How to Break Down a Script

And How it Applies to the Machinima Process

Whether you’re making a live action film or a machinima short, filmmaking boils down to one thing: controlling as much of what happens in front of the camera as possible when you record it. On a live action film shoot, hundreds or even thousands of crew members, actors, extras and specialists work to do just that: make, manage and place the props, costumes, sets and lights that illuminate them; be the characters in that environment; and record it for posterity. It’s a lot of work (and coordinating it can be hell), but a simple process called the script breakdown helps a great deal.

The film industry has been making films for over a hundred years; they’ve figured out systems that work and work well and breaking down a script is one of them. I’m going to describe the basic process here, with tweaks to fit the machinima process.

If you’re wondering why I’m applying a live action filmmaking process to an animation process, then it may be because you’re new to the process of machinima, which has a lot more in common with live action filmmaking than key frame animation. In other words, it really is live filmmaking–it just happens to all be in a virtual environment.

You may be thinking, “Will this process be helpful to my machinima production (or are you just making more paperwork for me)?” If you’re making a machinima short by your lonesome, it may not be necessary to follow every this specific step, especially if your script is short. You actually go through it in your head, and a small project is doable that way. But on a more involved production (larger team, custom assets, multiple characters), it’s a very important process.

Why Break Down a Script

Breaking down a script is the process of logging each significant element needed for production of a scene (such as cast, costumes, special effects, cars and stunts) onto a breakdown sheet. The purpose is to create a means of communication and documentation between the production team and the various departments so that they are informed of what has to be produced and by when. Since a lot of live action filmmaking is done on location, there must be an extraordinary amount of coordination between departments to make sure every necessary item is at hand when the cameras roll on a specific scene. If a prop, vehicle, light, costume, animal or camera crane isn’t on location when you need it, you can’t shoot that shot.

The same applies in machinima. If you’ve got everyone together on the server to shoot your scene, but you don’t have a character for that scene in-game yet or you haven’t figured out how to lock the camera view to a vehicle for your traveling shot, you’re stuck. Though it’s a virtual world and not a physical on in the real world, there’s still a certain amount of coordination (and hacking, and scripting, and asset production) that has to happen.

Another reason to break down a script: you can’t effectively budget a film until you’ve identified your required items. May not be important for a small, self funded short, but if you’ve been contracted to produce machinima (in other words, you’re getting paid), then you really need that breakdown, because going over budget means no profit for you, my friend.

How

There are two major considerations to breaking down a script: one is isolating components into easily digestible chunks, separating out and then grouping scenes. The second is to figure out what the necessary elements are for each scene and who will be responsible for them.

First, go through the script and draw a horizontal line to separate each scene. The reason for doing this boils down to efficiency. A script is rarely shot in sequence, which means you don’t shoot scenes in order. If you have a serious of scenes that take place on Main Street, but they alternate between day and night, it makes sense to shoot all the day exteriors at the same time and then the night exteriors.

What denotes a new scene generally is a new location or some change that greatly affects your ability to shoot in sequence (defined by a new scene heading–Day INT Living Room, Day EXT Main Street). In Ralph Singleton’s book Film Scheduling he defines a scene change as, “…a unit of action which takes place in the same location over the same period of time. If either the location or the time period changes, then the scene ends and a new one begins.” He also adds that if the number of characters changes significantly then a new scene may be in order. Remember that breaking down a script is about coordinating a production efficiently, not about following hard rules. Base your decisions on what affects your actual production schedule. In a machinima shoot, it may not be that hard to set up a scene in which a large number of extras enter as two main characters stop to talk in a town square. Depending on your engine, it could be as easy as setting up bots with paths and therefore not need the scene to be split up.

Now go through the script again and mark every element that will affect each scene. This is important. This is where you find out what will be needed in front (and behind) the camera in advance. In the film biz, they’re looking for the following: Cast, stunts, extras/atmosphere, extra/silent bits, special effects, props, vehicles/animals, wardrobe, make-up/hair, sound effects/music and special equipment. Head spinning yet? (If you ever meet an assistant director or production manager in your travels, shake their hands, as well as any member of the production team; they deserve it.)

