Luck of the Draw: What’s the Best, and Cheapest, Way to Figure Out If Your Film Works? Storyboarding

When storyboard artist Kurt van der Basch and director Tom Tykwer first met in 2012, the latter was already an established talent, lauded for his 1998 classic Run Lola Run.

“Back then Tom Tykwer had hardly any experience with storyboarding,” says the Canadian, though Prague-based, van der Basch. “European filmmakers only rarely use storyboards.”

This, the artist believes, is a mistake: “Hiring a storyboard artist can save a production three days on set.” Currently working on Tykwer’s Babylon Berlin TV series, van der Basch recently storyboarded J.J. Abrams’s 2015 megahit Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Justin Kurzel’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed. Besides saving moviemakers real time and money, he says, breaking a screenplay down into storyboards makes a feature film feel much less overwhelming—and pinpoints problems while you still have time to rewrite. Still not convinced? Take these lessons from a man who’s sketched Chewbacca.

Should You Storyboard?

OK, not everything needs to be storyboarded (though, of course, there are moviemakers like the Coen brothers, who storyboard their entire films). “You probably wouldn’t storyboard a scene with two guys talking, unless there’s a complicated camera move,” says van der Basch, though “storyboards are necessary when there are action scenes, unusual shots or scenes with visual effects.” Sometimes a dialogue scene requires a storyboard—if it takes place in front of extraordinary scenery, say—but on average, only between a third and a half of a live-action movie is storyboard material.

Bottom line: If you can, give storyboarding a try. A storyboard is the perfect way to test out any idea without actually needing to do anything but imagine and draw. Alfred Hitchcock found that thanks to extensive storyboarding, he hardly needed to look through the viewfinder (he did so only for publicity photos). Another storyboarding role model? One Martin Scorsese. For his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, a low-budget B-movie produced by Roger Corman, Scorsese had more than 500 pages of storyboard sketches.

 

Above: A Stormtrooper fires at a hapless X-Wing in the Takodana battle sequence from J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of LucasFilm Below: Kurt Van der Basch’s storyboards for the Takonada sequence in The Force Awakens

Which Scenes?

If you don’t plan on storyboarding your movie from first scene to last, the next step sees you picking key scenes. Choose scenes based on their technical difficulty and plot development. Look for scenes that showcase anything special: lighting, effects, props, any changes of setting, stunts—and plot twists.

Storyboards can be an important aspect of planning a budget, and come in handy when a director needs to share his or her vision with a crew or a producer—on Babylon Berlin, for example, van der Basch created storyboards for Tykwer two years before production started. In rare cases, moviemakers storyboard even before writing a script. Many concentrate on a film’s biggest scenes first.

You could sketch chronologically, of course, or start in the middle if that stresses you out less than having to devise the perfect opening shot. In any case, establish a timeline before you get lost in thumbnails—and don’t forget to number your frames!

Storyboarding Tools

The final step before you actually get to draw is choosing a medium. Even though some veterans still stick to paper, pencils and markers, professional storyboard artists nowadays draw on special programs and devices.

“These days I draw on Wacom’s Cintiq,” says van der Basch, gesturing to his graphic tablet. You could also try the Procreate app for iPad. “A tablet is great if you want to make a thumbnail into something more detailed and bigger. You just scan it and draw.”

It’s often impossible to tell if a storyboard was rendered digitally or on natural media, but van der Basch points out that digital drawing can have its limitations. “Personally, when drawing on a computer I have problems conveying the dynamics of movement. It often looks too dead somehow,” he says. See what suits you best.

A tip for hand-drawing: You may want to use a pen, rather than a pencil. When you need to redraw something (and you will), it can slow you down to be refining one pencil-drawn frame over and over again. Pen will keep you moving.

van der Basch’s storyboards for another scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Contemplating Templates

You can hand-draw a storyboard template yourself, or buy a pad of storyboard paper at a store. Many professionals use Adobe Bridge or simply Mac’s Pages program to format their frames. Try the premade templates on programs like Google SketchUp, PowerProduction’s StoryBoard Artist or StoryBoard Quick, Adobe Illustrator or InDesign, Microsoft PowerPoint or Amazon’s Storyteller. Generate a template at the website incompetech.com/graphpaper/storyboard, visit storyboardthat.com to complete storyboards using a (mostly free) browser-based storyboard creator, or try the Storyboard Fountain app (storyboardfountain.com).

