Storyboarding: Do You Really Need It?
Film is a visual medium, so what better way to communicate your ideas as a Director than with a storyboard?
Sure, you will break down the script into shots and a shot list is an important part of the prep a Director does, but you still need to get your team to see what you see in your mind’s eye. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. You can tell a group of people you want a medium shot and each person will imagine that shot differently. The last thing you want is for people to misinterpret your vision. So, yes, I think you should storyboard. Or at least try it.
Though storyboards look a lot like a comic book at first glance, a storyboard is much more detailed and relates more information. The boards, themselves, can live in a virtual space, or if they are hand-drawn they can be put in a book or on a wall so the team can walk through the action of a film. There is a board for each shot and each picture represents a piece of the visual story.
Now, before you freak out and think, “Yikes! I don’t draw!” Let me assure you that there are Storyboard Artists and apps to help you with this task, which I will address below. But I promise, if you can draw stick figures, you have enough skill. Also, it is fair to note that not all Directors use storyboards. However, before you decide you’d like to be that kind of Director, I’d experiment with storyboards. Your crew will love you.
The biggest question newcomers have is, do I need a shot list and storyboards? The short answer is yes. A shot list is a checklist of the coverage you need of a scene (a medium, a close-up, etc) and it’s a good place to start, but that’s all it is, a list. It’s something your Assistant Director uses to create a schedule and it helps them keep track of the footage throughout the day. It also helps the editorial department keep track of footage. But creatively, you haven’t explained what’s in the shots.
So once you know what shots you need to cover a scene, you need to demonstrate how you, as the Director, visualize each shot. This is where the storyboards come in. They explain your vision, shot-by-shot and hopefully inspire your team. John Badham, in his book On Directing1 reminds us, “Every shot must add to the overall story and can never be random…. It ought to convey the mood of the film and contribute to the story.” This is the time you hash out what you are trying to communicate with each shot. It will help the Production Designer know how to decorate the set, it will help the Director of Photography know where to put the camera and how to light the shot, what lenses to use, and so it is with all departments.
Composing the Shot
Before a Director can consider the composition of a shot, they must decide on an aspect ratio. Aspect ratio2 is the shape of the frame, which is usually a variation of a rectangle. But do some homework to understand what aspect ratio is and how your choice impacts your storytelling. Most of the storyboarding apps can create storyboards in the aspect ratio you choose and you can purchase storyboard paper in different aspect ratios if you are hand drawing your storyboards.
Composition is how subjects are arranged in a frame in relation to the camera. This is called blocking. You will demonstrate how the Actors move within the frame, and where they are in relationship to each other and their environment. Where you place the camera is part of the visual story so be as specific as you can. What or who is in the foreground? What or who is in the background? From what angle are we seeing these things? Is everything in focus or is there depth of field? These are things you need to convey, and your decisions should amount to some sort of intended emotional impact.
When it comes to framing, it might help to understand a couple of basic theories like the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. These theories come from the world of art and still photography, but remember, film relies on motion to tell a story, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on them. For those of you who don’t know, the rule of thirds is a method in which you divide your frame into a grid of nine equal parts – three vertical, three horizontal (hence the thirds) and set your subjects on these lines to create more dynamic shots. If you have a smartphone, there’s a good chance your phone has the option to overlay a grid like this in your camera’s viewfinder.
The Golden Ratio, also distilled to a grid (by way of a lot of math formulas) called the Phi Grid, looks a lot like the rule of thirds, but the middle lines are closer together, leaving more room in the squares on the end. Math aside, it all boils down to the way the frame is divided, which some say, with the Golden Ratio is more subtle and, thus more pleasing to the eye.
There are two kinds of motion you will see in a shot: either the camera moves or the character moves. These movements are indicated on the storyboard with arrows so the team can envision transitions and action. Sometimes it’s important to indicate that an Actor exits left frame, so in the next shot we pick up his motion where the viewer’s eye still is. You will want to indicate if the camera tilts up or down, or if it pans from left to right. It can rack focus, zoom, or push in. All of this movement is mapped out in storyboards so you can see if it is working from shot to shot.
Storyboards in Animation
The storyboard has a different role in animation. Though animation also originates with a screenplay, it is developed with storyboards. These storyboards are then used to create an animatic, which is an animated storyboard – a video representation of the storyboards. The boards are brought into an editing system and put together to create a sort of 2D version of the movie. In animation, the animatic is used to actually nail down the timing of each shot and the pacing of a film and is more than just a roadmap. It is a locked and definitive guide for Animators. In animation, the editing happens before the Animators even get started and the animatic must be precise because of what it takes to create each frame of an animated movie.
Applications and Tools
For those of you who are worried about your drawing skills, fear not. All you really need to be able to do is give your team an idea of what is in the frame and where the camera is. Stick figures and blobs are truly all right. I storyboarded one of my shorts and it made my team so happy to have a plan, but I did have to clarify one particular board and explain that the character was in a bathtub, not riding a skateboard!
If you feel more comfortable using an app, there are many wonderful tools out there. Moviestorm and Frameforge are two popular programs that are great pre-visualization tools. However, I believe that hiring a Storyboard Artist is the way to go if you have the budget. Unlike software, a Storyboard Artist is a person who comes to the table with experience and ideas; and there’s nothing like a collaborator to bounce ideas off.
Another option, one that I like to use, is called photoboarding. This is a great process if you have access to your locations during pre-production. You can use Stand-ins to block the Actors and demonstrate the camera placement by actually taking a picture. This might not be the best for action sequences, but it’s a great way to map out shots if you are on a tight schedule and don’t have time or resources to storyboard.
Is Storyboarding for You?
As a filmmaker, the more planning you do ahead of time, the more prepared you will be to handle things on set. Remember, storyboards are a roadmap. You may come across obstacles during production and be forced to re-imagine your shot. If you have to stray from your storyboard that doesn’t mean that you are sacrificing all your hard work. It means that you are a Director and ready to handle anything that comes your way. On the flip side, once you are settled into your location and you witness the chemistry of the Actors, you might want to try something different. The message here is, don’t let the storyboards inhibit you. Leave room for inspiration.
As I mentioned above, not all Director use storyboards and some Directors only use storyboards for action sequences or major set pieces. You will need to learn what storyboards mean to you. If you want to read some differing opinions, check out what Steve Spielberg and Ridley Scott have to say about storyboards3. Then check out how Christopher Nolan4 and Clint Eastwood5 feel about using storyboards. How do you think their directing styles differ and what do you think storyboards have to do with that?
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- 1Badham, John. "On Directing". Michael Wiese Productions. published: 1 September 2013. retrieved on: 2 February 2020
- 2Various authors. "Aspect ratio (image)". Wikipedia. published: . retrieved on: 2 February 2020
- 3munchman. "Ridley Scott & Steven Spielberg on Storyboarding". TVWriter.com. published: 27 March 2018. retrieved on: 2 February 2020
- 4Ressner, Jeffrey. "The Traditionalist". DGA Quarterly. published: 2012. retrieved on: 2 February 2020
- 5Elrick, Ted. "Clint Eastwood: Conversations with a director and his team". DGA Quarterly. published: September 2003. retrieved on: 2 February 2020