Hitchcock is "notorious" for having done it. Spielberg has been known to hire armies of artists to do it. Now, thanks to new technologies, even the most basic videomaker can make use of it. If you don’t do it, in fact, you could be opening yourself up to problems you might not otherwise have.
We’re talking, of course, about visualizing your video project before you shoot. You might have heard of it by another name: storyboarding.
A storyboard is the most often used tool for getting a sense of how an idea will work before putting it down on tape. It involves, simply, drawing a still image of what a final shot might look like. Storyboards consist of a series of images, much like the panels of a comic strip, that give you an idea of how to compose different scenes. Perhaps more importantly, they illustrate how these scenes might (or might not) fit together once you begin editing.
But storyboards aren’t the only method of preproduction visualization. Some people use models, dolls or maps. And with the explosion in desktop video technology, several programs are available that allow you to do this on your computer.
So maybe you’re asking, "Why do I need to go to all that trouble?" The simple answer is: to save yourself more trouble. Visualizing your ideas before you shoot allows you, by yourself, on your own time, to get an idea of what will and what won’t work. True, this won’t solve everything, but it can go a long way toward giving your production a professional finish.
As mentioned above, Hitchcock was well known for storyboarding every shot in his films. In fact, he was so meticulous about it that he considered that phase of the production–drawing the storyboards–to be the actual process of making the film. For him, shooting the film was just a necessary evil; the making of the storyboards was where most of the creative work took place. The storyboard not only determined exactly what the shot would look like; it even decided what kind of lens to use. Production for Hitchcock, then, was simly a matter of creating live versions of the storyboards he’d already made.
Who can forget the shower scene from Psycho, its every shot communicating new terror? Or the plane chasing Cary Grant in North by Northwest? If Hitchcock had decided how to shoot either of these sequences on the location, there’s little doubt they wouldn’t have come out as well–as slick, as carefully put together.
But how can drawing a few storyboards have such an effect on the final outcome of a film or video? The main reason is time. Storyboarding is done before your video ever shows up on tape. Rather than spending time with your fully charged and powered up camera in your hand trying to decide what and how to shoot your video, you sit in a room by yourself and go over the script in detail. In essence, you pretend you’re shooting the video and you draw each shot as you go. You can then review these drawings in sequence to make sure everything will go together the way you think it will. If it doesn’t, its best to know this beforehand. That way, you can make changes before you shoot, sometimes eliminating the need for re-shooting.
Another potential method is the use of models. During the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, director Steven Spielberg used a model of the Nazi airfield in order to plan the sequence where Indiana Jones fights under the flying wing.
If you’ll recall, that sequence involved Marion (Karen Allen) trapped in the plane while Jones (Harrison Ford) fought the mechanic under the plane while it rotated and then a truck of soldiers pulled up and started shooting machine guns while the gas cans got knocked over and the fuel ran toward the truck and Marion fired a machine gun from the plane and Jones knocked the mechanic under the prop and then–Whew!
Now imagine trying to explain in words a sequence as logistically complicated as this one. Enter the model. With almost no effort, Spielberg was able to show his cast and crew exactly what he wanted. "The plane turns this way," and "The truck comes in this way." The results are clear: the sequence stands as a masterpiece of modern pop cinema.
Okay, so you might not have plans to build a scale model of every shot you want to get. Even so, it might help you to lay out your more complicated scenes using some kind of model. Maybe a shoe box could represent your house, and a couple of matchsticks could stand in for your family…you get the idea.
Remember, the main idea behind any form of preproduction visualization is to be prepared. True, this means a lot of planning beforehand, but it can potentially save time and money later.
Before we get into actual use, it’s probably best to begin with two exercises designed to give you some practical insight into how this whole process works.
For the first exercise, you’ll need a storyboard template. Storyboards used for Hollywood movies are large–usually only one image to an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper. But remember, they also have professional artists who do nothing but create storyboards for the movie. If you want to make them that large, by all means, do so. It’s all a matter of how much time and effort you want to put into it.
Because that size is probably a little larger than most people will find practical, we’ve included a storyboard template here for you to copy. It’s probably a good idea to take it out and make plenty of copies now. You’ll need at least one before you continue.
Now get a videotape copy of your favorite movie and put it into a VCR with a good still frame and a remote control. Sit down in front of the TV with a pencil and a copy of your storyboard template.
Now find your favorite scene in that movie, but don’t try one that’s too long. No more than a few minutes is best to start with. It may very well surprise you to see how many shots (or edits) there are in such a small space of film. Just to give you an idea: the shower sequence from Psycho has 52 shots in a span that lasts only two minutes and eight seconds.
So you’ve picked your sequence. Now freeze the frame on the first shot of the sequence and draw a still representation of that image.
"But wait!" you say, "What if the shot is a long pan of the Manhattan skyline finally settling in on a closeup of a man’s face? I can’t draw one picture that says all of that!" You’re right. That’s why there are two methods for indicating motion in storyboards.
The first is to use an arrow to indicate the motion the camera will take. Using the arrow can eliminate the need for a second drawing. In figure 2, for example, we start with a medium shot of a woman and then dolly in to a closeup. This storyboard depicts the opening medium shot; the arrow indicates what the shot will do.
The second method is to use a series of drawings for a single shot. Figure 3 shows the long pan of the Manhattan skyline. Notice how the opening of the shot comes first. An arrow again indicates the direction of the pan. In the second panel, another key phase of the shot appears, another arrow and finally, in the third panel, the final part of the shot. By connecting these and using careful description under each storyboard, you can effectively communicate the shot while using only still images.
