The Mechanics of Storyboarding

Something that I always emphasize, to anyone who will listen, is the importance of planning. It’s impossible to create a good film on schedule and budget unless you have an accurate schedule and budget. It’s equally impossible to edit a good film out of poorly planned and poorly shot footage. To plan your shots well, you need a storyboard that covers all your shots. Easier said than done. So, today’s mailbag question is, “Is there software or a template you would recommend for storyboarding a movie?”

I can’t think of any software specifically designed for storyboarding a film… all you need to create are simple sketches, so any basic paint program will work just fine (although I highly recommend Wacom tablets to draw with). I do almost all of my storyboarding on paper. I print out a stack of templates, and then scan them back into the computer when I am finished. My template look like this: a 4:3 box for me to draw in, a small box in its upper right hand corner for the shot number, and a small thin box underneath it; just enough for a few lines describing action, camera move, or dialog.

How many of these panels you print onto a piece of paper depends entirely on how large you want to draw. I myself am a very poor artist, so I make very small panels, and I only draw little stick figures in them. Stick figures with noses; so I can tell which way they are looking. Stick figures and arrows showing the camera movements are pretty much all that you need. A little description under each panel will help them make sense if your art is as bad as mine, and shot numbers are imperative to keep things in order. If any shot is complicated enough that it requires multiple panels, name them 14a, 14b, 14c, etc.

Once you have a scene storyboarded, and the panels have been scanned in and separated into individual files, you can load them into Final Cut Pro or Premiere or whatever editing program you use. Then you can lengthen and shorten shots to fit your scratch track (which will be you reading your script with the rough pacing that you want), and create a timed animatic of that sequence. Once you have your whole film storyboarded and cut to a scratch track, you basically have your whole film finished. You can see what takes too long, where you need more shots, and where your pacing is right. Now you can stick your storyboard pages into a folder and go out and shoot a film that you know will work.

This kind of planning takes time, but it is imperative for well-ordered films – particularly for young directors who don’t have a lot of experience yet. Some animatics are cut from video-taped rehearsals with the actors, but unless you fully block the action of the scenes out on the actual sets that you will be using for the final shoot, you won’t have a fully developed idea of your camera angles and cutting, and you’ll still need a proper storyboard that takes these thing into account.

Another option is to build simple mockups of sets and action using a 3D animation package. This will let you animate things exactly as you want them, but don’t get too carried away with your virtual camera and do things that a physical camera can’t replicate. Any piece of 3D software will be just fine for this, as long as it can save video files that can be imported into an editing program and cut to a scratch track. If you can work out all the difficulties of showing the action clearly before you even pick your camera up, you will make a film with good direction.