The Fine Art of Storyboarding

Making video is art. And creating a storyboard is an artistic endeavor all its own. The purest form of storyboards, cormics, are characterized by minimal text and high impact images and have been turned into profitable, high-style movies like Batman, Rocketeer and Dick Tracy.

Comic book art is a superb guide for designing storyboards and suggesting unusual creative elements for your videos like odd angles, forced perspectives, and contrasting light and colors. Comics share videomakers’ goals of fusing text and pictures with energy to tell a story in a brief space.

Storyboards serve many purposes in the evolution of a program and are often the first step in generating pictorial ideas from a script, detailing the coverage and visual treatment. Later, as a thumbnail representation of the movie, storyboards can be evaluated and manipulated. And when shooting’s finished, the boards guide the editor. Even if used for only part of the video, story-boards are useful for working out stunt details and special effects shots.

Tales As Old As Time

The idea of storyboarding movies came from animation. Imagine sitting down to draw the 10,368,000 frames of an animated feature like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. That’s pretty daunting and more than a person can do alone. Early in the development of animation, the studios developed storyboards as a method of visualizing the program in detail before investing the massive hours needed to bring it to the screen. It’s a key element in a process that lets hundreds of people work on the same program and still have it look cohesive.

Animation is unhampered by reality. No actors, sets or locations act as limits or guides; every nuance is imagined and drawn. This is done in three stages. First, detailed drawings are done depicting each character, what they wear, how they express themselves and how they move.

Next, backgrounds that provide the physical context for each scene are created. Lastly key frames from each sequence are laid out with the script so the overall flow, development and style of the story can be evaluated and adjusted. Once completed, the storyboard is the blueprint used by everyone in the production process.

Making the Imagined Real

Storyboards have been adapted for live action productions. A movie starts with an abstract script and the mental images it conjures. Artists are often hired in the development stage to render imagined settings and costumes.

The farther the story is removed from ordinary contemporary life, the more the artist is called on to make the imagined real. What should the antebellum south look like or the ocean at 20,000 leagues? What form will a space alien take or a futuristic cyborg?

If the script calls for a suburban kitchen, you probably don’t need to draw it. But if your hero is kidnapped by an extraterrestrial whose physiology is silicon-based and whose technology is organic rather than mechanical, there are a lot of details to envision before the cameras roll.

Basically, a storyboard is a series of pictures that develops the look of your film or video. It can help design each shot with respect to what precedes and follows it.

The quality of the drawing is less important than the information conveyed. Storyboards are usually grids of drawings representing consecutive scenes or shots within scenes. In complex shots, several frames can be drawn with arrows to indicate characters’ movements, camera pans and tilts, or zooms.

The boards are a way to plot the converge of each scene, particularly elaborate or complex ones. A window into the director’s intentions, storyboards can be used on the set to help the director, camera operator, set designer, property department and other department heads plan their contributions to the movie.

Generally, the aspect ratio of the drawing should be the same as the screen image you’re producing. For standard video, this is a rectangle three units high and four wide (3:4 or 1:1.33). If you’re shooting on HDTV, which has an 1.66 aspect ratio, your storyboard cells would be proportioned 3:5. If you intend to mask off the top and bottom of your video frame to get the letter box look seen in many music videos, the storyboard should be in the same proportions as your active image area.


Pages of Frames

The easiest way to create storyboards is to purchase storyboard blanks from art supply stores, animation supply stores or video production suppliers. Lake Compuframes makes storyboard blanks for freehand drawing and for use with computer software.

Available with three or six television-shaped cells outlined in dark grey oil the left side of each page, there’s room for the script beside every drawing. These can be purchased as cut sheets or fanfold computer paper for $42 per ream of 500 sheets. There are also matching rolls of stick-on replacement frames that can be pasted over the first drawings for easy editing $20 per 100 frames.

If you’re working with an unusual aspect ratio, multiscreen presentation or have a specific field or place-ment you like to use, customize your own storyboard blanks on a photocopying machine.

Some artists prefer to draw their own frame lines as they go. This gives the board a less mechanical look. Ultimately the shape of the screen is a limiting factor in composition, but many people prefer to conceptualize without boundaries and then adapt the resuiting ideas to the constraints of the medium.

A few artists prefer to use no frame lines at all. They treat the space in which the scene occurs as a single page and work their ideas out in this unrestricted area. The advantage is that the artist is free to manipulate camera and actor positions. Often the finished page has one or two large conceptual drawings on it plus small detailed sketches, and notes and arrows indicating how it all fits together into a cohesive scene. If the production is heavily dependant on storyboards, this concept page may later be rendered as sequential frames in a more conventional format.

