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Getting The Most Out of Your Storyboard

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.

From Shorts to Features: An Interview with Chris and Ben Blaine

Chris and Ben Blaine (also known as The Blaine Brothers) are an award winning English writer-director duo who have garnered much praise for their short films and sketches for Film Four and the BBC. In 2015, they released their debut feature film, Nina Forever– a darkly comic, twisted and genre defying tale of love, death and un-dead exes.

Ben and Chris recently spoke at the ‘Shorts to Features: Journey of the Award -Winning ‘Nina Forever’ event hosted by IMIS on Monday 25th of September to talk about the transition from short film to feature film and the journey of their first feature from conception to premiering at SXSW.

I caught up with Chris for a chat following IMIS’s event:

 

LD: So, you’re professionally known as The Blaine Brothers, yourself and Ben, as film making siblings who write and direct all your projects together. Could you tell us a bit about how this came to be? When did you start the collaboration?

CB: We obviously used to play together a lot, but then I fell in love with animation and wanted to do some animation. Ben was always writing from a really early age and I was always doing art. So, I bought a camera to do animation and Ben had written a script with his mate Keith and said ‘Do you want to make this film with us?’ We spent the whole summer holiday making a feature length version of the Bible, like a piss take. But you know we’d not actually ever watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian at that point and there were jokes in there that were quite similar and obviously there’s a little bit of animation from me to complete it. But yeah, we had a good time arsing around in the woods with our school friends and putting on fake beards and playing around with fake blood and gore and doing stupid jokes. We sold it to the kids at school and it got banned by the school for being blasphemous which was great because it meant that it was something that everybody wanted because the school said they shouldn’t have it and we actually sold a lot more copies. We thought this is easy, we can make money from this! So, we started making short films and didn’t make any money from those for a very long time.

 

LD: Quite ambitious beginnings then!

CB: Well, sort of, it was just arsing around with a VHS camcorder. We didn’t have any idea about film making or where to place the camera or anything like that and we slowly learnt that by making short film after short film.

 

LD: So, moving on to screenwriting. What would you say are the benefits of having a writing partner?

CB: Well the enemy so often is the blank page and when there are two of you it’s a lot easier to not face yourself with a blank page because it might not be that you’re writing but you’re always talking. One of you is going to be helping the other one think through exactly what it is that you are trying to do. So, we rarely have the writers’ block thing that most have to struggle with and that I do terribly if I’m on my own. But together certainly it is a real joy.

 

LD: Does it present any challenges that you didn’t expect?

CB: It did early on. Ben always did the writing and I was always doing the camera work. Then I’d written a script for the first time and by swapping those roles it suddenly became really clear that we weren’t necessarily making the same film when we were shooting it. In one film, there was one character that one of us thought was alive and one of us thought was dead and was a ghost. But we didn’t figure that out until the edit and one of us was sitting there going ‘Sorry, you think what?’ We’d both been intending to make a completely different film, that was actually a good step to find that out and to start properly interrogating each other. And that film then Ben started to really rip apart as a script and we hugely improved it and rewrote it and reshot it as a short. Then after that it was kind of no holds barred, we were always just ready to rip into each other and try and make stuff better but mainly to be going ‘What is it that you’re actually trying to do?’ rather than what it says on the page. So often with a script the intention is actually not in the scene so it can be easy to misread the intention of what that particular scene, or what the film as a whole is trying to say. You can go off on tangents really easily so we just always keep talking about what it is we’re trying to do so when you’re writing it comes out from that.

 

LD: How do the two of you set about co-writing a script, do you have a specific method that you use or is it a bit more spontaneous?

