommend following along as we explain how to make a script breakdown
Now, with a sample script breakdown in hand, let’s dive into the basics.
Script breakdowns are a method of calculating and cataloging the physical requirements of a given production based on its screenplay. Unsurprisingly then, figuring out exactly how to break down a script begins by looking at the screenplay’s individual scenes.
When it comes to planning a production, every scene in the script is important. Each will have individual requirements and elements that need to be sourced in order to shoot the scene.
Everything from actors to locations to key props, vehicles, special effects, and beyond must be accounted for. Therefore, before you can start shooting, you will have to prepare budgets and schedules that accommodate all these elements.
This is where the script breakdown comes in and why it’s so important. Breaking down a script is essentially a process of putting a screenplay under the microscope, examining it scene-by-scene and taking careful stock of every item that it demands. If any sample script breakdown does not isolate every individual scene from the script’s start to its end, then that sample script breakdown should be considered incomplete.
So what is a script breakdown? In short, it’s an inventory.
However, it’s also more than inventory. You could think of a script breakdown template as a particular kind of script analysis template that distills the story into a tangible set of tasks, requirements, and challenges. The script breakdown is a tool for both organization and strategy.
That’s why breaking down a script is one of the very first jobs of pre-production. Its performance forms a foundation for many of the later tasks that shape the master plans of a project’s principal photography. Without a script breakdown, for instance, you can’t even begin to create a budget or craft a shooting schedule, at least not with any accuracy.
As you might imagine, building a sample script breakdown for any project requires time, tremendous care, and an understanding of how script breakdowns fit into the bigger production picture. Before we dig further into how to break down a script, let’s take a moment to cover a few more fundamentals and form that big picture.
Scene breakdown sheets are the component parts of any overall script breakdown example. As their name suggests, they break down the requirements of an individual scene from the script.
By nature, breakdown sheet examples can vary wildly in their specific content, depending on their underlying screenplay. If you were to fill out scene breakdown templates based on the screenplay for The Breakfast Club, they would look vastly different than if those same scene breakdown templates were based on the screenplay for Mission: Impossible, though they both might mention Emilio Estevez.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that the basic concept of the breakdown sheet (and, therefore, the process of filling it out) always remains the same. While the content will vary, the form, structure, and method behind an indie film breakdown sheet example will not appear all that different from a blockbuster film breakdown sheet example.
In either case, the discipline of a scene-by-scene analysis is ultimately what matters.
Throughout pre-production, different crew members will create different breakdowns for different reasons and at different times. It’s not so much about who creates the script breakdown as who creates which script breakdown.
A producer, line producer, or UPM will often create a preliminary script breakdown. This initial document is more of a sample script breakdown for temporary use than it is a concrete, long-term item.
This sample script breakdown is meant to give a ballpark estimate of a production’s requirements, which can then be used to craft an early budget or bolster a pitch for film financing.
Once pre-production enters full swing, the first assistant director takes center stage and creates a more comprehensive script breakdown. This level of script breakdown example is the foundation of a production’s shooting schedule and must coordinate seamlessly with its working budget. You can think of it as the master breakdown. The 1st AD’s script breakdown forms the spine of a production’s logistics.
Beyond the producer’s sample script breakdown and the 1st AD’s master breakdown, individual department heads often create their own script breakdowns to help guide their teams. Such breakdowns focus exclusively on the responsibilities unique to a given department.
A sample script breakdown from the director of photography might focus on camera lenses or lighting rigs, while a sample script breakdown from the wardrobe designer would iron out details about costume rentals or tailoring needs. The sound mixer might build a breakdown that records microphones, mixers, and specialized audio equipment.
Within some departments, you even find multiple script breakdown examples. A sample script breakdown from a prop master would of course highlight props, while a script breakdown example from an art director might zone in on sets.
Both professionals belong to the art department, but their script breakdowns would reflect the concerns of their specific crew positions.
At first glance, breaking down a script seems like a massive task, but the process itself is surprisingly straightforward… if you have a method.
Below, we’ll show you how to break down a script in five key steps. Using our script breakdown sheet template, you can easily modify the basic method described in this post to best meet the needs of your own production.
We’ll start at the beginning.
The first step in breaking down a script is to make sure your screenplay is correctly formatted.
Production drafts of any screenplay should follow standardized format guidelines. While this might seem arbitrary to writers with backgrounds in journalism or literature, strict formatting is critical for planning a shoot. Remember that screenplays, unlike novels or think-pieces, are not a finished product unto themselves; they’re a blueprint for a movie or TV show.
This part of the script breakdown process is essentially a thorough proof-reading. The screenwriter, producer, and 1stassistant director should all give the script a once-over for formatting and production clarity.
Special care should be taken to note items that appear in each scene’s slugline, such as scene locations (including interior vs. exterior notations), scene numbers (which are not present prior to the first production draft), and scene times (i.e. day vs. night).
The 1st AD should also ensure that the screenplay has been formatted with appropriate margin sizes. All industry standard screenwriting software comes with formatting functionality that should prevent margin issues automatically, but it’s still possible to create errors through manual adjustment. The importance of correct margin formatting will become clear as you move into the next phase of your script breakdown.
Once your script is correctly formatted, you’re ready to dig into the meat of the script breakdown process. Working through the screenplay scene-by-scene, you’ll begin by noting the length of each scene as a number of eighths of a page.
This oddly specific annotation is an industry staple designed to help standardize accuracy during the scheduling process. By breaking each page length into eight parts, scene lengths and estimated shooting time can be calculated with greater precision.