Individual frames are frequently cut out, redrawn and pasted over as the design of the program evolves. Likewise, the dialogue or description is subject to rewrite. Storyboards are working documents and are usually pretty ratty at the end of a production.

A photocopier is invaluable in working with storyboards, both for cutting and pasting as ideas are developed, and making a rugged copy of the final paste-up before it’s distributed to the many hands that will handle it on the set.

Stick Figure Art

Many people are intimidated by storyboards because they can’t draw. They can write a script or frame a great shot, but what they visualize doesn’t translate to paper. But storyboard art can be very crude; stick figures are often sufficient to communicate a concept. The essential elements are screen position, relative size of the screen, directions in which characters/props will move, key positions within shots, and what’s expected of a pan, tilt or dolly move.

The truly delicious storyboards made for big budget films often begin as a director’s crude sketches which are turned over to an artist for finishing. This finishing is done especially when the boards are being used as a sales tool.

Boards are used for getting the film financed, the stars signed, the ad campaign off the ground, or the music video concept sold to the record company. If you want to do one of those smashing animated logos for MTV, for example, you would begin by showing them a dynamite storyboard of key frames. You can start production after they tell you they want to buy it.

Storyboards are a tool for developing and refining ideas. Video is a visual art. Its planned content can be conveyed with sketches much more quickly and in-expensively than by improvising on the seL In practice, the boards guide the director’s and crew’s initial approach to a scene but then are often ignored completely on the set.

The initial storyboard conception of a scene may call for 25 setups, but after six hours, you’ve finished only five. By going back to the boards, you can figure out what shots are absolutely essential for the scene, and do those before you run out of light or time. Often you can get by with fewer angles than you initially intended. The storyboard gives you the tools to redesign coverage at the last minute- you know where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

It’s less expensive to sketch a concept than to shoot it. In low budget programs the writer/director’s time is the most available commodity. Spend it generously when you are alone with your boards. Sketch out alternative shots and make as many changes as you like when the cost is only your time and paper. It will be much more expensive to experiment when the equipment is rented and the cast and crew are standing around awaiting your decisions. Be creative on the set, but only if you are firmly anchored in a story you refined through many drafts of sketches.

Hidden Dangers

When Richard Rutowski asked me to shoot his avant garde film Medeafilm, he gave me a set of storyboards two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. It was a complicated film combining abstract impressions with concrete events. The action takes place in multiple time frames and psychological realities.

The design required some motions and motifs to be repeated within different contexts, and significant items to be subtly revealed through intricate camera work.

Echoing Alfred Hitchcock, Rutowski said that the film is as good as finished when the storyboards are done. The day shooting started, there were still revisions being done on the storyboards.

The realities of the locations and limitations of the equipment often conspire against the vision laid out on the boards. That was when the Medeafilm boards became crucial; if we had to change the way one shot set up, the boards let us see how the change fit in with what came before and after. The drawings were invaluable for shooting the crucial actions, matching transitions and incorporating special effects shots seamlessly into the rest of the action.

Using storyboards, however, posed a hidden danger. The film looked so complete on paper, that it was easy to neglect full coverage of each scene. Whenever you shoot a scene, no matter how well choreographed, shoot it again with alternative points of view, reaction shots and closeups. In editing, the original scene may not play well. It may move too fast or slow. The editor needs alternatives so the pace can be varied in the cutting.


When You Need Boards

Some directors never use storyboards. Most television series, soaps or dialogue-heavy programs rely on standard coverage of each scene.

These are usually shot with three to five cameras simultaneously on each take, so for each scene there’s a master shot with everyone in it, a closeup of each person as he or she speaks, reaction shots of each person listening, and medium shots with two or three people in them.

The camera operators, actors and director block each scene before shooting-each actor knows where to stand and move and each camera operator knows what to cover. This gives the editor plenty of material with which to work.

Directors of feature films, particularly those involving complex revelations through the camera’s eye, or using many effects and stunts, rely heavily on storyboards.

The Hindenberg, a film about the German dirigible that blew up in New Jersey in the 1930s, was made without an actual dirigible. The director, Robert Wise, used instead model shots, matte shots, composites and closeups on sets designed to look like parts of the aircraft’s exterior. The audience’s perception of the dirigible was carefully orchestrated, so that a sense of the Whole ship was built over time. That’s not the kind of shooting you can improvise.

One of the most powerful storytelling methods in film and video is to create imagery that allows the audience to discover what’s going on without verbal exposition.

In The Verdict the lawyer hero is befriended by a woman in a bar. Later there’s a shot of the opposing counsel’s hands mixing drinks while he gives a cynical account of the relationship between money, power and the law. As he finishes mixing the drinks the camera reveals that the person he’s been addressing is the hero’s alleged friend.

