How To Refine A Shooting Script (And Still Adapt On Set)

Here are some things to keep in mind when revising a shooting script on a film set.
by Drew Gula and Julian Vaca on May 31, 2022

No script is perfect. That’s true for every project and every format of a script — whether it’s a screenplay first draft or the shooting script that makes it onto a film set.

But that anecdote applies to shooting scripts especially. As the on-set “production bible,” this document helps keep everyone aligned for every scene of the project. And while the shooting script will keep adapting throughout a shoot, that only makes them more important.

Scripts never stop evolving until the film is shot, pickups are wrapped, and the director has approved the final edit. And that means knowing how to refine and stick to a shooting script is one of the most valuable tools a production member can have.

A Review Of Shooting Scripts

As a starting point, it helps to reaffirm the difference between a screenplay and a shooting script. While both documents serve the same basic role (providing structure for dialogue and progression), that doesn’t mean they’re different names for the same thing.

In fact, this is one of those cases where the differences matter more than the similarities.

Here’s an example from the shooting script for Inception. Christopher Nolan is a pretty well-known (and successful) writer-director who benefits from that dual role.

Shooting scripts are often talked about as “films on paper.” While a screenplay can provide notes on visual blocking, those are never the focus. A shooting script expounds on those pieces, however; they still include dialogue and direction, but also feature movement and transitions.

Think of it as a middle ground between a script and storyboards. The shooting script helps the director break their vision down into specific shots, then share that information with the crew. It becomes an all-inclusive way to share the director’s vision for each scene.

The Role Of Script Supervisors

The shooting script becomes a collaborative project between the director and the DoP. (Screenwriters may be called in, too, depending on how much changes.) And then they’re prepared and distributed by production assistants to the talent and production crew.

But because film production is such a large and collaborative process, shooting scripts are only as effective as the script supervisor on the project. These people are the continuity experts on set, verifying that everything makes sense between scenes.

Script supervisors are a director’s best friend. If a pen is in a character’s pocket in Scene A, it’s this person’s responsibility to make sure that pen is in the right spot in future scenes. And if a character ad-libs a line, the script supervisor knows if the dialogue makes sense for them.

It’s a way to maintain continuity while still allowing creative people to have room to workshop the script. And that is the single biggest part of refining a script on set — but more on that later.

A script never stops evolving, and it’s the shooting script’s job to make sure each change lines up with the previous shots and that these changes make it to the script copies scattered across the entire production.

How To Refine A Shooting Script

You can see how a shooting script helps manage changes to a screenplay. Large productions need a shooting script to keep everyone on the same page, and especially to facilitate second unit directors on a big project.

But what happens if the weather changes? Or if the director wants to rewrite a scene? This is probably the biggest difference between shooting scripts and screenplays. 

The screenplay for Pulp Fiction includes so many direction cues because Quentin Tarantino is another example of a successful writer-director.

A shooting script is almost exclusively written by the director because they can break rules, which is sort of the nature of their job. People accept a director's input because they are responsible for bringing the script to life.

Contrast that to screenwriters, who are taught to never direct from the page. Nothing is worse than seeing a screenplay trying to do too much, like direct the action or camera movement.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Directors who write their films will often skip a screenplay entirely and start with a shooting script. They’re able to visualize sets and shots and camera movement, and since they have the final say on those things, they’re in a good position to make sure their creative vision is presented in the final footage.

But for the most part, a writer will craft a screenplay, shop it around, and then step back while the newly-hired director begins to visualize the movie as they see it.

Crafting A Good Shooting Script

The main differences revolve around what you describe. Screenplays give a written audio log of events, like a narrated BBC audio drama. But a good shooting script needs more. You aren’t just blocking out your characters — you are blocking out each scene.

Where is your camera in the scene? What movement will bring the scene to life? How are you lighting the scene? How are the actors framing your shot? What is the audience going to be focused on at any one moment? These are the questions you should ask as you craft a shooting script. And these are the things that will evolve once you are on location.

It’s possible for an entire scene to change on set. If the weather changes or a prop breaks unexpectedly, you may choose to adapt to that and keep on filming. The result is a change to the shooting script, which will require you (or the script supervisor) to fact-check yourself and make sure the film maintains its consistency with both previous scenes and future scenes.

But overall, writing a shooting script is easier than you might think. (If you’ve ever created a shot list for a project, you had a good head start.) You need to number the scene and shot, list the characters, describe the action and camera movement, and provide the normal details like location, interior/exterior, time of day, etc. You should even include the gear you plan to use.

All of this information translates directly to on-set adaptation. By including so much information on each scene, you allow yourself to have some wiggle room: You can dabble with changes, and still have a map to help you get back to where you started.

This article was co-written by Drew Gula and Julian Vaca. Drew Gula is the copywriter at Soundstripe, a company that helps filmmakers find stock music, like documentary music and royalty-free suspense music. Julian is an award-winning actor and screenwriter. He works on a variety of creative projects at Soundstripe.

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