What’s In An Eighth? An Assistant Director Explains How to Break a Screenplay Page and Plan Shots

Math is generally reliable, but in the world of moviemaking, not so much.

“Five takes” usually means 15 to 20. A DP’s “only two minutes” to set a flag likely translates to no fewer than five, and a snarky “it’ll just take a sec” from makeup could actually warp Einstein’s theory of time and space. What I want to talk about here is fractions—that is, the divisions you have to make in a script to plan your shoot.

To break down a script for production, one must assign scene numbers and page counts. Then, one breaks each page into eighths, with one page equaling eight eighths. Easy, right? Well, yes, unless there are more than eight scenes per page. An elaborate gun fight or car chase, for example, might be nine or 10 eighths. Contrary to Archimedes and my fifth grade math teacher, in film not all eighths are equal.

EXT. PARKING SPOT – DAY

CAMERA DOLLIES IN as a fire engine-red Porsche glides to a stop. The door opens. A pair of long legs unfolds, wearing black silk stockings and red stilettos.

One eighth of a page, right?

EXT.  ATALI MTNS. /MONGOLIA – DAWN

The sun is just cresting the jagged peaks, revealing the massing Mongol horde as it prepares to descend on the unsuspecting village slumbering in the still shadowed valley.

One eighth of a page. Equal ink, but not equal time on the screen.

On one hand, you can probably shoot straight up and nail the first shot in less than an hour. The second, whether you use a real Mongolian horde or a digital one, is a pre-dawn exercise in multi-camera logistics, hair, makeup, stunts, wranglers and background actors, all timed with an overly caffeinated AD stalking a cinematographer who’s peering through a contrast filter, yelling, “Not yet!… not yet!… now, dammit, now!”

The now-common practice of reverse-engineering a shooting schedule from a budget—i.e. “We’ve got a 94-page script and we can only afford to shoot 15 days, so we have to schedule six two-eighth pages per day”—leads to over-shot scenes, under-planned and rushed setups, and entire pages that never make it to the screen. (Of course we know of those who boast about shooting eight, nine or more pages in a day and yes, it can be done. I’ve done it and so have countless others. In fact, I’ve handed out call sheets with so much work scheduled that my crew laughed out loud. I promise, however, that if any of these page-count superstars are being honest, they will tell you it did not produce their best work.)

So, again, what’s in an eighth and how do you plan your day to snatch as many as you can?

First and foremost, do your breakdown by hand. Nothing will embed a script into your mind’s eye more concretely than going through it page by page, circling, highlighting and underlining all the bits and props, costumes and cast.

Also, software will make mistakes. Imagine a scene with four guys, Bill, Bob, Ted, and Pete, riding in a car, talking. The writer describes it like this: “The bros pull up to an office building, cross the lobby and load guns as they zip to the penthouse.” They all spoke in the car, but only Bill and Bob have dialogue inside the building. More than likely, these scenes will be shot on separate days. One requires an insert car which takes time to execute, and the other is the pre-amble to a shoot-out in an expensive location. You know that Ted and Pete will be in the lobby—because they’re two of “the bros”—but the software does not. Depend on technology at this point and you may find yourself standing there on the day of, explaining to the director that an actor is not on set because the software screwed up.

Drilling down on each scene also helps to reveal the scene’s true importance. While two characters sitting in a diner “catching up after all these years” may have taken the writer four pages to depict, the director may want to do it in one, or shoot it only from the outside, framing them in the frosty window. If the director wants them in the window, the DP will for sure determine what part of the day the scene can be shot.

Jon Scheide on the Cape Town set of Sean Penn’s The Last Face with 3rd AD Andile Pakade. Courtesy of Jon C. Schiede

Speaking of DPs… they get paid a lot, and to rationalize that, one of the first things most do is take a red pen to all the shots, close-ups and angles in the script. It’s a DP’s job to design shots that drive the story, not just pick a lens and set a stop. So don’t count on the shots you line up looking remotely close to shots described months or years before the actors, location scouts, production designers, permits and restrictions got involved. Hell, between the time this article is written and published there will most likely be some new camera-stabilizing device or recording format wreaking havoc with the best laid plans.

Another big thing hidden in plain sight, like an ammo-ed up assassin waiting to blast your day’s schedule to bits, is transitions. How are you getting into and out of the scene?

EXT. HIGHWAY – DAY

The car pulls off the highway into the run-down gas station, pulling up to the only pump. The attendant, in overalls and a sweat stained ball cap, wanders over.

