I learned filmmaking on the set of two found footage web series which, while certainly informative, didn’t exactly prepare me for the sheer complexity of shooting a page of traditionally filmed dialog. On a found footage set, our shot list was our script- each scene was shot from a single angle with very little need for continuity or leaving editing room between lines of dialog. On a traditional set, it might take you an hour to film two lines, depending on the number of shots to build the scene and the number of setups needed to capture each shot.
As such, it took me longer than it should have to figure out why a shot list was not only useful, but vital to the efficiency and overall success of a production. Honestly, a shot list would have been useful for some of our found footage sets as well. This article is by far not the only way to make a shot list, but the following steps have worked well for me, and if you’re new to the process, it’s better than winging it, trust me.
Step 1: Make a script breakdown
How to break down a script. This will be useful in guiding you later in the process.
Step 2: Make a storyboard (optional)
When I’m directing, I benefit from visually laying out the kinds of shots I’m thinking about because I don’t always know what different things are called, I just know what I want it to LOOK like. So prior to meeting with my DP to talk over the script and the breakdowns, I make myself a storyboard and annotate the script to match. That way, if my words fail to communicate what I’m thinking, my terrible, terrible stick figures back me up.
This also helps when we eventually get to the actual shot list, because we can literally look at all the shots I’ve envisioned. Because a storyboard also tends to influence editing (knowing which lines the director wants to play in certain shots) it can also help pare down your shot list. If you know the director wants a certain line in a close-up, you don’t have to bother capturing it in a wide or medium.
When I make a storyboard, I just grab a notebook or series of pieces of paper and draw lines to separate each page into eight boxes, labeling each with a number. Then I draw my opening shot in the first box and write the number 1 next to the accompanying lines of the script, and on and on until we get to the end. Sometimes a shot will encompass several lines, so I’ll just draw brackets to keep it organized, and sometimes I’ll add a note about camera moves or position.
Example storyboard from my short film ‘Buy In’
The accompanying annotated script for the above shot list. Each number/bracket corresponds with an image from the shot list
Here’s a great video about making storyboards:
You don’t have to make a storyboard, especially if your series is pretty simple or you’re more confident about camera lingo. The director of my latest web series, Sam and Pat Are Depressed, didn’t make a storyboard and jumped straight to the shot list, as it wasn’t a complicated shoot. That director is also more film-savvy than I am, though. Figure out what works best for you and go from there!
Step 3: Write down all the shots from your storyboard as text
List every unique shot from every unique scene (organized by said scene and accompanying storyboard number). It’ll look something like this:
- SCENE 1- Man walks into a bar (script pages 1-2.5)
- WIDE: all characters seated at bar
- WIDE: doorway for all entries (man 1, woman 1, old man, dog)
- M: Man 1 at bar
- M: Woman 1 at bar
- M TWO SHOT: Man and woman at bar
- CU: Woman 1
- INSERTS: various beer glasses getting picked up/put down/clinked together
- INSERT: the gun
- STRETCH GOAL: Tracking shot of dog entering bar, jumping up on stool
“M” for “medium shot” and “CU” for “close up.”
Bonus: stretch goal shots. This is a system my DP and I worked out on my first short film shoot. We knew we had to shoot a lot of pages a day and that scheduling was going to be tight, so as we laid out our shot list, we first made the list of absolute priority shots, the shots without which we could not assemble our film. Essentially, if we captured the necessary angles and had time left over, we could try something more ambitious or experimental. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t, but because we’d already captured what was required to finish the project, no one felt any pressure or frustration.
Step 4: Organize your new lists via your shooting day breakdown
In the how to break down a script article I linked above, there’s a description of breaking down shooting days, via location, actor availability, and complexity. If you haven’t done that already, stop reading this article and go do that.
Back? Cool. Let’s continue. Right now, your list of shots is in chronological order based on your script and storyboard, but that’s not very useful. Essentially, we’re going to be assembling the equivalent of a shooting script (a per-shooting-day document with scenes arranged in the order in which they will be filmed) but for camera stuff. It’ll probably look similar to this:
From the ‘Sam and Pat’ shot list
Step 5: Organize the by-shooting-day shot lists into filming order
From the ‘Buy In’ shot list
Obviously, every set is different, so talk to your DP and the rest of your team, but here are some general guidelines that I follow for this step:
- Start with the most complicated shot. This way everyone is at peak energy for the most taxing set up, and you can get it out of the way.
- Film everything you can within a single set up, ignoring chronology. This might be a bit confusing at first, but trust me, you want to move the camera and lights as infrequently as possible. Take the example shot list above- our first few shots are from all different parts of the script, but they’re all captured from the same angle, so we’ll capture them at the same time.
- Film inserts on set up day or at the end of the day. Inserts tend to be the simplest shots, because they often don’t require sound and because you’re unlikely to need more than a few seconds of each. Either schedule these shots on your setup day when you don’t need to schedule more than your camera person and gaffer, or do them at the end of the day, so you can cycle through them quickly without requiring a ton of energy from anyone. Inserts are usually things like an extreme close up of a prop or a character’s hands.
- Be mindful of schedules. On my first short film, my lead actress had to leave each shoot day several hours earlier than everyone else. As a result, we made sure to schedule all her coverage (as well as the wide shots with her and the other actor) first, that way if we were still filming by the time she had to leave, we were already done with her shots and could just have our AD read her lines for the other actors to play off of. This will also influence if you want “dirty” shots, or shots of one actor with part of the other actor in view (usually a shoulder or the side of their face). If you need to physically see another actor in coverage that isn’t theirs and can’t fake it with a stand-in, make sure your shot list accounts for this.
Example of a ‘dirty’ shot from my short film Ace and Anxious. The primary coverage is of Dana (left) (indicated in the shot list as M- Dana), but the frame is ‘dirtied’ slightly by Colin (right) to emphasize the relationship between the characters
That’s it! You now have a shot list for each of your shooting days! You can check off shots as you complete them to stay on track and refer to your stretch goals if you end up ahead of schedule (rare, but possible).