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.


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:

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

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

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:

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

Great Directors use Adjectives and Verbs

AdjectivesI was asked today what the difference in skill or techniques were between a good director and a great one. There is a lot of commonality in how both directors get started in filmmaking, but once they’ve gained experience the great director works specifically on developing his adjectives and verbs.

The adjectives are the tools the director uses to convey key information to his cinematographer and production designer. He also uses it to communicate with publicity, studios and producers. The words make the difference between a good pitch and a great one—a higher budget versus a smaller one.

Adjectives give color to a conversation and ignite emotions. Since film is an emotional medium, adjectives play a major roll in determining what films get made. Films explained without adjectives fall flat and fail to give the audience an emotional ride that films are known to do.

Verbs are the tools needed to adjust the efforts of the actors. Saying, “give me a little bit more,” tells the actor nothing and frustrates her. But, changing up the verb within the direction gives the actor something to play.

For instance, let’s say the director told the actor to “urge” the other character to take a sip from the glass and it didn’t play well. The director would explore a more intense version of the same action. He might tell the actor to “exhort,” “push” or “force” the character to take a sip. Each word brings another level of intensity to the scene.

The opposite is also true. When the director wants the actor to back off of the intensity of the scene, he merely gives direction with gentler verb choices. By choosing various levels of verbs, the actor is able to picture the exact action their character might undertake.

The best news is that verbs are actions that can be played without the actor having to translate what “more” or “less” might equate to. By giving an actor a specific verb to play she can immediately determine what actions her character might take in accomplishing the verb. This frees the actor up from the acting process and allows her to stay in character while playing through a few creative choices.

More and more directors have become writers in recent years because they’ve learned a lot about words in promoting their films and directing their actors. They understand the emotional tone of the film and had to learn the words required to describe it to others. They also know what it takes for an actor to play a roll; so learning numerous levels of verbs became second nature to them.

Once you’ve learned how to use adjectives and verbs, the distance from being a director to becoming a writer/director is very short. The same is true for a good director becoming a great director.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Directors Share Insights in the Human Condition

Book Option to FilmI’ve chatted for a few minutes with numerous directors over the years and I’ve found that the top one percent all think alike. They are captivated by the human condition and explore each character they meet, finding the underlying treasure deep within their being.

This newly exposed treasure always contains a form of entertainment that fascinates. The story that rises from the personal backstory brings understanding to the attentive audience. Regardless of ones personal perspective, empathy is drawn and reveals the human condition.

Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in her book “Upheavals of Thought,” speaks to the intelligence of emotions. She argues how storytelling rewires us. Her argument can be easily extrapolated to explain why motion pictures alter our culture. She further argues that our emotion is the very fabric of what forms our moral philosophies.

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself,” says Nussbaum.

A director who is aware that emotions are not a motivator, but instead part of the character’s reasoning can form arguments that change the way people view themselves. Thereby changing our culture.

I met a lesbian pastor a year ago and we chatted about what drew her to other women. After she gave me the programmed and politically correct answer, I asked the question in a different way. She carefully shared how she was always beaten by males as a small child and comforted by females. Women provided the only form of love she understood.

If I were doing a character study for a film, I’d draw from the pastor’s experiences that shaped how she felt about men and women. Her reasoning was molded by her emotions and the only thing that could change her course in life is the demonstration of a higher love that she does not know exists.

As a director, it’s my job to acknowledge the audiences reasoning on culturally hot topics and introduce them to another perspective. When I demonstrate through a character and his or her circumstances similar ideas and feelings, I hook the person long enough to consider the new perspective demonstrated through the main character changing by the end of the story.

Top directors always talk about the thesis world, antithesis world, and the new thesis world. The thesis world starts the audience where they are socially and politically concerning their reasoning. The antithesis world demonstrates the things that can go wrong with their version of the thesis world. Every thing is turned upside down and looked at in a fresh way. This is followed by the new thesis world where the director leaves the audience with their version of what our culture can look like.

The human condition is where we all must start. It’s where we all live with our flaws and unanswered hopes. We can then explore all the things that could go wrong based on our current worldview. This opens our hearts to better solutions that we consider when presented in love or entertainment. If the information we consider includes a demonstration of what the new perspective proposes, we are ready to embrace it and test it out in our own lives.

The logic is sound and it makes sense why all Hollywood films follow this format. What seems illogical is that faith-based films, which are supposed to have truthful answers for our lives, do not follow this process. In fact, many Christian films do the exact opposite and don’t stand a chance of changing our culture.

Film is one of the greatest art forms ever created and it’s the only one that directly impacts our culture. Some say its because it includes the other art forms within it, but top directors say its because film starts the audience with the reality of the human condition, explores the flawed alternatives and gives rise to a great demonstration of what life can look and feel like when embracing the main character’s choices in the person’s own life.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers