March 28, 2017
SXSW 2017

Here's Why Script Supervisors Are the 'Secret Ninjas' of Film Production

The script supervisor is the glue that holds the entire production together. 

Being a script supervisor is the best path to directing. At least, that's what Bob Byington swore when he sat down with us at SXSW 2017 for a podcast last week. The sad truth, however, is that not many people actually know what the job entails. Perhaps that's because there's just so much to it.

"We are a department of one," Eve Butterly explains in the SXSW panel Did We See That? The Role of the Script Supervisor. The supervisor's main jobs on set are incredibly important: to make sure that the footage shot will be able to be cut together, and to keep track of continuity. But an expert script supervisor will look after all the other departments to ensure everything is running smoothly, and the production is on schedule to appease the higher ups.

"I am your cheapest department because I am a department of one and I have the opportunity to save you the most money," Butterly insisted.

"Every department needs something from you, and you are giving information to every department."

As a script supervisor, no one is your assistant on set. The best of the best are like "secret ninjas," said Butterly— they come in and solve a problem on set before it even happens. Here are a few things we learned about script supervising from Butterly, Nick Robinson, Roe Moore, Gina Grande, and editor Josh Ethier from the panel.

All productions, no matter the size, should have a script supervisor

If you're setting out to make a movie, no matter what the scope, you should always have a script supervisor. As Roe Moore notes, "Our job is the same whether we’re on a $200 budget movie or a $60 million Chris Pine movie because our job encompasses all production and post-production aspects. Every department needs something from you, and you are giving information to every department. It’s kind of a hub."

Learn the trade from watching movies or being a PA

No one on the panel was a film major. "I’m self educated," Moore said. "I did it by watching movies and breaking them down and saying, 'Okay, here’s a scene, how many close ups did they do? How many wide shots did they do? Is there movement? Is it a tracking a shot?' And I reverse-engineered a lot of the movies—I’d take the script and see how it was done."

"It comes down to making sure your notes are nice and organized so the editor knows what happened on set."

So if you're looking to get a start in the script supervision field, just do it. Butterly suggests working free once, while Moore said she did at least 50 free shoots for AFI. All agree on one thing, however: the best way to get into script supervising is through PA work.

The script supervisor is the post-production lifesaver

When it comes time to hand over a cut of the film to the editor, your work as a script supervisor really starts to show. "It comes down to making sure your notes are nice and organized so the editor knows what happened on set," Grande explained. "When the director’s sitting there and he’s like, 'Remember that one take we had where his hand was like this and I really liked it?' The editor can go back to your note."

Make time to meet with the editor

This advice goes both ways: editors should be making steps to meet the script supervisor, as well. The only member of the panel that wasn't a script supervisor was editor Josh Ethier, and while many script supervisors don't make it a priority to meet with the editor of the project, Ethier visits the set whenever he can, or at least once, just to meet everybody.

"I always make it a point to visit the script supervisor and the production sound supervisor," he said, "because those are two people that I’m either going to love or hate, and I want to find out right away which side they fall on."

While a few script supervisors may think otherwise, Ethier insisted that he reads all the notes given him and that they are absolutely invaluable to his craft.

He explained how he melds them into his process: "I want to have a look at the footage first, get my eyes on it, get my own perspective. But then when I go back with my notes, and I’m actually sitting down and starting to put it together, I have the script book and my own review. Then, I can compare what I noticed to what the director wanted, what he circled, and I know that I’m going to have to make a choice—bad choices, continuity-wise—but it’s best to at least know about them and then you know how to combat them."

Sample of a marked up script supervisor's script.

Continuity will be sacrificed in favor of performance

The "bad continuity choices" that Ethier spoke of happen all the time. "So many times, you’ll be watching a movie or a show, and you’ll notice continuity errors everywhere," Gina Grande pointed out. "It’s not because you weren’t doing your job," she insisted, "it’s because, in the edit, the performance may have been really genius in that one take where the continuity was wrong. They will always go with the better performance rather than trying to match continuity.”