When you use this information to build a schedule, it’s important to apply common sense to your calculations. If you were to consider a script breakdown example from a big budget action movie, shooting 7/8ths of a page could very well require an entire day of production. Meanwhile, if you were to consider a script breakdown example from an independent drama, you might plan to shoot the same number of pages within just an hour or two.
When breaking down a script, however, you don’t need to worry about how page lengths relate to your schedule. That part comes later. For now, all you have to focus on is noting scene lengths. At first, you may find it easier to use a ruler and pencil to manually divide each page into eighths, but you’ll likely be able to perform the calculation by eye with a little experience.
The bulk of a script breakdown consists of identifying and cataloging various production elements. These elements include everything from characters to props to special effects and basically anything else you can imagine. At this stage, we’ll focus on marking each item within the screenplay for later reference.
Traditionally, this phase of breaking down a script is performed manually using highlighters and colored pencils. Each category of production item (props, characters, wardrobe, etc.) is first assigned a specific color or type of marking. As you work scene-by-scene through the script, you’ll apply that color or marking type wherever an item from a given category appears. For example, if you were to assign the color purple to props, you would physically mark each appearance of a prop in the screenplay’s text with the color purple, usually by underlining, circling, or highlighting.
Script breakdown colors can be customized according to user preference, but it’s important that a consistent color code be used within each individual breakdown. For easy reference, you can find a complete sample color code within our script breakdown sheet template.
Before we move on, note that you can work on this step and the previous step in tandem for greater efficiency. While they are two separate tasks, noting scene lengths and identifying production items fit well together in the big picture framework of a scene-by-scene script analysis.
The next step in breaking down a script is to create an individual breakdown sheet for each scene and all production elements it contains. This phase of the script breakdown process is by far the most critical. However, it’s arguably also the most straightforward.
Essentially, this is the part where you create a scene-by-scene inventory. You’ll take all of the information you marked in previous breakdown steps and put it into documents separated by scene. The sum of these individual breakdown sheets is your overall script breakdown.
As you create your breakdown sheets, it’s important to be as thorough and conscientious as possible. If you check out our script breakdown sheet template, you’ll notice that it has a certain exhaustive quality.
The whole point of a breakdown sheet’s existence is to collect all critical data for the physical production of each scene in a single, easy-to-reference location, and it’s imperative that this data be accurate.
Script breakdowns are the cornerstone of production planning. Therefore, inaccuracies in a script breakdown can cause crippling errors in production itself. Whether or not you’ve carefully constructed your breakdown can mean the difference between coming in under or over budget, between being on or behind schedule, and even between having a well or poorly made film.
Be meticulous in preparing your breakdown sheets and you’ll be well on your way to planning a successful production.
As with screenplays, script breakdowns are not a finished product on their own. Their eventual aim is to support the creation of other production planning documents, like budgets and shooting schedules.
The script breakdown is a multi-faceted tool whose use is limited only by imagination. You can reference breakdown sheets on their own. Or you could use it in conjunction with other production support documents (like the day out of days report) to troubleshoot and streamline your production’s organization and strategy.
By the time you’ve finished your script breakdown, you’ll have put a great deal of work into it. Once it’s done, don’t be afraid to put it to work for you.
There is no doubt that breaking down a script manually is an attention- and time-consuming process. Now, the ever-evolving world of filmmaking software promises sweet relief from this most tedious of tasks.
But does it deliver?
The answer to that question is complicated and in a constant state of flux as new technology is revised and refined. The closest we can come to a catch-all answer is a consideration of how software impacts the script breakdown workflow.
Script breakdown software relies on its ability to accurately tag and identify various production elements. Therefore, even small errors in formatting have the potential to throw your breakdown into chaos, which may not be easy to untangle.
What’s more, when using breakdown software, formatting errors must be resolved within the screenwriting software itself. Catching mistakes in a PDF simply won’t cut the mustard.
With automatic breakdown software, users must thoroughly review the generated breakdown after output to ensure accuracy and avoid potential errors. This delays the most detail-oriented period of breaking down a script until after a version of the breakdown already exists. In other words, the process still requires immense attention to detail, just at a slightly later point in the process compared to breaking down a script by hand.
Of course, whether or not this effort rivals that of a manual script breakdown is debatable. It depends on the project’s details as well as the personal preferences of the user. However, it’s important to acknowledge that software is not a magic bullet for script breakdown efficiency.
It also denies users the benefits of manual script analysis. This is a serious trade-off whose value will shift according to a given user’s goals. A producer drafting a budget estimate, for example, might prefer the speed of an automatic breakdown. At the same time, a 1st assistant director crafting a shooting schedule would likely prefer the microscopic view provided by the manual breakdown process.
It all depends on personal priorities. For quick and potentially dirty estimates, the speed of software offers an unparalleled advantage. For actual production, in which every detail matters, the meticulous nature of a manual breakdown is still hard to beat.
Of course, it would be a mistake not to mention that there is a middle ground when it comes to using software for breakdowns. Most scheduling software allows users to create scene-by-scene breakdown sheets through simple data entry. This route won’t save you the considerable time required by script analysis, but it will integrate the script breakdown into your production workflow more efficiently.
Script breakdowns are a challenging but extremely important part of the production planning process. Download our free script breakdown template and develop your own method to make it as smooth as possible.
Trying to get your next project off the ground? Get up to speed fast with our guide to crafting the call sheet or our breakdown of how to pay actors on a low budget production.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.
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