Pre-production -

"If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."


– Stanley Kubrick




The stage before production is called pre-production.  It is during this time when the script is written, the cast and crew are assembled and every detail of the shoot is carefully planned.


This is an excellent time for the cinematographer and the director to discuss the overall look of the film.  This is also the time when the script is storyboarded or at least broken down into a comprehensive shot list.  In addition, locations are scouted, chosen and visited.

On this page, we will learn about:


1.  The elements of a script

2.  The 3 Act Structure of a Screenplay

3.  The 7 Types of Conflict

4.  Storyboarding & Shot Lists


We will also interview Shane Morris & Kristen Lappas.  Shane is a screenwriter who worked on Disney's Frozen and many other Hollywood Films.  Kristen is a producer who discusses writing and producing documentary style tv shows and features.


Cinematographers should learn the basics of screenwriting and how to read a script (it's different than reading a book).


Let's examine the elements on a standard page of a script.  The graphic to the right shows the elements, including:




-This identifies whether the scene takes place inside or outside by using:  INT.  (interior) or EXT.  (exterior).


-The location that the scene is taking place at (like a bar, park or a gym) comes next.


-The time of day comes next (NIGHT or DAY for example).


-In addition, scene numbers are on the same line as the scene headings on the left and right side of the page.




Next, we see a paragraph of text that DESCRIBES THE ACTION taking place in the scene and the characters involved.



Below the action description, we see the name of the character in all caps WHO SPEAKS.



Any specific speaking instructions come next in parentheses.



Dialogue follows.



Transitions are noted on the bottom right of the page (like FADE OUT).



FINAL DRAFT is a screenwriting program that makes scriptwring a breeze.  Instead of worrying about margins and placing all of the elements of a script in the right place manually, by simply clicking the TAB BUTTON, your script stays in perfect form.  That's just the tip of the iceburg.  Final Draft does many other things, including:  text to speech, templates and Scene View.


The majority of Hollywood Scripts follow a three act structure.  Writers, like Syd Field, have written extensively on the subject.  Basically, it breaks down like this:



This is where the main character and the world that they live in are introduced.



This is the point in the story where the main character's world turns upside down (normalcy is gone).



Act 1 ends with the first turning point -- an action event that changes the narrative drive of the story into a new direction.



The main character continues to face obstacles.  This is the longest act of the film and reveals more about what makes him or her tick.



Act 2 ends with the second turning point -- another big event that pushes the story into a new direction.



Things pick up now and lead to...



The main character faces their biggest obstacle in a climactic showdown.  They usually save the day and achieve their Goal.


Act 3 ends with a short final wrap up.


Audiences watch movies for a number of reasons.  One of the most egaging ways to capture an audiences attention is to have a lot of obstacles in your heroes way.  Their journey should be filled with conflict (the struggle between 2 opposing forces) before they reach their ultimate goal.  People don't want to watch someone having a bad day, they want to watch someone having the worst day of their life.  This makes the climax/resolution of the film more rewarding.  Here are the 7 types of Narrative Conflict (with examples):


1.  Character vs. Fate

example:  Lord of the Rings -- Frodo struggles to fulfill his destiny to destroy the ring.


2.  Character vs. Self

example:  Fight Club -- Tyler Durden battles himself.


3.  Character vs. Character

example:  The Dark Knight -- Batman battles the Joker.


4.  Character vs. Society

example:  The Hunger Games -- Katniss fights against her oppressive society.


5.  Character vs. Nature

example:  The Perfect Storm -- the crew battles a storm on the ocean.


6.  Character vs. Supernatural

example:  The Exorcist -- Two priests battle with the devil for the sole of a teenage girl.


7.  Character vs. Technology

example:  The Terminator -- Sarah Connor fights the cyborg sent to kill her.


Unlike other forms of writing, it is often more effective to show what a character is feeling through actions in a screenplay.  In other words, it is often better to show something visually, than to say it with dialogue.  Some of the most powerful moments in cinema have no dialogue at all.f you can say something through action, show it rather than say it using dialogue.


A Storyboard is a visual representation of a film on paper.  It can be hand-drawn or created on a computer.  Each rectangle is a shot in a movie.  It helps a Director and Cinematographer to pre-plan each scene visually.  It forces them to ask themselves what are the best shot sequences that will enhance the story and make it more emotionally impacting.  It is also a clear way to show the other cast and crew members what they are trying to achieve out in the field.


If the Cinematographer or Director have no artistic skill or can not afford to hire an artist, storyboards can be built using still photographs taken when he or she visits the different locations in the film (the location scouting process).


If there is no time  or money to create storyboards, a simple shot list will still be beneficial.

Elements of a Script -





The elements of a Script.

3 Act Structure -


Storyboard -

A STORYBOARD is a visual representation of a film or a film sequence made up of still images (often hand-drawn).  This storyboard shows a sequence of shots made up of various camera angles.