CB: It’s a fairly regular routine of ideally writing every day but basically we share a screen so we’ve got two laptops but they’re both seeing the same thing. We write in Scrivener which is an application which has organisation so you can do each scene as its own little card and you can put those scenes within a folder for a sequence and you can put that sequence as a folder of an act so you can get the structure of your film and see it really clearly and write a whole bunch of notes. Usually when we’re writing we will talk and write notes and figure out what it is we’re supposed to be writing. We usually beat out a film using Scrivener and taking a while to actually get into writing it on the page because so often when you put a thing on the page you get really attached to the formulation of the words. That can be a really delightful thing but it can also be really that it doesn’t matter the way that those words are put together because an actor will come along and do it in a certain way and is it actually getting to the point of the intention of the scene, it can really get in the way. A lot of the time now we take a while to get around to writing and have talked it through so much that it becomes quicker to write and is a lot more liquid and fluid and easier to keep changing it.

 

LD: 2015 saw the release of your debut feature ‘Nina Forever’. What did you find you find where the challenges of going from writing short scripts to your first feature script?

CB: Definitely not our first feature script! Ben had been writing them since god knows when. I started writing features not long after I started writing short films and Ben had already written some by that point. The biggest thing for us with Nina was that we got to the point that we’d been writing films and slowly but surely trying harder and harder to fit in the model that everybody expects of 3 acts and a down point here, that sort of stuff. It kind of kept taking the life out of the scripts that we were writing as we don’t naturally write in 3 acts, it just doesn’t really fit us. With Nina we basically just went ‘f*** it’- we’re not going to write in a genre, we’re not going to try and write anything that we expect anyone will like, we’re just going to write for ourselves. Literally the weirdest, darkest s**t we could think of that felt right and was making us laugh was all going in there. We fully expected the script to horrify most people in terms of them wanting to work with us because up to that point pretty much all the short films we’d been making were comedies and Nina is blackly comic but isn’t really a comedy and it’s quite horrific in many ways. We were kind of expecting people to say ‘Don’t make that movie! Why? Why would you do that?’ which was almost the point. In terms of the difference between the shorts and the features, a short always feels like you’re trying to express a single idea really simply and perfectly and a lot of the time it either comes out all in one go and it works or you keep going back to it and reworking it to the point that you’re not sure that it does what you want it to. With features it is all about the reworking of it. We always find it hard with a short, you feel like either it comes out and you’re like ‘yeah let’s do it’ or you get into development hell. It’s weird, it’s almost easier to get into development hell on a short film than it is on a feature, I guess because it’s so few words to be talking about compared to a feature where there is so much that you are able to change. I suppose a lot of that is the juxtaposition of one scene after another, as soon as you just move some scenes that’s changed the whole film, with a short you’ve probably only got about 3 scenes. You don’t have as many options available in order to see how it can work, it either does or it doesn’t.

 

LD: Bearing in mind the quite shocking subject matter, did you find that that made securing funding for the film quite difficult? Did people not really understand what genre you were trying to place yourselves in?

CB: Our attention was always that we were never going to go to the industry with it. We raised money privately, we’d actually saved up some money ourselves. We were doing editing for tv- working all hours means that we’re not spending the money so we had this chunk of money in the account and we thought ok we can use that to make the film and we can maybe double it and go and make it with as many friendly people as possible and with as small a crew as possible. The producer that we work with Cassandra (Sigsgaard) said she thought we could make it a slightly bigger movie using FDA scheme. So, we went to a lot of different people to raise the money but it actually came together quite quickly. I think if we’d gone to the usual industry sources we probably would’ve gotten ourselves stuck in the quagmire of ‘yeah but what genre is it?’ and all of those usual questions that you get. Because we were avoiding it we just got to talk to people who either really believed in us as film makers and were willing to come on board due to that or they actually read the script and because there was a real honesty to it and a real freshness to it, because it is a really different film, they could see how it could be a cool, interesting movie. So, we didn’t fall into those pitfalls and the money came together really quickly.

 

LD: Did you find that by getting financing by other means other than fully funding it yourself that anyone wanted to make any adjustments to the script or change the kind of vision you had for it?

