Good cinematography starts with a clear cinematic vision, but finding a way to communicate that vision to your cast and crew can be difficult. Even for a crew of one, having a way to plan and keep track of your visual ideas will lead to a smoother and more productive shoot. Storyboarding is one simple though oft-dismissed solution to these common challenges, but how can you make the most out of your time spent at the drawing board?
1. Start with Story
Whether the film you’re producing is narrative, documentary, experimental or something else, storyboarding starts with — you guessed it — story. Even non-narrative films will have some sort of conflict or story arc outlined in the script or treatment. Before you sit down to draw, start with a few basic questions: What and who is this story about? Where and when does it take place? What is the intended overall feel and look of the film? Spending time annotating the script, creating a shot list and practicing with a few preliminary sketches will help your finished storyboards feel more focused and cohesive, ultimately leading to a more polished final cut.
2. Keep it Simple
Sure, you’re an artist, but you work in video, not figure drawing. We can’t all hire professional storyboard artists, but before you get overwhelmed, remember: Keep it simple. There’s nothing wrong with stick figures if they can communicate your idea clearly to those who need to understand it. The consistent use of simple symbols, along with a legend for reference, can be just as effective as full-color works of art. If you are pressed for time, consider storyboarding only the most visually complex sequences, but be diligent in prioritizing which sequences require the most planning.
There’s nothing wrong with stick figures if they can communicate your idea clearly to those who need to understand it.
3. Be Specific
Since you’re going to spend time sitting at a desk with a pencil in hand rather than out in the field with a camera, you might as well make it worthwhile. A few vague drawings meant to encapsulate your entire cinematic vision won’t be much help in communicating with your DP. Instead, spend time in pre-production drawing out those specific camera angles and compositions on which your story depends. Use written descriptions where needed, and make sure to include all the visual information members of your crew will need to do their jobs. This will ensure everyone is ready when the time comes to shoot, saving you time, money and anxiety during production.
4. Think in 3-D Space
The frame may be 2-D, but your subjects are moving through three-dimensional space. As you are planning your shots, think spatially, taking into consideration not only the movement, composition and perspective of each shot, but also the spatial connections between shots in each scene. If you have access to the locations or sets in advance, snap a few stills to reference as you think about character blocking and camera movement. The camera plays a vital role in building the space your characters will inhabit. Take time in pre-production to make it seamless.
5. Bring it With You
Okay. You’ve devoted hours in pre-production to making a comprehensive storyboard covering your entire script — or at least the most visually complex portions of it — now bring it with you to your shoot. Your drawings won’t be useful to anyone if they are sitting on your desk or in your camera bag. On set, you and your crew should be checking them constantly to ensure both proper coverage and adherence to the original vision. Pass out copies to your crew for them to mark up and reference as needed —and take lots of notes. These will be useful in post-production.
Storyboarding is often considered one of the most tedious tasks in pre-production. Though dreaded by many less skilled with a pencil and paper, effective storyboarding makes it easier to share your cinematic vision with the people who will help you achieve it and can save you time and money in the long run. If you start to groan at the thought of sketching out that next scene, remember this: The most value tools in any production are planning and communication — so get drawing!