So you’ve got a great story, a talented DP, a ready crew and lots of enthusiasm, but no storyboard for your screenplay? Not so fast. Storyboards are critical for communicating the story, framing and camera direction. And, if you have complex or expensive sequences where every beat counts, storyboards are indispensable in preparation for those critical scenes.
What is a storyboard?
A storyboard is a pre-visualization representation of the sequences in a film. It consists of panels that represent frames and show how the action unfolds. Storyboards often look like comic strips, so think of your favorite comic book sequences when creating one. The panels can be drawings, photographs or even video clips. You can also include dialogue and sound direction.
A storyboard is an excellent pitching tool for your project, as it brings your vision to life. Add sound design to create an animatic and you’ve got a dynamic presentation for any prospective producer, crew member or talent.
Think a storyboard has to be difficult to create? Not necessarily. Many free and low-cost applications don’t require any illustration skills. And as a service to our readers, we've prepared a storyboard template for you to download for free.
Ready to start building your storyboard? Here are five easy steps:
Break down your script
You’ll need to comb through your script to isolate and identify all the elements that will make up your storyboard -- every character, location, prop, etc. Script breakdowns are used in formulating shot lists, budgets and shooting schedules, so this step will be vital even if you’re not in the storyboarding phase yet.
The old-fashioned method of printing out your script and marking it up with pens and highlighters is certainly an option, but you could also take advantage of software like Studiobinder.
In the breakdown, you’ll use different colors to visually categorize all the elements. These are the factors you will eventually bring into your storyboard.
Digital vs. hand-drawn
You don’t have to be a Picasso to create a digital storyboard, whereas you’ll obviously need illustration skills to sketch one out by hand. If you decide to go the digital route, check out Studiobinder’s easy-to-use storyboard software. You could also create your storyboard in graphic design software such as Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign.
For higher-end productions, consider the following professional software:
There are pros and cons to either method. Obviously, grabbing a pencil and starting to sketch is quick and easy. Still, with digital storyboards, you’ll be able to take advantage of time-saving tools like copy and paste, quickly moving frames around and accessing templates to avoid having to create each frame from scratch.
That being said, your first draft can be rough. Don’t focus on creating perfect illustrations. Rough sketches, or scamping, are actually preferred because the purpose of a storyboard isn’t to create a work of art but to pre-visualize your script, help you identify continuity errors and consider places where the action needs work. You can even use stick figures if you have to.
Choose your aspect ratio
Next, you’ll need to format your storyboard according to your aspect ratio. This usually depends on how you plan to distribute the video. Is it for the big screen or Instagram? Get to know which aspect ratios correspond to each platform and storyboard accordingly.
Next, you’ll need to decide the layout of each page. The number of panels you include on a page should be determined by how quickly you move from frame to frame in the film and how detailed each set-up is. For example, action scenes obviously move fast, whereas the lush and layered set of a sci-fi film requires more set production planning, customing, makeup, etc. You may want to spend more time per panel for a film like that.
Characters, blocking, and camera movements
The most important part of your panels is your subject or character. They should be most prominent in the frame, so take time to consider how the character(s) interact with their environment as far as scale. Keep your subject the main focus and design all other elements around them. Consider sketching each panel layer by layer, perhaps moving through a quick sketch first, then coming back to add layers of detail such as weather, landscape, lighting and set details.
Next, you’ll need to block your characters. Blocking is the choreography or movement of your characters in the frame. How do they move in relation to one another and the camera? Use arrows or a series of lines to show a character’s motion within the frame.
Next, you’ll need to indicate camera movements and direction, again with arrows and/or simple phrases such as “The camera begins tracking the jogger.”
Here are some typical camera movements:
- Pan: Moving the camera horizontally along an axis
- Tilt: Moving the camera up or down
- Zoom: Moving the camera farther or closer to the subject
- Dolly shot: Moving the camera along a track towards or away from the subject.
Other camera directions can include focus and angle. Rack focus is when the camera focuses on Subject A and then changes focus to Subject B, whether the subjects are characters or objects. Indicate how you position your subject, whether the camera angle is high, low or Dutch (angled).
Sometimes, the camera is stationary and only the characters move within the frame. Storyboarding helps you decide what cast and camera movements actually tell the story best. It can also help you add variety by showing you which movements you may be overusing.
You’ll need to ground your characters in an environment, whether interior, exterior or outer space! The most important thing is to make the space they operate easily to see through your storyboards—no need to make elaborate drawings. And remember, you can always use photographs, especially if your story takes place in a specific neighborhood or on a predetermined set. It can be as simple as importing phone pics you’ve taken during location scouting.
Numbering your shots
You’ll need to number your shots to create a shot list and get on the same page with your cinematographer, script supervisor and production crew.
If you’ve gone the digital route and are using storyboarding software, your panels will be numbered automatically. If you’re sketching your storyboard, numbering the shots is your last step.
Make your presentation shine with an animatic
So, you’ve finished your storyboard and want to take it to the next level for presentation. Create an animatic, which is a storyboard with the added element of sound. Here you can add dialogue, sound effects, and music to make your storyboard come to life. You’re essentially creating a mini-movie so load your storyboard into Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro X, or your editing software of choice and layer in the transitions and sound. Your animatic can be a teaser of just one scene or you can animate your entire storyboard.
In conclusion, a storyboard is an excellent tool to communicate your film’s key elements. It goes hand in hand with your film’s script to pre-visualize your film. So, download your template, follow these steps and don’t forget to bring your storyboard to set!
Jessica Peterson is a travel and documentary filmmaker with a background in journalism and marketing. She has 20 years of experience producing content in 114 cities and 25 countries. In 2016, she directed and produced her own documentary about her then-home of Guam. Working under the name Global Girl Travels, her clients include CNN, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Matador Network, and Tastemade.