So you’re ready to continue. Let the tape roll again until the next shot appears. Freeze frame. Now draw another picture. Continue until you get to the end of your sequence.
For our example here, we’ve recreated the first few shots from Psycho‘s famous shower sequence.
Remember, storyboards don’t have to be full of detail. Look at these simple stick figures; though theyre not very detailed, they effectively communicate the way the shot will look. And that’s the idea.
The second exercise is far simpler. It involves getting your hands on the closest thing to printed storyboards that are out there: comic books. Not only can reading comic books give you ideas about composition, they can give you ideas about new ways to communicate motion or action, and ways to draw as well.
Trying It Out
So now you’re ready to try storyboarding one of your own projects. Let’s pretend you’re making a short video (perhaps four minutes in length) called Boy Loses Girl. The story is simple, involving a man getting a call from his girlfriend, leaving his apartment to drive to his girlfriend’s house, talking to her and then leaving the city.
Take your script and read the opening scene. Now close your eyes and think about the way it ought to play on screen. What should be the first image the audience sees? Perhaps you want to open with a wide shot of the house. Maybe you think an extreme close up of the telephone will be better. Both of these shots are different; both communicate different things. But drawing them first and then looking at them in series can only help you see which one you like best. And that also saves you time when youre shooting.
If you’ve decided to go with the closeup of the telephone, then you don’t need to shoot the exterior of the house. And vice-versa. It also saves time in editing because when it comes time to put it all together, you already know exactly how to arrange the shots. Of course, this isn’t to say things won’t or can’t change. But the value of storyboarding is enormous nonetheless.
Continue with this procedure until you’ve storyboarded your whole script. Now look at your drawings. Yes, that’s the way you want your video to look. Now it’s time to ask the question: is it possible?
In order to determine that, check each shot against the location to make sure. In the case of this project, you have three essential locations. If you’re like most low-budget videomakers, chances are you’re going to use your house or apartment for location number one, a friend’s house or apartment for location number two and your own town limits for the final location.
If, for example, you’re planning a wide shot inside your friend’s apartment and it’s a studio, chances are you won’t be able to make it work unless you have a wide-angle lens. Answering this question is yet another way storyboards can help you.
Remember, storyboards allow you to shoot the video before you shoot the video.
The procedure described above is, of course, the old-fashioned way. And if you don’t like to draw–not even stick figures–then thanks to advances in desktop video technology, you don’t have to. Now there are computer-based ways to create storyboards.
ShowScape, produced by Lake Compuframes, combines a script-writing program with a feature that allows the importation of graphics for use as storyboards. It prints these in a side-by-side format–that is, the storyboard panels are on one half of the page while space for descriptive text is on the other half. ShowScape also sells the storyboard forms ready to use in a computer printer with instructions for formatting. ShowScape is available in DOS, Windows or Mac formats.
A similar package is available from Morley and Associates. Called Scriptwriting Tools, this program’s primary use is for script formatting. (Depending on what the script is for, it must follow a certain format. This means that scripts for documentaries are written a certain way, different from those written for television, the movies, or radio programs.) One of the formats Scriptwriting Tools will produce, however, is for storyboards. This allows you to create illustrations on the Mac or import graphics from other files and plug them into a template with three boxes for drawings per page.
Finally, there is PowerProduction Softwares Storyboard Quick, the only package of these three devoted solely to producing storyboards. Using pre-drawn characters and props, you point and click to drag these items into a storyboard frame. The program then allows you to resize items, reverse their direction or create new shot sizes (e.g. long shot, medium shot, closeup). Multiple storyboard formats are available in a variety of frame numbers per page, as well as a variety of aspect ratios. What’s more, you can import scanned images and video captures into the program for use as a backdrop. This means you can take a photo of your location and actually pull it into the computer to use as the background for the storyboards you create.
Not Just Fiction
"This is all well and good," you say, "but what if I don’t make fictional videos?" The simple answer is: it doesn’t matter. Any kind of video can benefit from the kind of planning that storyboarding provides.
So you’re shooting a wedding video? It’s true, technically you don’t have a script. But in a sense you do. Traditional weddings, at least, follow a fairly set format. Create a simple outline of the service as it’s planned, then think about how to shoot it and storyboard as explained above.
As was the case with Boy Loses Girl, imagine what the first image the audience sees will be. A wide shot of the church? A tight closeup of the groom’s trembling hand? Again, each of these shots is different and communicates different things. Plan the whole shoot this way. Will you shoot the exchange of vows in a two shot (with both bride and groom in the frame)? Or will you intercut closeups of both the bride and the groom? Will you include shots of the presiding clergy member or justice of the peace?
By drawing each shot out, you’ll have a much better idea of what goes together and what doesn’t. What’s more, you can present your plan for shooting the wedding to the bride and groom. Instead of just describing the images, now you’ll be able to assure them they’re getting the best product possible by showing them your ideas.
How about when you shoot your daughter’s birthday only for your familys enjoyment? Storyboarding still serves a purpose by helping you plan what to shoot. And by shooting what you’ve planned, you’ll know that you’ve shot everything you need. Shooting according to your storyboard plan can also prevent needless overshooting. Why shoot five minutes of each present when you’ve planned it so you only need one shot of the whole pile?
Wrapping It Up
Storyboarding, whether you do it by drawing the shots out or working with models, is an effective and easy-to-use tool.
By investing time up front, you can potentially save time and money later. What’s more, by presenting a carefully thought-out plan to those with whom you’re working, your final product will come out looking more polished and professional.
And that alone is worth the investment.
Sidebar: Storyboard Software Companies
This list is only a sampling. It is not meant to be comprehensive.
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Morley and Associates
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Bloomington, MN 55420
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