EDU14 Analysing a Script for Sound

So here is my approach to analysing a script, prior to meeting with a Director to discuss their project.
Having to improvise makes me nervous, so I like to be very well prepared & have lots of specific ideas to discuss.
Having been sent a PDF copy of the script, print out a copy. Yes. Print out a copy on paper.
We do not want to be looking at screens when reading it. A paper copy will also serve another purpose.
Print it out.

Pass 1:
Read the script in one pass, full immersion, no distractions.
Phone off. Read it in real time.

There is a saying which I will be repeating more than a few times:
You only ever get one first impression.
A lot of your instincts and feelings about the project are formed on that first pass.
So it is important to place a lot of value on that experience.
Don’t write notes, just read it.

The general rule for a shooting script is a page a minute.
So a 120 page script equates to a 120 minute, 2 hour film.
A 90 page script equals a 90 minute film.

It’s good to allow some time to think about what you have read.
So maybe it makes sense to open a nice bottle of wine in the evening.
Read the script & then go for a walk or sleep on it.
The next morning reflect on how the script & story made you feel.
How did the arc of the story affect you?

Pass 2:
Ok so this time you will re-read the script and get very specific.
You’ll need a pack of coloured post-it notes.
I prefer to use the narrow Page Marker post-it notes, like these ones:

You’ll want lots of different colours as we’re going to use each colour as a ‘food group’
Step 1 is to stick one of each colour on the front of the script.
Let’s say we start off by assigning blue to AMBIENCES, so I’d write AMBIENCE on the blue page marker on the front of the script. And I’d turn to page 1, and I’d put a blue post-it by the Scene 1 description:


I’d then re-read that scene and if there was a specific sound event, I’d tag it with a colour coded post-it.
In BOY, a few scenes later the kids push start the Aunties old Humber 80 car.
I decide to assign vehicles to green, and go back to the front of the script and write VEHICLES on the green post-it. And I stick a green post-it beside the part of the scene where they describe the car action. A while later Boys Dad turns up in his V8, so every time it occurs in a scene, I stick a green post-it beside the action.

If you have watched the film, at one point Boy makes a microwave oven break down. OK so lets assign that to general sound FX and the colour yellow. So I go back to the front of the script & write SFX on the yellow post-it. And every time there is a significant sound effect mentioned in the script it gets a yellow post-it. The scene where the Dad is trying to dig up the buried loot? yellow post-it. The scene where the Rory skateboards up to his Dad, while holding a sparkler? yellow post-it.

The number of post-it colours you will need really depends on the film. For example, there aren’t really any monsters or creatures in the film BOY.
Whereas another film I did, BLACK SHEEP, had many creatures. So when marking up the script for BLACK SHEEP I had a category assigned to CREATURE VOX. On some films you’d need a WEAPONS category etc etc…

Now some common sense is required. For example, I don’t need to tag every single ambience as some will be recurring throughout the film.
The main aim is to identify change. So maybe the first time we see BOYS house it is morning. Tag it! Maybe later in the film we see BOYS house at night – Tag it, as it’s a new occurrence.

On some projects I also tagged specific cases of foley.
For example, on the film THE ORATOR, I tagged foley so we would discuss the surfaces inside a Samoan village fale/house.
For example, on the film EMPEROR, I tagged foley in places so we would discuss the contrast between traditional Japanese footwear like gita, with the footwear that the US military would be wearing.

The aim is to quickly try to identify all of the potential for interesting sound.
I would also tag DX/CROWDS sometimes eg if there was a bar scene or a concert scene.

This process might take another 2 or 3 hours, but by the end of it you will have a script covered in post-it notes.

Before I get into how use this resource we are creating, I wanted to make a point about NOT doing this virtually.
I very strongly advise you to not be sucked into marking up a PDF with virtual post-it notes.
Yes printing out a script wastes some paper. And yes buying post-it notes costs a little.
But there is a MASSIVE benefit to doing this process in the real world.
Bear with me, you will see why.

OK so what have we achieved?
We have basically created an analog database, and now we want to extract some totals.

One by one I’d do a quick total up of how many of each tag there is in the script.
So I can now quickly skip through the script and find every vehicle.
Depending on the film I might decide to document how many occurrences of each vehicle there is.

Humber 80 = 3
Hero V8 = 12
Second V8 = 1
School Bus = 2

See how we’ve already gone from ‘there’s some vehicles in this film’ to ‘there are exactly this many occurrences of each vehicle in this film!’ That’s a major step to being specific about working on this project.

Depending on the project, it may be worth doing an Ambience scene count. To accurately assign signifiance, how many times are we in that corn field?

