It’s easy to have an idea, but hard to commit to the hard work of making it come alive. As such, one of the most difficult stages of making a web series is getting it from script to the planning stages of the shoot, especially when you’re just starting out. One of the first things you should learn, which will help you make a budget, plan a crowdfunding campaign, write a shot list, start location scouting, and start hiring efficiently is how to break down a script.
This article is Part 1: The Actual Breaking, which will be followed next week by Part 2: Making The Dang Budget And Only Losing Some Of Your Soul.
Step 1: Make a spreadsheet
More specifically, make several spreadsheets, but let’s start with the overall spreadsheet and work our way out. Your columns will be:
- Episode number
- Int/ext (is the location indoors or outdoors)
- Scene length
- Extras (Y/N, how many if Y)
Depending on the show and your own personal style, these might change slightly, but if you’re new to script breakdowns, this is a great place to start. Now, go through your entire script/season and enter the appropriate data for each column. For an example, this would be the breakdown for Brains, Season 1 Episode 1.
This is a great place to start to see how many locations you’re going to need, how frequently your main cast appears in those locations, and how long each individual scene is going to take to film.
Rule of thumb: traditionally filmed series (with multiple camera angles and lighting set ups) can film between 5-7 pages per 8-10 hour day, depending on how complicated the shots are. Vlog/found footage series (where the camera is part of the story and there’s only one angle) can do 7-12 pages in a day, depending on the number of people in the scene and how complicated the blocking is.
(more details from this post)
However, according to Twitter, the average web series shooting day (at least for low-budget, often vlog or found-footage projects) is closer to twenty. Kate Hackett (@HackettKate) , creator of the award-winning series Classic Alice, told me she averaged about sixteen pages a day, and RJ Lackie’s (@rjlackie) award-winning show Inhuman Condition averaged closer to forty.
Even MORE details, thanks to @hermdelica!
One note about estimating your shoot times: be prepared for exterior shoots to take up to twice as long as if you shot them interior. You’ll be slowed down by things like:
- the sun coming in and out of cloud cover, leading to continuity problems
- similarly, the wind picking up and dropping
- airplanes flying overhead (which messes up sound recording)
- people doing stuff in the near vicinity (if, like us, you don’t have the money to block off the entire shooting area to the public)
Step 2: Make more spreadsheets
Learn to love spreadsheets. Learn to breathe spreadsheets. Go through your script again and make spreadsheets (or sheets off the original spreadsheet) for these individual elements:
- Wardrobe/ HMU
- Special effects/stunts
The big ones here are locations and props. For both of these spreadsheets, I like to have the following top categories:
- Number of scenes needed
- Length of scene
- Have, Buy, Make
For cast, break down their involvement by how many pages their characters are in, and leave a column open for “expected shooting days.” We’ll come back to that.
For wardrobe, count how many outfits each character will need throughout the series, labeling them however you like (Outfit 1, Outfit 2 is the easiest way to do this). Then take note of when characters will need each outfit- sometimes they’ll need multiple outfits in one episode, or they’ll wear the same outfit over the course of several episodes, and this is something you need to keep track of for planning as well as shooting continuity.
SFX and stunts might not be applicable to your show, but in general they’ll include: effects needed in post (magic, green screen, duplicated actor for twin effect, etc), practical effects (blood spurting, gun shooting blanks), staged fight or scuffle, someone falling or tripping, and basically any other action by actors where they have a higher-than-normal chance of getting hurt. Normal here being when characters are interacting while standing still or walking around a location at a normal pace.
Step 3: Separate out elements by Have/Buy/Make
Have/Buy/Make is my favorite way to get a realistic look at how feasible a show is to make independently. Coordinate with your production team (and actors, if you already have them) and try to get the most out of “have” (already have access to the thing) or “make” (can make the thing for less money than buying/renting it).
Once you’ve exhausted what you can get for free or cheap, do some research about possible purchases for the buy and make columns. This will start to give you an idea how much you’ll need to spend on the physical stuff that goes into making your project. For example, for season 2 of the show Stray, we already had a Connect 4 game and multiple prop cell phones, we could easily make fake vomit (instant oatmeal!) and a flyer for a comedy show, and we needed to purchase the book HTML5 For Dummies and a fog machine.
an example props breakdown from Brains season 2
You can do the same thing with locations- what locations do you already have (free) access to? What are locations you can make/build with access to locations you already have free access to? And what locations will you have to find or possibly rent?
This breakdown step is crucial to building your budget.
Step 4: Make preliminary shooting day breakdown
I know you’re breathing spreadsheets at this point, but I prefer doing this next step in a regular ol’ document. Now that you’ve gotten all your element breakdowns complete, it’s time to combine them in the most sensible way to make a preliminary shooting schedule. Here’s an example from Brains season 2:
*note- this breakdown was made when I was separating scenes not by page count specifically, but by how long the scene would take to shoot. Not all two-page scenes are created equal, depending on many factors.
How to group sensible shooting days:
- First, by location. There’s nothing more complicated than a company move, or having to move your cast and crew from one place to another during a shoot day. For example, our “hallway funtimes” day (I like to name my shooting days because it makes it easier to talk about them) technically had four different locations, but all of them could be filmed inside an empty building on our grad school campus. We just filmed certain angles or on certain floors to differentiate the scenes.
- Second, by character. The less shooting days an actor has, the better, especially for low budget. If it looks like you’re going to be filming multiple days inside one apartment location, for example, group those days by which actors are needed, so an actor doesn’t have to show up for an hour one day, an hour the next.
- Third, by complexity. Like I mentioned above, not all two-page scenes are created equal. If those two pages are just dialog, it’ll take much less time to film than if those two pages detail a fight scene or a lot of camera moves. This is why sometimes I’ll label scenes not by page count, but by the length of time I estimate they will take to film. Never try to do multiple stunt-heavy, camera-move-heavy scenes in a single day. Balance those scenes with easier dialog-heavy scenes, and your cast and crew will thank you.
This “Day Breakdown” will give you a first look at how long your series will take to shoot and how many days each actor and location is needed. You can then see how much, in general, it will cost, if you’re planning on paying your actors or renting a location.
This feels like a good place to stop, and link to a few more script breakdown resources I’ve found helpful in the past. Next week, as promised, we’ll take all these breakdowns and use them to make the dreaded budget.