How to Storyboard for Film: An Intro to Storyboarding for New Filmmakers - Careers in Film
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Knowing how to storyboard is a key skill to have as a filmmaker—even if you don’t think of yourself as someone with drawing ability.

Especially as a Director, Cinematographer, or another creative directly involved with how a film is shot, mastering the storyboarding process will only help you become a more valued member of your filmmaking team.

But not sure where to start or what a storyboard even is? That’s what we’re here for!

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

What Is a Storyboard?

Before you learn how to storyboard, you have to know what it is.

In short, a storyboard is a tool crafted during the pre-production process that provides a visual representation through a series of panels of what is taking place in a film1. These panels typically include a sketched depiction of what would be seen on screen, as well as the dialogue, camera direction, and other details that help to flesh out what is being seen and heard.

If it’s difficult to picture what exactly that would look like, a storyboard is in many ways very similar to a comic book strip!

Why Are Storyboards Part of the Filmmaking Process?

Between script and screen are many steps in-between. To be sure, filmmaking is a creative process, but it also requires considerable preparation and planning2.

Consider the number of locations used for a film or the number of shots for each scene. These are just two facets of filmmaking that make storyboards a vital part of it.

For one, everyone involved with how a film will be shot needs to be on the same page about how exactly it is going to look. What is read in a script could be interpreted in a number of ways, and how a Director envisions that script might be very different from how the Cinematographer is imagining it.

Storyboards give filmmakers the opportunity to put to paper–or computer screen–exactly how each scene will look to avoid later confusion and frustration.

Two, storyboards are central to keeping a film production on time and budget, which is why there’s no such thing as too much planning! While a Director or Cinematographer might change their mind once on set about how a certain sequence is to be shot, overall a storyboard and accompanying shot list are adhered to very closely because it’s all about staying on schedule.

Without a storyboard to help lead the way, a film set can easily and quickly devolve into chaos, as it would mean those individuals deciding then and there what to do. Not only would that greatly slow down the filmmaking process, but also it would almost certainly result in time overages and additional expense.

What Should Be Included in a Storyboard?

We’ve briefly mentioned some of the elements that are typically part of how to storyboard, but below is a more detailed breakdown of these elements and why they’re so important to both the storyboarding and filmmaking process:

Images

Sounds simple enough, but we can’t overstate how important it is to make sure everything pertinent to a given shot or scene is shown in a storyboard panel. That means both the characters in it and the action taking place.

Dialogue

Not all spoken words in a film are dialogue. It could be narration as well. No matter the case, each storyboard panel should include what is being said in that particular shot.

Effects

It’s possible that a given shot is rather straightforward… Let’s say it’s a single character sitting in a chair and talking to the camera. But even for a shot that simple, details are needed.

What’s the angle of the camera on that character? Is it a close-up or long shot? Will the camera be moving during the shot? Are there any sounds or special effects occurring during that shot? Any pertinent effect, including camera angle, camera movement, type of shot, sounds, and special effects should be included for each storyboard panel.

Shot Number

Again, sounds easy. But a key component of how to storyboard is including the order of each shot in a given sequence that will be eventually filmed.

What Are Some Examples of Storyboards?

All right, we just finished explaining what a storyboard should include, so let’s take a look at some examples and how they compare to the finished films3!

First up, the film that won the 1994 Best Picture at the Academy Awards… Forrest Gump!

And here’s how the final film sequence turned out…

Next up, the 1981 Best Picture nominee Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark!

And here’s how that actual sequence turned out…

And finally, we have the 2007 Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood!

Watch the video below to see how this sequence turned out…

Truth be told, some storyboards don’t always include every detail that they should–we’re looking at you, Steven Spielberg! But that doesn’t mean you should follow suit.

As you can see, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is big on visual details, but it doesn’t necessarily have all the camera particulars you would expect. It also happens to be 40 years old at this point and filmmaking has only become more sophisticated since then, making how to storyboard properly even more crucial to successful film production.

When it comes to visual details, it’s ultimately at the discretion of the Director, Cinematographer, or whoever else might be the top person responsible for how the film will be shot to decide just how detailed they want the storyboards to be. Some Directors or DPs keep the visuals fairly sparse to keep the focus on the essentials that need to be captured.

Other creatives love detail because it can help other central figures on a film like the Production Designer or Costume Designer get a feel for how their respective contributions to the film should look.

What Are the Steps to Creating a Storyboard?

Now it’s time to finally try your hand at how to storyboard4. While it’s not necessary anymore to complete the process by hand–and we’ll discuss software options in just a minute–using the tried and true method of sketching out panels can be immensely helpful in understanding storyboarding even if you ultimately decide to use a computer program instead.

1. Draw your panels

Let’s begin with the most fundamental part of how to storyboard: just getting those panels on paper. It’s not necessary to start with great detail, and given that you will almost certainly be making changes, create your storyboard with a pencil to allow for corrections. Again, you don’t have to be an artist! Don’t get hung up on it looking perfect in lieu of conveying needed information from each panel.

