Breaking down the breakdown with 1st AD Aija Ronkainen

This blog is different than before, because here I am not alone. I have my good friend and colleague Aija with me and this is a dialogue between us. We are talking about breakdown, scheduling and Assistant Directors duties. Welcome!

Julia: Hi Aija, please introduce yourself to our readers!

Aija: Hello everyone, my name is Aija and I’ve been working in the Assistant Directing department for four years now. Started off as a 3rd AD (as one usually does) in the feature film Heavy Trip in 20. Since then I have worked on many productions as a 3rd or 2nd AD making call sheets, casting extras and directing them on set. In 2019 I moved up for the position of 1st AD, and I have been working on that position since then.

(If you wanna read more about these positions Aija was talking about, here are two good links for you: link 1 or link2).

Julia: Okey, let’s dive into the subject of the day right away shall we! We are here because in one of my blogs earlier last year (link) I was talking about breakdown as a tool in budgeting during pre production. Can you tell me first what is a breakdown and how do you do it?

Aija: A breakdown means tagging various “elements” from the scenes of the script, to better understand its shooting requirements. Much like when you do a breakdown as a production manager. You write down where the scene is set, interior or exterior, who is in the scene suchs as roles, extras, animals, vehicles, props and whatever is mentioned in the script.

Julia: So where does one start?

Aija: I simply read the script first. First read is usually just a casual read to get into the story. After this I start reading the script scene by scene and writing down all the necessary elements, you also need to think ahead. For example if a scene possibly requires special equipment you can write it down in your breakdown.

All of the elements are updated with HOD:s in different meetings. And you will gather more and more knowledge on your breakdown from these meetings. You can make breakdown notes however you like, to the side of the script, on a notebook or more commonly to a scheduling program such as Movie Magic Scheduling. (And this is a great  bridge to your next question!)

Julia: Thank you Aija! This actually was a great bridge! It is almost like you knew, what I was gonna ask! (Laughter). Please Aija, tell me, what is Movie Magic Scheduling?

Aija: Movie Magic Scheduling is a breakdown and scheduling program commonly used by Production Managers and Assistant Directors around the world. It makes it easy to break the scenes from the script down elements, and or change any of the said elements. MMS also makes it possible to name your own elements, if your project needs a specific element that is not listed in the elements as a default. After you have done the breakdown it is time to start making drafts of the shooting schedule.

Julia: Again, amazing bridge.

Aija: Thank you.

Julia: What is a shooting schedule and how do you do it?

Aija: A shooting schedule is simply a day by day schedule on all the scenes and in what order they are to be shot.

When you start making a draft you need to know: Do you shoot during spring, summer, autumn or winter? Or the planned dates, (you get this information from Production) how many days they have budgeted, what kind of hours will the team be working, and all the schedule blocks there might be with actors, locations, equipment and anything you need to shoot. After I have all the information needed I start putting different scenes together. I might try to do combinations on where the shoot is happening, which actors are needed and available, are we doing night shoot or day shoot. And all the time keeping in mind that you don’t overbook any days. Making a schedule is not making a ”best case scenario”, but assessing what is realistic in the time frame you have. After the 1st draft is done, it will be commented on by the HOD:s (I believe you explained this in your earlier blog? Julia: Yes, I did) It’s important to remember that making the schedule is a conversation, and anything can (and most likely will) change.

Julia: Let’s get a little deeper: what kind of information is required from 1st AD?

Aija: You provide the shooting schedule and different types of breakdowns from the shooting schedule to the crew. Usually a breakdown sheet, so everyone can see what elements are needed for each of the scenes, this is handed out in a shooting schedule order and also in a chronological order, meaning that the scenes are in a numerical order.

Also something common is the main cast Days out of Days document, this shows how many days each role has. You can also create specific reports that include specific actors’ days and scenes on those days, how many extras do you have planned on what days, basically all the info you provide is different types of ”what elements are needed on what time?”. This gives other departments information and preparation time.

Julia: In general, what kind of data is possible to get out of MMS?

A screenshot from Movie Magic Scheduling

Aija: I think there is almost no limit to the information you can get out of MMS. Since it has so many modification features. But like in the earlier answer you can get information for the prop master on what props are needed on what date, if there is a spesific costume or a large costume change, you can provide the info on how this is divided on the shooting schedule. You can get reports out for the actors on what scenes they have on specific dates, or what scenes are all shot in the same location. I feel like I could answer this, with the ”The limit does not exsist” screen shot from the classic film ”Mean Girls” (link).

Julia: The Scheduling does sound a good tool for both Production and AD-departments. Does everyone use Movie Magic Scheduling?

