How to Make a Storyboard and Shot List

Some DVDs (Shrek and The Matrix, for example) now include sample storyboards shot-by-shot sketches drawn to visualize the action of key sequences as bonus material. As you study these slick drawings, you’ll notice that most frames are remarkably close to the actual shots they predict. Back in Hollywood’s glory days, most directors (with Hitchcock a notable exception) rarely worked with storyboards; today, however, they’re everywhere. Once you know how to make a storyboard you’ll use them too. We’ll start with a look at what storyboards do.

Storyboards Visualize

Basically, pre-designed storyboards in pencil or marker predict what shots will look like. Why not just invent shots as you actually shoot? Here are three reasons.

First, storyboards let you test complicated setups cheaply on paper instead of expensively on location. Suppose your script says, “She unrolls the treasure map before her and she gasps as she sees where the gold is buried.” But when you draw a high-angle insert of the unfolding map, you realize there’s no way to get “she” into the frame (Figure 1a). So you try a new angle: over her shoulder (Figure 1b). By moving the camcorder to center her face and refocusing as she turns into profile, you can get both her relation to the map and her reaction to it; and you haven’t wasted half an hour on a setup you’d eventually discard.

Secondly, you can check your coverage of a sequence and preplan your video camera angles for variety, continuity and rhythm. Suppose you sketch three shots of the male talent digging up the treasure chest (Figure 2a). Hmmm: though the sketches are from different viewpoints, they’re all neutral-height medium shots and are too repetitive. OK, substitute a point-of-view (POV) closeup of the emerging chest (Figure 2b) and change the last shot to a low-angle closeup of his greedy expression as he reacts to the chest (Figure 2c). In 10 minutes of doodling, you’ve improved a sequence from ho-hum to dynamic.

Finally, storyboarding is essential for planning special effects. Say you want to establish a “pirate ship” by compositing stock footage of a three-master riding off-shore with our hero in the foreground (Figure 3). A sketch will guide your placement of the camera and the actor so that he’ll relate properly to the scene.

Storyboard Vision

So far, you’ve learned how to make a storyboard for your own use, but storyboards also communicate your vision to others. Verbalizing image ideas is always chancy, so it’s better to show what you have in mind visually.

In the professional world, storyboards are essential for communicating with clients, first to pitch concepts and then to preview the live action. Never forget that visual imagination is like a sense of humor: many people lack it, but no one will ever admit it. The client may nod and smile as you verbalize your vision, but yelp, “You never said you’d do that!” upon seeing the footage, even if that was precisely what you promised. Prevent that scenario put that promise in sketches instead of words.

Incidentally, you should have a professional artist draw storyboards for clients. Even though you were hired to shoot, not draw, your amateur scribbles will likely cast doubts on your professionalism. (Hey, whoever said it was fair?) If you don’t have a client to impress, don’t worry about the quality of your thumbnail sketches. As long as they communicate to yourself and your crew, they do the job. There are two ways to do storyboarding nowadays, either draw them on paper or build them on a computer.

Paper and Pencil

To make a board from scratch, draw between six and 12 rectangles on a virtual sheet of paper (any word processor or paint program’ll do it for you). Make the horizontal/vertical ratio 4 to 3 (4:3) for conventional video or 16:9 for wide screen. Leave enough space to write under each frame. Some people pre-print “Frame #,” “action,” “audio,” etc., but you don’t have to be that formal. Print out a large quantity of these blank boards.

Using simple lines and stick-figure subjects, sketch each setup in a frame, observing just a few conventions. Indicate subject movement with arrows in the frame. Show zooms by sketching the wide-angle position, drawing a box around the telephoto position within it and adding diagonal arrows to show whether the movement is in or out. For pans or tilts between two distinct compositions, show each one as a separate frame, with an arrow between frames to link them.

The notes that are written below each frame should contain some or all of the following:

  • Frame number
  • Sequence (“27”) or sequence and shot (“27B)
  • Action (“John runs past; then he exits frame right”)
  • Camera instructions: (“No pan”)
  • Dialogue: (“JOHN: Come back here with that map!”)
  • Other audio: (“SFX: bullet ricochet”)
  • Visual effects: (“Use bluescreen for the ship composite”)

Computer Boards

If you’re deft with a mouse (or are fortunate enough to own a pad and stylus), you can sketch boards directly on your screen. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is with the draw tools in Corel Presentations or Microsoft PowerPoint. This approach makes frames easy to add, insert, delete or modify.

A second method is to make individual sketches in the draw/paint software you favor, then use a graphics organizer to print them as sequential thumbnails. The ThumbsPlus software lets you add extensive notes under each image.

A third route is a publishing package like Adobe PageMaker. You can build a template page of blank frames, then either draw in each one or import an outside graphic or even location photo.

This brings us to how to make a storyboard using commercial storyboard packages. As the sidebar suggests, they can make wonderful organizers for production planning, because you can import digital photos and write extensive commentaries. However, they can be cranky and limited in drawing the shots of your particular show. Though they might seem to allow non-artists to build presentation-quality boards, the skill needed to customize their generic components is substantial.

Shot Lists

Think of a shot list as the writing on a storyboard, without the pictures. Though simple lists of shots don’t let you pre-test potential setups, they do allow you to systematically verify that you are covering every angle you need.

Often shot lists are just quick and dirty notes that help you remember everything you need in a particular sequence. You can also cull a shot list from a fully-written script if you separate the video into separate columns (or separate paragraphs).

Just build a word processor macro that will strip out everything but the scene number as well as any of the visual descriptions.

On the other hand, a shot list built in a database program (such as File Maker Pro) can be one of the most versatile production tools in your kit. Design a database using some or all of the fields that are suggested in the sidebar, using each shot as a separate record.

By creating report forms with different fields and sorts, you can build a working document that can be used for everyone in your production, from the director to the wardrobe person.

How to Make a Storyboard using Software

Commercial software is available for storyboarding but it suffers from problems that are somewhat difficult to overcome.

Most packages work by supplying a pre-drawn set of backgrounds, a grab bag of props (guns, flower pots, cars), and a repertory of characters. By selecting, placing, rotating and scaling these components, you can make very professional looking frames.

The trouble is, they can almost never illustrate your video. The script may say, “The old duchess sweeps into the palace banquet hall.” but the software inventory lacks both an old woman (let alone a duchess) and a palace hall; and the drawing tools for building same are rudimentary, to put it kindly.

True, you can import custom backgrounds from programs like Bryce and characters from 3D modeling software, but expect to spend at least an hour per frame building these hybrid images. Do the math on a three-page board of 12 frames each and decide if this method is really time-effective for your project.

On the other hand, these packages can be useful in production planning if you import digital stills from location scouting and make notes in the fields provided. Shotmaster from the Badham Company is particularly versatile this way.

Bottom line: Storyboard packages have their uses, but don’t expect them to draw what you can’t draw for yourself.

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

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