There’s an old joke in Hollywood– “Cleopatra enters, 1/8th of a page.”
That’s it. That’s the whole joke.
If you’re new to the industry, that may not make much sense. First, you have to have seen Cleopatra, or at least be familiar with the massively expensive (and time consuming) entrance Elizabeth Taylor makes in the 1963 film.
Second, you have to understand how films are scheduled. You may have heard that one page of a script is one minute of screentime in the final movie. This is rarely true of any given page, but when you average it out across a hundred or so pages, it tends to work out.
A typical movie is 90-120 minutes, and shoots 30 or 40 days. If you’re good at math, you’ll see that means the production will generally shoot 3-4 pages a day.
But that’s not every day. Some days, you’ll shoot far less, due to things like stunts or effects; other days, you’ll shoot more, to make up for those other days.
Most scenes (in modern movies) are 2-3 minutes, meaning 2-3 pages, but they’re rarely exactly 2 or 3 pages. So, in writing the schedule, ADs and UPMs estimate the length of the scene in eighths of a page. Why eighths? Because it’s easy to look at a scene and say that it’s about half a page. For a shorter scene, it’s simple to say that it’s probably half of a half, or one-quarter; and it’s a logical step to go to a half of a half of a half, i.e. an eighth. It’s much harder to look at a page and guess whether it’s a fifth or three tenths.1
It’s not easy to add fractions in your head when they have different denominators; that’s why all scenes are measured in eighths of a page. A scene isn’t 2 1/2 pages; it’s 2 4/8.
But what does all this have to do with “Cleopatra enters?”
On a typical show, on a typical day, the page count will tell you how much shooting there will be. 8 pages means you’ll be hustling to get it all done in twelve hours;2 3 pages will be normal; 2 pages is kinda light, and you’ll be wondering what to do with all your free time.
But just like the page-per-minute rule works in aggregate but not on any individual page, the page count doesn’t always tell you how difficult filming will be. Something that only takes a sentence to describe (“Cleopatra enters.”) could take weeks to film all of the extras, effects, close-ups, inserts, wide-shots, etc, etc, etc.
If you’re looking at your callsheet, trying to guess how much longer you’re going to film, you need to look further. How many actors are in the scene? Each one probably gets a close-up, and probably a two-shot for each pair. Those permutations increase exponentially: 2 cast members is 1 pair; 3 cast members is 3 pairs; 4 cast members is 6 pairs; 5 cast members is 10 pairs; and so on. That’s a lot of setups, and each setup takes time.3
Another thing to look for is, as mentioned before, stunts and effects. If you’re only going to blow up that hospital once, each and every department is going to work darn hard to ensure that everything is perfect for that one setup. You may end up working the entire day to film “Hospital explodes – 1/8 page.”
There are other factors that you probably can’t glean from the callsheet. The director may want to shoot the entire scene as a oner, which can take some extra time to set up, but also burns through pages in a single shot. There’s a story that the famous opening shot to Touch of Evil was designed in such a way that Orson Welles could say he shot 10 pages before lunch on the first day, and thus, the studio bean counters would relax and not interfere too much with his film.
That didn’t work out so well, but the opening shot is still cool.
All of which is to say, unless you’ve been sitting in on every production meeting, and combed through every storyboard and shotlist, and consulted with the ADs and UPM, and somehow climbed inside the director’s head to see what he really plans on doing, you’re probably not likely to know how long it’ll take to film a scene.
And even then, the actress will show up three hours late and put everyone behind anyway.