Pre Production Storyboarding

What is a storyboard? The fundamentals of storyboarding

Find out which renowned directors love to use storyboards and who doesn’t like to use a storyboard. How to use storyboarding for pre-production planning, and the essential guide for creating one.

For short indie films or Hollywood blockbusters, storyboarding is a well-known tool in the movie industry. It is particularly helpful for complex stories in fantasy, action, or adventure genres, and crucial for animated films.

Whether you choose to use this method of planning for your on-screen visuals or not, it’s worth testing the basics to see if it’s for you.

What is a storyboard?

In the words of Sir Ridley Scott (Alien, Bladerunner), a storyboard is “rather like a sophisticated comic strip.” Drawings in a series of boxes from left-to-right represent each camera shot in an entire film. This method of planning can help visualise each scene before filming begins and is used to help the transition from script to the big screen.

Who creates a storyboard? 

Commonly, a director will at least create rough sketches, known as thumbnails. For some filmmakers, this is as far as their storyboarding goes, choosing to fill in the blanks on-set using inspiration on the day of shooting.

Other directors may use a storyboard artist to complete a detailed version of their thumbnails. A cinematographer or production designer may also be involved during this stage. Directors may prefer a storyboard artist if they aren’t able to draw, to save on time, or for their artistic ideas and input. 

Read More: How to become a film director

Why use a storyboard?

Developing a storyboard can not only help a filmmaker visualise the movie in preparation for shooting scenes but also help the film crew understand their ideas.

Films that involve many special effects, CGI, elaborate fight or action scenes, for example, may benefit from a storyboard to make it clear how the shot will be captured. Everyone has their way of doing things, and using a storyboard is not a method that all filmmakers choose to use.

Read More:  Shot List: What is a shot list? The ultimate shot list guide!

A director’s personal choice

Famed-directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen swear by storyboarding, whereas Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood do not.

Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park) quoted in 1978 that he spends six-months per film working through a storyboard to conceive a movie. He explains, “Six months to sit with a sketch artist and just draw pictures and throw them away. Maybe shoot some of these, maybe not.”

He goes on to admit he can’t draw but still roughs-out early thumbnails. “I do most of the original sketches myself,” he says, “I do stick figures and things, I can do perspectives, I can at least put depth in drawings, but I can’t draw. I’ll give the sketch artist an idea of what I want.”

Stick figures are also the preferred style for Martin Scorsese. The director drew his own storyboard for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and keeps his drawings very simple to make room for creativity when shooting begins.

He says in an interview that drawing stick figures and arrows to visualise a scene is “the most essential process of making a film.” He goes on, “Even if I don’t use or utilise all those shots, because it’s a process that I have interpreted the picture, in a way, in my head and I know how to see it.

Part of that is security when you go on a set fairly secure, I feel that I can tell people what I want.” He mentions that his way of visualising is not the same method as other directors, “Particularly in low-budget filmmaking, a lot of people don’t use storyboards or drawings or notes.

They have the gift of working it out on the spot. For me, I don’t want the plug to be pulled in any way, so at least I know I had to get certain shots in order to tell a story.”

Michael Chapman, Scorsese’s cinematographer, comments that he loathes storyboards. “I’ve never liked them,” he says. “I think that if they are at all carefully done they sap energy from the the actual shooting.”

He does, however, appreciate Scorsese’s style of simple storyboards. He says of Scorsese, “Marty’s storyboards are an exception.

His were very deliberately just diagrams, stick figures, and arrows… They were simply diagrams of energy. Other storyboards are usually… comic books… so amazing that you don’t need to do the movie.”

In an interview with Cinescape, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django) mentions that he doesn’t storyboard. He didn’t even storyboard the 10-minute anime scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1. He says, “I don’t do storyboards, I just wrote this intense script that described it.” 

It’s difficult to imagine, with his heavy and non-linear films, that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) is another name that doesn’t use storyboards or shot lists. Instead, he uses his memory alone.

When asked in a DGA interview how he keeps track of everything, he says “In my head. I’ve always been able to visualise what I want mentally, and I can lie there at night and cut the film in my head, one shot at a time, all the way through the whole thing.”

Clint Eastwood (Changeling, Mystic River) only uses storyboards for scenes with special effects. He doesn’t prepare shot lists either. He says in a 2003 interview, “It evolves. It’s like clay. If you’re locked into something, if it has to be an exact duplicate of the mould that you had in your brain and you can’t deviate from it, then you’re going to be locked in. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable.”

