From Shot Lists to Storyboards

Why bother with shot lists and storyboards? Simple: storyboards and shot lists are the most cost-effective ways to improve both the quality and efficiency of your next video project. Hollywood directors like Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and the legendary Alfred Hitchcock have all relied heavily on storyboards to help communicate their vision to everyone from the cinematographer to the set designer. If everyone has a picture of exactly what it is you are after, you’re more likely to get the desired results. Even if you are the cinematographer and the set designer.

Essentially, a storyboard is nothing more complicated than a series of sketches that represent the different shots in your scene, with each frame or panel in the storyboard depicting the angle and composition of a particular shot. By arranging these frames in sequence, a storyboard gives you a good idea of how your scene will play on screen.

Shot lists serve a similar purpose, listing each shot needed for a particular scene, in the order in which you plan to shoot them. Storyboards and shot lists insure you’ll have enough coverage to meet your needs before you ever start rolling tape.

Creating a Storyboard

As a director, it is your responsibility to translate the written words of a script or outline into the compelling visual images that effectively tell your story. You do this by focusing your audience’s attention on the part of a scene that is most important at every moment.

Imagine a scene in a restaurant where a woman sits alone in a booth. The only other customer is a man seated at the counter. Another man enters and joins the woman. He passes her an object. She pockets it and hands him a fashion magazine. The man flips through the magazine and smiles. When he does, the woman gets up and leaves the restaurant. A moment later, the man at the counter also leaves.

It’s a simple scene without a lot of action or complex blocking (movement) and you could record the whole scene in a master shot, but the audience may not understand it if you do. By creating a shotsheet and then storyboarding the scene, you can lead your viewers through it step-by-step, increase dramatic tension and make sure they catch all the important details. Later, when the audience realizes what was going on, they’ll have a fabulous "Ah ha!" experience: "So that was why he smiled."

Getting Started

Begin by creating a shot list. Take a set of index cards and, using one card per shot, write a description of the shot on the lined side of the card. On the top line, indicate the type of shot (full shot, close up, medium shot, XCU), the setting and the subject. On the lines below, write a concise description of what action takes place. Include any camera movement (pan, zoom, tilt). Also, include any dialog, music, props or effects that occur in the shot. Index cards will allow you to reorder your shots easily as you work out the flow of your scene. A shot list for the scene above might look something like this:

  • Card #1. Full Shot. Restaurant. A woman sits alone in a booth. The only other customer is a man seated at the counter.
  • Card #2. Medium Shot. She glances at her watch.
  • Card #3. Close Up. Watch. The second hand sweeps past the 12. It’s dead midnight. Camera tilts up. Rack focus to the door. A man enters.
  • Card #4. Medium Shot. The man spots the woman. Camera tracks as he joins her at the table.
  • Card #5. Medium Shot. The man at the counter. Stirs his coffee and throws a discreet glance over his shoulder.
  • Card #6. Two Shot. The couple seated opposite one another. The man pulls a coin from his pocket and slides it across the table.
  • Card #7. Medium Shot. The woman picks up the coin and toys with it.
  • Card #8. Close Shot. The coin. Zoom in. It’s covered with ancient Chinese characters.

The cards would go on to reveal what it is that’s hidden inside the magazine. Or not. It could be an envelope stuffed with cash, a strip of microfilm or maybe you never reveal the secret. Creating a list in this way helps you get specific about exactly what you want to show your audience and, therefore, what shots you will need to record.

Storyboard It

When you’ve completed your list, you can easily rearrange the cards into a shooting order. Shooting order is completely independent of the final order of the shots in your edited movie. For example, you can shoot all the shots of people entering and leaving the restaurant at the same time, even though in the story, they all enter the restaurant at different times. This allows you to set up and light that particular location just once, thus saving you valuable time on the set. Then move your camera and crew in for the interior shots.

For some people a shot list is all they need and, if you are the director and cinematographer, you might not need to communicate your vision more clearly (to yourself). However, if you want to visualize the scene more fully before you shoot, or need to communicate as precisely as possible with your crew, then the next step in the process is to turn your list of shots into a storyboard. Take each index card, turn it over and sketch the shot you described as it will look on screen. Since the aspect ratio of an index card is not the same as that of a video frame, you may want to outline a frame box.

When drawing your image, don’t worry about your artistic ability. Use stick figures if you want. The goal here is to get your ideas across, not hang it in the Louvre. For clarity, use small arrows to indicate any movement by actors within the frame and bold arrows to show camera movement. For pans and tilts it is often useful to use a second card, the first one representing the beginning of the shot and the second card the end of it. When you have finished, you’ll have a clear idea of how each shot relates to the others and to the overall flow of your scene.

All this may sound like a lot of effort, but it will be time well spent. Storyboards and shot lists make it easier to envision your scene and facilitate clear communication between you and your crew. That means a smoother more efficient shoot and fewer headaches when you get to the editing room.

Tad Rose is a writer and independent producer living in Los Angeles.

[Sidebar: Useful Terms]

Mise en Scene "Staging" the arrangement of elements within the frame.

Blocking The movement of actors within a scene.

Master Shot The entire scene recorded from a single angle.

Pan Fixed camera position, horizontal movement.

Tilt Fixed camera position, vertical movement.

Tracking shot Camera moves with action in any direction.

Crane shot Camera rises or descends.

Zoom Fixed camera, optical motion toward or away from subject.

Dissolve Transition with one shot fading out as another simultaneously fades in. While this is not actually performed during the shoot, it needs to be planned for in the edit.

Rack Focus Shifting the focus from something in the foreground to something in the background, or vise versa.

[Sidebar: Shots to Shoot]

XCU: Extreme close up. For people, maybe just the eyes.

CU: Close up, the subject fills the frame. Emphasizes detail. For people, this is a usually a head shot, with perhaps only the tops of the shoulders visible.

MS: Medium Shot, the subject seen from the chest up.

FS: Full Shot, the subject seen from head to toe.

WS: Wide Shot, the subject seen within the larger environment.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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