Traditional Film Script Breakdown Sheet

In the film biz they have an elaborate color-coding system to mark these elements, which I won’t go into here (see Film Scheduling, 2nd edition by Ralph Singleton, pg 25). The purpose is so you can go back through the script and by color, spot those elements and jot them down in the appropriate section of your Breakdown Sheet. You’ll have one page for each scene.

Now, if I have, say, a script with 20 scenes, and half those scenes all happen in the same location with the same elements, then I just cheat and create one breakdown sheet for all those scenes. This is about efficient production, not mounds of useless paperwork, and the only purpose is to effectively communicates with everyone. If there’s a major change in one of those 10 scenes (a fire starts in the Day EXT Living Room) create a separate breakdown sheet for that scene with the appropriate particle effects listed.

The script will not give you all the answers you need. You’ll still have to sit with the director and ask various questions. For instance, if a scene is in a Day EXT Urban Park, you’ll want to ask the director the following: what time of day is it? Early afternoon on a work day full of suits and ties having lunch or a Sunday with picnicking families and roller-bladders? What is the racial/age mix of the background extras? Is there a hotdog vendor cart? Is it sunny or overcast? Early morning or sundown? Obviously the department heads will go to the director for specific details, but at least the element will be on the breakdown sheet so they know to ask.

I’m sure you could tell that some of the elements listed in the standard film industry breakdown sheet don’t affect a machinima production while others are missing. For example, a live action production has a separate section on breakdown sheet for animals because it requires a specialist (animal wrangler) to bring in and manage the animal and more shooting time for those scenes, as animals can only do so much on queue. (When I worked as a grip, an animal shoot day always meant one thing…overtime). To machinima filmmakers, an animal is just another character which is not a problem at all.

Machinima Breakdown Sheet

Here’s the category list I’ve come up with for a machinima breakdown sheet. You can off course add or change it to fit your own needs, but I find these work well:

Cast, Extras, Static Objects, Working Objects, Skin/Model Changes, Special Effects/Particle Effects, Environment, Sound/Music and Production Notes.

Machinima Script Breakdown Sheet


Cast
: This is where you list major cast members that are in that scene. You may have a character model that is very complicated to create and won’t be complete until the middle of production. Or a character that can only be puppeteered by one person, and you have to schedule production shoot days around his or her schedule.

Extras: This is where you list information about extras (usually non-speaking parts) that make up a scene. They may be bots, puppeteered, or lower poly than the lead characters because they’re in the background. It all gets listed here.

Static Objects: If it’s in the scene and static, which means is it doesn’t have any animation, list it here. We’re basically talking props. If an object has a mount point (so it can be attached to a character’s hand like a bouquet of flowers), but doesn’t have any other modifications to it (such as a rifle that fires), list those here as well.

Working Objects: Sometimes called non-static, these are objects that either animate (conveyor belt), are triggered (gun that fires, barrel that explodes), or are more complex like mountable vehicles (tank with moving treads, car, plane). They are much more complex than a static object, which is generally nothing but a mesh and a skin. The reason to list working objects separately is because they may need scripting to work, take longer to build and test, or may need to be triggered during a shot. In other words, they’re a lot more complex and will affect your schedule. It’s not only about managing what’s in the shot, but what actions happen there as well.

Skin/Model Changes: In live action filmmaking, you need separate hair, makeup and wardrobe departments to handle the look of all the talent and extras in a production. In machinima, those are all just skins that fall in the lap of the modelers. Note that this isn’t the place for detailed design info about each character’s skins, but a place to list important changes that are needed for the scene (the director will work out the details with the modelers). For instance, if a character is wounded, you would list here that he’s now wearing a blood-soaked shirt. Or if he’s attending a fancy event, he might have to change into a tux. This is a very important area because some costume changes (such as heavy armor) require a change to the mesh, not just a skin change.

