Timing your movie…

A big question when you write a scenario is: how do you time your movie?

CIMA museum's clock, by Rama (CC by-sa)
CIMA museum’s clock, by Rama (CC by-sa 2.0).

From the scenario

You can already do so from your written script. It is usually admitted that 1 page is roughly equivalent to 1 minute of movie. Of course to reach such a standard, you have to format your file appropriately. I have searched the web to find what were these format rules. What I gathered:

Format

  • Pages are A4.
  • Font is 12-point Courier.
  • Margins are 2.5 cm on every side but the left margin which is 3.5 cm.
  • Add 5,5 cm of margin before speaker names in dialogues.
  • Add 2,5 cm of margin before actual dialogue.
  • No justification (left-align).
  • No line indentation at start of paragraphs.

I won’t list more because there are dozen of resources out there which does it in details, with sometimes even examples. For instance, this page was helpful and for French-speaking reader, this one also (and it uses international metric system rather than imperial units), or even Wikipedia.
It would seem that the whole point of all these rules is to have a script with the less possible randomness. A movie script is not meant to be beautiful as an object, but to be as square as possible. Thus exits any kind of justification (which stretches or compresses spaces), as well as any line indentation (which does not happen every line) because they don’t have a behavior set in stone. They were made only so that your document “looks nice” which a script-writer cares less than in the end than being able to say how long will the movie last by just counting the pages.

Free Fonts

Some people may have noted that 12-point Courier is a Microsoft fonts. For GNU/Linux users out there, you can get these with a package called msttcorefonts. On Debian, or Ubuntu, the real package is “ttf-mscorefonts-installer” and it does not look like it is in Fedora repositories. That’s ok because I really don’t care. I use personally Liberation Mono (Liberation is a font family created by RedHat in 2007, under a Free license). FreeMono is also another alternative, but the Liberation fonts work well for me.

You may have noticed that these are all monospace fonts, which means that every character occupy the same horizontal space, i.e. ‘i’ and ‘W’ for instance uses up the same width (adding spaces around the ‘i’ for instance), which opposes to proportional fonts (more common on the web). Once again, proportional fonts are meant to be pretty whereas monospace fonts are meant to be consistent. It all comes back to consistent text-to-timing conversion.
Not sure why Courier ever became a standard in script-writing, but I don’t think that any other font would be much of a problem. Just use any metrically-compatible monospace font.

Side note: I read 3 scenarios in the last year (other than mine) and none of them were using Courier, nor actually most of the rules here. So really I am not sure how much this rule is enforced, at least in France. Maybe in other countries, this is more an hard-on rule?

Writing with LibreOffice

Right now, I simply write with LibreOffice. Now I am not going to make a tutorial about using LibreOffice, because this will diverge too much but my one advice is: use styles! Do not “hardcode” text formatting: don’t increase indents manually, don’t use bold, nor underline your titles…
Instead create styles for “Text body” (default texts), “Dialogue speaker”, “Dialogue”, “Scene title”… Then save a template and reuse it every time you write a new scenario.

While writing this post and looking for reference, I read weird stuff like “use a dedicated software because you don’t want scene titles ending a page”. Seriously? Of course, if you make scene titles by just making your text bold, that happens. But if you use styles, this won’t (option “Keep with next paragraph” in “Text flow” tab which is a default for any Header style). So once again, use styles.

Note: dedicated software are much more than just this basic issue, and they would have a lot more features making a scenarist life easier. I was also planning on developing such a software myself, so clearly I’m not telling you not to use one! I’m just saying that for now, if you can’t afford a dedicated software, LibreOffice is just fine, and styling issues like “scenes titles should not end a page” are just lack of knowledge on how to properly use a word processing software.

So that’s it? I just follow these rules and I get my timing?

Of course, real life hits back. First of all, every language may be more or less verbose. For instance German and French are more verbose than English, which in turn is more than Japanese. So using the same formatting, your page in French would be less than a minute on screen whereas a page in Japanese would be longer than a minute.

