Storyboarding: Transforming Words into Visual Language

Part One

By Miguel Cima

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Filmmaking begins from the first time you dream. That can be the sleeping kind of dream, or the daydream, where your imagination takes you to amazing places. In both cases, there’s a picture in the mind’s eye. And for the moment, nobody in the world but you can see it. In that way, we are all filmmakers. But what separates the bonafide filmmaker from everyone else is their need to turn those dreams into an actual movie. And that means getting down to the hard work of bringing those visions to life.

The script comes first – that sweet & complete final draft is the first mile marker on your journey. From here forward, just about everything in the creative process becomes solid reality. The actors are real, the props are hard and soft, the wardrobe’s stitching pops, you stand in the locations and breathe the air. But before all that, the very first visualization of your film will be the storyboard.

Storyboards are essentially sequential art – like comic books – which show the linear progression of a film’s action as described in the script. While a screenplay will give certain key visual instructions, it’s not meant to show every single shot, every camera movement, every close-up or every edit. Sure, the important stuff will be pointed out, things that matter to the progress of the narrative. But if every single bit of direction was laid into a script, it would read like stereo instructions.

It’s the storyboard’s job to realize a graphic representation of the film’s sequential progress. Think of it as a slideshow of the entirety of the project that’s drawn rather than photographed. A well-prepared film production will use a storyboard to plan pre-production, keep it at hand on set, and refer to it during the editing process.

But how do we generate one of these wonderful filmmaking tools? We start right where the filmmaking process began: in the mind’s eye. You can see your viral YouTube video already, can’t you? From there, a little organization and guidance can take you to the storyboard.

Here are my step-by-step instructions for getting it done. I’ve divided the steps into two halves – the basics for getting started, and creative guidelines for bringing out the vision. Use them as you will – it’s not the only way to do things – but these tips and suggestions should help you get the job done.

Identify Your Scenes

Storyboarding the typical 90-120 pages of a feature length movie is a long and arduous process. Even producing the 30-second commercial may command great effort on the filmmaker. That’s why scenes need to be broken down into chunks first. Separate the scenes out and work them piecemeal as you assemble the larger overall work.

But how do we identify “a scene” anyway? It can be trickier than you think. Scenes are initially defined by two things: place and time. From there comes context, which can incorporate or transcend those two elements.

Consider Alice in Wonderland as an example. They story starts with Alice looking bored taking lessons from her sister in a garden. She then sees a rabbit with a watch. The curious girl pursues the rabbit down a path. Finally, she follows him down a hole, into which she falls. While technically, there’s a few different places in this sequence, it’s in the same basic stretch of time, outside in the garden, and we could call all of this together a scene.

Alice in Wonderland Scene
Create your own at Storyboard That Alice lessons/bored A rabbit! "I'm late!" Chasing the rabbit Down the hole


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However – once Alice falls into the hole, she’s in a totally different reality. Is this a good place for a scene break? Even if we’re in the same stretch of uninterrupted time? Yes, because the context is totally changed now. No longer in an ordinary pastoral English scene, our heroine is floating through a surreal landscape of upside-down worlds and mad visions. Our places have totally shifted and that means a new page for the storyboard artist. So:

But now let’s look at the problem of montage. Possibly the most famous montage ever is the classic scene in Rocky, where the boxer is training to the uplifting theme music. We see Rocky punching the bag, Rocky skipping rope, and of course, Rocky running down the street with a million kids chasing after him.

Rocky Montage
Create your own at Storyboard That