What does that involve?
The first thing I do is to read through the script. Then I read it again, timing each scene separately and noting each scene timing individually and making a cumulative timing as I work through. These timings are then sent to the Producer who makes the decision to either cut or add scenes depending on whether the script is over or under running.
Next I do a thorough break down of the script noting any anomalies. I do this by making up a document that runs in script order with columns for scenes, location, day/night, time of day, characters, props, basic hair and special makeup requirements, sound effect, special effects and a very short scene synopsis.
The breakdown is a very important part of my job. It really fixes the script in my mind and being in progress, because we shoot out of order and particularly when shooting across more than one episode it can be quite confusing for actors to keep all their threads together. So when I list the characters in a scene I also mark which scene they are coming from and where they are going to. It helps them with the emotional continuity as their scenes may be days or even weeks apart.
Doing a breakdown is a very long, involved thought provoking process. It is not unusual to spot things that just don’t make sense and which can then be referred to the director or script editor long before shooting starts. For instance cars are often scripted as being left in one place and then their drivers arrive somewhere else miles away – by bus presumably!
Having completed a comprehensive breakdown I go through the script once again noting the timing of each scene at the bottom of the page so that when shooting I can see if my estimated timing matches the actual shoot timing. These timings are entered on the Daily Wrap Report and handed in at the end of each filming day. More of that later. I also mark in red when a scene is direct continuity with another scene so that I know to pay particular attention to movement, props and costume. For instance if a character opens an exterior door to enter at the end of one scene, obviously everything should be exactly the same on closing the door in a subsequent scene, which may be shot in a different inside location days later.
Then it’s time to pack it all up in as portable a system as possible along with a good supply of logging sheets, a wrap report, costume/make up forms and clothing/footwear for all occasions.
Once shooting begins. A good Director will rehearse the scene to be shot, firstly with the actors and then with a full crew so that everyone can see what is planned. I try to attend the actor/director rehearsal because it gives me a head start and because I may be needed to prompt lines. Sometimes a director likes this time to be just between them and the actors.
On the actual take I’m primarily responsible for action and dialogue so I make sure the script is being adhered to and that pronunciation is correct. Actors may change the order of the words or ad lib a little but as long as it doesn’t change the meaning of the script that’s normally fine. Pedantry is never good!
I note whatever movement takes place, particularly at what may be cutting points. Who sits where and when? Which hand picks what object up? When did they take a drink of that tea? Which way did they turn to exit? What is their eye line, left to right, right to left? Performances will alter between takes. Actors are not automatons and it’s not like being on stage. They have to get all the technical bits right but still give a performance – it’s not easy at all. It is vital to know which take is likely to be used so that you can match to that one. Some “mistakes” can be cut around in the edit so I mark on my logging sheet that this may need to be done. I also make basic costume and make-up notes. Not good to have a coat which was left on a chair in a scene suddenly being worn in the next one.
At the same time I time each take and make a note of the “good” ones. I describe the shot, note which lens used, filters used, the aperture stop, the focal distances and what the weather was like and where the location was so that if we need to reshoot it can be matched.
At the end of the day I fill out my Daily Wrap Report, the most important part of which is the scene timings which will show the estimated programme running time on that particular day and as the shoot continues. This involves adding to or subtracting your estimated timings. Producers can then see if they are wildly over or under running and act accordingly.
Having Kevin Keegan do a spoof piece to camera advertising my services as an “ace researcher.” Being driven back to base in a horse and coach on a period drama and watching Oscar winning actors perform, sometimes so mesmerically, I forgot to note anything down at all!
How did you start out?
I was a staff Production Assistant at Tyne Tees Television for 10 years. It gave me a good grounding in the way television works across all genres. Live news, music, sport, politics and drama. I trained for 6 months at TTTV with an experienced production assistant.
What key skills do you need in this position?
Observation, organisation and diplomacy. Nobody likes to be told they are doing something wrong. And listening. Listen to everything.
Is working in TV drama different to film?
In essence no. Film can be easier as the rate of shooting isn’t so fast and are shot one film at a time unlike TV which can be shooting across multiple episodes. People have much more time to practise their craft on a film.
Tips to others:
Fools rush in! The problem may right itself but if it doesn’t speak to the director and let them decide if it’s insurmountable. Have a sense of humour and be kind. And again, listen.
What one thing should people be wary about?
Being a department of one and with your fingers in many pies be wary of any blame which may be laid unjustly at your door. Sometimes you can be an easy target.
Advice to people looking at this role:
Keep a sense of perspective about what you are doing – it’s not a life or death situation.
I wish I’d known starting out…
That I should have been a bit more ambitious and tried for jobs I thought I didn’t have enough experience for.