There are two schools of thought on how to storyboard. The first is to grab a piece of paper or a storyboard template and start sketching. The second is to use specialist storyboard software. Both have their place but whichever approach you choose, understanding what a storyboard is and it's place in pre-production will stand you in good stead.
Every good storyboard starts with a script. Scripts can be relatively simple, outlining the key points you want to hit. Equally, they can be very complex, describing transitions, voiceover and more in great detail. Either way, you’ll need an agreed upon starting point before making things visual.
While it should be clearly established what a client wants from a piece, at this stage the script can (and, in all likelihood, should) change during the storyboarding process. There are some things which seem like they’re going to be Oscar winners in script form, but for whatever reason don’t work visually. Be ready to tweak and tinker.
Sketching out your frames - a process known as 'scamping' - involves turning a script from something written into something visual. It's no place for fancy special effects. Scamping is rough, messy, and raw - a storyboard in its essential form.
An example scamped storyboard frame
A scamped storyboard’s primary function is to help you make sense of the narrative and quickly come up with ideas and make changes, without being overly concerned about visual style. You don't need to be storyboard artist - stick figures or rough sketches can suffice!
The scamping process can be a powerful thinking tool. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind:
What will your storyboard be used for? Short films, feature films, music videos, and other pieces of traditional moving image are often shot in 16:9, however unconventional aspect ratios are much more common today (e.g. square video on Instagram). The aspect ratio will dictate how you frame your images, so make sure to get this nailed down early.
Scamps are, by definition, rough. They're for you, and unless your client is 100% clear that what they're seeing is not the final version, aren't shared. Don't get too precious.
Some parts of the script may feel slow or laboured when visualised. Are there leaps in time or logic? Can some sections be removed entirely? Be ready to feed these ideas back into the script – this iterative feedback process is one of the principal strengths of scamping a storyboard.
If your character is trudging through a muddy river in one shot, they’ll need to be dirty in the next. If your leading lady has been running after energetic dogs on the beach, they’ll need to be looking exhausted when they return home. Consider the chronological order of what you're writing.
If a character is walking out his bedroom at home, you may need an in-between shot before he walks up the stairs to his office, sits down and starts work. Make sure you take your viewers on a journey.
Once you’re happy with how the narrative is flowing and any script amendments are signed off, it’s time to develop the final version of your storyboard. As you’d expect, this will be more indicative of what your piece of moving image will look like once complete, and will act as a reference for the director or animator.
Now that you've finalised your storyboard, it's the perfect time to consider subtler visual cues. What mood do you want your piece to have, and how can you communicate it? Framing, color, and video transition effects are all great ways to amplify emotion which might be missing from the script. Here are a few things to consider:
Setting a scene during a particular time of day will evoke a feeling in your audience. Morning is more optimistic, whereas late evening can suggest urgency or suspense.
Silhouetting a character can be a helpful way of seeing if your shots make sense. Look at your scenes without any detailed linework, and you'll quickly discover whether or not your action is comprehensible.
Adding in staging elements and colour helps convey the mood you're after, but shouldn’t distract from the story. Character is king.
Vary your shot types and camera angles. Too much of the same thing will quickly become dull and repetitive. The image on the left shows a long shot, with the image on the right showing a close-up.
The storyboarding process is a fluid one. Embrace making changes, trying things out and feeding them back into the script, and you'll be in the best possible position when you start production.
How do you approach the storyboarding process? Let us know in the comments.