The Cinematographer's Process: Breaking Down the Script

The Cinematographer's Process: Breaking Down the Script

Most people know what the cinematographer does on a set. However, have you ever wondered what exactly cinematographers do during the pre-production process?

In 2013, I was hired to DP a short science fiction film called Pater (latin for "father"). Since the film provided a number of unique cinematographic and special effects challenges (especially considering the minuscule budget), it seemed prudent to write about the process from start to finish. Hopefully we'll be able to demystify the many facets of cinematography pre and post production, and by the end, have a distinct and in-depth definition of the cinematographer's process.

So what is Pater about? In short, it's the story of two extraterrestrial beings, the Progenitor, who is wise and stoic, yet rapidly aging, and Janus, who is toeing the line between childhood and adulthood. Together they are searching desperately for an advanced civilization that has not engineered its own demise.

Planet after planet, and disappointment after disappointment, the pair are now locked onto a signal coming from a mysterious tan planet. They land, and search the desolate city from which the signal is coming, only to have their worst fears realized. They were too late. With the Progenitor's health failing rapidly, the pair receive a transmission from one final planet, and they know that it is their last hope.

Update: Unfortunately, Pater never made it to production due to some budgetary and producer-related issues. However, there's still lots to learn from the time and effort that we spent on pre-producing the film. With that out of the way, let's get on with the show!

Script Breakdowns? For Cinematographers?

Script breakdowns are a fact of life for UPMs, various folks in the art department, actors looking for character arcs and beats etc. However, script breakdowns aren't often considered part of the traditional cinematography pre-production process. They should be.

Shane Hurlbut once said something along the lines of, "If you make every choice as a cinematographer based on the emotions of your characters, you will hit a home run every single time. Everything about cinematography is emotion." Hurlbut is 100% correct in this statement, but achieving cinematographic emotion isn't as simple as pointing the camera in the direction of a great performance. It takes an intimate knowledge of the characters and the overall subtext of the film. The only way to achieve this, of course, comes from spending a little bit of quality alone time with the script. And by "alone time," I mean that much of this should be done in conjunction with the director. It is their film after all.

Anyway, this is where the script breakdown comes into play. It doesn't have to be anything like a traditional script breakdown, where you mull through scenes and categorize every little detail. No, your cinematographic breakdowns can be anything you want -- a word document, notes in a script margin, a pile of sticky notes -- literally anything, as long as it can be filed into a production notebook for future reference. I do, however, recommend keeping your script breakdown as organized as possible so that it is accessible to other members of the team.

With all of that said, let's finally get into the process of how to break down a script as a cinematographer. However, before getting into the nitty gritty of how to determine the emotionality of your script, let's talk about the very first thing that you should do upon reading a script.

The Technical Breakdown

The technical breakdown is just what it sounds like. It's a process in which you scan the script for technical issues and viability based on the budget of the film. Scan through the script, line by line, and look for instances of actions or entire scenes that may be difficult to achieve in a technical sense. Do you have extended scenes that need to be shot on location, or at night? Do you have extensive practical or digital effects shots? Do you need to rig a camera to the side of a blimp (for some reason?) Whatever it is, if it's going to be technically challenging for the electric, grip, camera, or any other department, write it down and point it out.

Getting these various concerns into the minds of the appropriate people as soon as possible is an absolutely crucial step. As the DP, you are expected to be prepared, and to help the production prepare, for the various technical challenges that a film faces. And the earlier that you start looking for and pointing out said technical challenges to the production team, the better off the production is going to be. Additionally, you'll want to make sure the technical problems and solutions that you come across are ones with which you are familiar. If not, it's time to start doing some research.

The script of Pater has numerous technical challenges beyond the daunting task that we've laid at the feet of our art department. First and foremost, digital effects and compositing will play a large role in the post-production of the film. Because I'm relatively inexperienced with digital VFX (it's important to know your weaknesses,) my technical breakdown of the script includes notes on shots that will definitely require extensive green screen work, or for plates to be shot in post. Through meeting with the VFX supervisor and discussing how to achieve our effects shots this early in the process, we are setting ourselves up for success.

This leads us to the next, and arguably the most important step of the cinematographer's process: analyzing the script for subtext.

Subtext Analysis

Finding the subtext of a script is a very personal process, and no two people will do it the same way. Personally, I use what I call the "Three Pass" method, in which I read through the script three separate times, taking a different approach each time. The first pass is about working in broad strokes. I read through the script from cover to cover without making any notes until the end, at which point I jot down the overarching subtextual themes that are prevalent throughout the script.

In the second pass, I go through and find individual instances (certain lines, actions, etc) that support the original analysis from the first pass. This pass is essential because it forces you to find important subtextual moments in the script, moments which you will certainly want to highlight through your cinematographic choices later on in the process. The third and final pass is sort of a clean-up pass, in which I try to find other, more concealed subtextual content that might not be essential to the plot. Of course, whatever you find throughout the process of searching the script should be discussed with the director so as to avoid conflicts of interpretation.

The subtext of Pater is twofold. First and foremost, Pater is a cautionary tale for humans. As we see the desolation of a similarly advanced civilization, and with the knowledge that countless other advanced civilizations have destroyed themselves, we humans should be asking ourselves if our planet will meet the same fate, and more importantly, if there's anything we can do to stop it.

Secondly, Pater is a film about parent/child relationships, and the responsibilities that parents have to teach their children how to survive in their absence. However, this subtextual thread takes on additional weight as these two characters might just be the last two living beings in the entirety of the universe. Add to that the fact that the Progenitor is on the verge of death, and you have a situation in which the stakes for the teaching/learning aspect of the pair's relationship couldn't possibly be higher.

Character Breakdowns

In Shane Hurlbut's statement about how to achieve cinematographic emotion, he said that the choices you make with your camera and lighting need to be based on the emotions of the characters. In order to do this, it is essential to have an immaculate understanding of what each character is feeling and thinking at any given moment in the script.

Again, the process for determining this is a personal one. You can go through the script, line by line, and jot down notes about each character as you go. Every time that character speaks or completes an action, you should be asking yourself what their motivation is, what they're trying to accomplish, and what emotional state they're in. Using as much detail as you can will ensure that your understanding of the script's emotionality is as high as it can be.

In addition to picking apart the script line by line, you should also be considering the character's arcs as a whole. Where does this character start in the script? More importantly, where do they end up, and what was the series of events that got them there? Having a clear understanding of your character arcs as a whole will help tremendously in the process of helping to tell that story in a way that is visual and meaningful.

Conclusion

Cinematographers are responsible for conveying emotion and meaning through the images that they create. This might be one of the most challenging, yet artful tasks known to man, as it takes a tremendous understanding of emotion and technical precision in order to be able to accomplish it properly. Through analyzing the script for technical concerns, subtextual themes, and character emotion, you are setting up yourself, and the work that you produce, to be successful.

This post originally appeared on No Film School. Header image courtesy of HowToFilmSchool


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