Why Your Film Needs a Script SupervisorKeep yourself sane & your film coherent with this essential "department of one".
“We are the Writer’s and Editor’s representative on set, and the Director’s right hand.”
Lights Online Film School recently sat down with Jenn Durrett to discuss her work in one of film production’s most essential but least understood fields: script supervision.
After studying Film & Television Production at NYU Tisch, Jenn earned her Masters from Trinity College in Dublin, where she explored film education as a peace building tool. Since then, she has worked as a script supervisor in New York City and Los Angeles on both short and feature films – including one that just premiered at Sundance this year – and recently relocated to London to pursue her PhD. When she’s not studying or on set, Jenn’s working with us here at Lights as a part of our support team.
Hello, Jenn! We’ve been eager to break down your script supervision experience for a while, now, so it’s a joy to finally get into it.
To preface, let’s explore what, precisely, script supervision is. What does the script supervisor do? What are their responsibilities, and why is their work important?
Hello! Thanks so much for this opportunity to share! Script Supervision is definitely one of the less well known, and least understood, positions on set.
The full title of the position (as recognized by IATSE) is Script Supervisor and Continuity Coordinator. Essentially, we are the Writer’s and Editor’s representative on set, and the Director’s right hand.
The Script Supervisor has three main jobs on set:
- To analyse and supervise the script
- Be in charge of continuity
- Advise on the “grammar” of filmmaking
Before production ever begins, one of my responsibilities is to break down the script. This involves reading the script many, many times, and combing through it for important details and possible discrepancies. I determine the page length of each scene (which is given in eighths), estimate the runtime of the finished scenes, and do a rough estimate for the length of the finished film; this information helps producers make sure production is on track as we move along.
I also look for any story points, props, and make-up or wardrobe details that span across different scenes that will need special attention paid to them on set. This information goes on a Master Breakdown form that also notes each scene’s time of day (day or night?), story day, basic action, characters present; any props, hair, make-up or wardrobe specifically noted in the script, if the scene will require playback, or involve voiceover or special or visual effects. Depending on the film, I might add extra columns as needed.
On set I normally spend most of my day at video village, sitting next to the Director. I take notes for all of the shots taken each day – the length of each take, if something went wrong, sections or parts the director specifically liked or didn’t like, if there was a false start, if we had to pause in the middle for a plane to fly overhead, etc.
I also keep an eye on the coverage, to make sure all the lines of dialogue in the script make it in front of the camera, and if they don’t, that the director is both aware of and okay with that.
In terms of continuity, I’m responsible for the overall continuity of the story. Within a scene, that means “matched action” – matching actors’ actions with lines of dialogue, taking bites of food or sipping a beverage, arrangement of hair and wardrobe, etc. This is to ensure that when the editor cuts the scene together later, it feels like different angles on the exact same moment.
Between scenes, I’m responsible for progressive action. How many days have passed? Did this scene occur before or after another major story point, and does that positioning affect this scene? If a character has sustained an injury, what state of healing should it be at? This type of continuity deals with story arcs and developments, and is especially important since films are almost never shot in scene order.
Finally, film grammar involves things like eye line (does it look like the character is looking where they’re supposed to?); coverage in terms of editing (cutting between two MCUs or between a MS and ECU? It’s my job to make sure the director’s vision and style is maintained throughout) and the infamous 180 degree line.
Basically, we have to have a pretty solid foundation in all the different departments on set, as well as some of those off set (like screenwriting and editing) in order to do our job well.
Wow! That’s a handful – and yet, far too frequently, the script supervisor gets sidelined on set. Why is script supervision so often undervalued or even overlooked altogether?
It can be a major problem on non-union and low-budget sets, and normally the reason is that the crew just isn’t used to working with a Script Supervisor, or if they have, they haven’t worked with a good one.
Union sets, and projects where at least some of the crew have worked with a good Script Sup before, are a very different story. You tend to be much more respected and appreciated.
Digging a little deeper, I think a big part of the problem is that the craft isn’t taught in most film programs, even the major ones – AFI in Los Angeles is the one exception I’m aware of. It’s becoming more and more common for Script Sups to go back to their alma maders and give a one-off class on the ins and outs of script supervising.
Interesting. On a healthy set, what is the script supervisor’s relationship to other departments? Where do they factor into “the hierarchy”, so to speak?
The Script Supervisor is the head of a department of one. 😉
But seriously – we are, in fact, a department head, and thus on the same level as the DoP, Production Designer, Costume Designer, and Sound Mixer in terms of set hierarchy.