When Cassandra came on board she gave us a bunch of notes and we definitely re-wrote with those in mind but it was still very much the film that we’d wanted to write. The biggest thing for her that sells us as film makers is our voice, so she was really on point in terms of going ‘yeah that doesn’t really feel like you guys’ and actually a lot of the time was pushing us to be weirder which was fun. We were really quick in going into shooting it and possibly could’ve developed it for longer but actually I think that’s part of the reason why we raised the money quickly because we were basically just set on the idea of ‘yup we’re going to go ahead and make this and we’re going to shoot it for whatever money we’ve raised and you can either be a part of it or you don’t have to be a part of it.’ We weren’t really beholden to anyone which was a really liberating feeling. But then in the edit we definitely got some feedback from our execs and they weren’t ordering us to do anything, they were very much like, ‘these are my thoughts but it’s entirely up to you’. It was actually really nice and again, they were actually encouraging us to go further and be more daring with what we were doing, so it was really positive.

 

LD: So, what advice would you give to film makers who perhaps have experience making their own shorts but are finding it difficult to progress from that onto making a feature film? 

If you can think of something that you can make really small as a feature film and to be able to do it with no pressure, go do it! It’s the tricky thing of ‘you’re not a feature film maker until you’ve made a feature film’ you’ve always got that catch 22. So, Nina Forever for us was 3 people in a bedroom, and ok, there’s the two parents so there’s a little bit of stuff around their house but essentially we were thinking it’s kind of just two locations, it ended up being like 26. We were thinking this could be a really simple film, it’s something we could shoot on a DSLR, and it could just be me and Ben- I can do camera, he can do sound and just the 3 actors. It just felt like the kind of film we were totally ready to go and make and felt perfect for us at the time. When we were starting out and writing it we were thinking we were going to be making this for 20 grand, and it doesn’t matter if we fail miserably and if the film doesn’t work it’s just a chance for us to try and make something, and make something longer and learn all the stuff from that. That no pressure way of making a film can be really good because you can really get the pressure put on you as soon as you start getting money involved. A lot of the time you want your film making to feel free and to not have that pressure. There are so many good films being made now for pretty much f*** all. Actually, it’s almost like the film funders are waiting for you to make a film for not very much because they want you to prove that you can do a full-length feature. So, the starting point is no longer making a short for a certain amount of money, it’s making a feature film for nothing, following the Ben Wheatley kind of model. There is a real freedom in being able to do that and just going ahead and making something. There are feature films that people are making on iPhones that are winning awards and getting into Sundance. So, you can shoot on anything now and it looks great. So, you’re not going ‘we need to afford 35m film’, it’s more ‘Na I just need to edit it on my laptop- oh, I’ve already got that. I’ve already got some sort of a camera, away we go.’ But I think that’s kind of the way we always try to think about it- it’s just trying to be film makers so just making and not waiting and asking for permission.

 

Events

Selling Your Feature Film: Using a Proof of Concept

Come join us as writer/director Dwayne Gumbs will present the importance of having a proof of concept in order to sell your feature film script to investors. He will screen ‘Holy Beef’, a proof of concept for his feature film currently in development.

‘Holy Beef’ was funded through Film London’s London Calling scheme and was in official selection at the BFI London Film Festival 2018 and the London Short Film Festival 2019. As such, the project has also been supported by Film London as part of their Microwave scheme for first time feature filmmakers.

Dwayne will:

  • Talk about when and why the proof of concept became vital to his feature project
  • Give an idea of how to create a feasible and engaging a ‘short version’ of a substantial feature idea
  • Share his experiences of the benefits the proof of concept has brought with it and what it means for the future of his project

Come along to this gem of an event, meet new people and get some insight into the ins and outs of the journey from proof of concept to feature production.

About Dwayne Gumbs:

Dwayne’s passion for writing found an outlet as a child through Grime. Having grown up in East London when the culture was emerging, his hobbies included MCing, DJing and music production – a connection he’s maintained to this day. In 2008 he founded Diverse Voices Entertainment, a unique entity for young people to express themselves and access opportunities in the arts which would otherwise not be available to them. He has written and directed many live shows and short films, all co-created with these young people.

