Description image

The Cinematographer's Process (Part 1): Breaking Down the Script


Most people know what the cinematographer does on a set. However, have you ever wondered what exactly cinematographers do during the pre-production process? What about what they do once the production has wrapped? Over the course of the next few months, nofilmschool will put out a series of articles that describe in detail the various steps that a cinematographer and his team must complete in order to take a project from a script to a finely tuned finished product. Today’s post: taking a script and breaking it down for technical, subtextual, and character concerns.

PosterEarlier this month I was hired to DP a short science fiction film called Pater (latin for “father”). Since the film provides a number of unique cinematographic and special effects challenges (especially considering the minuscule budget,) it seemed prudent to write about the process from start to finish. Hopefully we’ll be able to demystify the many facets of cinematography pre and post production, and by the end, have a distinct and in-depth definition of the cinematographer’s process.

So what is Pater about? In short, it’s the story of two extraterrestrial beings, the Progenitor, who is wise and stoic, yet rapidly aging, and Janus, who is toeing the line between childhood and adulthood. Together they are searching desperately for an advanced civilization that has not engineered its own demise.

Planet after planet, and disappointment after disappointment, the pair are now locked onto a signal coming from a mysterious tan planet. They land, and search the desolate city from which the signal is coming, only to have their worst fears realized. They were too late. With the Progenitor’s health failing rapidly, the pair receive a transmission from one final planet, and they know that it is their last hope.

Script Breakdowns? For Cinematographers?

Script breakdowns are a fact of life for UPMs, various folks in the art department, actors looking for character arcs and beats etc. However, script breakdowns aren’t often considered part of the traditional cinematography pre-production process. They should be.

Shane Hurlbut once said something along the lines of, “If you make every choice as a cinematographer based on the emotions of your characters, you will hit a home run every single time. Everything about cinematography is emotion.” Hurlbut is 100% correct in this statement, but achieving cinematographic emotion isn’t as simple as pointing the camera in the direction of a great performance. It takes an intimate knowledge of the characters and the overall subtext of the film. The only way to achieve this, of course, comes from spending a little bit of quality alone time with the script.

This is where the script breakdown comes into play. It doesn’t have to be anything like a traditional script breakdown, where you mull through scenes and categorize every little detail. No, your cinematographic breakdowns can be anything you want — a word document, notes in a script margin, a pile of sticky notes — literally anything, as long as it can be filed into a production notebook for future reference. I do, however, recommend keeping your script breakdown as organized as possible so that it is accessible to other members of the visual team.

With all of that said, let’s finally get into the process of how to break down a script as a cinematographer. However, before getting into the nitty gritty of how to determine the emotionality of your script, let’s talk about the very first thing that you should do upon reading a script.

The Technical Breakdown

The technical breakdown is just what it sounds like. It’s a process in which you scan the script for technical issues and viability based on the budget of the film. Scan through the script, line by line, and look for instances of actions or entire scenes that may be difficult to achieve in a technical sense. Do you have extended scenes that need to be shot on location, or at night? Do you have extensive practical or digital effects shots? Do you need to rig a camera to the side of a blimp (for some reason?) Whatever it is, if it’s going to be technically challenging for the electric, grip, camera, or any other department, write it down and point it out.

Script BreakdownGetting these various concerns into the minds of the appropriate people as soon as possible is an absolutely crucial step. As the DP, you are expected to be prepared, and to help the production prepare, for the various technical challenges that a film faces. And the earlier that you start looking for and pointing out said technical challenges to the production team, the better off the production is going to be. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure the technical problems and solutions that you come across are ones with which you are familiar. If not, it’s time to start doing some research.

The script of Pater has numerous technical challenges beyond the daunting task that we’ve laid at the feet of our art department. First and foremost, digital effects and compositing will play a large role in the post-production of the film. Because I’m relatively inexperienced with digital VFX (it’s important to know your weaknesses,) my technical breakdown of the script includes notes on shots that will definitely require extensive green screen work, or for plates to be shot in post. Through meeting with the VFX supervisor and discussing how to achieve our effects shots this early in the process, we are setting ourselves up for success.