Throughout the course of production I typically end up consulting with all the different department heads, and some more often than others depending on the project. I tend to work most closely with Art Department, Hair & Make-up, and Wardrobe. The nature of the interactions are unique to each project, however – a good example is my working relationship with the costume designers on two different features: one was very aware of continuity and mostly just needed me to verify certain details in the progression of the story. The other generally worked in fashion as opposed to film production, so I worked more closely with her to keep the different looks consistent with the appropriate story days.
I also make a point of developing a good working relationship with the 1st AD, Sound Mixer, and 2nd AC right off the bat. The 1st AD has very important information about changes as they happen during the day, and if I make my presence known, I tend to get forgotten less. The Sound Mixer provides me with a comtec so I can hear the actor’s dialogue clearly at video village, and I normally try to keep them in the loop about upcoming take names so they can label their digital files correctly. Finally, the 2nd AC preps the slate before each take, so I need to let them know if we’re “lettering up” (going from 93A to 93B) or moving on to a new scene number.
What day-in, day-out challenges does the script supervisor face?
Keeping up with your notes is probably the toughest part.
Whereas most positions on set have an ebb and flow of work and rest, Script Supervisors do not. Before a scene shoots, we’re checking our breakdowns, trying to head off potential problems. Once the camera rolls, we’re watching the script, watching the screen, taking notes about the performance and actions, and jotting down the director’s preferences (known as “circling the take”) as well as anything else they want to remember in post. Between takes, we’re writing down everything we couldn’t get down during the take, asking the director questions or giving a quick note to the art department or hair and make-up or coaching an actor on which line they took a bite of food.
We don’t really have any down time – one of the best tips I got from a fellow script sup was to hoard granola bars and the like from craft services in your bag whenever you can stop by the table, because you never know when you’ll have a chance to get back! PAs who are willing to bring me water and snacks are always greatly appreciated. 😉
Apart from the pace of working, you have to be paying constant attention to what’s going on around you – what is the director saying about that last take? Has the 1st AD changed the shooting order for the day? Has the director decided to cut or add a scene? All those breakdowns you spent days working on are never quite finished…
The hours are also a little rough. Wrap doesn’t mean wrap for a script supervisor – we now get to go home, finish compiling our notes and reports, and send off copies to the Director, Editor, Production Manager, Producer and 2nd AD. Frequently 1st AD’s will give the Script Sup a slightly later call time to help compensate for this, especially since we don’t have all that much to do until the first shot goes up.
Intense. When the script supervisor does arrive on set, what tools, techniques, and workflows do they use, and why? What do you personally use? How, if at all, has this evolved over the years?
At present there are two main approaches to keeping track of all the different notes: pen & paper, and digital.
Pen & paper pretty much involves what it sounds like: you have the entire script in a binder, and normally another for the different breakdowns and call sheets. Notes are taken on a form we call a “facing page” (because you clip it into your binder opposite the relevant page in the script). Basically everything exists as a hard copy, and your physical notes (or photocopies of them) are what go to the editor.
ScriptE is a great option on projects that have second and third units, because each unit will usually have a script supervisor and the program allows them to sync all their notes with the main script sup who works with the first unit. It also auto-generates a lot of the reports, which can shorten your end of day workload.
The trouble with ScriptE is that a lot of younger/newer producers have started thinking that using the program is a mark of a “better” script sup, and will sometimes hire a supervisor who uses the program over one that doesn’t. The program is not a mark of a “better” or “more professional” script supervisor, however – in fact, a number of veteran script sups I’ve spoken with (including my mentor, who has 30 years of experience) don’t like the program. They don’t care for the interface, and are concerned that new script supervisors won’t learn the foundations of the craft (there’s a lot of script math involved), and thus won’t be able to do their job without the program.
The other major program is Filemaker Pro. Script Supervisors use the interface with a specific set of templates designed by Peter Skarratt, who was one of the assistant editors on the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. This setup is a bit more flexible (and is the one my mentor prefers).
Being a “digital” script sup doesn’t require you to use one of these programs, however – I work in digital, but I do it with a set of customized templates in Microsoft Word, Excel, and Adobe Acrobat, which I operate off of my laptop on set. I use a Mac, so I set up Spaces so I can scan between all my notes quickly and cleanly. In my first window I put the script (in Adobe Reader) and my Facing Page template (Excel); in the second I put my Daily Report (Word) and Time/Page/Scene Tally (Excel); in the third I put the Master Breakdown; in the fourth the Day and Story Beat Breakdowns, and any other special breakdowns called for by the script. In the fifth window I normally keep my folder of continuity stills up, just in case I need it. During every take of every scene I take a few continuity stills and upload (and back-up) the images at the end of the day for reference later (these also get used the day of, directly off my iPhone, particularly for matching action within a scene).
