Becoming the Director’s Right Arm and Left Brain

The more anal the better: The author, Tina Frolund,
(left) confers with First AC Diane Broussalian on a Seattle
set.

Script supervision is one of the great mysteries
of moviemaking
. Everyone
on set seems to agree. Theydon’t really know what the script
supervisor does, but it looks hard and seems to be important.
She (more often she than he) never seems to leave the set.
She is always writing in her notebook and seems able to answer
any question. After all, who else could remind the DP (director
of photography) what a particular shot will edit to; tell the
AC (assistant camera) how long a take ran so he can determine
when to reload; throw the right line to an actor; inform the
sound mixer where the primary dialogue is taking place and
if there will be shouting; tell the dolly grip the exact line
an actor moves on; remind the makeup department which side
of the face an actor got punched on so they can make an appropriate
scar (or, depending on shooting order, tell stunts which side
the scar was on so they can plan an appropriate punch); tell
the AD (assistant director) what time lunch was called and
the producer how many pages were shot yesterday?

Besides being a source of information to other departments,
the script supervisor is responsible for creating a precise record
about what is filmed. She assigns slate numbers to every shot,
keeps time on every take, and makes notes describing every shot
filmed. She completes daily editorial reports to inform the editor
about the day’s work. She also completes production reports that
tell the production office the time of the first shot and how many
setups were filmed. This information is used to calculate how the
shoot is progressing and if the schedule is being met.

Outfitting yourself to be a script supervisor
is a simple process.
The obligatory pieces of equipment are
a notebook, Polaroid camera, stopwatch, and a rugged bag to carry
everything in. The Polaroid contributes to continuity. Written
notes are invaluable, but a photograph taken at the precise moment
— not after the actors have moved or before they have put their
coats on — is invaluable for matching. The stopwatch is used
to time every shot so an accurate estimate of actual picture
running time can be calculated at the end of each day. (Note
to wannabes: do not show up on set with a stopwatch that beeps
— a sure sign of an amateur. Have the beep disabled by a jeweler.)
Other equipment includes paper and lots of pencils; blank copies
of the myriad forms a script supervisor completes each day; a
clean copy of the script; a basic portable office — hole punch,
stapler, highlighters, ruler; sometimes a lightweight portable
chair; good rain gear and a strong bladder.

The script supervisor’s ever-present notebook houses
this steadily growing account of the shoot to date. It contains
a shooting script that the script supervisor draws lines through
as every written word of dialogue and action is translated to film.
When the director asks, "Am I covered?" a look at these
lines and their corresponding script notes provides the answer.

The script notes are the detailed descriptions of
every take — what the actors did, what lens was used, what angle
was filmed, how the camera moved and what part of the script was
covered. For every take the script supervisor notes the director’s
reaction and any comments that explain the reaction. "No good,
soft focus" or "Good, excellent timing of dolly move," or "Incomplete
take," or "Best performance," etc. Through these
notes the script supervisor communicates with the editorial department,
which generally is not present on set. The script notes and lined
script become a blueprint for the editor to refer to when assembling
the film. As an advocate for the editor during the shoot, the script
supervisor works to ensure that all footage shot is usable. She
assures that screen direction is consistent, eye-lines are correct
and that blocking and action will match from shot to shot. Because
she knows the overall plan of coverage she can help the director
avoid "crossing the line."

In addition to being a record keeper and keeping
her eye on the cut, the script supervisor also constantly watches
continuity — the thing that allows a story to be filmed out of
sequence over a long period of time and yet edited together seamlessly.
The art, wardrobe, makeup, and prop departments all contribute
to accurate continuity, as do conscientious actors, but as the
script supervisor is the last line of defense against errors being
filmed, she is the continuity supervisor, which is how some script
supervisors prefer their credit to read. She is responsible for
watching objects that get handled in a performance and matching
their conditions from shot to shot — liquid levels in drinking
glasses, lit candles, burning cigarettes — all demand the script
supervisor’s attention. So do the hands, arms, clothing and hair
of the performers. Did her bra strap fall down in the master? In
which hand was she carrying the flowers?

Experienced script supervisors know to keep their
eyes "on the money,"
to watch what will be prominent
on the screen. They also learn to watch the things that will
need to be matched later on. In what order did people leave or
enter a room? Who was standing next to whom in a group shot?
Was the car door left open or shut? Which hand, right or left,
held what object? Over time she learns to see and remember more
details than one would think possible. Because of this she is
often perceived as uncannily observant.

Along with compiling script notes, keeping an eye
on the edit and supervising continuity, the script supervisor is
the one person on set devoted to watching the words. During shooting
she has the most accurate, up to the minute script because she
incorporates all rewrites and revisions into and pulls all deletions
out of her script copy. She makes sure story information is consistent,
details mentioned match details seen, dialogue has overall logic
and that the actors follow the written script. To do this the script
supervisor works closely with the director and actors.

Some directors demand exact line readings from their
performers; some will accept approximations as long as the general
meaning of a scene is not altered, some directors encourage ad
libs. Actors vary as much as directors. Some can recite verbatim their
and everyone else’s lines, others need prompting — the script
supervisor is there, accurate script in hand, to aid them all.
She is available to run lines with actors between takes, to read
off-camera dialogue, and to write down ad libs and changes in dialogue
so they can be matched in reverse shots and additional coverage.

The script supervisor also helps the actors match
themselves from shot to shot. Consistent action, blocking and prop
use is the responsibility of the actor, but even experienced film
actors sometimes forget what they just did. ‘Was I standing when
I said that line?’ ‘Did I lean in and then pick up the book with
my right hand?’ ‘When did I open my jacket?’ are typical questions
the script supervisor can answer.

As with all the film crafts, script supervision
demands a personality suited to the work.
Being observant,
quiet, organized, a little on the obsessive side, able to assert
yourself when needed, will all serve a script supervisor well.
Several options are available to learn the craft. Courses at
schools such as AFI, UCLA Extension, or the Vancouver Film School
give a good grounding in theory. Learning from a working script
supervisor is valuable but sometimes difficult to coordinate;
they are generally too busy to teach and, because they are a
department of one they typically do not have seconds or assistants.
When not working on a film some script supervisors offer classes;
call around.

Definitely study the three books available on the
subject, Pat Miller’s Script Supervising and Film Continuity (Focal
Press, 1990), Shirley Ulmer’s The Role of the Script Supervisor
in Film and Television
(Communication Arts Books, 1986) and
Avril Rowlands’ Continuity in Film and Video (Focal Press
Media Manuals Series, 1989). These books give a good indication
of the types of continuity errors noticed by astute (one might
say anal) viewers.

Of course, the best way to learn is to do. Offer
to work for free on small projects. Time served in the trenches,
mistakes made and corrected — i.e., experience, truly is the best
teacher and the highest recommendation. Along with knowing your
own craft you should know about movies, film history, styles of
coverage, editing, and acting.

In the midst of that chaotic process which is filmmaking,
a script supervisor contributes precision and accuracy. She is
the right hand (and sometimes the left brain) to the director,
an advocate for the editor, a resource for the actors, an informant
to other departments, and an auxiliary to the production office.
What she does is extremely important, little understood, very hard
and greatly appreciated. MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *