The storyboard is a vital pre-production document that serves a range of uses throughout the pre-production and production processes. Arguably the most important reason to storyboard is to establish for yourself, as director, your vision for the scene in its finished state, but it’s also a very useful aid to ensure everyone on the production team are on the same page.
In its most basic form, a storyboard is a series of drawings which illustrate the sequence of shots in a given scene. In the process of translating the script into images, you begin to take a critical approach to which shots tell your story most effectively and economically. Doing so also helps to anticipate issues of blocking and scene geography which may require script re-writes or certain location requirements. These boards can be refined and revised as you move through pre-production and you begin to nail down locations, cast members and which pieces of kit you’ll have at your disposal.
Though some directors engage the services of a storyboard artist as part of this process, you needn’t be a good artist to do it yourself. Many directors take a fairly rudimentary approach to illustration, using stick figures for the characters with arrows to indicate movement and eye-lines. The most important thing is clarity in demonstrating the shot size, the placement of the actors and any camera movement. In moving shots, you can use multiple images to show how the camera will move between framings (see images below). The quality of this document is especially important in collaborating with your DOP, whose ability to bring your ideas to fruition hinges on you communicating with clarity.
Top: Two (rather messy) storyboard frames illustrating the starting and finishing frames of a single shot. Bottom: The finished product.
Other details that are helpful to include are the lens and mount type. In addition to providing a more specific idea of what you’re after visually, this information can really save time on set. Do you have a sequence which alternates between 20mm Steadicam shots and 50mm close-ups on a tripod? Rather than constantly swapping lenses and having to re-balance the mount, it might make sense to get all of the Steadicam shots in one go before changing. Beyond that, you may choose to include notes on other aspects which clarify the intention of the shot, including performance notes for the actors, lighting requirements or any other details the production team might find useful.
It’s worth noting that not all directors use storyboards. Some directors – David Lynch and Terence Malick to name two – prefer the more spontaneous approach of figuring out the scene on the set with the actors, with a minimal idea of what shots they want beforehand. It should be noted, however, that these tend to be seasoned directors with many projects under their belts and a very solid understanding of the form. The Coen brothers by contrast are detailed storyboarders, and their long-standing collaboration with artist J. Todd Anderson is a key part of their pre-production process. They have noted in interviews that knowing precisely which angles they’ll end up using means the production can be run more economically – if only two walls of a room are going to be seen in the final shots, the set-builders can save time and money by only building what will be seen.
The storyboard can even be a valuable tool in the process as early as the fundraising stages of your movie. Having a clear illustration of your ideas can really help potential investors understand your vision for the project. During pre-production for Alien, Ridley Scott had his budget doubled by 20th Century Fox when he storyboarded the entire film to demonstrate the project’s potential to be much more than the B-movie the studio had envisioned.
When the storyboards are complete, they can be scanned for easy distribution among members of the production. Having the storyboards in hard copy on set can be invaluable as well for quick and easy visual reference for how a given shot fits into the overall scene or sequence. Of course, no matter how well you plan there will always be unforeseen factors when it comes to shooting. Rather than sticking slavishly to your boards, it’s best to view the storyboard as the prepatory groundwork which allows you to be flexible on the day and accept better ideas that come along.