How COVID-19 Affects Script Breakdowns
When we take the time to account for COVID-19 during the script breakdown phase of pre-production, we lay a strong foundation for a safe, secure, and COVID-19-free production. To do this, we must understand that each element of a scene and a script can be potential avenues for COVID-19 transmission, then take steps to eliminate as many of those avenues as possible.
We have already covered the impact that COVID-19 can have on scheduling. In this article, we go one layer deeper into the pre-production process to highlight crucial components to consider before beginning production. This article will help you understand some ways that your script breakdown process may change during this pandemic and offer tips to help you handle common pre-production issues.
Typically, the team that breaks down a script is some combination of the 1st AD, the Line Producer, and a Producer. This team highlights all required elements for each scene and makes a master list of these elements for the entire production. In the COVID-19 era, this is still the case. But it is crucial that your 1st AD (and company) understand how the pandemic can alter this process.
The more complicated a script, the more elements it will have. A single article can’t cover every element that could possibly arise in every production. But these are the most common elements to consider for each scene:
- Locations/Set Dressing
While COVID-19 affects casting during pre-production and how we handle actors and extras during production., we can do a lot in the script breakdown phase to set the stage for safety. In this section, we want to explore how COVID-19 informs the way we consider the characters themselves during the breakdown process.
The most important question to ask at this point is: Is this character vital to the story? Obviously, there would not be a story without your leads and supporting characters. But we should closely consider all the other characters, particularly the under-5’s.
Remember: every single character must be played by an actor. And each actor represents a potential carrier of the virus. As we outline in our article on set organization, each person on set must go through a rigorous decontamination process. Each person will also travel more carefully to and from location. These steps all cost money and take time. Most critically, they expose your production to an increased chance of an outbreak.
During the breakdown process, try to eliminate all non-essential characters when possible. If a line of dialog is essential, but it is said by a non-vital character, consider giving the line to a vital character. This may lead to combining several smaller characters into one larger role. The point should be to reduce the cast size when possible.
Be sure to review your writer’s contract and any SAG-AFTRA casting requirements before finalizing this step. They may have stipulations and restrictions that affect this process.
All surfaces and objects are potential carries of COVID-19. So, every item that comes to set must be sanitized. For this reason, we need to ask the same thing of every prop that we asked of every character: Is it necessary to the story?
If a prop is the murder weapon in your crime drama, then the answer is obviously yes. The answer is less obvious when it comes to common, everyday items like pens, coins, glasses, etc.
If it is possible to do the scene without the prop, you should. Think about creative ways to work around props that we take for granted. Consider whether:
- You can shoot creatively to imply the prop.
- Someone can quickly rewrite the scene to exclude a prop.
- Your audience will understand that, say, your hero paid for that meal even though we never saw money or a credit card change hands.
Speaking of items that change hands: particular attention must be paid to props that travel between actors. Once you have identified all the necessary props, you may find that some props are used by several characters. When it comes to these props, it is best to have multiple copies of it: one for each actor who uses it. This way, a single item won’t need to be touched by more than one actor.
Versatility is key here. Because each location must be sanitized— and that takes time, money, and energy— the fewer places you need to shoot, the better. In addition to cutting down on the number of locations, however, try to highlight locations that can be combined.
For example, say you need a living room for scene-A and a kitchen for scene-B. Consider whether you can shoot both at the same house (even if they are supposed to be at different characters’ homes). This would allow you to sanitize and quarantine one place but use it for two or more locations.
This will require relying more heavily on creative set dressing to help disguise the two locations. Therefore, during the breakdown process, we should pay more attention to decorative elements that can help facilitate this grouping of locations.
The work required to sanitize new curtains or new pictures, for instance, pales in comparison to the work necessary to sanitize an entirely new location. So, try to combine and re-decorate when possible. Annotate these plans in your script breakdown to keep everyone on the same page.
Driving scenes can help show the passage of time and the distance between important places. Vehicles can help communicate a character’s social status or lack of wealth. For all these reasons—and many more—movies and television often require vehicles.
In the COVID-19 era, however, vehicles can be liabilities because they are simultaneously props and locations. They must, therefore, go through rigorous sanitation procedures. Moreover, they are tight, enclosed spaces, which makes them perfect transmission zones. We need to pay special attention to vehicles in our screenplays.
First, we should try to eliminate scenes that take place inside vehicles. Practically anywhere else is a better location option from a COVID-19 prevention standpoint. If possible, move the interior vehicle scenes to someplace—any place—else.
Second, keep your actors out of vehicles when possible. If your lead gets COVID-19, your production will be delayed or even shut down. So, it’s best to keep your stars out of the potential hotspot-transmission point of a vehicle whenever possible.
Consider whether you can have a designated picture-car driver who drives the car both on camera and to and from set. This way, the vehicles that are necessary to the story remain the sole domain of one person and do not involve the actors. This may require getting creative on shot selection to hide the identity of the driver.
When your 1st AD and company is breaking down the script, be sure that they note any scenes and shots that can be achieved via CGI, virtual sets, and other VFX processes. Because sanitizing locations, personnel, actors, and props adds so many more factors to production during a pandemic, it is a good idea to go virtual when we can.
VFX is our friend right now. Where we once used VFX to augment shots, we now need to consider VFX as a tool to help attain even routine shots.
With the ever-present threat of COVID-19 infecting our productions, we need to consider more variables than ever before when breaking down our next script. Each element of a scene can be affected by the pandemic, and a detailed script breakdown allows us to prepare accordingly.
In the run-and-gun production world before the pandemic, many of us paid little attention to how our 1st AD’s broke down our scripts. While we certainly do not want to take over that job—it is a tedious one for sure—we need to help our staff pay special attention to this process. (Also, consider thanking your 1st AD for this extra hard work!)
Once we have a thorough script breakdown with a clear-eyed focus on minimizing potential COVID-19 transmission points, we will have taken a vital step to ensuring the safety of our productions.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.