It was 4:30 AM in the morning. We had one shot left to take on a short film aptly titled Difficult Places. Our location was an abandoned jail and a haunted feeling hovered over the production. This would be the only weekend of filming in this amazing place and our only chance to get everything in the can. The crew had been there since before the sun got up, working non-stop, eating between takes. We had to shoot that final scene, pack up all the equipment, return it to the rental house and be at our Monday morning day jobs by 9 o’clock sharp.
We had saved an easy scene for the end and the set was already dressed. But oh my god were we tired. Brains were fried, eyes were bleary, nerves were frazzled. There was very little thought at this point, we were more zombie than human. How would we know what we were doing in this condition? Could we get the Martini shot right?The answer: Yes, yes we could. Because right in our hands was the storyboard. This is the linchpin for your vision, a keystone around which your entire project is built. Along with a script, it’s also your compass, keeping the entire endeavor on the right course.
Essentially, a storyboard is a form of sequential art. It resembles a comic book in that each of your film’s shots are represented frame by frame in the order they will appear. Traditionally, they’ve been drawn on formatted paper. But digital versions are now available via content generating software, creating files that can be emailed, projected or shared with investors during meetings. Once completed, the storyboard charts the film’s shots in the order they need to appear in the planned edit of your work. For example, here’s a sequence where an unfortunate court jester slips on a banana and falls down:
Now that may seem silly, but if you shoot that court jester just right for a viral video, it could be super funny and get lots of views. But you have to plan every shot first. See all the different angles? The crucial close up of the foot and the banana peel? That’s camera setups right there. Plus lighting. Of course, you can also see loads of actor prep & execution. Costume design, perhaps? And this definitely means you’re securing a set to shoot on, be it one you build or one you find.
There it is: the visual guide that is a storyboard. You finally have the power of your project in your hands.
OK, so now you get the idea of what the storyboard is and how it works, right? But what does it all add up to? Just what can using a storyboard do to help further your quest – your film, your viral video, your slick ad? Let us count the ways…
For the first time you get to actually see your script. It shoots through you like lightning – this thing is real. Your endorphins kick in and you’re ready to keep up the marathon that is film production. The storyboard is a graphic carrot that keeps the creator moving forward. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron have all used them to inspire their vision. Check out some examples here.
If you’ve ever tried to pitch a story or get someone to read a script, you know that stare that often comes next. It’s the “Huh?” or “What?” look on their face. You know your idea rules, but it’s hard getting investors, industry reps, or even your crew to understand what you want to do. A storyboard changes all that. When your idea breaches into the visual sphere, colleagues will instantly connect to your expression. Now you not only have their attention, you own their curiosity. And hopefully their money and contributions!
Whether you’re making your creation alone or have a crew of 100 people, the storyboard lets everyone involved see what needs to be done on a shot-by-shot basis. The script can be broken down. Sound and camera teams can plan lighting, lenses, mics, and setups. Set personnel can start building and dressing scenes. Location scouts can find the perfect place to shoot. Continuity can more easily keep things consistent. And it’s the same for films, YouTube videos, or ad pitches.
OK, so you definitely have the best idea for an ad ever – we’re not saying you don’t. But now that you’ve storyboarded your vision, you see some problems afoot. For one thing, you have your heroine stepping out of her car on a sunny afternoon straight from driving at night!
That ain’t right!
And in scene 17, where you have the guy running down the stairs and exiting onto the roof…umm, how do stairs descend onto a ROOF?
Obviously, they don’t!
Up isn’t Down and Day isn’t Night. You got carried away by the awesomeness of your writing. No sweat, your storyboard caught it. Script pages can be rewritten. The cinematographer can suggest a new shot, and it can be drawn and worked out on a new sheet. The storyboard has got your back.
When’s the exact worst time for everything to go wrong on a project? Why, when you’re actually shooting, of course! You can always book extra post production days, and endlessly tweak before production. But once you’re shooting, every second costs tons of money. Prepping with storyboard gets planning lined up to make those precious days as smooth as can be. And that will save on expensive reshoots, compromised visions, or worst of all – an incomplete, unsuccessful flop of a product. Poor planning can run expenses up in pre and post, too. Editing takes a lot of time, and getting pros to do it ain’t cheap. Get through that rough cut as fast as you can. Let the storyboard be your guide. And before you shoot a single shot – when you’re deep in preproduction – make every single crew meeting more efficient by having a storyboard to explain things to all of your department heads.
Raising funds for a movie is a really tough business. Investors want to see return, of course. Whether it’s a shoestring indie or a big budget spectacle, you’re not going to get a green light unless you’ve really sold your vision to the right patron. A storyboard can burn your vision into a prospective sponsor’s brain. And that’s not theory, many famous movies were made on the strength of storyboards. True story: The Matrix got its final funding OK’d after the Wachowski Bros. showed Fox Studios a 600-page, shot-by-shot storyboard. That helped free up $60 million to make the movie. Read the amazing story here.
From the first second you start shooting, you’re fighting daylight. Filmmaking is an exhausting, time-consuming process demanding constant on-the-spot problem solving. It’s about 16-hour work days that are 99% sweat and frustration just to capture a precious few moments of useable footage. And boy can things take a turn! Did it start raining on your outdoor shoot? An actor called in sick? Sound gear broke? With so many treacherous obstacles to overcome, failing to be a master of your vision every step of the way can undo all of your good work. But a storyboard can save you from disaster. Use it to shoot around the obstacles, to see if there’s anything else in the script you’re equipped to get. It all counts – close ups, establishing shots, or maybe you can find a place in your editing scheme to fit in that really cool looking cloud floating above you. With this crucial filmmaking tool in hand, there’s no situation you can’t make work to your best advantage. No matter what storm any given production day may bring, your storyboard is your anchor, your steering wheel, your safe port of call.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A storyboard will be the very foundation of making your creative dreams come true. It’s a roadmap to a successful production. There are so many ways that having storyboards at hand will save you from trouble, add cohesion to your project, boost your confidence and just make so damned professional – we can’t even predict every situation it’ll serve. Seriously, if you have a vision you need to bring to a film or video, do yourself a huge favor – use storyboards. You will be so much happier that you did! Promise!
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.