For some projects you might end up with a quick list:
INT PRISON – 32 scenes

By noting such specific examples, we can start to think about how we will approach the ambiences. Which ambiences will be easy, which do we already have great material for? Which ambiences do we need to record? Also, which ambiences are purely functional & which play an emotive role or are critical for story telling.

The same applies to the sound effects. Some sound effects are played as real and some are imaginary eg Rockys magic. Subjective sound effects might get their own category.

As a final step, sometimes I will tag moments as SOUND DESIGN eg a scene or moment where the script motivates us to consider the entire approach to the soundtrack including score. As an example, in many films I have been sound designer on, I like to find a moment of silence. This has to be motivated by story & character, and sometimes it’s not applicable at all. But I want to show I am thinking about the entire soundtrack, so I might tag a bunch of scenes in the film which will be serious fun to mix, and think about their significance..

So now we have

– a script that is colourfully marked up for sound.
– a list of categories weighted by their occurrences.

Now why do I insist on doing all of this in the real world & not on your laptop?
I can only write this from the benefit of hindsight, having completed this process many, many times and observed the reaction.

So let’s say the day comes to meet up with the director & producer to discuss the possibility of you working on their film. Usually, after polite introductions and some small talk, the Director may like to outline their vision for the project. This may or may not get into specifics.. but sooner or later, the question will be presented to you: “You’ve read the script? What did you think of it?”

So all of this time I’ve had my marked up script with me, out of sight in my carry bag. I’d usually talk generally about how much I enjoyed the script and its themes, the characters and story arc etc… Then I’d start to discuss the specific elements of the soundtrack, by saying I made some notes… And I would pull out my marked up script and put it down on the table in front of me. Every single time the reaction was palpable.

When you think about it from their perspective, a director has spent years working on that script. They poured their heart & soul into it. They have revised it, had it critiqued, and workshopped it. They have done read-throughs with the cast. And they have some ideas about sound. But OMFG when someone turns up to a meeting and drops an analog database on them, they almost explode with joy!
I used this method when pitching for a US horror film years ago, which the very experienced producer & newish directors were hoping to shoot & post in NZ. When they asked what I thought of the script, I said something like ‘OMG this script is a sound designers dream job! There is SO MUCH potential for awesome sound!!” And I pulled out their script covered in post-its and dropped it on the table. They laughed for like five minutes! It was beautiful! The director insisted on taking a photo of my script and the producer said to me ‘No one has ever done this, on any project I’ve ever worked on!’ All for the price of some post-its and some time & thought invested.

Now this might seem like silly theatrics or smoke & mirrors, but it isn’t. It is genuine as all hell. I am not only showing them that I care about their film and want to work on it. It shows them I have a creative process and I have already started working on it!

And once the reaction subsides I get to show them what I have identified, and I can ask specific questions. It’s important to remember Directors like to direct. So it’s important to not overstate your ideas. It’s not that I have the solution, it’s that I have the details so we can discuss how the director wants to play a certain moment or scene. Hopefully your ideas align, but if they don’t then those are specific mental notes you want to make for future reference. Hopefully for when you are on the project.

By this stage I will have created some lists on my laptop, but compare the reaction to the reveal of my homework. Pulling out a colourfully marked up script that is covered in scribbled notes has an instant effect. Every film maker knows what that means with one glance. Now compare that with having done the same process all virtually. Even if printed out, it would be like handing over some financial documents or something. Despite conveying the same information, the analog method creates a beautiful visual artefact, which is evidence of your creative process.

So depending on the project, discussion about specific sound elements & the overall sound design of the film might continue for half an hour. Without my marked-up script I might feel nervous about remembering everything I want to discuss, but because I’ve done my homework I can confidently discuss every aspect of the soundtrack, and often in ways the director may not have even considered yet. It’s important to be humble & friendly, because this is also a test run for you & the director collaborating for the very first time. Its almost like a first date – is this someone I want to spend a lot of high-quality time with?

There is a aying by Maya Angelou “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and I think this also speaks to what our aim of pitching for the film is. We want to shake hands with that director at the end of the meeting and them leave excited! Excited for what you can achieve together, and what that means for the film.

What else is important to discuss when pitching for a film?

– Incase it turns out you only have five minutes to discuss the film, you still want to get across the essential information about your approach. So it’s worth prioritising what you consider is most important about the film and how you work.

– When you think about film making, it is very important to think of the relationships involved. The most important relationship is between yourself and the director, producer & picture editor. And of course all of your other important relationships – with the production sound recordist, rerecording mixers, the composer & dialogue/ADR, foley and all the members of the sound team.

