How to Storyboard: Envisioning a Film’s Look
As a filmmaker, how to storyboard is a critical skill in bringing the story from script to screen. But for someone who has yet to take this step, the central question may initially be what exactly is storyboarding? In short, it’s putting pen to paper — or using digital software — to draw out the scenes that will become the visual road map during the filming process.
While every filmmaker may differ regarding to what degree they flesh out their storyboards, having them offers a clear direction from which the entire production crew — including the Director, Cinematographer, Production Designer, Costumer, etc. — can move forward to create a cohesive look for the film. Given the highly collaborative nature of filmmaking, storyboards offer a critically important blueprint of what a story is going to look like on screen that all members of the crew can continually refer back to throughout production.
So where to start? The steps below highlight some of the key stages of how to storyboard:
- Study the script
- Select character positions
- Decide character motion and camera movement
- Determine background elements
- Include shot numbers
- Assemble storyboards
Study the Script
What eventually becomes part of a storyboard can typically be traced back to what was in the script. Every element of a script — slug lines, dialogue, action — can inform what belongs in a storyboard, so it’s crucial to first analyze the screenplay.
How a filmmaker wants to label the elements of a scene is entirely up to them. Some prefer using computer programs that help to identify and categorize various components like character, wardrobe, and setting. Others may instead physically mark up the script with highlighters to differentiate those elements. Should a filmmaker choose the former, they have at their disposal a wide array of software options, many of them entirely free to use. Among some of the more popular digital storyboarding options are Boords, Frameforge Storyboard Studio, Moviestorm, Plot, Studiobinder, and Storyboarder.
This stage of storyboarding is important for two reasons. Not only will it aid the filmmaking crew in identifying what will be required for each scene, but also it can help to clarify budgetary needs. For instance, if a scene is set in the Empire State Building, the filmmakers will have to address whether they intend to film on location or replicate that venue, a decision which usually will be based on cost.
At this early stage of the storyboarding process, a filmmaker may also want to make the decision of aspect ratio, meaning the dimensions of the film as a whole. Why would this be important before the camera equipment is even rented for the shoot? Because aspect ratio will determine the size of the storyboard frames. Most features are shot with either a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio or 2.39: 1 aspect ratio, depending on the film genre.
Camera movement can also be shown in a storyboard through the use of arrows. Tilts, pans, zoom-ins, zoom outs, as well as other types of camera movements, must be clearly described during the storyboarding process so that the cinematography unit can better understand what will be expected of it during production.
Select Character Positions
Not every shot will include a character. Especially in the beginning of a scene, an establishing shot may only be that of a city skyline or rural farmhouse. But in learning how to storyboard, filmmakers should prioritize the placement of any character in a shot that calls for them.
Deciding where the character will be in the storyboard may sound relatively straightforward, but several factors should be considered. For one, character placement is important for blocking purposes, meaning that it will indicate to the Actors where they should stand, sit or otherwise be present from shot to shot. Two, character placement will help in providing subtext to any given scene. Positioning a character front and center in a particular shot may indicate their power or control over others in that scene. In contrast, placing a character towards the side or background of a shot will effectively lessen their literal and possibly contextual presence. Three, with character placement may come decisions about how they look, including hairstyle, makeup and costume.
Decide Character Motion and Camera Movement
Few shots in a film are truly static, where neither the characters nor the camera are moving. In many cases, both are happening simultaneously. As a filmmaker, it’s important to indicate these elements to clarify for the rest of the filmmaking team how to approach each storyboarded scene.
The element of motion is often described through the use of arrows. So if a character is running from left to right in a particular shot, an arrow pointed towards the right can show that motion. Arrows can also indicate if a character is moving from foreground to background or vice versa. In fact, arrows can be used for any display of movement, including if a character is required to twirl in circles in a particular scene, making them a highly versatile tool.
To better estimate if a character’s movement in a scene will work, some filmmakers may go through the additional step of creating an animatic, which is basically a set of storyboard frames strung together that actually show the motion of the character. With modern filmmaking software, the creation of animatics can be done rather easily.
Camera movement can also be shown in a storyboard through the use of arrows. Tilts, pans, zoom-ins, zoom outs, as well as other types of camera movements, must be clearly described during the storyboarding process so that the cinematography unit can better understand what will be expected of it during production. Mapping out camera movement can also help in deciding if continuity is being preserved from shot to shot.
At this point, filmmakers should also add descriptions of the type of shot and camera angle being used for each storyboarded frame. For instance, is the shot a close-up? Is the camera intended to be looking down from a bird’s eye angle? Again, providing clarity regarding specific camera shots and angles for the rest of the filmmaking crew will only help to ensure that the actual production process will go as smoothly as possible.
After sending out their storyboards, a filmmaker should prioritize having their production team look over them so that a conversation can be had about any potential issues, errors or questions. How to storyboard is often a lesson in revisions, as is much of the early filmmaking process.
Determine Background Elements
The next question after deciding character placement and movement in a shot is what surrounds them? Are they relaxing in an Italian villa or walking through New York City? Both scenarios instantly bring to mind markedly different settings, which need to be brought to life through the storyboard.
During the storyboarding phase, it’s the job of the filmmaker to faithfully recreate on paper the scene described in the script. That means for every shot deciding exactly what needs to be in it, and what those background elements are depends entirely on the story being told. Again, that is why step one of how to storyboard sets the foundation for the rest of the process. By paying attention to what is in each scene — or inferred from it — the filmmaker can then flesh out the shot beyond the character with those necessary elements.
How detailed the background elements are in a storyboard is ultimately up to the filmmaker, but it should be noted that storyboards are meant to be shared. As a result, including as much detail as possible can only help the rest of the filmmaking team to better and more quickly understand what is trying to be conveyed in each scene.
Include Shot Numbers
Label. Label. Label. Once all the basic information such as character placement, camera movement, and background elements are drawn or described for each storyboard, it’s essential to number each frame in chronological order.
Filmmakers who use digital software for their storyboarding needs will likely have this step automatically completed for them. For those who prefer to storyboard by hand, perfect execution is mandatory. Having even one shot labeled out of order could mean a costly and/or time-consuming mistake, so taking the time to carefully number every frame is key.
Because some shots may actually be comprised of more than one storyboarded frame, filmmakers should include secondary symbols like ‘1a’ and ‘1b’ to frames that belong to the same shot in order to both differentiate and chronicle them.
Once all of the above steps have been completed for each scene in a script, it’s time to arrange the storyboards and disperse them to the appropriate individuals. However, a filmmaker’s work is far from over at this stage.
After sending out their storyboards, a filmmaker should prioritize having their production team look over them so that a conversation can be had about any potential issues, errors or questions. How to storyboard is often a lesson in revisions, as is much of the early filmmaking process. For instance, another member of the production crew might have a better suggestion for a particular shot or they might have interpreted a particular scene in an entirely different manner than what was storyboarded. This final phase of storyboarding is when concerns should be discussed and worked into updated depictions of each shot. Only once the appropriate individuals have all signed off in agreement on the storyboards should the project move forward to production.
This final step in how to storyboard exemplifies why the process is so critical to a successful film production. Even the most modest of films require significant collaboration between dozens if not hundreds — or even thousands — of individuals. While executing the vision of the screenplay is of primary importance, into that execution is a considerable investment of time and financial resources. Few productions have an open-ended budget, which is why storyboarding well can help to save precious dollars and energy later.
Many filmmakers are eager to make the leap from script to production as soon as possible. But if in the position of heading up a film project, they should recognize that a thought-out set of storyboards will be much appreciated by the rest of the filmmaking team, making how to storyboard a vital part of a successful film production.