In the frame: Storyboarding in-depth

Storyboarding remains a crucial part of pre-production in filmmaking, even as technology continues to evolve.

The process involves visualising potential shots and camera movements as a guide for the director. Drawing is done by hand, even if the actual image creation is now often aided with pen tablet hardware that transfers pen strokes directly to a computer.

"As a storyboard artist you usually come onto a project right at the start, but sometimes you can end up on set, especially if you're brought on for re-shoots," says Douglas Ingram, whose 20 years of experience dates back to a 1995 adaptation of Richard III starring Ian McKellen.

The prevailing view is that a good knowledge of how a film set operates is a major advantage for people coming into the job, as is a degree of technical awareness when it comes to cameras and lenses. Ideally the storyboard artist needs to know where the director plans to put the camera from scene to scene.

Mastering three or four drawing styles is a good way to ensure you can adapt more easily to the specific preferences of different directors.

"Get good at studying how people move and react with each other," says Jonathan Millward, who has worked on TV, features and commercials. "I started filling up sketchbooks while walking through London and other cities in the world. I've been doing that for a good 20 years now."


Communication is crucial

Storyboarding experiences differ widely for artists depending on the directors they work with and the type of production.

"Ideally you need a good rapport with the director," considers James Husbands, similarly a veteran of films, TV and commercials (pictured below). "Physically laying a director's ideas on the page helps refine that idea and as the storyboard artist you'll be the first to see whether or not the plan is technically feasible. You need to be able to communicate that."

For Ingram, smaller independent productions can sometimes offer more opportunities for collaboration. Big-budget shoots can involve directors keen for a storyboard artist to whip up a precise vision on the page.

"Filmmakers like Tom Hooper know precisely the shots they want and it's a matter of visualising that for them," Ingram says. "Others have much less of an idea and you really feel like you're guiding them through the process."

In Millward's experience, some filmmakers are skilled sketch artists themselves but simply don't have the time to visualise their ideas. Others have a strong idea but can't sketch.   

"It helps when a director can offer initial sketches of their idea," Husbands adds. "Some people just want better versions of something crude that they've already prepared."

Larger shoots often hire a team of storyboard artists as part of the art department, answering to the production designer. Each artist is usually allocated a separate scene to work on. Different styles come together as ideas are bounced around the room.

"Fast & Furious 6 was a bit different," Ingram says. "For that film there was a team of us, but effectively act one, act two and act three of the same scene was each worked on by a different person."


Impact of technology

James Brandow has spent a career storyboarding for the advertising industry, and talks of how commercials differ from film and TV.

“You’re not asked to produce as many storyboard frames for commercial campaigns,” he says. “It’s more about the feel and style, and making a slick presentation.” 

Brandow considers that in advertising it’s especially important to have a strong sense of space, perspective and lighting, as well as the ability to produce drawings quickly. In terms of a base artistic ability, Brandow thinks storyboard artists should at least be able to create the human form convincingly. 

Storyboard styles in advertising are directly connected to the type of product the artist is working with.

“It would be a soft style for make-up and cosmetics, but you can use bolder, harder lines for cars and action sequences,” Brandow explains. “Often in advertising you can be looser with the image as it’s designed to excite the client with the basic idea.”    

Technology has changed the way a storyboard is physically created, even if the process remains reliant on the artist’s skills. Previsualisation – or pre-viz – software is being used more frequently in pre-production on large-scale shoots. The technology enables artists to produce very basic computer animations that help filmmakers plan specific shots, scenes and sequences, and to figure out the layering of visual effects. To the layman this would seem to pose a threat to traditional storyboarding, but artists seem largely unconcerned. 

“Pre-viz lacks detail,” Husbands argues. “The technology is a little clunky and doesn’t cope well with specifics. Often I’ll find I’m asked to use a pre-viz scene as a start point to go into more detail on a specific angle with a storyboard frame. This might involve showing a very distinct facial expression on a character, or even to make a face look more like a specific TV presenter!” 

Ingram also dismisses the suggestion that previsualisation could threaten the role of hand-drawn storyboards.

“Previsualisation artists need the original storyboards as a start-point, so it’s like the next step in the process,” he says. “I’ve been on projects where previsualisation has actually been delayed because the artists were waiting for the storyboards to come through.”


Storyboard images: Douglas Ingram

Photo: James Husbands