Some script supervisors use iPads or tablets instead of a laptop, and a PC works just as well as a Mac (Windows 10’s option to have programs share a screen is very useful).
Regardless of the technology (or lack thereof) a script sup chooses to use, there are a few “must haves”:
- A stopwatch (to time scenes)
- A hard copy of the script (what if your tech fails, hmm? I always keep hard copies of my breakdowns and blank forms for the same reason)
- Office supplies (pens, pencils, highlighters, a ruler, batteries, binder clips, paper clips…)
- Some sort of camera (for continuity stills; polaroid was popular back in the day, now digital cameras, iPhones and iPads rule the day)
- For those with a fully-fledged video village and a laptop with a Thunder Bolt port, Black Magic offers a device that can capture stills directly from the monitor and save them to your machine
Specifically, my setup involves a reinforced music stand as a laptop table (I normally ask G&E for a sandbag as an extra precaution), with a mini bungee cord to secure the laptop and a clip-on book light for night shoots/dark corners; a binder with a full copy of the script and hard copies of my breakdowns; a bag with a water bottle, snacks, a jacket, etc; and my “scripty kit”, which is basically a converted bead box with office supplies, sticky notes, hair ties, extra batteries for the book light, etc.
How does a script supervisor’s work impact post-production?
Apart from the camera notes (hopefully) taken by the 2nd AC, any notes the Editor and Assistant Editors get come from us. Good notes drastically increase the ease and speed of the Assistant’s logging process, and because we “circle” the director’s preferred takes, the Editor can throw together a rough pretty early on.
It’s also helpful for the director to know what he or she has thought about certain takes – production involves weeks and weeks of very long days, and the whole experience can sometimes turn into a blur. Often times, directors will take a week or two of vacation after production wraps to clear their head before moving into post, and the notes the Script Supervisor takes allow them to remember what they thought at the time along with what they’re thinking in the moment.
If reshoots end up being necessary, the Script Sup’s notes and continuity skills become extremely important. Notes about lighting, lenses, and other details can also be useful to Visual Effects artists.
This is a lot to take in, Jenn! With everything in mind, I’d love to hear you recount a typical “day-in-the-life” of a script supervisor. What’s the average experience look like? Any fun and enlightening stories you care to share?
Let’s see, a typical day:
Get up, make sure I have all my gear, swing by Starbucks and head to set (I normally don’t drink much caffeine, but I have to be so “on” on set that I tend to drink a lot during productions…)
When I arrive on set I check in with the producers and get a printed call sheet from the 1st AD (this will have been emailed to me the night before, but it’s easier to have a hard copy with me on set). I double check that the day’s schedule hasn’t changed since last night, and then start prepping my forms and pulling the script pages for the day (I normally move the pages for a given scene to the top of my binder so they’re easy to access).
After the director has had a chance to work through the first scene with the actors, all the department heads meet to watch a blocking rehearsal – at this point, I take blocking notes and try to anticipate particular details that I’ll need to keep an extra eye on (a prop that gets moved, eating, smoking, etc).
After G&E lights the set, and Art dresses it, we do a few more rehearsals and then roll the takes. I take notes, keep track of visual details, and make sure the actors hit all their lines. When the director is happy we move on to the next set-up; I wrap up my notes, name the next set-up, and get ready to go. Once we complete all the necessary coverage for a given scene, we start setting up for the next one.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Fortunately my job is not a boring one, however – the challenges and quirks of each day, and each scene, are always changing.
On one project I worked very closely with the Production Designers because we had an incredibly detailed set that could be turned around and dressed as two halves of two different trains cars. And since we were shooting in a sound stage and thus scheduling scenes against actor schedules and not art set-ups, we sometimes had to roll through several of these different set-ups in a single day! On another project that had several scenes in restaurant, I literally sat next to the camera cuing an actor as to which lines he needed to take bites between.
At the end of the day I wrap up my notes (are all the relevant script pages lined? Have all the individual facing pages been added to the master editor’s log?); fill out my reports (scenes completed, pages completed, scenes and pages still to go, extra scenes taken, scheduled scenes not taken, memory cards used that day, etc.); and send them to the crew members who need them.
Then I go home sleep, and do it all again the next day. 🙂
Phew. How, if at all, is script supervising a short film different from a feature film?
The biggest difference is the amount of prep work involved. Since you have to read the entire script multiple times, it naturally takes less time to read a 15-page script ten times than it does one that has 120 pages.