Shane Morris, Screenwriter

Shane Morris -

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I wrote on "Frozen" and helped develop "Tangled," "Wreck-It-Ralph," "Big Hero 6," and "Zootopia" while working at Disney Feature Animation. I've also written episodes of Disney XD's "Penn Hero: Part-Time Hero." I've sold original pitches, including one to Jerry Bruckheimer, and done re-writes for various studios. I'm currently developing a TV pitch with Mila Kunis' company.

2.  Who or what influenced or influences your work?

My favorite movie of all time is "Jaws," which is a perfect model for a writer who typically does comedy. A shark eating people is hilarious. No, but "Jaws" has a great story, wonderful characters, action, and perfect structure. Those are all the things you want regardless of genre. I watch lots of different kinds of movies for inspiration and education.

3.  How important is story structure to a screenplay?

Structure is very important. It's the thing you hang all of the cool, fun stuff like action and witty dialogue on.  Because all of that witty dialogue and action won't save a movie that's too slow or too fast or doesn't build in an emotional way or fails to raise the stakes. You really have to understand structure to tell a compelling story and transform your characters in a satisfying way.

4.  What is your basic writing process?

Once I have an idea for an interesting character and concept, I'll try to rough out a simple version of the story. I might not have a lot at this stage, but maybe I'll get to a cool opening or some vague notion of how it ends. I like to have something to hold onto to keep me excited and give some general direction.  Often times, I'll do research about the world the movie would take place in or a character's profession. This helps flesh things out and gives me inspiring details.  Next, I'll build an outline.  My outlines are usually fairly detailed. They'll include descriptions of characters, their arcs, theme, and, of course, the plot, all laid out in three acts and indicating key moments, such as midpoint and climax. I'll even have chunks of dialogue in my outline. A detailed outline gives me the confidence to start writing the actual script. I have a good blueprint and know where I need to go. Of course, lots of things change as I write: I throw things out, I discover new scenes and characters, long scenes become shorter, etc. After I get to a draft I'm ready to share, I ask friends to read and give notes.  Then I re-write.  If it's a paid job, I share the draft with the producers and studio execs, who give more notes.  Then I re-write.  Again and again and again.

5.  How do you handle writers block?

Writer's block comes at different times, so I'll respond to it in different ways.  If it comes in the middle of writing a script and I'm stuck on some scene, I may skip ahead and write a later scene.  Often, that re-energizes me or gives me some new perspective on the scene I couldn't figure out before. Or maybe I'll go for a walk.  See a movie.  Hang out with my family.  Inspiration comes from different places and people and getting away from my computer can jar something loose (in a good way!). Other times, I'm blocked in the early stages of trying to figure out an idea that I think is great, but I can't seem to get going. That's when I have to set it aside and work on something else for now... or face up to the fact that my idea is terrible! What was I thinking? On to the next thing! Usually, the best treatment for writer's block is to keep writing.  Maybe you just need to get the "bad stuff" out of your system. But don't stop!

6.  What's it like pitching a story idea to a studio?

Pitching is very challenging. Sometimes crafting a pitch can take as long as writing the actual script because it's not easy to boil down your 90-minute movie - its characters, theme, plot, tone, etc. - to a compelling and well told 15 minutes. A pitch is also a performance, which does not necessarily come naturally to people who like to sit alone in front of a computer and write. You're basically acting in front of studio executives and trying to sell them an idea. It's not about what you've written, since you haven't written anything yet. You're selling yourself, too. You're making them love an idea and have faith that you can actually write it.

7.  What advice do you have for screenwriters just starting out?

Read a lot of books about screenwriting (I always recommend Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" series).  Watch a lot of movies and analyze how they're built. Get a copy of Final Draft and write, write, write!  It takes practice, perseverance, and discipline. I'm still learning all the time. Don't be precious with your work. Be willing to throw out what's not working and continue to improve what is working. Nobody gets it right on the first draft. Seek out feedback from friends, family, teachers, anyone willing to read. Submit your screenplay to the Nicholl Fellowship and other screenwriting competitions.  Keep going, keep learning, keep writing.

Kristen Lappas, Producer

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I am a feature producer for ESPN, working primarily on stories for College GameDay and SportsCenter. I have worked on a variety of features that range anywhere from four minute human interest stories that take a week to produce, to hour long documentary series such as “Draft Academy”, where we followed five NFL hopefuls for several months leading up to the NFL Draft. Each assignment is challenging and different in its own way, but essentially we are tasked with telling interesting stories that allow viewers to connect with and learn more about the athletes, teams and coaches they watch.