There is also the writer’s style. Not everyone writes as concisely and you may write the same scenario with a different timing than your colleague.

As a consequence, writers evaluate their scripts. You can try to act them out for instance. Try to see how long your text really lasts. And then I guess, you can either create a custom text-to-length conversion or adapt the text formatting to end up with the “1 page = 1 minute” approximation. If your scripts are usually going faster, then you need more text in one page. Make smaller margins or use a smaller font maybe?

Of course, it may also be that you use a much too verbose style. A scenario is not a novel: you should not try to make a beautiful text with carefully crafted metaphors and imaging. You are writing a text for actors to read and understand (and in our case, for painters and animators to draw).

ZeMarmot’s case

Moreover the 1 min = 1 page rule is not consistent in the same script either: a page with no dialogue could last several minutes (descriptions and actions are much more condensed than dialogues) whereas a page with only dialogue could be worth a few seconds of screen. But that’s ok, since this is all about average. The timing from scenario is not meant to be perfect. It gives us an approximation.

Yet ZeMarmot is particular since we have no dialogue at all. So are we going to have only 5-minute pages? That was a big question, especially since this is my first scenario. Aryeom helped a lot with her animation experience, and we tried to time several scenes by imagining them or acting them out. This is a good example which shows that no rule is ever made to be universal. And in our case, it took a longer time to accurately calibrate our own page-time rule.

Animatics

This is more animation-specifics: the next step after storyboarding (or before more accurate storyboarding starts) is creating an animatic, which is basically compiling all the storyboard’s images into a single video. From there, we can have a full video, and we will try to time each “image”. Should this action be faster or last longer? This requires some imagination since we may end up with some images lasting a few seconds and we have to imagine all in-between images to get the full idea. But in the end, this is the ultimate timing. We are able to tell quite accurately how long the movie will last once we agree on an animatic.

Should timing lead the writer?

The big question: should the timing lead us? You can get a different timing than you expect, and there are 2 cases: longer or shorter.

The shorter one is easy. Unless you are really really too short (and you don’t qualify anymore as a feature-length for instance), I don’t think it is a problem to have a shorter-than-average movie. I’d prefer 100 times a short but well timed and interesting movie than a boring long movie.

Longer is more difficult because the trend nowadays seem to have longer and longer movies. Now 2h30, sometimes up to 3h, seems to be a standard for big movies (and they manage to lengthen them in the “director cut” edition!). I have seen several movies these last years which were long and boring. I am not even talking of contemplative art movie, but about hard action-packed movies. No, superhero battling for 3 hours, this is just too much.
So my advice if your movie is longer than expected, ask yourself: is it really necessary? Won’t it be boring? Of course, I am not the one to make the rule. If you work in Hollywood, well first you probably don’t read me, and second you don’t care whatever I say. You will make a 2h30 movie and people will go and watch it anyway. Why not. I’m just saying this as a viewer. And since I think this is really not enjoyable, I don’t want to have our own viewer experience be boring (well at least by movie length!).

And so that’s it for my small insight about timing a movie. Of course, as I already told, I am mostly a beginner on the topic. Everything I say here is a mix of my searches these last months, my own experiments, Aryeom’s experience… So don’t take my word as is, and don’t hesitate to react in comments if you have better knowledge or just ideas on the topic.

By the way: ZeMarmot‘s pilote (not the finale movie) has been timed to be about 8 minutes long. 🙂

Reminder: if you want to support our animation film, made with Free
Software, for which we also contribute back a lot of code, and
released under Creative Commons by-sa 4.0 international, you can
support it in USD on Patreon or in EUR on Tipeee.

5 Replies to “Timing your movie…”

  1. Courier is not a Microsoft font: Microsoft has instead developed (actually, paid Monotype to do it) a font inspired by Courier and using the similar metrics and called it… “Courier New”. It’s quite similar to how “Arial” font is basically a re-implementation of “Helvetica”.

    If you want an open-source Courier- alternative, take a look at Nimbus Mono (part of URW family of fonts, usually distributed in Ghostscript fonts packages like “gs-fonts” and similar).

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