A film set is a living organism. There are many teams, like organs, working independently to support the whole. At the center of it all is the brain, the Director, responsible for making sure all the teams work together in unison.
But there’s a hitch. Unlike our brains which are hardwired to every inch of our body, the Director can only be in one place at one time. To make matters worse, during production the Director’s time will be dominated by the actors. In order for the film to come together smoothly, the Director must provide a set of blueprints that the crew can work from.
Those blueprints come in the form of the four director’s materials:
- Shot List: A list of every camera angle needed.
- Overheads: An overhead diagram of every shot.
- Storyboards: A sketch of what each shot should look like.
- Lined Script: A script marked to show which shots cover what action.
The four materials should be provided to the crew well in advance to shooting, as each department will need to prepare their own plans based on the Director’s materials.
1. Shot List
The most essential piece is the shot list. All other materials are based on it. Your shot list can be as detailed or simple as you want, but find a balance that works best with your crew.
I like to include the following information in my shot lists:
- Type: What type of shot is this? Over the Shoulder? Establishing? Two Shot or One Shot? Insert?
- Size: The shot size describes how much of your character you will show. Is it a full body shot? A closeup? A medium shot?
- Elevation: Sometimes I will raise or lower the camera to enforce the perspective of a certain character. Should the camera be low to the ground, or up high to accomplish this?
- Lens: What size lens will be needed? Is this a bonkers wide-angle shot, or a telescopic closeup?
- Movement: Will the camera be stationary on a tripod, handheld, or moving around on a dolly?
- Description: What action is covered in this shot. Try and keep descriptions short, less is more.
I typically create my shot lists in an Excel spreadsheet as it’s easy to manage the columns. Plus, if a crew member only needs certain information, they can just delete any unnecessary columns.
Overheads provide a birds-eye-view of the action. I consider these to be the second most important set of materials, as key departments will use them to do their own planning. The lighting department will use overheads to plan their lighting setups. The art department will use them to place important furniture and props. Special Effects and Fight Choreographers may also need overheads to help plan their setups as well.
Overheads should include the following:
- Characters: Characters appear as circles with little triangle noses to indicate the direction they are facing. Mark each character with their initials. If a character moves during a scene, notate this by drawing them at their start and stop points with an arrow in between. Number all the start and stop points sequentially. You can include other actions like sitting, laying and pointing by adding stick-figure arms and legs.
- Camera: Draw cameras as ‘v’ shaped angles indicating the lens size and direction. As with characters, if a camera moves during a scene, draw its start and stop points with an arrow in between. You may include multiple shots on one overhead by drawing more cameras and marking them with their shot number.
- The Environment: Be sure and include any important environmental objects, such as walls, windows, doors, props or special effects devices.
We’ve all seen storyboards before. Pixar and Disney use them extensively when developing their stories. Peter Jackson scans his into a computer and turns them into an animated pre-visualizations of his films. Visual effects supervisors will use them extensively to plan tricky green screen and CG shots.
What I bet you didn’t know was that storyboards are critical to the Art Department. Dressing a set requires a lot of time, money and effort. How will your crew know how many props to acquire and where to place them if they don’t know the framing of each shot?
Storyboards can be as simple as stick figures, but are generally not too complicated, as many have to be drawn in a short amount of time. Include arrows to show character and camera motion.
4. Lined Script
To be honest, I don’t always bother with Lined Scripts, though they are easy to make and provide useful information to the crew. Basically. you take a copy of the script and draw each shot as a solid line down the page, indicating where a shot will begin and end. If a section of the page is not covered by a particular shot, such as lines of dialogue that are off camera, draw the line with a squiggle.
In the example above, shot 5A covers John’s dialogue, and shot 5B covers Susie’s. Make sure you include a little extra bit of action/dialogue at the beginning and end of each shot. Even if you don’t intend to use it, it is helpful in editing.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Give your team a fighting chance on set; provide them with the blueprints they need to bring the film to life.