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Smooth Operator

1 May , 2000  

Written by Natasha Lardera | Posted by:

Think you're cut out to be a script supervisor? Well, read on...
The presence of a script supervisor is required on a movie set in order to assure the continuous flow of a film. Also known as the continuity clerk, the script supervisor has to make sure that scenes follow each other in an understandable and smooth way. Incongruities in detail, movement, dialogue, jarring jump cuts, changes in lighting intensity or sound levels should be avoided. The purpose is to make the audience unaware of the cutting of the film from shot to shot and of the techniques used to move the story along. A scene must follow another without any sudden breaks so that the viewer gets into a more realistic contact with the narrative and its characters. Good continuity and uninterrupted action come from careful planning and focus.

Mother Hen

Most consider the role of the script supervisor as the worst on the sound stage because a major aspect of the job is to make sure that everybody else does theirs. In general, people don’t like to be watched or told how to perform their tasks. For example, on a breakdown chart, the supervisor describes, scene by scene, all the props that are needed during filming and makes sure they are all placed and applied correctly. But on the set, there is also a property master whose only duty is to be in charge of the objects and of their use. Why should anyone interfere with his/her department?

Connecting the Dots

Since a film is not shot in sequence, a scene where the two main actors drive to a bar could be shot on the first day of production, while the following scene of them getting out of the car can be completed three weeks later. It is the continuity clerk’s duty to see that the hair, makeup, costumes and even the lighting all match in those two actions. The supervisor is going to give directions to the hairdresser or the costume designer to have  each detail appear the same.

The best way to remember how everything was the first time around is to take pictures, either instant or digital photos. The ideal time to have the stills taken is after the first take. Set particulars are often changed up until the very moment of filming. Before a director allows the cameras to run, he or she may require a rehearsal of the action to allow the technicians to check their angles, the quality of light and the actors blocking. Any change must be noted.

These visual records go along with written notes and forms. The latter can be bought at a film supplies store or created by the script supervisor herself. The goal is to extract all the relevant information from the final script that is wanted on the production breakdown board. Although it may vary with each film, some basic data is always required: the scene number, the location, a brief description of the action, time of day, estimated shooting hours, number of script pages, cast, extras, props, costumes and any other information that will affect scheduling. Whether a scene is shot in an interior or exterior location is important to know to determine what type of lighting is required and even what kind of film must be used. This logging process can be completed during pre-production, and the supervisor can start it as late as the day before principal photography begins.

The Devil Is in the Details

On the set, the script clerk will also fill in continuity sheets. These are additional forms that will assist the editor in matching cuts and assembling the film. They ask for specific technical information, such as the take number of each scene, the magazine, the lens, the f/stop and the filter that are being employed. There is also the need to keep track of the sound and the action running times, so a stopwatch is a fundamental prop for the continuity supervisor.

Actions can be described by a simple catchword or by a brief sentence, such as "red plane flies by tower." Camera directions and shot sizes have to be recorded, too. In order to do that, it is important to know common abbreviations used most frequently in continuity scripts. For example, WA means "wide angle," MCU "medium close-up," and CRBG stands for "camera right background." Although many other abbreviations for the same terms are possible, these are the most popular and can be found in any film production textbook.

The completed continuity sheets are given to the editor during postproduction. Each filmed sequence is arranged in order to achieve a sense of wholeness and logic. All the notes taken by the supervisor are crucial to achieving this goal, and the director relies heavily on them. During actual filming, the entire project is in her hands, but in postproduction, the director has to work with what has already been shot, and it should be error-free. It’s too late to make any corrections when filming is over.

Bad continuity jobs can be seen in films every day. Some are more obvious than others. A cigarette can be half smoked in one take but just lit in another. Smoking, drinking and eating are actions that require particular attention because they are continuous and difficult to cut and match. To summarize, the script supervisor is responsible for keeping a record of the particulars of each completed shot, and her notes are fundamental to the editing process. If you are not extremely detail-oriented or if you don’t work well under pressure, script supervising is not for you. If you think you can do it, grab your stopwatch and prepare your forms.

For more information on script supervision, the author recommends ‘The Role of Script Supervision in Film and Television’ (1986) by S. Ulmer and C.R. Sevilla.

For more information on script supervision, the author recommends 'The Role of Script Supervision in Film and Television' (1986) by S. Ulmer and C.R. Sevilla.