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Why use a story board?

To make a short film, even just a few minutes long, without first creating storyboards is like writing an essay without an outline.  Shooting video is a deceptively difficult process, and even the most well-planned scenes can go awry without careful storyboards.  While a script is essential for any film longer than a few seconds, film is a visual medium. Imagine trying to paint a picture using only written instructions, and it becomes clear that to effectively plan for a film, visual aids must be used. 

Storyboards serve several functions that a written script cannot:

  1. Establish framing.  What should be depicted on the video, and where should the borders of the shot be located?  The framing of a shot can lead the viewer’s eye to a specific place, emphasize colors or shapes, and otherwise provide visual information to accentuate the action. 
  2. Provide blocking and focus information.  Where are the actors in relation to each other?  Who or what should be in focus, and does the focus change?  Just like in a play, the scenes of a short film must be laid out to prevent actors from blocking one another or covering up important elements of the scene.  Unlike in a play, the person making the film has the ability to change focus to direct the viewer’s eye.
  3. Plan actor movements and action.  The motion of actors should be part of the storyboards so that both actors and directors clearly understand what the action of the scene will be. 
  4. Plan camera movements.  Storyboards can show the intended pan, tilt, or zoom of a camera, leaving the director with one less decision to worry about while filming.
  5. Demonstrate editing possibilities.  Where to cut in a film can create dramatic tension or emphasize a joke.  Considering the length of each shot, when to cut, and what the next scene will depict all give the director greater control over shooting the film.

Each of these things may seem like something that can be puzzled out while shooting the video or simply too insignificant to worry about.  Once filming begins, however, small details can add up into big problems.  A moviemaker who hasn’t planned well in the early stages of the film may not adapt as well to problems as if they had made storyboards.  Sometimes, the person making the movie may even forget some details they had wished to include.  Creating a storyboard takes little time and energy, but the results can be clearly seen in the finished product.  Sloppy editing, distracting background action, bland visuals, and even bad acting can all be the result of failing to draw a storyboard.      

Designing the Storyboard

A storyboard is like a cartoon of the film.  Early in movie history, many films used camera angles and shots that had been developed in comic strips, and it’s easy to see why.  The borders of each panel in a comic, the problems of presenting three-dimensional space on a flat surface, and the storytelling problems of a graphic medium are all shared by movies and comics. 

When you draw your storyboard, imagine drawing a comic strip for a newspaper.  Draw some squares on a sheet of paper or computer drawing program and begin doodling the scene as you imagine it.  It doesn’t have to be great art – stick figures should be enough.  Think of the setting you have selected for the scene, and how best to show the action that will occur.  If there is no action in the scene, don’t worry: your film is part of a long tradition of independent art films. 

A well-designed storyboard may be the second or third draft of your original doodle.  If you have time, make alternative storyboards and think of other ways to shoot a scene.  This will provide you with something to fall back on if your original plan fails, and will also help to better imagine the movie.  Once you have finished your storyboard, make sure to bring it with you and use it as a reference along with the script. 

Thinking of a movie as a cartoon or other graphical sequence might be difficult at first, but visualizing it in this way will greatly reduce the amount of time spent shooting a scene.  The storyboard can even be a useful guide when editing the film, helping to determine the timing and sequence of shots.  The positive difference in using storyboards will be clear when you complete your film.  

Examples and Resources