The breakdowns also tend to be less involved, since many shorts take place in a smaller window of story time. That isn’t always the case though – I worked a short last year that took place over the course of a man moving into a new apartment, so it was very important to keep track of what was in the moving van, what had made it in the apartment, and what had been unpacked at any given point in the story!
Is there a point at which script supervision becomes “essential”? For example, if I’m working with a skeleton crew and just a couple of actors, do I really need a script supervisor? Why or why not?
I’d say the question is less “when a script sup becomes essential,” and more one of “how much am I putting the quality of my film at risk if I don’t have one?” It’s very possible to execute a film without a script supervisor – plenty of films have done it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a gamble, though.
If a director or producer are considering not having a script supervisor, I would encourage them to think about how complex their script is, how dependent the story is on visual details, and their Art, Make-up, and Wardrobe departments’ familiarity and comfort level with continuity.
If your Art Director and Wardrobe people are very comfortable with managing continuity, and if the script has, say, two characters in a single location, and maybe the director is also the writer, you’d probably manage alright. If you have scenes with lots of extras, or the story covers long periods of time, or has flashbacks, or visual details are an extremely important part of the story, then I would seriously recommend not going into production without a script sup. I know it may not feel like it because script supervisors aren’t the most well-known role on a film set, but you are talking about excluding an entire department when you consider not having one; it shouldn’t be a throw away decision.
Well said. Any words of wisdom for indie filmmakers who may not have the resources to bring a dedicated script supervisor on board? How can they do some of what a script supervisor does?
First off, I would recommend anyone in that situation familiarize themselves with a script supervisor’s role so they know what they’re trying to compensate for. The two “go-to” titles for understanding the job are Script Supervising and Film Continuity by Pat Miller, and Beyond Continuity: Script Supervision for the Modern Filmmaker by Mary Cybulski.
Beyond that, like I mentioned above, a little more responsibility can fall to the Art Department, Hair & Make-up, and Wardrobe; make sure they know there won’t be a script sup and that they will need to track the continuity of things affecting their department themselves. If there’s someone with a spare pair of hands during takes (an extra producer?), then they can take basic notes for the editor. Also, in an ideal world, the 2nd AC (or 1st, if the project isn’t able to have a 2nd) should be taking camera notes anyway – these should be passed on to the editor regardless, but in this scenario, making sure that happens is especially helpful to the Editor.
Finally, any words of wisdom for aspiring script supervisors? Would you say this line of work requires a particular personality? Regardless, how have you sourced work over the years? Where do the gigs come from?
My number one piece of advice is to read those two books I mentioned above! (The Pat Miller and Mary Cybulski books).
Second, if you are completely new to script supervising, it’s normally possible to take month or two-long workshops in cities like LA and New York – these are a great way to build a more in-depth understanding of the craft, and meet some fellow script sups! When it comes to replacing yourself in case of illness or a family emergency it can actually be a bit tough – since there’s normally only ever one of you on set, it can be hard to get to know a lot of other script sups!
After that, it’s time to get some work experience. Scour websites, talk to fellow filmmakers, let people know what you’re doing and that you’re available and looking for work. You will probably need to work for free on the first few projects, but it is well worth it to gain some practical experience and make contacts that can lead to future gigs.
In terms of personality, I think it’s very important for Script Supervisors to be friendly, patient, and diplomatic. The reality is that a lot of our job can involve pointing out things other people missed, and it takes a very careful balance to point things out without offending someone or making them look bad. Also, since we have to work with basically every department, getting along with everyone makes life a lot easier. Funny story: when I first told my mentor about the subject of my masters degree, she loved the fact that it was in conflict resolution and reconciliation! She said it’s a great skill set to have on film sets. 🙂
As far as sourcing work goes, I’ve only ever gotten script sup gigs through personal contacts. When I first started working in LA, a more experienced script sup friend of mine referred all the job offers she couldn’t take to me. Later, when I started doing features in New York, all my jobs came through friends from my NYU days. One even came through Facebook, believe it or not – a friend of mine who works as a 1st AD had posted looking for PAs, so I private messaged him asking if his project was looking for a script supervisor. He passed my resume on to the producers and I was hired on the spot following my interview. (That same project just premiered at Sundance, as a matter of fact).
I know film students hear “It’s as much about who you know as what you know” thrown around all the time (I know I did back in the day), but it is absolutely, 100% true. Easily 95% of my film-related jobs have come through a film school contact, so don’t take networking lightly!
Wow. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and perspective with us, Jenn! This is an amazing window into an essential but too often overlooked film department. All the best with your future gigs!
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