The revelation that she’s working for the other side takes your breath away, an effect achieved because of the shot design. That’s the kind of shot that’s storyboarded, so that its timing and evolving geometry are fully worked out. It’s worth taking the time to do it, because such shots represent crucial story points and should have maximum impact.

Or Models

Some directors take the storyboard concept a step further and build models of complex sets where both the camera and the actors will be moving around.

Steven Speilberg had a model made of the Middle Eastern marketplace where Indiana Jones battled assassins in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The blocking, relative position and movements of the camera and actors were worked out on the model.

The increased use of the Steadicam, which gives the camera an actor’s point of view, makes this effort necessary. The motions of the Steadicam need to be choreographed as much as those of the actors. Sets are designed or locations modified so the camera can shoot in any direction without losing the set. This is true for the lightweight Steadicam JR also.

In low budget productions, model-making can be more expensive than blocking on location. But a model can become a powerful component of your story if it’s seen on-screen.

In the television series St. Elsewhere, a model was made of the layout of the hospital, even though discrete sets for individual spaces, offices, hospital rooms, operating room and emergency room were used.

The model allowed the director to keep the geography consistent. One look at the model and you knew that the doors to the outside were to the left of the emergency room.

Near the end of the series, the show opened with a silent tour of the hospital that didn’t look quite right; that particular sequence involved an endoscope photographing the model.

Board Editing

Storyboards can be used as guides that the editor can refer to when cutting a scene. But in many cases, the editor of documentaries or music videos doesn’t have storyboards from which to work, just a plethora of competing images. It’s hard to keep them all in mind when selecting where to go with a scene.

I often make a quick schematic sketch when I’m editing. This is a storyboard with a useful life of about 30 minutes, an aid to keep the idea in front of me while I assemble the scene.

The availability of video printers and screen capture hardware for computers has taken this a step further.

Terry Schwartz, a Santa Monica video producer of music videos and the recent ecological documentary Salvadores del Bosque, keeps a Mitsubishi video printer in his editing suite, and routinely prints the sequence of images he’s editing.

He hangs strips of video flypaper all over the edit room to maintain the sequence and provide a quick reference to where the program has come from and where it’s heading. The tapes he works from have SMPTE time code in the windows which is readable on the video prints, so the images act as a log of the raw material.

This technique is especially helpful for music videos where many radically different images must be folded into the edit. One of the challenges is keeping the screen interesting, so motions in one shot work with or against those in the next.

Printed frames can be cut up like a deck of cards, labeled with relevant time code and lyric, shuffled and laid out in sequence to test concepts in minutes instead of the hours needed to edit the same ideas on tape.


Computer Crooning

If video printers are out ofyour budget, another alternative is framegrabbing hardware on your personal computer.

DAK offers a board and software for $189, or $299 color, that captures frames from a tape or video camera and renders them as computer graphics files in .Pcx, .GIF or Targa formats. Once stored, these can be assembled into slide shows using presentation software, or assembled with page design software into storyboards for printing on a laser printer.

For me it’s faster and more organic to work freehand with a pencil and paper. But if you need something more polished, you can use a hand scanner to import pencil drawings into the computer. These can be integrated into the script using desktop publishing software and printed on a laser printer.

Lake Compuframes makes Showscape ($399), a software package which works with Wordperfect on IBM or Macintosh. It merges storyboard frames with a script. You write your script in Wordperfect and flag each scene with a control key. Showscape uses these scene flags to link the script with up to 10 dependent files of graphics or text keyed to those scene numbers.

The printout can be customized, but the two most common formats use either three or six storyboard frames on the left of the page and corresponding script on the right. At print time, you select which of the 10 linked files to print in the storyboard spaces. On IBM, you’re limited to printing one linked file at a time, but Macintosh can incorporate multiple files in a single printout.

Showscape is easy to use and offers a great deal of flexibility. Each of the linked files can hold graphics (mouse drawn, scanned or captured), text or a combination.

It’s an elegant way of handling the notes and sketches that always get penciled into script margins between the final draft of the script and the final cut of the program.

And unlike using desktop publishing to merge graphics with the script, Showscape’s dynamic linking of the frames to the script means that if you edit the script, the storyboards and notes move with the changes.

For the master copy of the script, you can scan storyboard frames and script text. The camera operator can have a custom copy with blocking diagrams in place of the pictures, the lighting director can have one with a combination of gel notes and lighting diagrams instead of pictures. The script supervisor can enter notes from the shoot window for the editor to use in decoding the coverage. It’s a program that goes beyond storyboarding and into the realm of idea tracking.

The creation of a story, script and storyboard always begins with a person and a blank page, whether that page is paper or a computer screen. So sharpen your pencils, limber up your mouse and start making your idea reality.

John Bishop owns Media Generation, a film/ video production company specializing in ethnographic documentaries.

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