A Director’s Focus Slugline

SampleBirthed by documentarians to keep shows focused on topic, the focus slugline eventually shifted into use by editors inundated with hours and hours of footage to sort. The simplicity of outlining the focus of a film shifted to long form directors and then to independents.

A focus slugline is NOT to be confused with a script header.

EXT. THE WHITE HOUSE – NIGHT

The header includes the annotation of the interior or exterior, scene name, and time frame of day or night. It is found at the top of every scene to organize the script and simplify production management forms.

The focus slugline is typically hand written by the director in the left margin of the script. It runs vertically down the page and gives the “who,” “does,” “what” of the scene. Some directors have sub-focus-sluglines to breakdown the “who does what” by character power shifts.

A sample focus slugline is: Dad surprises son. The “who” is the dad, the “does” is the surprises, and the “what” is the son. This focus slugline puts the emphasis on the giver of the surprise; in this case it’s the dad. The director’s goal is to remind himself to put the attention on the dad during filming so he doesn’t’ accidentally shift the story to be about the son in this particular scene.

Directors are asked a myriad of questions on set every day and in spite of the plethora of queries he must remember what to focus on within the scene. The Focus Slugline is a quick glance system that allows the director to recalibrate his perspective when its time to roll cameras.

In the sample, if the film were about the son, the focus slugline would have read: Son receives car. The “who” is the son, the “does” is the receiving of the gift, and the “what” is the car. The camera shot list in a film about the son would reflect a completely different set of shots than the story about the dad.

In longer scenes that have a lot of power shifts between the characters, the director can create a sub-focus-slugline for every new character goal established that drives the overall story. Since the shift in power also shifts the focus temporarily, the use of sub-focus-sluglines helps the director to make sure the focus returns to the right place before the scene ends.

The sample, when played out in a short sequence, might look like this:

SAMPLE 1
Dad surprises son.
Son startles traffic.
Dad calls insurance company.

Some directors prefer to preserve each beat of the scene/sequence like this:

SAMPLE 2
Dad surprises son.
Son runs outside.
Dad tosses keys.
Son starts car.
Dad reflects pride.
Son startles traffic.
Dad calls insurance company.

Still other directors prefer to work in sentences rather than sluglines, which might look like this:

SAMPLE 3
Dad surprises son with a new car parked in the driveway.
Son runs outside and stares at the sports car.
Dad tosses his son the car keys.
Son hops in the car, starts it up and shifts into reverse.
Dad smiles from ear to ear with pride for his son.
Son backs into oncoming traffic and startles other drivers.
Dad grabs his cell phone and calls insurance company to clarify coverage.

The key to successfully using focus sluglines is to make sure the director gets what he needs when others break his focus on set. The SAMPLE 1 focus sluglines (Dad surprises son. Son startles traffic. Dad calls insurance company.) will work for most directors because it reveals the scene’s beginning, middle and end. Others may want to list every beat for more complex scenes, but seldom will sentences be used unless the information has to be reduced to writing for a treatment or scene synopsis.

The “who does what” focus slugline clarifies the emphasis of the film segment with a single glance. It allows the director to quickly regain his concentration and communicate with cast and crew the goals of the shot sequence. And, it also gives an editor a great tool if the script supervisor captures the same information.

Click here to view a sample that I created from the “National Treasure” screenplay.

© 2017 by CJ Powers
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4 thoughts on “A Director’s Focus Slugline

  1. This is great CJ. An important tool for many film production team members including the director, editor, DP and Script super.

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