“I Can’t SEE It!”: Why Storyboarding Matters

And we’re back! Okay, moving on…

Storyboarding. I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding as to the purpose of storyboards in filmmaking. Usually, when we see storyboards, whether it be in published books or DVD extras comparing the storyboards to the actual film, we see considerably polished pieces of artwork on par with what you find in some comic books.


John Coven's storyboards from the first X-Men movie

But I think this is misleading. While it’s true some storyboards are beautiful, the primary purpose of storyboards is to effectively communicate to others, especially your Director of Photography and camera crew, what is in your head as the Director. That being said, this can be just as effective…


A sketch by John Lasseter for the early Pixar short "Tin Toy"

The sad truth is, I can’t draw. Oh, I could probably draw to save my life, but put a gun to my head and it’ll still probably be a 50/50 chance at any kind of actual quality. Of course, this creates issues when I have to storyboard the images in my head. Again, though, I think we have to look at the two primary purposes of storyboarding so that we can get over this “But I can’t draw” excuse.

1. To effectively communicate to others, especially your Director of Photography and camera crew, what is in your head as the Director

2. To choose all your shots before getting on set; both for more effective scheduling and efficient shooting, and for more intentional artistry.

First, reason one. To quote Erasure, “Words get broken.” Verbal and even written communication are often grossly inadequate when trying to convey images. Hence the “worth a thousand words” cliche. If you and your DP can look at a picture, you are already lightyears closer to being on the same page than you would be if you spent decades talking about a single shot. Yes, this requires that you draw adequately enough to communicate framing, angle, blocking, etc, but if you can draw a stick figure, that’s about all that’s needed (as I’ll illustrate later).

Now, there is another particular group that you want to be able to show your boards to besides the camera team, and that’s your investors. This is where nice, glossy images can really pay off, and this is where you might want to hire a professional storyboard artist. Often times, investors are geniuses with money but probably aren’t as visually imaginative as you are (not a jab at businessmen and the like; we all have different skill sets). Even if you show the investor the screenplay, he may not be able to see the movie. If he can’t see the movie, he’s probably not going to give you any money. Storyboards, even of one particularly visual scene, that communicate the tone and visual qualities of your film can go a very long way for investors. But even if hiring a pro is impossible, there are some other options I’ll address later.

Second reason. Or reasons, rather. On many of the countless DVD special features I’ve seen over the years, I’ve heard a lot about directors figuring out the shots once they get on set. Even big name A-listers. I think this is a horribly unprofessional thing to do. Not only does this mean that you’re wasting hours of shooting time just figuring out what you want to shoot, it betrays the fact that many directors are not artists, only very effective bull sh…uh…improvisors…

Scheduling is the life-blood of effective filmmaking. “Story is King,” yes. But if you schedule poorly, you’ll run out of time and money before you’re ever able to finish telling your story, let alone get it in front of audiences. Generally, scheduling is done by the scene.  On the script, every new scene heading is a different scene, and each scene has a number. Here’s the problem with scheduling by the scene. A scene may consist of a single set-up or two dozen different set-ups. It may have one character or six characters, two of which come in and out at different times and are only on camera for three seconds each. If you schedule by the scene, all those different set-ups may not be laid out in an efficient manner and chances are your actors, especially those two who aren’t in the whole scene, are going to be sitting on set doing nothing for hours (hours that you still have to pay them).

I prefer to schedule by the set-up. A set-up is new anytime the camera is picked up and moved. The lights have to change, the cords have to be moved, sound has to be checked, make-up might have to be touched up. It’s a bear. But if you schedule by the set-up, you can more easily estimate how long each segment of your schedule will be, your cast won’t be sitting around doing nothing as much, and, therefore, you will be saving time and money! No, scheduling by the set-up is not always practical, but when it is, as in the case of “NOW UPON A TIME,” I find it far more effective.

Artistically, it is also important to plan your shots out ahead of time.

I think I should pause here and preface what follows with a short description of part of my personal filmmaking philosophy. On the Realism/Formalism scale, I skew toward Formalism. To explain, Realism is just what it sounds like. Capturing what’s REAL. No interference from the filmmaker. The epitome of documentary. True Realism would even negate editing. Formalism is the opposite, in which NOTHING on the screen is real and everything is created by the filmmaker. Experimental animation would probably be the truest form of this, in which nothing on screen even resembles something in real life. In the middle lies Classical filmmaking, which is what most of us think about when we think of narrative film. What’s on screen is meant to represent real life and uses real life elements, but much of it is manipulated to serve the story and filmic vision.

Waiting For Guffman” would skew toward the Realistic side of Classical.

As a Mockumentary, "Guffman" aims to be as Realistic as possible

300” would skew toward the Formalist side.

Extreme visual manipulation contributes to the Hyper-realism of 300

This is one of the many reasons I consider animation a superior art form to live-action filmmaking. The animator must create everything from nothing. Even the greatest live-action filmmaker is still only capturing images of what already exists, no matter how masterfully.

Hayao Miyazaki is without question the greatest filmmaker alive (My Neighbor Totoro)

But I digress. Back to storyboarding!

Because I subscribe to a more Formalist philosophy of filmmaking, the artistic merit of each individual shot is important to me. I believe each shot should be crafted to be as beautiful and effective as possible rather than merely captured because they need the shot quickly (which still happens even in the best of cases due to time constraints). This is why I consider choosing and planning shots before hand is so important. It shows artistic intention rather than haphazard observation.

And now we get to that “But I can’t draw” hiccup. Even if you’re going to hire a professional Storyboard Artist, how are you going to effectively communicate to him the images in your head? If you’re not going to hire an artist, what options do you have?

The first thing I do in the storyboarding process is Thumbnails. Thumbnails are small sketches with the only purpose being exactly that, a rough sketch of an idea. In some cases, such as “NOW UPON A TIME,” this is really as far as you need to go. If the thumbnails are good enough to communicate to your crew what you’re going for, create a strong schedule, and not embarrass you too much in the process, the only reason to go further is if you’re trying to raise money.

Proof that Ben can't draw...

As embarrassing as these thumbnails are, they are adequate for my purposes with “NOW UPON A TIME.” But what if they weren’t? First instinct is to hire a storyboard artist. Which is great. But what if you can’t afford one? Or even find one, as is so often my lot? I would suggest a computer program called FrameForge.

FrameForge 3D workspace

FrameForge creates a 3D filmmaking environment in which to work. Using fully manipulatable 3D actors, props, sets, etc, (and tools to build custom everything) FrameForge allows you to set up your entire film and shoot it in this digital world, allowing you to spit out still images or even animatics for your reference. Though because of its versatility, it is a complicated program. I still struggle with it, especially time wise, which is why I don’t usually move past the thumbnail phase unless the sequence is particularly complicated.

There are other storyboarding programs and even apps for the iPad and iPhone, but FrameForge seems to be the industry standard for this style of storyboard.

Another technique is actually going out and shooting either still photos or video before hand to visualize the scene, as I’ve heard James Cameron and John Badham do in addition to Robert Rodriguez, who shows how he used this technique to plan the bar fight in Desperado on that film’s DVD. This does require access to your locations and possibly more than a few friends to stand in for the actors. Not a problem if you do indeed have access to your locations, but if you haven’t even scouted yet (like me), this isn’t really an option.

Finally, I’d like to direct you to a good blog on Storyboarding by Karen J. Lloyd. It is from an Animation perspective, which is different, and she hasn’t updated in a while. But the archives are extensive and very insightful. A good starting point.


This week’s lesson:
Storyboarding is key to effective communication
and to the artistic merit of your film.

Next week: Not sure yet! Any suggestions?

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