How to get started on storyboarding.
Long before a movie hits the big screen, a storyboard artist brings the script to life. Explore the creative process of storyboarding, what camera shots work well for storytelling, and get some career advice on breaking into this pre-production role.
What’s a storyboard?
A storyboard is a series of drawings that visually tells the story of a screenplay or script. Varying in style from detailed drawings to stick figures, the key element of any storyboard is that it delivers a clear user experience for production teams to execute the story. “Some storyboards are super crude,” Archer and Black Lightning storyboard artist Kevin Mellon says. “But as long as it’s a storyboard that conveys information and emotion, it doesn’t matter.”
A good storyboard brings the storyline to life.
As visual representations of a script, storyboards begin the process of translating a story to the screen. They’re an important part of the pre-visualization process for everything from Disney cartoons to live-action motion pictures. “Storyboards are a guide that allows the director to explain what’s in their head to a hundred other people on set,” Mellon explains.
But an artist that draws storyboards isn’t simply executing a mandate. They must be a storyteller first and foremost, coming up with creative ways to break down scenes shot by shot in compelling ways while working in all the relevant details. “Always do the dynamic or interesting thing in storyboards, first,” Mellon says. “Then we start Jenga with what’s possible — pulling out shots that are super hard to get.” Suggested special effects that go beyond the video production budget can be cut later, but in storyboards, opt for whatever makes the story most compelling. (Keep in mind, this process may be different based on the medium you want to work in. Animation storyboards, for instance, differ from live action as they often begin as a simple visual outline that gets fleshed out by a writer and artist collaborating on a more final product.)
The storyboarding process: Putting camera shots together.
“When it comes to the storyboarding, you’re not just doing the storytelling,” explains Archer art director Neal Holman. You’re starting to envision what types of shots might be used in different moments to establish tone and character. A storyboard artist will use different camera angles and types of shots to add action, drama, and emotion to a scene. A director will begin creating their shot list from what is established in the storyboards. An establishing shot can be used to set the scene, an extreme close-up can add emotional focus, and the framing of different characters can help underscore their relationships. These are all creative choices that are made first by the storyboard artist.
That’s how a professional storyboard artist does it, but how do you learn what shots work well together? Research and study will help you learn what types work well in certain sequences. Studying film theory will help you learn what shots work well in which sequences. Then start simply with only a few types of shots.
Honing your skill with three types of shots.
Basic storyboarding can be distilled down to three types of shots: a single that focuses on one person, an over-the-shoulder shot that looks past one character to another, and a two-shot of both characters interacting. “You can bounce back and forth between them — those shots are not hard,” Mellon says. “Where the storytelling comes in is how you order those shots and when you zoom in or zoom out to push emotion in those moments. How do you take the basic language of those three shots and put your spin on it?”
Your first storyboard will be a learning experience in what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the basics, practice will help you hone your storyboarding skills as you try out new ideas. “Grab a screenplay for something you haven’t seen and do a storyboard,” Holman suggests. “After you get through with a scene, play with it and watch how the pros did it — it’s an interesting contrast. You can teach yourself a lot about how the pros work and how they think.”
Get a peek at award-winning animator and filmmaker Chris Dooley’s storyboards for his live-action and animated work.
Breaking into a storyboarding career.
Whether your goal is to become an animator, work on live-action feature films, or plot storyboards for opening credits, music videos, or video marketing, creating a portfolio of work is a must. “I hear it time and time again. ‘I really want to do storyboards.’ Can I see some of your storyboards? ‘I’ve never done them,’” Holman says. “If you want to do boards, start doing boards.”
Once you’ve studied the type of work you want to do and started creating your own, you can add it to your portfolio. Then look at the film credits for the types of projects you want to work on and try to make connections to get your work in front of those people. “If you can show a range — you can do an action show and a Bob’s Burgers — I’m going to be even more impressed with you,” Holman says. “People who come from drawing comic books can be great because they’re so used to drawing good anatomy and focusing on composition in the frame.”
“If you want to do boards, start doing boards.”
The process of landing a storyboarding job may take a long time, but with script resources to work from, you can continue improving your work and building your portfolio as you search and network. Discover what other storyboard artists are doing on Behance to pick up tips on drawing storyboards and what to include in your portfolio.
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