Building Bones

Developing a shot list from a screenplay is a little like plotting your newborn baby's path to the presidency. One minute ago, there was infinite choice -- two minutes ago, this thing was just an idea -- and now all possibility must be stripped away until there's only one plan, the plan that will become the movie.

As the writer, the process is humbling. I typed out the scenes imagining how a great master with an unlimited budget might shoot it. Now, reality has checked in. Perhaps I won't be able to shoot the Army of the Deep emerging from their aquatic caves to slaughter their gill-deprived cousins. At least not for $1,000.

(For the record, there is no Army of the Deep in the $1KF... or is there?)

As the director, however, I've had an enormous amount of fun. I feel very fortunate, as I've been able to watch this movie again and again in my head. I've probably seen the $1KF 40 times and we haven't even shot a frame of footage yet. To structure out a scene, I lock my brain into Tivo mode -- stopping, rewinding, skipping ahead. Every time I see a new shot, I log it and move on. I can do Tivo one better, though. If I decide I don't like the framing of the shot, I get to re-shoot it on the spot. If only editing was this easy.

Which, of course, leads me to the point of the entire process. It's my job to be sure that we capture all of the pieces our editor is going to need to build the movie I want to make. One method is to shoot every scene from a set of standard angles: Put the actors in place. Shoot a wide. Shoot a medium. Shoot a close-up of actor A. Shoot a close-up of actor B. Move on to the next scene. Repeat.

That approach will make you a movie, but it probably won't make you a good one. It's the directors job -- shit, duty -- to put his or her stamp on every scene so that the edit can't help but reflect that director's plan.

For example: Two characters are arguing in a bedroom. One possible shot list looks like this:

Shot A: Close on Harry
Shot B: Close on Sally
Shot C: Wide on both Harry and Sally

You'll get the point across, but you'd better hope the dialogue sings because there's nothing else going on here. Instead of relying on the old standbys, why not analyze the scene further? Who has the power here? What are the issues? Are there objects in the room that have significance? Each answer will inform your shot choices. If there is a moment in the argument where it's nearly at an end, consider shooting the actors in the same frame, close. When the argument is at its peak, consider throwing a barrier (like the bed, perhaps) between them. If you get it right, you might even snare some of that "symbolism" I've heard so much about.

As it stands today, the screenplay is 99 pages, leading to a shot list of 17 pages. And that's just the beginning. We've already started a script breakdown, and now we'll identify key sequences that need to make the transition to storyboards. The realities of our locations will change the shot list and the 'boards, as will any script revisions that happen between now and the first day of principle photography.

It's just the first step, but it makes all the difference. Especially if you want your kid to be president.


the other side

while you build your bones us post production people eagerly await to fill in the flesh and color the skin and help to bring it to life. it's an agonizing wait...

Joseph Rhodes | Fri, 02/01/2008 - 12:09

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