By definition, storyboards are those comic strip-looking sketches that visualize the narrative arch of your film project. But they’re also so much more than that.

If you think for a moment that you might skip the storyboarding step of pre-production, don’t. Storyboarding is the true axis point that conveys your creative vision to your clients, your crews, and your cast. A properly made storyboard will organize your team (and your thoughts) well before the cameras start rolling.

Let’s get started.

Aspect ratio is your guide

Each panel in your storyboard represents an individual scene. That means you’re going to have a lot of panels.

To maximize clarity, use a grid system and 6–9 panels per page. This will ensure you have enough room to communicate your idea without getting too granular. And for all things holy: number your pages. More on that later.

As you draw each panel, match your film’s aspect ratio for that particular shot. So if you’re filming in 16:9, create panels that are as close to 16:9 as possible. This will help your camera crew and stylists get a sense of what you want everything to look like.

Pro tip: Gridded field notebooks are great for drafting in.

Keep it simple

If art class wasn’t your forte, fret not: storyboarding doesn’t require you to be a wizard with a no. 2 pencil. In fact, drawing skills are only a tiny portion of what will bring your story together. Outlines and stick figures work just fine to get your point across.

Like most things in life, practice makes perfect-ish. The more you draw, the better you’ll be. As you improve, you can add finer details in. Until then, just scribble notes below your frames.

Number everything

As you create your storyboards, be sure to number your pages, your panels, and your subpanels. Things get wild during production — you’ll be switching locations, different departments will need different segments of the storyboard, and you’ll need to pull pages from the stack in a pinch. So do yourself a favor: create a system you can easily follow and stick to it.

As you wrap each scene on set, cross it off with a pen (or better yet, a bright highlighter). This way, you won’t miss any shots.

Who, what, where…

Three questions must be answered to make your storyboard useful in pre-production. Who is in the talent in the scene? What are they doing? And where are they?

Your talent is likely the most important element in each scene, so starting with them can help you think through their placement and movement in the frame. Focus on the major details you need to convey.

Directional signals 

If your shot calls for motion from your talent, an object, or your camera, use arrows to communicate the direction.

Make notes under each panel (or create a system of color-coded arrows) that define the type of movement. This way, someone won’t accidentally walk out of frame when you were signaling camera movement.

Again, simplicity is key

Storyboard the major shots that move your story ahead, and let your shot list fill in the holes. This translates to around three pages per act in your film. Or, traditionally: beginning, middle, and end.

If you’re on the fence about whether or not you need a storyboard panel for a shot, consider the amount of time it takes for you to describe the shot. If you need a visual aid to get your idea across, take the time to draw it out. Even if it’s just for you, going through the process of mapping out your storyline out is immensely helpful in ensuring a smooth production.

Header image from “Dance Grooves” by Arina Shabanova.

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