If you’re hand-drawing a template yourself, a word on specs. You will probably fit four to six frames on a regular 8½-by-11-inch piece of paper. Whether you draw a 16:9 rectangle or a 4:3 square (depending on your eventual platform of choice), you might want to add a thick black border around it, to evoke the theatre or TV screen as much as possible.

Beneath or next to every panel, draw out either an empty box or a couple of lines: a place for scene description, including special-effects instructions, camera directions or any important dialogue. Your storyboards will then read just like a comic book. Unless you are one of the rare directors who can actually draw—van der Basch names Neil Burger (Divergent, The Illusionist), who has a degree in fine arts, as an example—the notes will probably prove necessary.

Don’t Strive for Picasso

That said, don‘t worry—you don’t have to draw gallery-ready pictures. Maybe you’ve seen beautiful, colored storyboards begging to be put on a wall, but that kind of polishing hardly happens. While professional standardization exists to a degree, there’s really not a bad way to storyboard, as long as you make your intentions clear to whoever is looking. Normally, a storyboard stays black and white, showing a scaled version of the rough, initial thumbnail, just a little more complex than a raw scribble.

Don’t overly trouble yourself with details because that’s what the script or notes are for; don’t try to achieve likeness between your cast and storyboard characters. (Stick figures will do just fine!) In fact, the more loosely drawn storyboards are, the more open to interpretation—sometimes a good thing.

“Storyboarding is a lot more like comics than oil paintings,” says van der Basch, whose work can be seen on his website, kurtvanderbasch.com. “I bought comic books and I would copy a page a day, over and over until I’d done enough faces and figures, to make certain things into a reflex.”

The more you do it the easier it gets. After you learn to draw figures from lots of different angles, you will be able to develop a shorthand. “Nowadays I basically draw variations of the same figures; some little more feminine or with different hair.”

Models can help as they show you things in 3-D perspective; reference images are useful too. “Very often I have to draw a motorcycle, for example, going right over the camera—so I have to know how a motorcycle looks from the bottom,” says van der Basch.

Kurt van der Basch’s storyboards for A Hologram for the King

What to Include

So what is important, if not artistic detail? Firstly, anything that has to do with the camera. What will the angle be? Is it a close-up or a wide shot? Try to capture desired depth, drawing in three-point perspective. Sometimes a grid can be helpful. Will you move the camera? Is there going to be a pan? Use arrows to point it out, or motion lines. Or visualize a shot over multiple frames.

“Don’t be afraid to exaggerate,” adds van der Basch. “So what if you would have to put your camera in a hole to actually create that frame on set? If you can make the idea really obvious in the picture, it still sells the idea to the crew, who might not do exactly that.”

Storyboards should answer questions about location, time of day, number of actors in the scene, their movements and the need for special props, vehicles, etc. If special lighting (such as candlelight) is needed, try to visualize it as well. Storyboard special effects, including explosions or gunfire too; you could use different colors as a guideline.

Storyboards are a way to test whether your story is logical and coherent. Therefore, while drawing, think about shot continuity (use those arrows again) and motivations for cuts. Look for any gaps—location, time, story, etc—and fill them. Don’t hesitate to make as many changes as you need to. That’s the reason why you’re storyboarding in the first place! Redraw, redraw, redraw—then redraw again.

Beyond Two Dimensions

After you’ve drawn your storyboards, you can previsualize—which, in effect, means making 3-D storyboards. “People expected storyboards to be replaced by previz technology, but another thing happened—now storyboards are a step on the way to previz,” says van der Basch. Previz software includes FrameForge Previz Studio, or 3-D animation programs like Poser by Smith Micro Software, or Daz Studio.

Another possibility to take your storyboards to the next level is making what’s sometimes called a board-o-matic: still storyboards edited together to form something like an animated movie, with music and timing imitating the intended shot duration. To do this, scan and edit storyboards in your usual editing program.

Good news for the non-artistic: Great storyboards, says van der Basch, come from people who know movies best, regardless of intrinsic drawing talent. “Really what you need to know is how shots look and follow each other.” The more movies you’ve watched, the better and more useful will your storyboards be. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017. For more work by Kurt van der Basch, visit his website here.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    December 9, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    This was great, love how he makes it educational but fun at the same time. Thanks for sharing. Having an art background and beginning to be a film director myself, I sometimes make storyboards.

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