This leads us to the next, and arguably the most important step of the cinematographer’s process: analyzing the script for subtext.

Subtext Analysis

Finding the subtext of a script is a very personal process, and no two people will do it the same way. Personally, I use what I call the “Three Pass” method, in which I read through the script three separate times, taking a different approach each time. The first pass is about working in broad strokes. I read through the script from cover to cover without making any notes until the end, at which point I jot down the overarching subtextual themes that are prevalent throughout the script.

In the second pass, I go through and find individual instances (certain lines, actions, etc) that support the original analysis from the first pass. This pass is essential because it forces you to find important subtextual moments in the script, moments which you will certainly want to highlight through your cinematographic choices later on in the process. The third and final pass is sort of a clean-up pass, in which I try to find other, more concealed subtextual content that might not be essential to the plot. Of course, whatever you find throughout the process of searching the script should be discussed with the director so as to avoid conflicts of interpretation.

The subtext of Pater is twofold. First and foremost, Pater is a cautionary tale for humans. As we see the desolation of a similarly advanced civilization, and with the knowledge that countless other advanced civilizations have destroyed themselves, we humans should be asking ourselves if our planet will meet the same fate, and more importantly, if there’s anything we can do to stop it.

Secondly, Pater is a film about parent/child relationships, and the responsibilities that parents have to teach their children how to survive in their absence. However, this subtextual thread takes on additional weight as these two characters might just be the last two living beings in the entirety of the universe. Add to that the fact that the Progenitor is on the verge of death, and you have a situation in which the stakes for the teaching/learning aspect of the pair’s relationship couldn’t possibly be higher.

Character Breakdowns

In Shane Hurlbut’s statement about how to achieve cinematographic emotion, he said that the choices you make with your camera and lighting need to be based on the emotions of the characters. In order to do this, it is essential to have an immaculate understanding of what each character is feeling and thinking at any given moment in the script.

Pater Storyboards Cropped

Again, the process for determining this is a personal one. You can go through the script, line by line, and jot down notes about each character as you go. Every time that character speaks or completes an action, you should be asking yourself what their motivation is, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what emotional state they’re in. Using as much detail as you can will ensure that your understanding of the script’s emotionality is as high as it can be.

In addition to picking apart the script line by line, you should also be considering the character’s arcs as a whole. Where does this character start in the script? More importantly, where do they end up, and what was the series of events that got them there? Having a clear understanding of your character arcs as a whole will help tremendously in the process of helping to tell that story in a way that is visual and meaningful.


Cinematographers are responsible for conveying emotion and meaning through the images that they create. This might be one of the most challenging, yet artful tasks known to man, as it takes a tremendous understanding of emotion and technical precision in order to be able to accomplish it properly. Through analyzing the script for technical concerns, subtextual themes, and character emotion, you are setting up yourself, and the work that you produce, to be successful.

If you found this article helpful, or just enjoyed it, please consider helping us make Pater. It’s a film with tremendous potential, and we can’t wait to share it with the world. Head on over to our Kickstarter page and share it with your peeps. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all of the latest updates.

What do you guys think? Should cinematographers break down the script in this much detail? What are your individual processes for cinematography script breakdowns? Let us know in the comments, and keep your eyes out for the next installments of the series about how to create successful camera and lighting strategies for your film!



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 30 COMMENTS

  • Hey,

    I don’t mind our photo being used as the featured image for this article, but we would really appreciate a credit for it.

    This is the original article this photo was taken from:

  • Hey Iggy, I completely spaced on that one. I apologize. It’s all fixed now. Also, your site is awesome!

  • Christian Davis on 10.15.13 @ 11:14AM

    I’m shooting a very low budget horror short this weekend, and this info looks like it’ll be great to take into consideration when I meet with the director & producer. good stuff

  • I’m getting kind of tired of NoFilmSchool rehashing other articles and linking to them, or just putting up their own Kickstarters all of the time. Gonna start cutting back on the page if this continues as the trend.

