Film, Radio and TV - 13
The best way to learn about screenplays is to read a variety of film scripts. But before you can understand everything you read you need to know about basic script terminology.
Most of the following applies to both film scripts and television scripts.
The basic transitions from one scene to another are:
Traditionally, screenplays (dramatic film scripts) start with fade in and close with fade out. Fade-ins and fade-outs within the production can signal a major change or division within the story structure, such as a passage of time. And, as we've noted, they can also indicate a division in the story structure where (for television) commercials are inserted.
An insert shot is a close-up of something within the scene. For example, after a man looks at his watch, you might see a cut to close-up of the watch where you can clearly see the time.
A cutaway is a related shot that is "away" from the basic scene. During a basketball game you might "cut away" from the game to a shot of the cheerleaders, the coach, or cheering fans.
Script Terms and Abbreviations
Although scriptwriters sometimes feel an urge to indicate camera shots and angles on a script, this is an area that's best left to the judgment of the director.
Even so, in dramatic scripts you will often see the terms camera finds indicate the camera moves in on a particular portion of a scene; camera goes with to indicate the camera moves with a person or object; reverse angle to indicate a near 180-degree shift in camera position; and shot widens to signal a zoom or dolly back.
When the entire camera is moved toward or away from the subject, it's referred to as a dolly.
A zoom, which is an optical version of a dolly, achieves somewhat the same effect. Even so, many Directors of Photography feel that compared to a dolly, a zoom is somewhat artificial looking. To indicate either one, a script notation might say, "camera zooms in for close-up of John," or "camera zooms out to show that John is not alone."
When a lateral move is needed, the term is truck (note the illustration above).
In film, both the dolly and truck movement are often referred to as tracking shots. Sometimes you also see the term moving shot to indicate that the camera moves in some way during the course of a scene
Shot designations for films include:
Long shot (LS) or full shot (FS). With people, this is a shot from the top of their heads to at least their feet. (To save space we've used a vertical rather than a horizontal format for this photo.)
A medium shot (MS) is normally a shot from the waist up.
A medium close-up (MCU) is a shot cropped between the shoulders and the belt line.
A close-up (CU) is the most desirable to catch changing facial expressions, which are important to following a conversation.
Extreme close-ups (XCUs) are reserved for dramatic impact. The XCU shot may show just the eyes of an individual.
All of these designations can also apply to objects, as in "close-up of toaster shows toast popping up."
A boom shot, jib shot, or crane shot refer to high-angle shots, typically with the camera moving.
An establishing shot is a wide shot (WS) or a long shot (LS). This type of shot gives an audience a basic orientation to the geography of a scene—who is where—after which there should be cuts to closer shots. Thereafter, establishing shots can be momentarily used as reminders or updates on scene changes—where people have moved in relation to each other, etc. In this context they are called reestablishing shots.
A master shot is similar to an establishing shot, but this term is generally reserved for the special needs of film. Once master shot action is filmed the scene is generally shot over again from different camera positions so that there are shots (especially close-ups) of each actor. Dialogue, and actor reactions and movements are repeated each time the camera is repositioned.
These scenes are referred to as coverage. Often, numerous takes (segments repeated with variations) are required before a director is satisfied.
With film just one camera is generally used. However, since the camera is stopped and repositioned between takes, when the scenes are cut together during editing, it appears that there is a continuous flow of action and several cameras were used.
Actors must repeat everything over again in exactly the same way for each take in the coverage. This means they must use the same energy level with the same actions at the exact points in their dialogue. This is essential in being able to later unobtrusively cut together the various takes during editing to create a smooth, unbroken flow of action.
In the case of TV production several cameras are often used and the "editing" takes place in the control room as the scenes are shot. Although this approach obviously saves considerable time, it doesn't allow for the "fine tuning" of each shot and take.
A two-shot or three-shot (2-S and 3-S) designate shots of two or three people in one scene.
The term subjective shot indicates that the audience (camera) will see what the character sees. Often it indicates a handheld camera shot that moves in a walking or running motion while following an actor. Subjective camera shots can add drama and frenzy to chase scenes.
Camera angles are also sometimes indicated on scripts. Included are bird's eye view, high angle (photo on left), eye-level, and low angle shots.
A canted shot or a Dutch angle shot (on the right) is tilted 25 to 45 degrees to one side, causing horizontal lines be at an angle.
In addition to these basic script terms, there are a number of other abbreviations used in script writing.
Typical feature film scripts (note the link to the page from dramatic film/video script format above) run from 100 to 120 pages, which means that each page averages one minute of screen time.
A wide variety of actual film scripts are available on the Internet for study (generally for a fee).
In addition, you will find word processing programs to aid in the formatting of scripts on the Internet at bcsoftware, among other places.
In the next module we'll look at "Plotting A Career In Film."