Dave Trottier is a produced screenwriter, award-winning teacher, acclaimed script consultant, author of The Screenwriter's Bible , and friendly host of keepwriting.com. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DRTrottier.
A budding screenwriter asked me the following question the other day: Dave, can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t include camera directions in my script? After all, I want the director to see my visual intent.
Since I am often asked this question, I’ll provide three reasons.
- You’re not writing for the director
You write primarily for a reader (also known as a story analyst). That’s because a reader will read your script before a director, actors, or producer will. Most, if not all, professional readers don’t appreciate camera directions.
In fact, here’s a quote from Susan Kougell, former story analyst: “Don’t direct your script with camera angles. Using camera directions is absolutely frowned upon. We know that directors and producers do not want to be told how to shoot their movie!” (Read the full article in Script magazine.) That leads me to my second point.
- Your spec must be readable.
A reader yearns for a readable script; that is, a script that is easy to read and entertaining. CAPS are hard on the eyes and camera directions break up the flow of the story. A spec script should direct the camera without using camera directions; that will give the director your “visual intent.”
For example, don’t write something like this in a spec script:
CLOSE UP of Bart’s face. ECU twitching eye.
Instead, write something like this.
Bart’s eye twitches.
That has to be a CLOSE UP, and it’s a lot easier to read. Let me provide you with another example from one of my students:
EXT. HIGHWAY 27 – DAY – AERIAL VIEW WE SEE the lush Florida countryside until WE FIND our subject, a dark green van. SLOW ZOOM IN ON VAN VIEW ON VAN – MOVING
Spell binding, right? Wrong.
Here is a revision of the above, which directs the camera without using camera directions and attempts to make the excerpt more “readable.” It may not be spell binding, but it is more visually appealing than the original.
EXT. FLORIDA – DAY From the Atlantic shore, the lush countryside extends for miles. Below, a black two-lane highway meanders through the spring growth. A dark green van scoots down the highway. EXT./INT. VAN – DAY The van rumbles along.
After the first scene heading, the three paragraphs of action (narrative description) essentially direct the camera without using camera directions.
The first paragraph describes an AERIAL VIEW. By the way, I have no issues with the term “AERIAL VIEW”; I just decided not to use it in this revision. The camera moves from the Atlantic shore inland.
In the second paragraph, the camera begins to drop towards the highway.
In the third paragraph, the camera drops close to the van.
These days, this little scene would probably be shot with a camera mounted on a drone. However, I’m not going to interrupt the flow of the story just to say that.
For more on “readability,” see my article entitled “The Readability Factor.”
- Your scene won’t be shot the way you wrote it
Your scene may not be shot exactly the way you envisioned it anyway. When a director blocks a scene, he or she often finds that adjustments have to be made. Sometimes, the location as described in the screenplay cannot be found or doesn’t work.
For example, in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, the pier scene is the thematic revelation scene where Dwayne tells Frank that life is one beauty contest after another. He concludes, “If I want to fly, I’ll find a way to fly.”
That pier scene was originally written to be shot while the two were surfing, so that they could dive into the water and disappear in a symbolic baptism and rebirth moment. Michael Arndt said it was a favorite scene among many who read the script. In reality, it was hard to shoot and looked silly with wave after wave coming in during this serious moment. And so they shot it again on the pier, and that’s the version that we see in the movie.
Michael Arndt, the writer, had this to say about another scene he wrote in the script: “Dwayne’s view out the window is one of several POV shots I wrote into the script. None of them, I believe, were filmed. The lesson here is that you [do not direct a film] with a typewriter.”
Is there a time to use camera directions?
Use camera directions rarely and only for a dramatic or comedic moment. I’ll provide an example from my silly sci-fi comedy Ratman from Saturn, which was sold but not produced.
The opening scene is a public service announcement from an army general wearing his Class A dress uniform. We only see him from the chest up. He states emphatically that there is no such thing as aliens from outer space.
…And then, I use a camera direction:
PULL BACK TO REVEAL The general with a fat reptilian tail.
I look at that scene now and can see that I could have had the general stand behind a podium and then walk off with this tail trailing behind him. However, perhaps my original is more immediate. Maybe it is the exception that proves the rule.
In summary, remember three things: keep writing, write to be read, and watch out for space aliens.