2. Go through the editing process

Completed your initial storyboard? Great! Now you’re at the point where you can go back into it to more clearly define exactly what you envision each panel to have.

Some elements to check off… Are all relevant characters included? Is the action explicit in each panel? If someone else was looking at your storyboard, would the images in it be clear even without knowledge of what’s happening in the sequence?

3. Add pertinent details

Before your storyboard is done, don’t forget all those effects we mentioned earlier. Even if you drew only a character’s eye for a particular panel, which would probably indicate an extreme closeup, be sure to note that shot type for it. Also include any camera movement, camera angles, sounds, dialogue, or special effects.

What Comes First: Storyboard or Shot List?

Trick question! The answer is that you frequently are doing both at the same time and here’s why… Each tool helps to inform the other. As the Director or Cinematographer develops a storyboard, it becomes more and more clear what shots can be filmed together.

That being said, as we’ve already noted, time and expense are a very real part of the filmmaking process. For that reason, when you’re putting together your shot list, you may soon realize that you don’t have either the schedule flexibility or financial resources to include all the shots represented in your storyboard. That means going back to your storyboard and editing it so that you can get more shots done within a given period of time and on budget.

How Do You Make a Storyboard If You Can’t Draw?

We’ve tried to be reassuring that innate drawing skill isn’t necessary when learning how to storyboard. Given how important this tool can be during the pre-production phase of filmmaking, though, should you still be worried?

Professional skill really, truly isn’t required. We understand that some filmmakers might still be hung up on the fact that they’re not natural artists. Plus, if you’re not a pro, you likely don’t want to show your stick figures to everyone else on your filmmaking team.

But plenty of filmmakers have been able to make great movies without being professional artists. The key goal is just clearly conveying what is happening in each storyboard panel. If you can still accomplish that, that’s all that matters.

Online software is available. Once upon a time, Screenwriters had to write on paper tablets or a typewriter. Now there’s a host of screenwriting software programs available to them that greatly improve the writing process. The same can be said for storyboarding! If doing storyboards on paper isn’t right for you, the great thing is that you don’t have to!

Below is a breakdown of some storyboard software options currently available:

Boords

Boords has a free trial program that is particularly useful for storyboarding teams.

Boords

Canva

Canva is a free, web-based program that’s also great for storyboard collaboration.

Canva

FrameForge

A program compatible with both Mac and Windows that offers a free 14-day trial. If you decide to purchase, you can do so via a full purchase or subscription.

FrameForge

Make Storyboard

Another collaboration-friendly program that provides one storyboard for free. Users can then decide between its professional and team subscription options.

Make Storyboard

Storyboarder

Another free program that both Mac and Windows users can download.

Storyboarder

Storyboard Fountain

An open-source, free program, Storyboard Fountain is a great option for Mac-based Writers who want to storyboard off their scripts.

Storyboard Fountain

Storyboard Quick

Storyboard Quick is a program that gives you two purchase options. You can either buy it via a subscription that allows you to get all future updates for free, or you can make a one-time purchase that does not include the freebie update option.

Storyboard Quick

Storyboard That

Like FrameForge, Storyboard That offers a 14-day free trial for prospective users. From there on out, it’s a subscription service that can be purchased on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis.

Storyboard That

StudioBinder

StudioBinder is a completely free service that allows users to create their storyboards online. And if you want to try hand-drawing your storyboards at some point, it also has templates for download.

StudioBinder

Toon Boom Storyboard Pro

Have a particular interest in animation? Then Toon Boom Storyboard Pro might be the perfect program for you! You can take advantage of its 21-day free trial, and if you decide to purchase it, you can sign up for either an annual or monthly subscription or a permanent license.

Toon Boom Storyboard Pro

You Can Bring on a Storyboard Artist

Maybe you’re not interested in storyboarding by yourself, but you still like that hand-drawn aesthetic. If it’s within your filmmaking budget, why not hire a dedicated Storyboard Artist for your needs?

Yes, storyboard pros do exist. From Saul Bass who worked with Alfred Hitchcock to J. Todd Anderson who has worked with the Coen brothers and beyond, there are many, many talented Storyboard Artists who can bring your vision to life5.

And if you’ve decided on a storyboarding software option but are still struggling to realize your vision, a dedicated Storyboard Artist can become a valuable collaborator for digital drawings as well!

Final Thoughts

In many ways, learning how to storyboard is the first key step in the filmmaking pre-production process. It is the instrument that initially transforms the words in a script into images audiences will eventually see as part of a film.

However, storyboards are far from just a way to envision what the story will look like. They are just as important as tools for making sure the business side of a production will run according to plan by helping filmmakers finalize their scheduling and budgetary needs. As a result, how to storyboard is a vital skill set for any filmmaker involved in the shooting process.

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