STORYBOARDS AND WHAT IS A STORYBOARD ARTIST
By Matthew Taylor
(Matthew Taylor is an independent film director, screenwriter and professional storyboard artist currently living in Toronto, Canada.)
“History of Storyboards”
During the filming of his legendary movie “Hell’s Angels”, producer, director, and aviator Howard Hughes was faced with addressing the first multi-million dollar budget in film history, the advent of sound in film, the use of multicolor, and most importantly to his mind, how to shoot one of the most dynamic and outrageously dangerous scenes in cinematic history. Scenes involving the recreation of the glorious air battles that were fought over the skies of WWI Europe. Hughes, if anything was the master of the long-term plan and in order to succeed with bringing this, and his vision to the screen, he needed to lay his master plan out clearly; as much for himself, for his own clarity and hierarchy of needs, as for his entire production crew. This is arguably where the first sequential storyboards were used in motion pictures.
Of course, up until this time, singular artistic impressions, sketches, production designs and illustrations for film were in full use but none so far had been developed into framed continuous order, a blue print for the film before-it-was-filmed. And Hugh’s Hell’s Angels was a unique situation that demanded its precise arrangement and balance between story, action, effects, screen direction, cost concerns, teamwork and safety to be clearly stated (safety fell tragically short of the mark as three stunt pilots died and Hughes himself flew the final sequences when others refused). But from this point on the storyboard was to become an integral part of a great many film director’s vernacular and process. As an example, years later, renowned for his precise directorial style, Alfred Hitchcock would also pick up the pencil and use the storyboarding process to solidify his vision for most if not all of his feature films. Having studied art and illustration, and beginning his film career working as an Art Director, Hitchcock had become a sharp draftsman and visualist, thus allowing him to draw many of his own storyboards to a high degree of refinement. Some might say the boards themselves were works of art. This was the perfect synthesis between the director as storyteller, the script, and the final film.
Others too, had similar backgrounds and found the process a natural one. Ridley Scott: art school, illustration, art director, then director. His storyboards were to become so synonymous with his filmmaking that they would affectionately be known and referred to by his crew as the “Ridley-O-Grams”. Terry Gilliam was also an illustrator and animator and his storyboards can be found attached to almost all of the DVDs of his films today, as part of “the making of” or extras features. His drawing style uses a loose, comical technique, perfect to convey his whimsical, mad aesthetic, which informs much of the images and angles found in all of his films, not least of which, the film Brazil.
In the arena of animation, Director Brad Bird, perhaps illustrates the full circle of storyboarding and the degree to which the process can be taken. After years of training as a storyboard artist at Disney, schooled through the Disney process of storytelling through character, Bird’s feature film debut as writer-director was The Iron Giant and later the hit film The Incredibles, both highly creative and successful films. The process of storyboarding for the latter actually became the writing process whereby the story meetings and pitch sessions were used to find the film through drawing it as they went, allowing the story to evolve before them.
As some screenwriters say, “writing is re-writing”, Brad Bird echoes that sentiment within his own variation, “Storyboarding is re-storyboarding”. And for the live action film director—the context of this article—re-storyboarding, can save much gnashing of teeth and heartache (i.e.: money and time) by avoiding…re-shooting. Or worse, not achieving the shot, scene, sequence or film you originally envisioned.
On a final note to this brief history of storyboarding: To my mind, the truly first storyboard artist where working away in the caves of Lascaux, France during the Upper Paleolithic Period. Painting their story in graphic terms on the rock walls in a sequence of events, around characters, the hunt, the change of day, migration, all in order to visualize things as they where or things as they where to be. It gets better. Most recently, and quite amazingly, science made an additional discovery: the actual locations of the paintings themselves were all at points of highest acoustical effect within he cave system suggesting, therefore, they were either chanting or singing while drawing or perhaps even while viewing the cave art. Seems like a soundtrack to me!
When Pablo Picasso first laid eyes on these cave walls and their drawings he said, “we have invented nothing!”
“They Could Draw, But I Can’t!”
I’ve talked about some heavy hitters and big films no doubt. But since this is an article written for the independent filmmaker/director I will make the assumption that there is little to no budget with which to hire a professional storyboard artist. And they can be expensive! Therefore you’ll be relying on your own skills and many might feel that in order to storyboard you have to maintain a comic book artist or illustrator’s skills in order to do it effectively. This can’t be further from the truth in my estimation.