Dwayne collaborated with Iain Simpson on the Film London funded grime comedy short ‘Holy Beef’, a proof of concept for a feature in development, ‘Running Out of Grime’, which was also developed through Film London’s Microwave scheme.

Dwayne is passionate about creating positive depictions of a young generation too often portrayed negatively on screen. Whilst the London film industry is definitely broadening the range of stories being told, he still feels there is an unaddressed gap in the ‘Urban Film’ market, which is not a fair representation of the vibrant and positive inner city London life he experienced growing up, nor the true nature of today’s youth.

Writing Successful TV Bibles: From Creation to Pitch

Come join us as writer/director Danny Stack will share valuable tips and insights into writing TV bibles, and how they’re an essential document across development and production. Everything from two-page summaries to TV bibles that take a weekend to read – come find out how it’s done.

Danny will:

  • Discuss why a TV Bible is ESSENTIAL to pitching a show
  • Outline what items are in a TV bible and what not to include
  • Talk about the secrets to writing a good TV bible and why no one set rule or structure applies to all
  • Look at the difference between a good TV bible pitch document versus a more production-focused one
  • Draw on his vast experiences making films in the family genre

Come along to this gem of an event, meet new people and get some insight into the ins and outs of creating award-winning projects.

About Danny Stack:

Danny started out in Channel 4’s comedy department when shows like Spaced, Ali G and Black Books were being made. Since then he’s worked as a screenwriter and script reader for companies like Miramax, Working Title, Pathe, UK Film Council and Irish Film Board, among others. He helped set-up the Red Planet Prize with Tony Jordan, designed to seek out new TV writing talent. With Tim Clague, he co-hosted the highly popular podcast The UK Scriptwriters Podcast, which was started in 2010. Danny now specialises in the kids/family genre, and has made two live-action family films with Tim: Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg (which had its world premiere at the London Film Festival in 2015) and Future TX (starring Griff Rhys Jones).

Telling Powerful Stories with ‘American History X’ Director Tony Kaye

Six-time Grammy nominee director/cinematographer Tony Kaye, American History X (nominated for an Academy Award) will be joining us for an evening discussing telling powerful stories.  Tony is also known for his music videos for Paul McCartney, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Johnny Cash. For his music video for Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, Kaye won the Grammy Award. Kaye will talk about his journey on the film industry across creative sectors.

‘Tony Kaye is also the most awarded director and cinematographer of television commercials in British Advertising History.’

Tony will:

  • Talk about his experiences as a director across several creative industries
  • Give insight into working with a high-end cast in passion feature film productions
  • Discuss high-class music video production working with celebrity musicians

Come along to this gem of an event, meet new people and get some insight into the ins and outs of directing award-winning projects.

About Tony Kaye:

He has made several well-known music videos, including the video for “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum, which won a Grammy Award, “Dani California” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “What God Wants” by Roger Waters, and “Help Me” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash. Kaye is a six-time Grammy nominated music video director.

His feature film debut was American History X (1998), a drama about racism starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. Kaye disowned the final cut of the film and unsuccessfully attempted to have his name removed from the credits. The film was critically lauded and Norton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the film.

Kaye’s second feature, a documentary called Lake of Fire, about the abortion debate in the United States, opened in Toronto in September 2006. The movie was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature as well as for Best Documentary Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards and the Satellite Awards. Lake of Fire took Kaye 18 years to make.

Kaye’s third feature film, a crime drama titled Black Water Transit starring Laurence Fishburne, was shot in New Orleans during the summer of 2007. A rough cut was screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival but the film was never released to cinemas.

Kaye’s fourth feature film, Detachment (2011), starring Adrien Brody as well as featuring Kaye’s daughter Betty, is a drama about the decline of the education system in American high schools. It premiered in April 2011 at the Tribeca Film Festival. In 2011, Detachment screened in competition at the 37th Deauville American Film Festival in France. It won both the Revelations Prize and the International Critics’ Award. Detachment was also announced as the Closing Night Film at the Woodstock Film Festival, where Kaye was the recipient of the Honorary Maverick Award.