German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has created feature films and documentaries, calls storyboards “an instrument of the cowards.” He explains in an interview with Collider, “You’re delegated to a cookbook recipe and you slavishly and pedantically rely on it while you’re shooting and you’re not relying on your creative instincts and you’re not relying on something which brings life into movies and excitement into it.”

To put it into perspective, here’s a list of the most award-winning directors and whether they use storyboarding as a technique. Steven Spielberg (13 Oscars), James Cameron (21 Oscars), Martin Scorsese (20 Oscars), Peter Jackson (20 Oscars), and Sam Mendes (12 Oscars) all use storyboards. Clint Eastwood (13 Oscars) doesn’t storyboard.

You may also enjoy: Best Storyboarding Software and Storyboarding Apps of 2021

Do I need to learn how to storyboard? 

Ultimately, it’s worth learning the basics and how to create one. In the end, if storyboarding helps you create Oscar-winning movies, do it! Find the method that works for you, either drafting simple sketches or creating beautifully detailed storyboards.

Working on movies with huge production and teams behind them, such as The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings, preparation is absolutely key. Peter Jackson said he was “winging it” on The Hobbit after taking the director’s post from Guillermo del Toro, who suddenly quit.

With production being behind, Jackson had no time to prepare, and it became so stressful that he became ill and took a six-week break. He commented, “If I was a director who hadn’t had that 25 years of experience doing this in the past, it just would have been almost impossible.”

How to create a storyboard

Creating a storyboard is something all filmmakers have to do. Let’s have a look at the simple steps you take to create a storyboard for your film.

Show the sequence

The first step is to read the script. Start getting ideas, and if you aren’t the director, try and get into the director’s head. Begin by drawing a rough draft of your storyboard, known as thumbnails.  Sketch out each camera shot in a rectangle box.

These are called panels, and represent what the camera will see. Draw the basic composition of your subjects with simple shapes and lines without worrying about the tiny details of your illustrations. You just want to get the main ideas down. Much like a comic, these panels are read left to right.

Arrows and movement

Arrows are important to show how you want your subjects and the camera to move for each shot. Having said that, some storyboards for movies such as Jaws didn’t include many arrows at all, so don’t worry too much about getting too technical and overwhelming each panel with too much information.

Jaws Storyboard
No arrows were used in this sequence for the Jaws storyboard.

To show a subject is moving to the left of the camera, draw a simple arrow within the panel, pointing from the subject towards the left. This could apply to people or things (a door, a glass, a gun).

An arrow outside the panel implies camera movement. For example, an arrow in each corner, all pointing inwards, means the shot is zooming-in. All four arrows pointing out mean the shot is zooming-out. A pan is shown by drawing an arrow to the side of the panel.

To show a dolly, draw an arrow moving from outside the panel, inside. To get very detailed, you can draw two boxes – the beginning of your dolly, to what the camera will see when the dolly finishes. Similarly, for a zoom shot, you can draw a box within your panel to show where the zoom will finish.

For example, to show a box around the eyes of a character in a panel tells us that the zoom will finish on a close-up of the eyes. 

Add brief notes

Finally, write short notes below each panel to clearly describe in a few words what is happening for both the subject and the camera movement.

Formatting tips

Here are a few tips to help you when formatting your storyboard.

Panels 

The panels represent what the camera will see, so choose a panel shape that will match the shooting/aspect ratio. 

Composition

Deciding where to put the subject in your panel forms the composition in your shot. If the subject is small, they are in a wider shot. If the shot is of the subject’s face, it’s a close-up.

Arrows

Try not to crowd each panel with too many arrows, don’t forget you can provide additional details in the notes section below each drawing. 

Storyboard examples

Here is a collection of some famous, successful films to give you an idea of how they were drafted into a compelling storyboard.

Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull)

Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull)

Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island)

Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island)
Storyboard artist, Karl Shelfelman

Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park)

Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park)
Storyboard artist, David Lowery

George Lucas (Original Star Wars Trilogy)

George Lucas (Original Star Wars Trilogy)
Storyboard artist, Joe Johnston

We hope this article on “What is a storyboard? The fundamentals of storyboarding” was helpful to you. Please do comment on what you thought of this article and scroll below for some more filmmaking resources and tutorials.

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