– It’s very important to make sure that you get across that you love collaboration and are totally open to input and direction – from the first spotting session, through all the run throughs, through the predubs and final mix and throughout final changes. Explain how you like to evolve the soundtrack under direction, to find the voice of the film, via receiving feedback of work in progress. I have always believed that by the time predubs start, the director has heard and signed off on all content for the soundtrack. So they are then focusing on how they want the material to play, scene by scene and they don’t have to worry about individual elements of the content itself.

– It can be invaluable to offer temp FX and ambiences to the director, during picture editing… It depends on the style of the film but eg a horror film will want stings and tones etc while cutting picture. Identifying such needs and offering them unprompted shows you understand their process. And it can also help avoid the use of tired old sound effects that the editor might have on a hard drive somewhere.

– They may want to see a show reel, in which case you will want to select a number of scenes from projects you have done, that illustrate your best work. Context matters. If it’s a sensitive drama that you are pitching for, they won’t appreciate seeing scenes from a horror film. So its on a case by case basis, and I ended up with multiple versions of my show reel, so I could provide one that is appropriate.

– I usually print out a copy of my CV with each film listed with director, producer and film studio listed. While indie films often have autonomy and can make whatever choices they like, studio films will often have someone verify all roles. But if you are 100% convincing on the main pitch, this shouldn’t be the main focus: they wouldn’t ask you to pitch if they didn’t consider you a contender. So if you really want this project, it is your job to do more homework & put more thought into pitching than anyone else that they might be considering….

– Remember, you aren’t pitching for just this film. You want to do ALL their films. You want to become the first person they think of, when it comes to sound design for their films.

Inevitably some of the homework you do, you won’t need or get the chance to show them (eg they probably don’t need to see your ambience list breakdown) but by having made it and thought about it, you have a deeper insight as to whats involved….

So have I ruined it by sharing this methodology? I doubt it.

Most people won’t bother doing all this work. Every so often I see people state ‘you should never work for free’ and I always think to myself ‘bullshit!’. No one is paying me to read the script (2-3 hours) No one is paying me to mark up the script & make notes (2-3 hours). It’s part of my creative process that transcends mere money. It’s also an investment that may or may not pay off (eg that US horror film I mentioned never got funding) But all I know is that when I am given an opportunity like this, I am going to work as hard as I can to make it happen.

It’s a discussion for another day, but towards the end of my film career I also came up with three criteria for taking a project on. I think most professional working sound designers have had an occasional ‘less satisfying’ experience on a film. And sometimes the hardest learned lessons are the ones you never forget. Over the 40 feature films that I worked on, there were only a couple which in hindsight I would now have turned down. From such experiences, my decision making considerations required meeting three criteria:
1. They have to be nice people.
2. The film must have good ideas with the potential for great sound.
3. They must have a realistic budget, scaled for the project.

1. No amount of income is worth losing your mental health over. So that first criteria is crucial. Despite the power imbalance, when you meet with a Director & Producer, you are also auditioning them. If they are toxic or denigrating towards other people, then they will likely also treat you that way, sooner or later.

2. A film is a major creative commitment. If the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how great your sound is… Having said that, I have worked on a few failed films where the sound was complimented most. So even if a project does not succeed by usual standards, it may still help your work by being seen & heard. And one thing is true: directors watch other directors work. And they notice what people contribute.

3. Budget I discussed in EDU12. Getting burnt or burning yourself out, trying to achieve great work without enough budget can be a frustrating experience. And under-achieved work can reflect badly on you. No audience looks up the budget for a film before they see it. But some projects are worth investing your time in, and my only advice in such circumstances is to gently make sure the director & producer know what you are contributing, beyond what they can afford, and why it is important. It is a chance to educate them and to hopefully increase their standards, expectations and future budgets. If they under-budget once, that sucks. But if they do it repeatedly then it shows a pattern of behaviour.

Finally, please appreciate any of the more philosophical attitudes I have come from having spent 25 years working on films. When I first started I would have crawled over broken glass to get the opportunity to work on a film, any film. But being keen is only part of the equation. The real work occurs on the job, and there is no shortcut to gaining experience. But I hope these articles help you form ways of thinking about such work.

One of my favourite sayings ever is by haiku poet Matsuo Basho.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.
Seek what they sought.”

Matsuo Basho

I had many heroes as a young sound designer but I did not seek to follow them. I relentlessly challenged myself to learn and apply their ideas and techniques and attitudes, filtered through my own psyche, experiences, taste and aesthetics. That’s the aim. To bring your own sensibilities to the beautifully profound, collaborative art of film making!

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