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I'm working the Your Turn Challenge and today is Day 4. Here is my post to answer the question: Teach us something that you do well.

Wow, this is a tough one. It took me all day to come up with something. I had a day full of “What in the world do I know well enough to teach?” Then I got over that silly thought and came up with this.

How to Create a Visual Effects Shot Breakdown For Feature Films. (This does not include budgeting or other production related items, simply a list of potential shots for a movie.)

Prologue: What is a visual effect “shot”? Each cut in a movie is an individual shot. When you add VFX to that shot or create shots whole cloth in computer graphics, it costs money. In VFX we budget down the the frame. There are 24 frames per second. Also, your job is to guess what the VFX might be and how they might work in the movie. My technique is to edit the movie/scenes in my head as I do the breakdown, and count how many cuts that might be.

Let’s get started!

1. Create an excel spreadsheet with two tabs. Label the first tab “VFX Shot Breakdown.” Label the second tab “CG Assets” (CG = computer graphics). Save the document as “[MOVIE TITLE] VFX Shot Breakdown”

2. on the VFX Shot Breakdown sheet, create these column headings:
    Ref. #
    Page #
    Scene #
    Production Provided Practical Plates/Elements
    Digital Elements/Processes
    FX Notes
    # of seconds per shot
    # of shots
3. On the CG Assets sheet, create these column headings:
    Ref #
    Page #

4. Read the script. Note any possible visual effects shot on each page and either highlight or mark with a pencil. Also note what CG Assets need to be built. (CG Assets are things you build once and use over and over again in the VFX. For example, for White House Down, we needed a CG White House for the majority of VFX Shots. This CG model is then used continuously over the course of the movie. CG Assets can be everything from Godzilla to skyscrapers to spaceships to aircraft to people, cars, objects in the street.)

5. Go back to page one of the script and begin to fill in each box of each row in the “VFX Shot Breakdown.” If there is no scene # leave it blank, just include the page number for each shot (there will often be multiple shots per page.)

6. Copy the script description exactly from the script “Luke looks across the dessert at the two setting suns of Tatooine."

7. The "production provided plate" will be the live action part. This would be Luke standing in the dessert. That is called a Foreground Plate because the VFX will be added to the Background. This “plate” may or may not be shot on green screen.

8. The "Digital Element/Process" will be to add the second sun, and to match move and composite the final image.

9. If there are any notes or assumptions, include them in the FX Notes. For example “Assume will shoot live action sun and simply composite in the 2nd sun."

10. Most shot durations for bidding purposes are 3-5 seconds each. Action shots in big actions sequences can be three seconds, more dialogue heavy shots can be five. If there is an establishing shot, make it 7-10 seconds.

11. Good rule of thumb: a script page = 1 minute. There are 12, 5 second shots per page or 20, 3 second shots.

12. For each shot you anticipate, make it a new line item. However, if there is a series of shots that are all going to be relatively similar, you can lump them into one line item. For example, if you have people driving in a car that is shot on a green screen stage with the background image shot on location, and the scene is 1 page long, then you can say that the number of shots is 12.  (But later you’ll have to break these down into different categories of “easy/medium/hard” depending on what is in the BG.)

13. As you come to what you estimate to be a new CG Asset, go to the CG Asset tab and add it to that document with a brief description.

Do this for the entire script, for every single shot you estimate to be in the script. A “small” VFX movie might have 100-400 shots in it. A major action movie (The Avengers, Transformers, etc) could have 1500-2000 shots. Each one needs to be accounted for. And yes, you have to guess a lot.

If you have a digital copy of the script and can copy/paste the scene descriptions, a major action movie script should take you about two to three weeks to break down (if you’ve never done it before.) That includes time to consult with your VFX Supervisor to make sure you have included all possible shots. You will not have done so, and so it will take you another week to fix it up.

If you are me, it will take about three days with a digital script. I am that good and that damn proud of myself.

Let me know if you think it sounds easy.