Similar to a plot map used by archeologists, a storyboard is the best way to illustrate staging positions and camera angles for talent and crew.
Remember the days when you would sit back and enjoy a good comic book? Or maybe now you cruise through the graphic novel section of the local bookstore and dive into the latest edition to see what your favorite superhero is doing. When you scan the pages of the graphic novel or comic, does the action play out in your mind? Now think back to the last novel you read. Can you see the action in your mind as you read, or do you struggle a bit trying to visualize what the black letters on the white page are describing? In the film and video world, the black words on white pages are the script , and the graphic novels are storyboards. In this column, we will take a look at the role of storyboards, how they are used and how you might create usable storyboards for your project.
The Basics of Storyboards
For years, film and video directors have found that, if they draw pictures of the scenes and transitions in their films before shooting them, they and the crew have a better idea of how every shot and sequence will work together. Even the most basic storyboard assists the director in explaining to the crew camera shots, camera and actor movements and transitions between scenes.
The well-planned and -executed storyboard provides a visual reference for the director, cast and crew to use when planning each shot. The storyboard should include visual representations of each scene and even break the scene down into the important dramatic elements. It should also include floor and location diagrams that map out the actor and camera movements. These movements are called blocking. When a director sits down with the script, he visualizes the script to determine the shots he wants to use and how he wants the actors and cameras to move. It is a lot like choreographing a dance between the cameras and actors, and the storyboard gives that dance a visual form.
How Do You Create a Storyboard?
To create a storyboard, all you need is a blank piece of paper, a strong visual sense and a clear idea of what you want to see in every scene. Let's start with the actual storyboard format. The basic storyboard is set up much like a comic book. You'll see a number of panels with images drawn in them, and below each panel is a line of dialog or a description of the audio you hear during the scene if there is no dialog.
The easiest and least expensive way to create a storyboard is to open a blank landscape-oriented document in your word processor and draw six identical horizontal boxes to depict the film or video screen. Below each box, leave space or insert lines for the dialog. Print these out, sharpen a couple of pencils and go to work visualizing your project. You might say, "I can't draw!" No problem. Even stick figures will give you a sense of what is going on in a scene, the size of the shots and the placement of the camera and actors. Yeah, you might take some ribbing from your crew and actors when they see your attempts at drawing, but they will be able to more easily visualize for themselves what you are trying to accomplish.
What Should I Include in a Storyboard?
The more complicated your script, the more action-oriented your scenes and the more sophisticated your blocking, the more panels you will have to include in your storyboard. Basically, there are three primary types of images you will want to include in your storyboards: the action and reaction sequences in the scene, blocking diagrams for cameras and actors and depictions of special transitions or effects you may want to use in your production.
Every scene has some kind of action that you want to shoot, using certain camera shots, angles and movements. When you draw out your action panels, include arrows to show the direction of both actors and cameras. Draw the scenes so that the crew knows what type of camera angle and framing you want. Make sure you include every major dramatic point in the scene, so there is little question of where the scene is going and how you visualize its production.
The blocking diagrams are easy to create and invaluable to your cast and crew. Draw a floor plan for the location and include with it the position of all furniture, cameras and cast members. Use arrows to show movement of the cameras and cast with numbers indicating first, second and even third positions. Color-coordinate the arrows and cameras to make the scenes easier to read. If you really want to be helpful to your crew, you might also work with your Director of Photography to determine light placement, and draw lights into the diagram. Create a drawing for each camera setup, so that you can easily see how everything will be placed for shooting your master shots, one and two shots and any pickups you may need.
The final type of panel includes drawings that depict transitions other than cuts, as well as any special effect you may want to throw into the project. If you are doing a special wipe, draw a panel that shows the placement of the wipe halfway through the transition. If using a special effect, provide your cast and crew a detailed illustration that visually explains the effect. If you plan to do any chromakey work or perhaps have the budget to do computer-generated images, it is essential to provide specific action-sequence storyboards, so that the cast and crew can visualize what they will not be seeing as they work through the scene.
Do I Have to Do the Drawings?
Not necessarily. Just because you are a director doesn't mean you can draw. Storyboarding can be a true art form, so if your idea of drawing is the basic stick figure, you may want to reach out for some help. If you have access to art students who work fast and think visually, you could save yourself a lot of time and trouble by having them create the storyboards under your direction. Walk them through the script and explain what you want, then, while they get to work drawing, you can begin working on the huge to-do list every director lives with.
Storyboard programs are easier than creating the storyboards from scratch. Storyboard Tools is free shareware you can download from myzips.com. If you have a few pennies to rub together, you may want to download Springboard for a small registration fee. This Windows-based software is very basic and uses stick figures to help visualize your scenes.
If your budget can be counted in hundreds, not pennies, you might want to check out storyboarding software such as Toon Boom Animation's Storyboard or Storyboard Pro; Power Production Software's Storyboard Quick, Storyboard Artist or Storyboard Artist Studio; or perhaps Frame Forge 3D Studio 2. The commercial storyboarding software provides a variety of templates with scenery, characters and floor diagrams for blocking cameras and actors. The higher the cost, the more sophisticated the software, to the point of actually providing specific camera angles, such as high and low angles, shot sizes, camera movements and three-dimensional renderings. For big projects with complicated scenes, these software storyboarding programs pay for themselves in time saved when you are preparing your cast and crew for the day's shoot.
Storyboarding is one of those often-overlooked pieces in the pre-production process. Walking your cast and crew through a storyboard is a much more efficient use of your time than trying to describe the next setup and blocking scheme while drawing your ideas in the dirt or on the back of the script. Pre-production planning is essential; the more planning you do before the shoot, the less time and effort you will have to spend during the shoot. The time a storyboard saves will be time you can spend getting those special shots and making sure you get the best possible performance from your cast and crew. Having a storyboard gives your cast and crew the information they need to create the images you want for your project. Good planning and complete and thorough storyboards will go a long way in helping you direct the kind of project you will be glad to show the world.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.