HOW DID THE ROLE OF THE SCRIPT SUPERVISOR COME ABOUT?

Most technical roles in the business of film making are relatively easy to understand how they
began and developed into what they are today.  A camera is required, and therefore someone must operate it. Appropriate locations had to be found, built and dressed which led to the development of the art department. Actors need costumes, 
and so someone needs to design, fit and look after them. It's not necessary to list all the roles in the film making process, suffice to say that they all have necessary and specific roles.

But what about the Script Supervisor? The evolution of this complex role, with its various titles, is not quite so easy to explain. Intriguingly, we've found that the role was in fact created out of a specific need. Films quickly began to be made with multiple shots covering the same sequence, and therefore someone had to carefully record information for matching purposes - the script clerk. This was the first title given to what we now know today as the script/continuity supervisor.

 
THE ORIGINS OF THE ROLE OF THE SCRIPT SUPERVISOR

In the 1910's, cinema had begun to mature both as a mode of story telling and as an industry. Studios were expanding and the production process was developing under new 'efficiency practice' techniques. Two things were changing the film making process; highly detailed planning of production and the strict division of labour.

Early film scripts, known as 'scenario scripts', were very loosely defined, often only a few pages long.  In the era of single reel films, some 'scenarios' were merely notes jotted down by the director, and the story would be developed during the shooting process.  

Film grammar soon became more complicated, and the representation of continuous time and space allowed direct cuts between 'unrelated' scenes.

A very early example of a film that uses both wide shots cut with tighter shots, and 'wipes' to take the viewer to a new scene is Mary Jane's Mishap (1903).

 
     

You can view Mary Jane's Mishap in full, (Duration 4 mins 9 secs) courtesy of BFI Films here
Mary Jane's Mishap or, Don't Fool With The Paraffin -  directed by George Albert Smith featuring Laura Bayley. A British short, silent film made in 1903.

 
These new conventions required methods, and scripts became far more than brief scenarios. Because the scripts provided the means to ensure the conventions of continuous action, they soon became known as 'continuities'. These scripts included descriptions of each shot and its adjacent shots.

These continuity scripts assured meeting the standards of a quality film. They also enabled producers to check in advance the quality of the product, and importantly, also enabled them to carefully control expenditure. It was far more cost effective to work out in advance details of each shot required to tell the story, than having crew work it out on the day of shooting, or by filling in the gaps by shooting re-takes. 

By 1914 the detailed continuity script was normal practice, and 'how to' handbooks helped standardise its format. 

 
The key player in this revolutionising process was Thomas Harper Ince. By 1915 Ince was one of the best known producer-directors, and is credited as organising production methods into the discipline still practiced today. Thomas Ince built the first studio of its kind - Inceville in California. Inceville
featured stages, office, labs, dressing rooms, all under one roof.  Sets ranged from a Scottish hamlet to a Japanese village. 

Thomas Harper Ince at Wikipedia

  
Thomas Harper Ince 1982 - 1924 and Inceville/Hartville Studios around 1918

 
The evolution of 'continuities', or the continuity script, is concurrent with a set of profound changes in film style, as filmmakers began to explore scene dissection (ie the division of scenes into multiple shots).

Films began to be made in ways we would recognise today - establishing shots were followed by close-ups, and particular attention had to be made to ensure the action matched. These responsibilities became the domain of a new member to the process - known as the 'script clerk' or 'continuity clerk'. This person would take notes on continuity during shooting 'for future reference when carrying out connecting scenes (shots).' Along with 'continuity notes', this person also checked the properties and costumes and noted every change the director made from the script. 

Before analytical editing was formulated, assembling the film was a matter of joining together the shots and adding the inter-titles. The new shooting techniques that involved cross-cutting, cut-ins, matches etc, meant the editing process became more time consuming, and the 'continuity clerk's' notes became important in the editing process. 

So the role and duties of the script clerk were created out of a direct need to ensure quality and help streamline the production methods. Our job title may have morphed through script clerk, script girl, continuity clerk, continuity to script supervisor but our role today remains fundamentally the same.
 
 
It should be noted that some directors did not adhere strictly to the continuity script methods. D.W. Griffith continued to use the general outline script even when making multi-reel films. Griffith's style of assembling material often overrode subtleties of matching action and continuity. For example, his use of cross cutting produced fewer continuity difficulties. Griffith's 'cutter' also recalled that Griffith shot the wide shots, decided during rushes where he wanted close-ups, and then shot these against a neutral background. So while Thomas Ince was producing detailed shooting scripts and streamlining production methods, D.W. Griffith was making Birth Of A Nation (1914) using a far less detailed 'outline' script.


 
NOTES

A pertinent quotation from Kevin Brownlow's book The Parade's Gone By

Beulah Marie Dix: "It was all very informal in those early days.  Anybody on the set did anything he or she was called upon to do.  I've walked on as an extra, I've tended lights - and anybody not doing anything else wrote down the director's notes on the script.  Script girls were only slowly coming into being.  I also spent a good deal of time in the cutting room."

Beulah Marie Dix (1876 - 1970) American screenwriter and author. She wrote over 55 films between 1917 and 1942.

The informal nature of early film making makes researching a specific subject such as 'the origins of the script supervisor' a far from straight forward task. Do please let us know if you can provide any further information on this subject.

 
Further reading/references:

The Classic Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production,
by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kirstin Thompson
The Parade's Gone By, by Kevin Brownlow
Technique Of The Photoplay, published by The Moving Picture World in 1913
The Continuity Script and the Rationalisation of Film Production - Wisconsin Centre for Film and Theatre Research


 
CONTINUITY ERROR SPOTTING

Far from being a new convention, audiences started spotting 'errors' in films long ago. Back in the 1920's, people were writing in to fan magazines expressing their views on such errors. Fan magazine Photoplay published one column called 'Why Do They Do It'.

 
   
Photoplay covers from 1920 
 

Two examples follow, the first from Photoplay July 1920 and the second August 1920. Both examples very kindly found for us by Kevin Brownlow.

 
  
  

 
Should you wish to peruse these, and other early film magazines in more detail please visit the Media History Digital Library. 

PIONEERS IN THE 'ART OF CONTINUITY'
 
We are currently compiling a list of the early pioneers in the 'art of continuity' but it's proving very hard to find crew lists dating back to the early films. Credits, if present at all, listed the filmmaker, and then later the main actors would get on screen credits. The main purpose of credits during the 1920's was to tell the audience what they were about to watch, and maybe who was in it. More complete end credits didn't become the norm until the 1970's. 

Any information welcomed - contact us.