Script Supervision Goes Digital

Ultra high def, 3-D images.  22.2-channel, digital surround audio.  8K resolution digital intermediate conversions.

The high-tech wizardry that brandishes our multiplexes nowadays can be jaw-dropping.  However, much of the filmmaking industry’s adoption of cutting-edge innovation has often remained the domain of the “hardware”-based departments, including camera, sound, and post-production.

But there is another department, one that doesn’t get to directly enjoy the glitz of the big screen that is now also benefitting greatly from the advent of the digital age.  Often known as the “department of one”, the continuity department is solely comprised of a film’s script supervisor, who works closely with other departments, meticulously recording a multitude of shooting details and ensuring consistency from take to take.  And now thanks to software programs developed specifically for continuity, script supervisors will find themselves full-bore into a digitally organized system that catalogs, tracks, and reports all the information they previously had to manage by pen and (copious amounts of) paper.

The idea is to take full advantage of the data management and manipulation capabilities that a specialized computer program can provide.  With the proper training and implementation, the efficiency and productivity of a script supervisor’s job becomes greatly streamlined.  And one of the leading continuity software packages is ScriptE, developed by Hollywood script supervisor Tony Pettine and software designer Bob McFarlane.

In late May, Film Training Manitoba brought Pettine to Winnipeg for a one-day primer workshop on the integration of ScriptE into the workflow of a continuity department.  In addition to local script supervisors, this “crash course” was also attended by participants who were keen on potentially transitioning into continuity work within the Manitoba screen-based industry.

Pettine, who most recently script supervised the Oscar-nominated films Black Swan and The Wrestler, focused primarily on the setup and workflow of the software, showing participants how each component directly corresponds with the numerous daily tasks of the job itself.

Released in its first iteration for the Mac operating system in the summer of 2007, ScriptE is currently available for the Windows platform as well, and there is now even a slick companion iPad app.  And while Pettine mentioned that some “heavy hitters” in the industry’s continuity field had been initially resistant to this technological update in their field, many have since come around.  In the beginning, ScriptE was utilized predominantly on non-union productions, as well as independent films and television series, but is now being adopted more and more for use on big budget productions.

For the more seasoned script supervisors attending the workshop, this introduction to the “computerization” of their department sparked an immediate interest in the significant ways their jobs could be better organized and streamlined.

In particular, Tanya Mazur, who has worked as the script supervisor on the locally-shot series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil and Cashing In, recalls how before the widespread availability of digital still cameras, there was a sole reliance on the other means of capturing immediate images: the Polaroid picture.  Stacks upon stacks of these “instant photo reminders” would clutter a script supervisor’s workspace.

Digital stills certainly relieved some of this burden, but still involved the concerted effort of pulling out a digital camera and stealthily snapping the crucial photos.  And even then, you would still need to “flip” sequentially through the slew of digital photographs to find any particular one.  With ScriptE, not only are you able to log photos and digitally attach them to specific scene records, you also have the incredibly convenient option of grabbing still frames directly from the on-set video tap that comes live off of the actual film cameras.

But even for Mazur, she is pragmatic about the time and effort she would need to invest in order to learn this enhanced way of doing her job on local shows.

Mazur explains, “It is one thing to work on a feature in New York doing 5 to 10 setups a day, and to have all the time in the world to do paperwork…(I)t is entirely another thing to work on a low budget show, forty below, working in a tent with no heater, and doing 60 setups, let alone (having) a station for my laptop and (running) a cable into a camera.  It is not that I’m resistant…I want to make my job easier…but I am realistic about shooting conditions in Winnipeg.”

Another veteran participant is very eager to “test out” the ScriptE software on a show that she is booked to script supervise this summer.  It’s also her plan on this upcoming show to train two of the participants that she just met at the workshop who are aspiring to become script supervisors themselves.

One of these trainees, Sandra McEwing, is currently a stage manager for Rainbow Stage in Winnipeg and new to the world of film continuity.  McEwing admitted that she was primarily interested in meeting established script supervisors during the workshop but she also wanted to explore supervising film continuity as a new career direction.  Learning the fundamentals of the ScriptE software was eye opening for her, and having now been exposed to these new tools being implemented in this field, McEwing recognizes their value.

“I believe that most industries will require a greater degree of computer and software-familiar employees, and those who don’t learn (might) be left behind,” relates McEwing.

In the end, the workshop not only imparted existing crew with knowledge of the latest skills and technology being employed in their industry, but was also able to bring together veterans and up-and-comers, hatching further training opportunities that could ultimately strengthen local continuity departments with newly skilled crew members.

– Written by Benjamin Aytona