    • you won’t be missed pal, so long

    • This article is ENTIRELY original, guy. The HowToFilmSchool piece that I linked to has nothing to do with cinematography, and I linked to it for the purpose of crediting them for the header image. As for my briefly pitching a Kickstarter after 1700 words of quality educational material, deal with it.

      • Thanks for a great post, Robert. Don’t worry about “zac,” he won’t be missed if he “start cutting back.”

        • How is it that I had the entirely opposite reaction to this guy? I loved this article and I can’t wait for more of them. As a novice cinematographer I have to say that I found this extremely helpful. I’m interested in seeing how involved in pre production other DP’s are since I’ve been worried that I’m going overboard.

          Thanks guys for this article.

        • Ryan, I understand you posting about your kickstarter and your journey as you are the founder and this is your site, and you’ve come a great long way. But you have to admit that there have been a huge number of authors posting their own Kickstarters, and it feels to me that they are using the site as a platform for themselves. But I wasn’t specifically talking about THIS article when I mentioned that a lot of articles are rehashed of ones they link to. But that is a fact.

    • Orevoi x

  • MORE



    Good article, seriously.

  • Quick question: Isn’t this also / predominantly the director’s field? I mean, granted, lighting should be the DOPs job, but whilst directing I’d never think of letting framing, decision on lenses etc. be taken out of my hands all to quickly. Of course I am collaborative with my camera guys, have to be because there are these other folks who need attention, called actors, and of course prop department, costumes, make-up etc., but I’ve also met so and so much directors who really leave their DOPs scott-free on breaking down scenes. I think this is an ill premise for the director to not want to have a first say on these issues. It’s a DOPs field, sure, don’t get me wrong, but my experience as AD all too often was: “Nuh, let’s let the DOP do the breakdown. He’s good at that.” Anyone here made the same experience and thought that was weird?

    • Yeah, the DoP isn’t an actor, and surely can’t understand a lot of the subtext properly by himself. Discussion please?

      • Wohow, Tyler! Think I almost definitely hit a nerve there I didn’t want to hit. I also think there is a bit of room between what I said and stating that DoPs are morons (duh!), what the MattN. in your head said. Frankly, DoPs are – socially and artisticly – probably the most reliable persons on set, as far as my experience went.I was trying to be critical about some (with capital letters) directors not taking what happens to be also their responsibility. After all I think a director’s imprint on a movie should be seen in every aspect, including visuals. Anybody: Is it that easy to get me wrong at this?

    • Well I think that you’re asking a couple of different questions here. Firstly, it is never the DP’s job to formally break down the script. That job belongs to the UPM or assistant UPM, or maybe the 1st AD on smaller shoots.

      In regards to the director making all of the lighting, framing, and lens choices, I agree that it should be a collaboration between the director and DP, and that the director has final say on creative decisions. I also realize that the DP’s purpose is to help the director bring their vision to the screen, but I’ve always felt that the best directors are the ones who focus the bulk of their efforts not into micromanaging creative decisions on set, but into eliciting the best performances from their actors. If the director and DP have done adequate visual preproduction together, the DP should know exactly what the director wants and should be able to make the correct on-set decisions without the director looking over their shoulder.

      That idea of working with all of the creative departments in preproduction, so as to get everyone on the same page creatively, is one that all directors should heed. Waiting to make creative decisions like costuming, production design, and makeup until you’re on the set is a recipe for an incoherent and sloppy film.

      • This also depends on the director’s background. If you have a Barry Sonnenfeld, you’re going to have to live with him pulling double duty as a DP as well. Someone with an acting or writing experience, however, will likely defer to the DP a lot more on lighting, cameras, lenses and so on.