                                                   ATTENDANT

               What can I do for you folks? …

Etc., etc. Nowhere in there does the word “crane” or “jib” or “aerial” appear. But there will be one on set that day, and the crew will need time to rig it, rehearse it and get that bitchin’ shot of the car coming down the road and pulling off to come to a halt on the right mark again and again. Plus, depending on the location and the light, shooting with this setup may occur well before shooting the actual scene with the dialogue—no one likes crane shots in the middle of the day. So if not half your day, at least half your morning is filled by a transition.

Transitions lead to the topic of setups and how to plan a shoot day (or better yet, how to plan what to do when your day goes to hell before lunch). For the sake of clarity, a setup refers to a camera placement and a lens choice designed to cover a scene or part of a scene—a master, a close-up, a dolly shot, etc. (For newbies, this leads to the As and Bs on slates in the American style. “Sc17 Take 1” is the first setup in scene 17. Once that is shot, you might switch to a tighter lens or onto a dolly, and then it would be “Sc17a.”)  Some setups are easy, like going tighter—referred to as “swinging a lens” from the days of turret-mounted primes. Some require “turning around,” which generally means relighting the scene from the opposite side, and always means making a craft service move.

In single-camera feature film production, you’re going for 20 to 30 setups per day, assuming a 12-hour day. For a studio film, you might do less or have two cameras every day. For an indie, you’re going to want to hit the high end, meaning 30-plus setups.

Here we are back to the math. Fifteen shooting days times 30 setups means 450 shots, give or take. That’s it—450. In our post-digital, nonlinear, Michael Bay-hem world, shot lengths are shorter (there are exceptions, e.g. Jim Jarmusch) and films routinely have over 1,500 cuts. So every setup counts.

But how do you count them, before the director does her shot list, or the DP does his tech scout, or the actors block the scene? How do you map out a schedule weeks early, one that producers will base their budget on, departments will book gear based on and agents will try to double-book their clients against? You go back to the eighths and start counting.

Face it, your schedule is going to be reverse-engineered due to location restrictions, casting avails, night work, stunts, etc., so you have to focus on building “makeable days.” When looking at a scene, again, how are we getting in and out? What is the master going to be? Will there be both clean coverage and over-the-shoulders? Are there info bits that deserve close-ups—cocking a gun, slipping a drop of poison into a drink? How many cast members are in the scene and will they all get coverage? Five actors in a one-page group therapy session could easily turn into over a dozen setups if they all need mediums and close-ups, plus some entrance and a master. That equates to almost half the day’s shots on one of the six-plus pages. Based on that math, you’d expect to shoot three pages by lunch or have a 50-plus set up day.

It is much better, not to mention cheaper, to have these discussions in prep, though they will still happen on set with the sun setting and the aforementioned cameraman saying he can’t make night match day and that you’ll have to return tomorrow.

If this all sounds bleak, daunting and insurmountable, it’s not. Why? Because films get made every day and if you tighten up, ask all the questions you can in prep and get the crew focused, you can shave maybe two minutes off each setup. Cut two minutes of tweaking and twerking and other nonsense, and over the course of the day you will save almost an hour. That’s an hour of overtime you don’t come up with, or an hour of extra shooting time.

Think of how many more eighths you can shoot with an extra hour per day. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue. Illustration by Daniel Zalkus.

Jon C. Scheide came up through the ranks from production assistant to assistant director, writer, producer and director. Directing his own features, commercials and web series, as well as producing and AD-ing for notable directors (including Sean Penn, with whom he has made four films), gave Jon plenty of hands-on knowledge. With well over 200 credits spanning more than 20 years, Jon knows all the best parking lots to stand around and have breakfast.

3 Comments

  1. Frank Casanova

    May 25, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    I always thought the “One Page equals One Minute” maxim was absolute Bull… as you pointed out.

  2. Ed

    May 23, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    You forgot the hours in a day. Your ‘math’ of eights will be subject to 6 hours of light in Winter and 12 in Summer and everything in between; depending on the day, crew and Dir and DOP etc.

    • Jon

      May 23, 2017 at 3:53 pm

      Ed,
      very true, but at least the sun is predictable. I also didn’t drill down into travel time, after lunch touch ups, actors who don’t like to rehearse or directors who don’t like to prep… but that’s what makes every day fresh and exciting!

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