Aija: Well pretty much everyone I know, but it is not the only programme there is. I’ve used a different type of program callled Yamdu. It is an online platform, which you can use throughout the production. And I felt it would be more useful to the Production team than Assistant directors. Yamdu did have a great feature on creating call sheets, but I did not use it. But I would be interested in learning more about Yamdu.I’ve also heard great things about Fuzzlecheck. It’s a German breakdown and scheduling programme that has online features that makes it possible for multiple users to use in a cloud. Something that MMS does not have. I’m planning on learning how to use Fuzzlecheck next. 

Julia: The Fuzzlecheck features sound interesting! I have to say that one reason Movie Magic Scheduling is such a good software is that it has a sister: Movie Magic Budgeting and as the two softwares are programmed to work together, I wouldn’t dream of using another software for scheduling in the same production were you are using Budgeting. But let’s not go there. Let’s go deeper into AD’s work.

You have worked for tv series and now you are working in your first feature right? Is there a difference between them from 1st Assistant Director point of view?

Aija: Yes, I have mainly worked with tv- series and I’m currently working on my first feature film.

There is a slight difference on how many pages (how many scenes) are scheduled on one day. On a feature film the daily pace could be easier. But it all depends also on the budget. All and all, any production is about communication and distributing information, so that does not change whether you are working on a film, a tv series, commercial or a short film.

Julia: Yes, same same but different! I can say from production side that the difference is quite huge. For series especially long – 8 episodes, 42-50 minute each – the amount of shooting days is of course larger than normal feature in Finland but also all of the production is in another level. But you are right, the basic work stays the same, the volume only changes.

Okey, but let’s move on to next topic that interests me. What happens, if something changes? For example the producers cuts one shooting day due to budget reasons?

Aija: Like I said earlier, things can and will most likely change on the schedule. Usually this means moving different scenes around, making some days tighter, cutting down elements on the scenes. There are quite a lot of options, you can also move some scenes to different locations, so they would be possible to shoot on the same day as something else, it is also possible to look for scenes from the script that could be cut. If and when something changes you can make different options for the new schedule. The further you are in a project, the harder it might be to change things, but nothing seems to be impossible in our industry. 

Julia: What means locking the schedule?

Aija: Locking the schedule means that no major changes will be done from that point on to the shooting schedule. Locations, role days, travel days, everything is locked down. This makes it easier for everyone to lock down their contracts, and everything they need to make the project happen. 

Julia: Locking the schedule is very important event for production too. For us it means, we can move forward with contracts with locations for example. Every department can work more fluently with the locked schedule, ’cause then we know we need the rented sofas from Monday 5th to Friday 9th – for example.

Moving on! This is a question from a follower of mine. When I told that this kind of blog post is coming where I interview Aija and talk about breakdown, I got this question:

Does everything have to come from the script?

Aija: Everything does not have to come from the script, and everything can’t come from the script. Even though the script is our ”Bible” and is to be respected, there usually are not many scripts that say that there are 25 extras on this scene, or this will be shot from a dolly track. Lot’s of different information comes from heads of departments.

Julia: Production wants to lean on to the script though as much as possible. If it doesn’t say in the script there are people passing by, there will be no extras in that scene. (Laughter). Of course, everything can be discussed. Which brings me to my next question:

What is a breakdown meeting?

Aija: Breakdown meeting is a meeting with the heads of the departments, where you go through the whole script, scene by scene and list down all the elements. From this meeting you can gather information that is not listed on the script. You get detailed information on how a scene is planned to be shot, so this means your breakdown gets an update, it also brings everyone to the same page, on the artistic and practical direction the project is going. This usually takes a lot of time, but is necessary and wise to go through.

Julia: Yes, these breakdown meetings are super important to every department! It is really urgent to have someone from each department present. When we go scene by scene it is also really good check list to go through that everything is in order. These meetings usually take place after tech recce but enough time before shootings start so that every department has enough time to react and execute all the necessary things before the shoot.

Okey, we have come to the end of our great dialogue about breakdowns. How do you feel Aija, want to say few words? It’s an open mic now!

Aija: Thank you Julia for asking me to join you to your blog this time. It was fun getting a change to breakdown (pun intended) my work. I think it is a commonly known fact, that teaching others what you do is a great learning experience. I recommend anyone to try it, even for just themselves! 

Julia: Thank you Aija for sharing your valuable time with me and letting us have a peek into your work!

And thanks to you readers out there! Hopefully you enjoyed this as much as we did! If you liked this kind of blog and there is some specific person or profession you would like to read about, please do not hesitate to through me a comment or DM me on Instagram.

Stay safe!



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