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Pro Insight: Highlighting Scripts

Mark Vargo, ASC

Highlighting scripts is the first step in the long haul of turning the written word into a motion picture.

A screenplay informs each department of its artistic, technical and logistical responsibilities. We start the process of wrapping our arms around a film by highlighting the script. I like highlighting because it calls for a fun trip to Staples, where I’ll stock up on new pens and all the other supplies needed during prep.

Honestly, I only need one highlighter for the story points regarding the photography of the project. But, other colors do come in handy to cue visual effects, special camera movement, flashbacks, day or night, etc. I restrain myself from over-highlighting for the obvious reason that as I study the screenplay, I learn it and soon, highlighting ceases to become necessary.

However — for the first two weeks of prep, I refer to my highlights constantly and from these, I build my list of questions and ideas for all of the meetings to come. Prep is for asking questions, resulting in answers, that will help you implement your highlighted issues.

Let’s look at the opening scene of Ghostbusters II and then explore how various departments approached highlighting the script.

Ghostbusters II is set in New York City. What we know at this point is that the exteriors will be shot on location and on back lots in Los Angeles. All options are open until the studio weighs in on the budget. Shooting in New York is crazy expensive, so the producers are trying to shunt as much of it as they can back to L.A. But at this point, let’s assume that the plan is to shoot New York for New York until told otherwise.

Let’s start with the Location Manager. (We’ll use this script example again later for the DP, though for different reasons.)

Pro Insight: Highlighting Scripts - Location Manager

The Location Manager’s initial thoughts might be — “Hmm, East 77th Street, Upper East Side, notorious for their antipathy towards film shoots. We probably won’t be shooting there.”

Ok, maybe, maybe not — but a location must be found with the well-heeled feel of Dana Barrett’s movie neighborhood. Can it be found elsewhere in New York? Sure. With snazzy set dressing, nicer cars and well-dressed extras, this illusion is easy to pull off and we do it every day. Because it’s the opening of the picture, the Location Manager will come up with lots of options in New York, but knowing full well that this scene could be picked up easily in Los Angeles.

This next bit of business falls within the Transportation department’s domain and will generate lots of questions.

Pro Insight: Highlighting Scripts - Transportation

“Does the hoisting occur on camera?” “Should we use a real tow truck company?” If so, “Are they teamsters?” “Do we repaint the vehicle with a fictitious name?” “What make of car is being hooked up and can it actually be lifted safely with a hook?” “How many other cars are on the street parked or moving?” “Limos, city buses?” And on and on…

In the next example, casting concerns are highlighted in yellow, and prop concerns in orange.

Pro Insight: Highlighting Scripts - Props

This is a fairly straightforward scene for the Prop Master. There are only a couple different kinds of baby buggies seen in New York and the most popular model, that big old-fashioned rig pushed by nannies in Central Park, will definitely be part of the showing. Grocery bags and keys are easy. In fact, the most time and resource consuming aspect of this scene will be propping up all of the extras on the sidewalk with umbrellas, briefcases, backpacks, newspapers, etc. No problems here.

I was the ILM Director of Effects Photography on this project and, sadly, this scene offered nothing for me to highlight. The great Michael Chapman, ASC was the cinematographer on Ghostbusters II and I don’t know what he highlighted. But if I had been the DP, here’s what I would have highlighted — though not necessarily in this pink color:

Pro Insight: Highlighting Scripts - DP

As the cinematographer, I would kindly ask for the set to be on the south or shady side of the street. This keeps hard light off of our leading lady and negates the need for big silks and solids. We can easily introduce light to add interest to the set or create back light for the actors.

Because it is the opening of the movie, I would propose that we pick a location that allows us to start on a frame that says, “NEW YORK CITY” and boom down to reveal Dana in front of her apartment. Assuming the director agrees to the shot, a light study will be needed to determine what time of day would be best to shoot this “big” shot. I’ll get the Key Grip to put a crane on hold for this day. If we shoot this scene in LA, we’ll add the skyline in post.

All the other departments not mentioned here will highlight this scene for their own good reasons. What would an Assistant Director highlight? Costumes, Grip and Electric, Catering? What would you do if you were in their place?