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Treatments & Scripts

Revised 2/5/2005. Copyright 2005 by Jim Krause. No parts of this document may be used or reproduced without the author's permission.

Treatments and scripts are important tools used to pitch and produce films and TV programs. Proceeding on any sizable production without them is akin to trying to build a house out of a pile of lumber- without a blueprint. While they are both printed documents, they have differing and very specific purposes. So whether you want to sell your next screenplay, produce a training video, or design the cut scenes of a video game, it's important to understand the construction and application of both treatments and scripts.

Treatments

Major motion pictures are routinely pitched with treatments. They describe the action and story development in the briefest terms possible. Because of this, you generally won't find much dialog or specific production information (like camera shots) in treatments. In addition to allowing us to quickly describe the story, treatments are particularly useful development and revision tools.

A treatment serves as the blueprint for a script. It's much easier to make changes in a 5-page treatment than a 40-page script. So it's wise to first develop a treatment and then to revise and refine it. Once you (and your producer or clients) are happy with it, then write a script based on the treatment.

Scene-based structure

Scenes are the building blocks of film and video. They can be thought of as mini-stories in that they have a beginning, middle and end. Scenes should push either the story or character along. (If a scene doesn't do either cut it out!) In preparing a scene-based treatment, number and title each scene. Describe the scene with a few sentences or a paragraph. If writing for broadcast or theatrical release, don't forget to consider and address your act structure.

Once you've finished, you'll have a document that clearly and succinctly describes the story and its development.

Scripts

First a few simple rules that apply to all scripts. Always start by fading up from black. We can dissolve from shot to shot, but we always fade to and from black. At the end of a program we always fade to black. The cut is the default transition. Because of this we never have to specify cut in a script. Always stick to standard nomenclature when specifying aural and visual elements.

Formats: there are many different types of script formats. For in-depth explanations of these I'd suggest reading Zettl's Television Production Handbook. The two most frequently used formats are the single-column "drama" (also known as "master screenplay") script and the two-column "TV" or "Documentary" style script.

"Drama" or "Master Screenplay" scripts are well-suited for fiction or storytelling. Here is a drama script example from cybercollege.com. This style of script focuses on communicating action and dialog, not describing specific shots. This is because in film and TV dramas, art directors and cinematographers are the ones who specify what we see, not the writers. Describing the visual elements is best achieved through storyboards, which illustrate composition along with talent and camera blocking.

"Two-column" scripts are the best choice for news, documentary, commercial, and industrial video production. These scripts contain two columns of information. The left-hand side contains video information with audio on the right. Every single visual and audio element should be specified with full descriptions in the appropriate column. Here is an example of two-column script for a documentary. The nice thing about two-column scripts is that at any point in time you can clearly see exactly what audio goes with what visual. It also allows for much more visual specification than the drama style script.

There are several different types of scripts used for multi-camera studio production. The granddaddy of them all is the fully scripted format. The fully scripted format specifies everything that is seen or heard. This includes VTR cues, dialog, graphics, sounds and music. Typically the director marks the script with camera numbers (Cam 1, Cam 2, etc.). But before he or she can do this, they need a detailed and accurate floor plan. After all, you need to know where the cameras and talent are before specifying what camera can best provide a close up of your host or dolly shot of the set. Here's a studio exercise script to show you an example of a multi-camera studio script.

Scripts usually go through a number of revisions from the initial draft to the final copy. It's a good idea with either style of script to include a title and date or version number.

On Scripting Music Videos

2-column scripts work very well. You can easily put lyrics in the audio column. For the instrumental portions (without lyrics) try putting a marker (E.g. an asterisk) on each line to represent the rhythmic structure.

On scripting documentaries

A few students have asked if they need to write treatments and scripts for documentaries. The answer is a resounding YES. Documentary is a broadly used term covering a range of programs such as Nova, Nature, American Experience, or programs seen on Discovery or the History Channel. While some are exploratory, a majority resemble essays in their structure.

Actual script used for "Elkinsville: Washed Away By Progress"

In my opinion, the exploratory approach is most suitable for projects that evolve over time- projects that perhaps span years. I watched one where a group of people tried to recreate the early settlers experience in Canada. They started out making plans, gathering supplies, and then building a boat. They took the boat up (or down) a river where they found a suitable homesite, build a cabin, and then proceeded to live off the land. The entire documentary spanned several years.

Starting out: Approach documentaries like you would with a written essay. Start with an introduction that contains the thesis idea. The body of the piece will convey the various arguments. End with a solid conclusion.

To produce the piece (and to write the script), embrace a technique employed by good attorneys: know the answers that your witnesses (interview subjects) will provide. In other words a good attorney will know the answer to the question he/she is asking- or at least have a pretty good idea of how they will answer. How do you find this out? By doing research and talking to your interview subjects in advance.

Techniques

Research your content. What has been written or published about it already? Who are the experts? What do you want to say, prove, show, or illustrate? Who is your audience? What you want the viewers to do or think after watching your piece is the objective.

Whether you are creating something informational, something to sell an idea, or something to make people think a certain way (propaganda!), you have to embed the nuggets of information. I call this my "ingredient list."

As you research, outline, and refine your project, you learn more about the subject and build and modify your ingredient list.

You will finally end up with a series of points or facts that are put together in a logical manner. Threading these points into a compelling story before shooting is perhaps one of the most challenging part of writing documentaries. You need to visualize the flow from the fade up from black at the beginning to how you treat the credits at the end. A solid beginning and clear conclusion are essential. (If you have these the stuff in the middle has a way of working itself out.)

Let's take an idea of making a promo for a band called the Tone-a-Matiks. For starters you have to really think about your audience and the objective. Is it an objective feature story to be inserted into a news magazine show, or is it a self-promotional video for selling the band to night-club owners and booking agents? The approach to these would be different, so you need to be crystal clear about your objective- as it will effect the content.

Let's assume we'll make a marketing and promotional video. We need to then create the "ingredient list" - which is the essential facts and elements to include in the video. They might be:

  • Description of the genre (alt rock with hip hop influence, etc.)
  • The band loves playing dance music
  • The band was just signed by a label
  • The band can do cover tunes- but like to work in their own originals
  • A new CD is underway
  • They tour in the midwest now but would like to expand to the east coast
  • testimonials from fans
  • testimonials from night club owners
  • performance footage
  • footage of people dancing
  • Quickie profiles of band members (if compelling. These are usually overdone.)

Once you have your ingredient list you can start threading it into a treatment.

  • Open with a quick live clip, and people dancing. An animated graphic of the band's name comes on screen.
  • This is followed by a montage of people saying how much they love to listen and dance to the Tone-a-Matiks.
  • After a little bit more of performance footage we go to a music critic describing the band's sound and genre.
  • We could then go back to the performance and hear a couple of testimonials from nightclub owners on how the band really pack's them in.
  • A couple of quick soundbites from the band describe how much fun they have playing and that they can do covers but love playing originals.
  • etc.

Anyway, it's important to really think through this early on, then refine and refine, eventually writing a script. The more you think about who needs to say what, the more efficient you can be during the production stage.

I have an example of a treatment for a documentary on my home page (see Treatment - Actual treatment and pitch for Elkinsville.)

 

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