Many indie filmmakers have a tendency to skimp out on pre-production, and two of the most important tools in any Director’s arsenal – the lined script and the shot list – are often left by the wayside. Personally speaking, I spent the first few years of my career working without any sort of lined script or shot list, simply because I didn’t understand just how transformative these tools could be on any given production.
The purpose of both your lined script and your shot list is essentially the same: To give yourself and your crew a reference point for the coverage you’ll be shooting, which will ultimately enhance your creative output. Conversely, if you simply show up on set and decide right then and there how you want to cover your scenes, you’re going to run into a whole slew of issues.
In this scenario you’ll probably spend the better part of your day making decisions on camera placement, blocking, lens choices, and coverage, when you could have easily made these choices before hand at no expense to your day. Ultimately by failing to prepare, you are left with far less time to actually rehearse, shoot, direct your actors, and potentially even capture some bonus shots if you’re lucky.
There are obviously a lot of benefits to planning out your creative vision before hand – not just the few examples listed above. But for the purpose of this post I want to focus on what makes for an effective lined script and shot list.
Let’s take a look at both, starting with a lined script since it’s seemingly utilized even less than a traditional shot list by many indie filmmakers.
For those of you that don’t know, a lined script is simply a version of your script that has been marked up by the director to indicate when and where coverage occurs. Basic information such as the shot number, shot size, and amount of coverage is indicated very simply by using short form notes.
Take a look at this basic sample of a lined script:
While it may look rudimentary on the surface, each of the lines on this script convey a lot useful information: The length, type, and execution of an individual shot, as well as how the shots may be used in the edit.
There are no hard and fast rules to creating a lined script, but here are some basic guidelines I suggest taking into account when creating a lined script:
- Every shot is labelled with a number and letter (Shot 1A, 1B, 1C, etc.)
- Every shot label also includes the description of the shot size (CU, MS, LS, etc.)
- A solid line running through the page indicates coverage that will be shot
- A squiggly line running through a section indicates a section that can be omitted from the coverage
- The end point of your lines indicates the end of the coverage for that scene
Clearly, this is a very simple concept, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to mark up a script effectively. That said, despite being easy to execute, so few directors on the low budget/indie side of things seem to be taking advantage of lined scripts, which can ultimately be detrimental to their work.
Lined scripts do many things for you and your crew. For starters, they help you as the director visualize the scene before you even step on set. You are essentially editing the scene in your head, which gives you a much clearer vision of what the final product will look like when it’s translated onto the screen. This inevitably helps you to identify potential coverage issues early on, so you can make necessary changes before hand.
Besides the obvious creative advantages that lined scripts can give you, there are lots of logistical perks as well. If you haven’t spent the time to really think through your coverage, chances are you are going to shoot too much material on set. Many directors make the mistake of shooting every possible angle all the way through (unknowingly shooting several master takes), just in case they need them in the edit. This slows things down on set immensely and kills the creative spontaneity when working with actors.
In reality, you probably only need one master shot. And maybe you don’t even need a traditional master. Maybe your scene is comprised of 4 or 5 smaller shots that are carefully executed to cover your whole scene without having to rely on a wide master shot to fall back on. It all depends on your scene, your shooting style, and personal preference. There are no right or wrong decisions. It’s only indecision that can come back to bite you.
By the time you get to post-production, your lined script will likely have helped you shoot effective coverage without going overboard, meaning there will be less footage to edit. You never want to take this to the extreme and shoot so little that you have nothing to save you in the editing room when you hit a wall… But too much footage can be just as problematic and can often lead to poor decisions in the editing room, and a lot of wasted time.
The shot list is more self explanatory than the lined script, mainly because it’s used more frequently. Shot lists of course are a simple document that break down the shots required for each scene by a number of criteria.
Again, there are no exact rules to how you create a shot list, but personally I like to use the following headings:
- Scene Number (from the script)
- Shot Number (1, 1A, 2, etc.)
- Type (clean, dirty, POV, insert, etc.)
- Shot Size (CU, MS, LS, etc.)
- Lens Choice
- Camera Movement (handheld, tracking, tripod, dolly, etc.)
- Notes (anything relevant, usually pertaining to action or coverage choices)
While the shot list and the lined script may appear to do the same thing on the surface (give you a reference point for your shot selection/coverage), they are best used together, as as opposed to either/or.
I personally find lined scripts are more helpful when I’m in a creative state of mind – whether it’s visualizing a scene pre-production or making creative decisions on set. There’s something about physically writing down the shot notes on a page that is more intuitive (for me at least), and helps me visualize the scene more effectively than a basic shot list. At the same time, the shot list can offer more detail than a lined script and has many advantages of it’s own.
For instance, a lined script isn’t going to dictate which lens will be used (just the shot size), whereas a shot list will. Similarly, your shot list will give you additional creative reference points, such as what type of camera movement or shot type you’ll be using. Being able to view these kind of details quickly and globally on a shot list can help you make better logistical decisions when shooting.
You might have three shots in a scene that are all on a Steadicam with a 28mm lens, and none of them require different lighting setups. Seeing this on your shot list might lead you to shoot these shots back to back, so you could save time on set having to swap lenses and rebalance your steadicam rig.
USING THE LINED SCRIPT & SHOT LIST TOGETHER
I always recommend creating your shot list before the lined script, simply because the decisions made on your shot list will dictate how you break down your lined script. For example, if you were to begin your process by creating a shot list, you might decide early on (when making your movement notes), that you want to shoot everything handheld. This could potentially mean that you need less coverage, because instead of getting two closeups on your two main characters, you can to pan between them in a single roaming shot.
Assuming this is the decision you’ve made, when you move on to your lined script you can mark it up accordingly – creating a single shot (roaming between the two characters) as opposed to two individual shots. Had you started with the lined script, you might have made a different decision, and potentially not realized that a single shot would have worked better until you actually got on set.
When you start with your shotlist, you get a lot of the fine details out of the way first, and essentially commit them to memory. From there, your lined script can be used as a creative tool that will help you edit the scene in your mind, and visualize those decisions effectively, even if they aren’t written down on the page.
It’s also worth pointing out here that the lined script and shot list are certainly not the only visualization tools that you have available to you as a director. Storyboards and overheads for instance, can be extremely useful in many cases and offer even more visual detail than a shot list and lined script alone.
That said, the reality of most indie films is that a lot needs to be done on a very limited amount of time and budget, and storyboarding/overheads aren’t always practical. In an ideal world, you have all the resources available to you to create storyboards and overheads if you like to work that way. But if you don’t have those resources – at the very least, create a bullet proof lined script and shot list that can help guide your production. It costs you nothing to do, and can improve your creative results dramatically.