Be the Artist: Storytelling With Storyboards

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That art of telling a visual story with the use of storyboards is important to help bring a story from the script to the screen. All images: Lisa Tate

This summer’s Be the Artist 2020 focuses on art created with a specific purpose in mind.

The Purpose: Telling a Visual Tale Through Storyboards

Every film, from independent dramas to large-scale science fiction epics to animate favorites, needs to start with a written idea, and one of the first ways to bring that idea to life is via the very important storyboard.

A storyboard is a “shot by shot” visual look at how a script or story will look on a movie or television screen and is a vital part of the filmmaking process.

Some of the earliest storyboard use came from filmmaker Georges Méliés in the early years of silent filmmaking, but it was first extensively used by animators like Webb Smith of Walt Disney Productions, who help create comic-book style story sketches. They placed them on display for viewing and discussion by fellow writers and animators to help see how an animated sequence would flow.

By the end of the 1930s, live-action films like Gone With the Wind (one of the first live-actions to rely heavily on storyboards) used them as an important part of setting the visual tone of the film. These boards are now used not only in film and televisions, but in live productions such as Broadway shows, for video games, or even by novelists wanting to see how a plot looks before writing it down.

Sometimes, a storyboard can help show how certain difficult scenes can be achieved, and others demonstrate how something just can’t be done. Either way, having the visual direction is necessary.

Storyboard art comes in all styles, but it always strives to tell the visual story, as shown in these ‘Art of’ books. Image: Lisa Tate

Some storyboards go beyond just the simple sketch, although plain drawings on paper are the quickest way to jot down an idea. Some storyboard artists rely on photography or computer graphics to create more elaborate boards, as long as they help illustrate the path of the movie or show’s narrative.

To see how important the storyboard process is to the story, check out this “Intro to Storyboarding” video from RocketJump Film School. (There are a couple of slightly graphic images from famous action and horror movies, so parents might want to take a look if working with younger viewers.)

Most importantly, the key to storyboards is telling the story, as the narrator, Kevin, said in the RocketJump video:

“There’s no hard and fast rules or one way to do it, but the ultimate goal is planning and clear communication,” he said. “So, whatever tool is going to help you prepare and share your vision the most, use it!”

storyboard on wall

The Project: Storytime Storyboards

Last week, when we did a project on creating album cover art, and I said to hang onto your favorite book ideas, as we are continuing to turn our favorite stories into something else. This week, we’re going to plant a small seed of movie of television series by creating a 12-panel storyboard pitch for a passage in your book of choice.

Storyboards often consist of three main parts:

  • A Picture Box or “Panel,” the visual representation of the narrative.
  • A Summery Line, text summarizing each picture box.
  • Detailed explanation. This includes additional written comments, arrows indicating the flow of the scene, or other symbols that help provide more clarity for the scene.

First, make a storyboard template.

This is easily done by taking a regular school ruler and placing it longways on a piece of letter-size paper, the drawing line on both edges for a wide margin in between, big enough to write notes in. Using your ruler, make two rows of three horizontal 2″ X 3″ boxes (six boxes per page).

Draw two or more of these pages, or, if you can, save some time and make a few photocopies of your original to have on hand.

Use a ruler to draw out six horizontal panels for your storyboard illustrations. Draw a few extras or make some copies to have enough to tell the story.

Next, find the story passage for which you want to create the storyboard. Find a good, descriptive passage. Use one with some action that moves the plot forward. If you’re doing a poem, narrative verses work best, but you can challenge yourself and with odes or sonnets. It is alright to paraphrase lines in poems for clarity or leave out passages that don’t the story forward.

Divide the passage up in twelve parts (about a sentence or two each), and write them down below the story panels. This is your narrative, your “summary.” There may be more than one panel needed for each sentence in order to show the action, so don’t leave out any necessary action.

In each picture box, draw an image that best represents the text beneath it. Here’s where you get to think like a “camera.”

Create the narrative for the story below each panel.

Draw the image from the angle the camera might be while shooting the film. Is it a wide shot where background and setting are important or are we doing a close up on one main character? Take into consideration things like shadows and lighting, angle, and perspective. What if you’re trying to show what things would look like through the point of view of a certain character?

Draw the basic illustrations, simply if you need, to show the story.

These don’t need to be fantastic drawings—remember what Kevin said in the “Intro to Storyboarding” video—as long as you’re telling a story.

If you need more than just 12 panels for your scene, feel free to use as many as you need.

Once the main illustrations are finished, go back and make some movement symbols. This is where the arrows come in. Don’t forget arrows in the panel for character movement and arrows outside for camera movements.

Add as many notes as you need to help show everything from movement to lighting to camera angle ideas.

Make additional “notes” that might add to what you see happening in the scene. Will there be a rapid or very slow pace that needs noting? Is there a sound or dialogue coming from “off-camera” you need to mention? Will there be a jump scare? A big angle change coming up? A change in perspective or point of view?

“The Raven,” opening scene, Part 1

The choice is completely up to you, and as the video said, there are no “set rules,” so have fun with the story.

I would do the images and narrative in black and white, and use different colors for the arrows and additional notes, just to keep things clear.

Once finished, find someone (or a few people) to read it out to, similar to how they go over plot ideas in a writing room. This will be your first step into the storytelling process of filmmaking, without having to take the next (more costly) step of actually having to shoot the scene.

“The Raven,” opening scene, Part 2

However, if you’re scene is clear and detailed enough, you will be ready when you get that big call from a producer looking for new story ideas. It could happen.

Now, as we come to the close of another summers season of Be the Artist, I hope my 2020 selections showed you how there’s art behind every design and purpose behind every work of art, even if that purpose is to provoke a smile, a new sense of curiosity, or a spark of interest in a new idea or concept.

That has been my purpose for this summer’s Be the Artist, and I look forward to getting inspiration for next year.

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2 thoughts on “Be the Artist: Storytelling With Storyboards

  1. The lady before us installed an earthquake sensor near the back door. Every once in a while someone would accidentally hit and we’d have to go around the outside of the trailer opening panels and lighting the pilots again

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