In fact, most breaks in continuity aren't the script supervisor's fault

Butterly was hesitant to attribute any of the breaks in continuity to a lack of focus by an attentive script supervisor.

"The wardrobe department is really in charge of making sure they’re wearing the right clothes, and the prop department has to make sure they have the right props," she said. "So, if there’s a mistake, that’s their fault. But, if it gets filmed with the wrong wardrobe or the wrong props, then that’s my fault. So I’m kind of the back up on continuity. But I am the only person who is keeping track of the shots, the setups, how many pages we accomplished that day, what scenes we dropped, and what scenes we owe. It really helps production to know if we’re on schedule—do we have to cut or add scenes?"

Have strategies for dealing with directors

Regardless of who's to blame for whatever mistake, script supervisors clearly hold a lot of responsibility. In that sense, it is also their duty to inform the director when something isn't right. The problem is, directors don't always want to hear what they have to say.

"One of the methods that I’ve learned is after you’ve asked a question, always look at the floor," Moore advised. "It kind of takes away the confrontation of it all." 

Butterly also has special strategies in place for dealing with directors: "I always phrase it like a question. I say, 'Does it bother you that he’s wearing a blue shirt when he was wearing a red shirt in the last scene?'"

"When you get [directors] who don’t like hearing, 'You’re doing this wrong,' there’s nothing you can do and you’ll get fired."

When you're in the early stages of a production, it's important to gauge what type of director you're working with so you can test the waters. "I’ve found there are two axes of directors: there’s competent and there’s confident," Butterly explained. "You can have a beginning director that doesn’t know what they’re doing. But they can be self-confident and they’ll ask you what to do, and then you tell them, and they’ll announce, 'Okay, everybody, we’re going to do this!' They come off looking like a hero and they love you."

"But when you get people who don’t like hearing, 'You’re doing this wrong,' there’s nothing you can do and you’ll get fired," Butterly continued. "I’ve been fired many times—never because I was a bad supervisor, but because the director was not confident in his own abilities and he knew he was doing it wrong. He just like didn’t being reminded."

Rick Alverson's 'Entertainment.' Roe Moore was a script supervisor on the production.Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Always ask a director before you deal with actors

Considering the delicate relationship between the script supervisor and the director, you should always approach the director to talk about talent. Sometimes, directors don’t want you interfering at all. "Sometimes they want to be the single line of communication for the actors because they don’t care if the continuity is right," Moore said. "If the performance is right, who cares about that? But sometimes a director is like, 'No, no, no, go fix it!' and then I can just run in and chat with the actors."

"Never throw a line to an actor unless he calls for it. You could ruin the scene."

"Never throw a line to an actor unless he calls for it," Butterly chimes in. "They could be emoting and they can be acting. They may think it’s the most brilliant silence on earth. And you think that they may have forgotten their line, and if you throw it, you ruin the scene."

Shooting digital has made the job more demanding

While there have been many digital products to emerge for screen supervisors over the past couple of years (ScriptE, iPads, etc.), they aren't as helpful as you might think. Many of the panel members couldn't stress how important the physical act of writing something down can be in their profession. The more you write down, the less you have to remember.  

When you have ScriptE on an iPad Pro with Apple pencil and use a PDF editor, you're essentially using pen and paper on a much more expensive digital set up. But if you don't have these digital tools, you could lose your job. Apparently, it's the producers who are asking for the technology; true to our modern times, they think that access to these programs make a good script supervisor.

Or, as Butterly put it, "They just want shiny."

More cameras mean you should be asking for more money

When asked about the hardest thing to deal with on set, many of the panel members were quick to point out that productions are using more and more cameras, so there are more and more screens that script supervisors need to be watching to make sure there aren't any mistakes, But the good news is that you get compensated for this extra complication.

For example, Butterly describes how her bumps are made: "If it’s one camera, you get [no bump], two cameras, you get a bump, and then two to infinity cameras, it’s the same amount of money. My next goal is to be able to negotiate per camera." One of the other members of the panel was already making bumps per camera, so if you're working on a multi-cam set, you should try to negotiate per camera, as well.


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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