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How to make a storyboard – Fundamentals

James Chambers
James Chambers, Co-founder
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Friend: “I might be getting married next week.”

Me: “What?! To who?”

Friend: “I don’t know. But the producers assure me she’ll be perfect.”

Me: “…”

Although paraphrased, this is more or less a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple of years back. He’d applied to be on a reality TV show, the premise of which was that the two “winners” would meet one another and get married, all within one eventful afternoon.

He didn’t win. On reflection, he’d probably tell you he’s quite happy that things took the course they did. After all, there is only so much you can learn about someone on paper. Going from a Tinder profile to the registry office without what my parents would call “courting” is more often than not, going to end in tears. It’s going from point A to point C, bypassing point B.

I believe this principle can be applied to many areas of life. While I wouldn’t necessarily put the consequences of making a film which isn’t as good as it could be up there with spending your life with an ill-matched lunatic, I do believe taking time to plan out a story is indeed time very well spent.

Just as you wouldn’t go barreling down the aisle with just anyone, it’s highly inadvisable to dive into making a film, waving a hastily written script in your clammy hands, without having taken the time to plan out how your story will work visually. And the best way to do this is – you’ve guessed it – with a storyboard.

01B-Frame Final

There are two schools of thought on how to make a storyboard. The first is to draw them with good old-fashioned pen and paper. The second, use specialist storyboard software. Both have their uses, but whichever approach you choose, understanding the process behind it will stand you in good stead.

Start with a script

Before you can start storyboarding, you’ll need 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.

Scamp like a champ

Scamping is the process of turning a script from something written into something visual. It’s rough, messy, and raw - a storyboard in its essential form.

01A-Frame-Scamp

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.

The scamping process can be a powerful thinking tool. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind:

1. Keep it rough

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.

2. Keep it moving

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.

3. Consider continuity

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.

4. Watch out for jumps in logic

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.

Revise and finalise

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 is the perfect time to start thinking about subtler visual cues. What mood do you want your piece to have, and how can you communicate it? Framing, colour and transitions (which we’ll cover in a later post) are all great ways to amplify emotion which might be missing from the script. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Time of day

02-Time

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.

2. Do a silhouette check

03-Framing2

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.

3. Don’t upstage your character

03-Framing

Adding in staging elements and colour helps convey the mood you’re after, but shouldn’t distract from the story. Character is king.

4. Ensure enough variety

05-Variety

Vary your shots. Too much of the same thing will quickly become dull and repetitive.

Applying this process

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.

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James Chambers
About the Author

James Chambers is the co-founder of Boords, and one of the founding directors of Animade