      • I take it, you got the impression of me thinking the director’s work was a thing happening in the last minute. As I figure and have experienced with good directors I worked with, they go on location weeks before shooting and nail the look of a scene with the DoP. Yet, planning beforehand is crucial to working with every department, not just camera. You also don’t decide on MakeUp, Costumes, Props etc. on set, you’re having conversations with every department in the production office and a good production also has at least one or two table reads with all the important cast. Preparation pervades all the work done on set. I was just saying that the director should take all his responsibilities on the final product and that is not only on set but in pre-production, too. And Ron Howard once said: “On film you a lot of times are working with people who are much more intelligent than you are. So listen to them.” Creative input by a DoP who has deep insight into the story an plot is a most valuable thing. But who here argued that?

      • mikko löppönen on 10.16.13 @ 6:19AM

        Depends. Ridley Scott got amazing performances for the first Alien by getting actors who can act and micromanaging them very little, instead staying behind the camera for the most part. He is basically the DP in that film.

  • shaun wilson on 10.15.13 @ 9:16PM

    The more detail a DP can put int breakdowns the better, so I’d suggest that this article does tap into what’s needed in prep. The DP needs to understand and master the subtext in a script because that impacts the emotion captured through lenses and lighting, its a must. To say anything other is simply not understanding the role of a DP and limiting their infinite magic. Good job Robert.

  • It’s fun reading about process. Thanks!

  • Hey fellas, a little change in the flow of conversation here: It’s cool to hear that y’all are working on a feature in Denver. Having a background in film school in New York, I’m looking to find a different city to move to in the future. Looking for a more eco-friendly place than NY. I’d love to know a little more about the state of the industry in Denver. What other types of jobs do you have? How many features are shooting in or around Denver throughout the year? Any other information you can share would be totally appreciated!

    • Hey Jake, thanks for the question!

      Unfortunately, Denver is not the place to be if you really want to work on features. There is a growing film industry, and there were several independent features shot here over the summer, but in terms of being able to make a consistent living with narrative film work, Denver isn’t the place to be. The tax incentives just aren’t there, and major productions tend to avoid Colorado because they can find cheaper places to shoot.

      With all of that said, Denver is a thriving cultural center for all kinds of arts, and I absolutely love it here. There is plentiful production work if you’re willing to work in corporate video or reality TV. And it’s getting better in terms of narrative production, but we’re not there yet. I’d say Atlanta is the place to be right now if you want to avoid New York and Los Angeles. Maybe Austin or Seattle otherwise. Or maybe even Vancouver.

  • Thanks for treating the position of cinematographer with a lot of respect, it’s been declining of late IMO. Regarding the question of director vs DP control or choice of visual elements, as a DP I believe it’s absolutely imperative you bring everything to the table – blocking, composition, lenses, lighting – and then be ready to kill your babies. Every director is different and so is every actor. But the last thing you want to do is stand there saying “I don’t know… what do you think?” As the visual author of a piece (or at least the one responsible for executing it) there should be very few moments when you don’t have an idea for the next shot or scene.

    The article’s remarks on finding subtext and character are especially telling – so important to know what is in the character’s head at a given moment, and what the lesson/comment being made is, in a larger metaphorical sense. Not every piece will have such subtleties but as a DP you can try to put them in visually and elevate the project as a whole.

    Best of luck with ‘Pater’ and thanks for a very informative site.


  • I do not agree on “understanding the subtext and conveying emotion through cinematography”.

    Subtext, Emotion and Characterization are the job of a Director. If cinematographer derives everything from script then his visualization and director’s visualization will differ, which will result into conflict with each other.

    Cinematographer’s job is simply to understand script, the space, time/era of story and discuss the visual design of the film with the director. Choose the camera and accessories and light up the shots such that they convey the “mood” and the “feel” of the scene and not emotion. Operate the camera on set and in the post. color correct the visuals with director and colorist.

    • that’s it!!!

      While understanding of the script and filmmaking process is important for every head of the department, same goes with cinematographer.

  • ) that contains lycopene, one of the most powerful antioxidants that can fight
    against cell damage. Now click the “Draw” button located in the small icons
    at the top. That means that you do not own the beats and you need to buy exclusive rights if you
    want to own.