Special Effects/Particle Effects: Particle effects are obvious. If you have a scene where you see the burning remains of a tank, you’ll need fire and smoke particle effects. Special effects can be a number of things. It could mean a series of particle effects are triggered (series of barrels exploding, fuse burning that sets off dynamite) or a special-effect animation, which is a motion that wouldn’t be part of a character’s generic gestures.

Environment: Normally the location is listed as part of the scene heading on a breakdown sheet, and any special effects, such as rain or thunder, are listed under SFX. But since we can generally control and manipulate the environments in our engines, I use a separate box to list all environment elements. I like to create the file names that I want the map and/or mission editor files to be called here, for clear documentation all around.

Sound/Music: Not needed until post production, but this information is important to list. Someone has to pick and purchase, and acquiring music may take time, especially if songs need to be written or produced, of if h have to get the rights cleared for use. The sound may also affect how you record your scenes. If a Day EXT on a Desolate Planet calls for a howling wind, that will affect how the voiceover talent records lines (nothing is funnier that listening to talent shout lines over inaudible noise while in a quiet room).

Production Notes: A miscellaneous entry area where you put notes that don’t fit or warrant their own section. For example, if you have a shot that requires a composite (a blue or green screen) you would list here the extra footage that would be needed (such as moving star field seen outside the spaceship port window).

Department Heads

Once you have the script breakdown, get copies of it and the script to each department head, or even the whole crew. The script just needs to have the scene numbers that correspond to each breakdown sheet. Don’t bug them with a copy with all your lines and notes. Each department head reviews the documents and then sits down with the director to address details.
Hope this has been a useful foray into the workings of a time honored system. Given machinima’s unique blend of CGI animation and real-time filmmaking, I think slight modifications to film industry systems can be very beneficial to any of our productions.
Sample forms for use:

Machinima Film Breakdown Sheet

Machinima Breakdown Sheet-Doc File – Change to fit your needs

Machinima Breakdown Sheet-PDF

Traditional Film Breakdown Sheet-PDF

Further Reading: Film Scheduling, 2nd Ed, by Ralph S. Singleton

16 Responses to “How to Break Down a Script”

  1. <path_to_url> indra

    phew… saved

    Reply
  2. <path_to_url> Edson Jean

    Extremely helpful thank you!!!

    Reply
  3. <path_to_url> Rusty

    Great stuff…really helped me a lot!

    Reply
  4. <path_to_url> fatuo

    woow i learned alot thanks

    Reply
  5. <path_to_url> Henry

    Very useful, thanks for sharing !

    Reply
  6. <path_to_url> thinley

    sir, i learned a lot, but im still having doubts about counting the scene numbers and dividing into eights of page 1/8. could you please explain more in detail

    Reply
    • <path_to_url> Frank

      Sure thing. I wouldn’t worry too much about 1/8’s of a page but for the most part, whats more important is, if you follow standard script layout in your doc file, one page will roughly equal a minute of screen time. It’s not exact, especially for text describing action, a slow read of dialogue etc. If we need to know a more accurate length of a scene, we’ll do a cold read a few times and time it out. Not sure if that answers your question.

      Reply
  7. <path_to_url> Ikram Ahmed Pushon

    nice working technique ! really good . but i think every one should discover own system to work … and save the time :)

    Reply
  8. <path_to_url> stevenraju

    it is useful message for filmstudy students

    Reply
  9. <path_to_url> Cral

    saving timeYour Comments

    Reply
  10. <path_to_url> Bill

    Atmosphere is extras when doing a breakdown sheet. This person’s description of “Environment” or Atmosphere should be ignored entirely. If you were hired to breakdown a script and put sunlight or weather in the atmosphere section of a breakdown sheet, you would and should be fired.

    Reply
  11. <path_to_url> Frank

    Hey Bill,
    Thanks for your comment. You are correct for a live action film but as I note in the blog post, this is a breakdown sheet for a 3D animated machinima project, where we can and do easily affect the weather conditions and sky.

    Reply

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