2.  Tell us the process of working on a documentary style feature story from concept to air.

The process of producing a successful feature begins with the pitching process. Without good pitches, you are limited as a producer. We always start by researching, reading and talking to people, trying to find original pitches that we think will translate into meaningful television stories. Once you find an idea that you think is worth telling, you are then tasked with reaching out to the potential subject of the story and asking them for an interview. After a school, player or coach commits to the story, it is then your job to figure out a unique way to tell it that hasn’t been done before. I always outline the story points that I think are important ahead of time, and then brainstorm ideas that will visually tell my story. By the time you go out into the field to shoot and produce the story, you should have a clear-cut vision of what you need to accomplish on the shoot. This includes a question list that will allow the interview subject to speak about the topics relevant to the themes of your story, and a shot list of all of the different visuals you need in order to tell that story. When you are out in the field you will conduct all of your interviews and shoot your broll. The producer is basically like the pilot of the shoot. He or she is helping to navigate everyone (reporter, director of photography, audio operator, ect) and make sure that you are accomplishing the goals you set out with and everything is going smoothly. Producers are also problem solvers. If everything were to always run smoothly on a shoot, producers would have the easiest job; unfortunately there are a lot of things that come up that take composure and quick thinking. When you leave your shoot, you should have all the parts to put together the story. It is then time to work on a script that includes that best sound and video you gathered. Once the script is written out and approved, it is time to enter the final step…editing! Editing is so important; that is where the story comes together and is finessed. Ideas that you thought may work when you were writing your script may need to be adjusted, and you use music and other elements to help give your story a “feel”.  Once you edit your story, it is finally ready for air!

3.  What are you looking for in a director of photography?

A director of photography is the person in charge of the “look” of the feature and how the story is shot in the field. They are the lead camera operator, and usually have several other camera ops that report to them. This position is incredibly important when producing a good feature. As a producer, you can have the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have someone with a talented eye that can listen to your vision and then translate that into cinematic shots with their camera, then you are at a huge disadvantage when you go to edit your story together. You ideally want this person to have an artistic eye, and the ability to see things in a unique way. Talented cinematographers or “DPs” have the ability to transform the normal and average into the beautiful and cinematic. They capture moments in the field in a unique way, and shoot visuals that help you tell your story. A bad director of photography just covers an event or scene, a good director of photography elevates a scene and evokes emotion and beauty in the shots they capture with their camera. It is also important that they are good listeners and communicators. It is your job as the producer to express to the “DP” exactly what you are looking for, but in the end they need to be able to execute your vision and relay that idea to the other camera operators working for them. Without a good DP, you lack a feel or look to your story, which will end up hurting the end product. Being flexible and also the ability to adjust on the fly while on a shoot, are other important qualities in a good cinematographer.

4.  What's your basic approach to crafting a good story and how do you turn hours of raw footage into a finished piece?

In my opinion, crafting a good story takes decisiveness and selectivity. As I mentioned before, you go into filming your story with an outline, but that outline changes when you are out in the field. When you return home it is your job as a producer to re-evaluate the footage and sound you gathered, and craft the most unique story you can from your best material. The greatest advice I ever received was from a mentor of mine, and it was, “the viewer will never know what you don’t have.” This means, craft your story around the best sound bytes, moments and broll that you gathered, not what may be best story on paper or in theory. If your story is moving and powerful, no one will ever know or question what elements you didn’t have. I always felt very comfortable out in the field producing and in the edit room putting the story together, but for me, the most daunting part of the process was (and still is) the scripting. You gather so much material when you are out shooting and there are many directions you can take a story in, that sometimes it is hard to condense into a focused short script. Another piece of advice that has helped me with scripting tremendously was from a veteran Feature Producer, who told me that on any given feature, you could script the same story at least three times over, not repeating a single interview byte or element; that is how much sound and footage you shoot for a given project. What I took from that is, there is no “right” way to script a story. You shouldn’t be looking to get every single good interview byte in, but rather script the sound that helps tell the most powerful story. You will have a ton of great material to work with, but not everything will make it into your final cut. Really defining your focus, and being selective is key. The fact that there will be a lot of great stuff left on the table is inevitable, and once I realized that, it has helped simplify my scripting process.


In edit, I think crafting the best story is completely a feel thing. If something doesn’t feel or sound right, it probably isn’t and needs some work. Music and pacing help to bring the story to life, and are so very important. For every story I produce, I spend several days scoring my story. Good music and pacing can sometimes bring a feature story from average to really good.

5.  What kind of advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the industry?

The best advice I can give is volunteer, intern, observe…do whatever you can to gain experience in the industry. Sometimes those jobs are going to entail logging tapes, teleprompting, getting lunch for a crew, and other “go for” type tasks, but I promise gaining those contacts and seeing how the business works is invaluable. Also pitch ideas. Especially at ESPN, good ideas are what get people opportunities, and separate the people that go the extra mile to those that are just clocking in and out. Good ideas are what the driving force is in this business, and the more of them the pitch, the more great stories you will get to work on.