Where it is true that a little graphic hand-eye skill can be helpful, it really relates to time. It takes time to draw highly refined, detailed boards regardless of your skill level and that is not cost effective unless you have money with which to buy the time you need. When you storyboard, or hire a storyboard artist, you are manipulating time by condensing the communication process to a pictorial simplification of a multitude of complicated factors. This can be achieved, in many cases, as simply as….a cave drawing. But in an aspect ratio.
For example, Martin Scorsese drew his own boards for Taxi Driver. That was a manic production schedule. His (storyboards) were stick figures. Literally. But, the films Cinematography, Michael Chapman (who equally needs little introduction) was quoted as saying that they were the best boards with which to work. Simple, to the point. They told the story and got out of the way.
There is also this to discuss. I worked as a camera assistant myself for a number of years and once, speaking to a now-A-list camera operator, we were discussing storyboards. He had worked with incredibly well drawn comic book-like storyboards before and wasn’t sold by their wow factor. He said this, “I’m an filmmaker too. What I do. When the boards are picture-perfect, where does my interpretation fit in?” I thought he made quite a valid point. Just enough and not too much, leaves room for the other collaborators to feel free to have their own feelings, ideas and thoughts about the film you’re making. And this can only make the film better.
If you’re still not convinced (there must be some ‘auteurs’ out there) I would suggest taking a life drawing course. My life-drawing instructor said to me, “the human body has every form in nature that you can draw”. He meant the circle, the S-curve and the perceived straight line. He continued, “If you can draw the human form, you can draw anything”. I would also suggest find a place that offers quick-sketching life drawing (short poses 1 to five minute posses) to develop speed and intuition. And the very basic of perspective drawing: One, two and three-point perspective.
The Disney life-drawing instructor, Glenn Vilppu, has a stellar series of books and DVDs online. I think his method and materials are an excellent starting point.
“What Can I Achieve With Storyboards”
- Cost effective, accurate planning
- Perceive possible continuity problems before they happen
- Communication between departments
- By having a plan, you can take advantage of “happy accidents” during filming and stay within the necessities of the scene.
- Show by doing: convince yourself and others of the soundness of your concepts and ideas. If that doesn’t work, get new ones.
- Storyboards can be a way for Directors to “rehearse” themselves. Or “doing the homework.”
- Artistic and aesthetic vision remains consistent. Or inconsistent, but by design.
- Screen direction (a very little talked about or acknowledge subject)
- Stunts and special equipment planning
- Special effects, CGI, etc
- Develop a style by “in camera” edits as opposed to adhering to standard coverage.
- Sales tool for funding.
- Simple inspiration. The ‘what if’ factor for all creative heads.
- The freedom to experiment without causing the producer to stroke-out
“A Thought For The Storyboard Artists”
Those 14 advantages above are just a few off the top of my head. But I would say, in a word directly to potential storyboard artists, beyond the obvious technical advantages that a storyboard artist brings to a production there are also the intangible factors. In my experience as a storyboard artist I have, at times, forged strong bonds with directors. A storyboard artist works very closely with a director and during periods of great pressure, most especially on tighter budgeted films. The good storyboard artist is not the person who comes out of their basement, a brilliant but strange, reclusive artist, imposing their habits, nuances and maybe film knowledge. Rather, it is about being malleable, receptive and a medium for someone else’s expression of creativity and vision. It’s a very supportive and therefore privileged place to be in film. Only then can you say you’ve “collaborated” on a film as a board artist and I would suggest that the boards themselves—regardless of draftsmanship—should reflect that successfully.
The other suggestion would be to find a way to work for a while on set. You will discover the language of production and be able to infuse your work with the controlling factors of filmmaking. From the floor up. Furthermore, Producers will also feel more inclined to hire you given that your boards won’t be flights of fancy but will reflect the concerns for which, in the end, they are responsible.
Even if your boards don’t improve from this artistically, your communication with directors certainly will, and you can get to drawing faster and that builds skill. In the end, Storyboards are just one step in many that bring the necessary cohesion of like-minds to focus on a picture.
“Let The Games Begin”
Almost every director, at some point, draws a film frame to illustrate an idea. The storyboard happens with the last frame, the one finishing their idea, is drawn. The in between is the telling. This is all you need to get started. But to develop shooting boards, ones that you can take to the floor and film, you need to have lined up certain basic elements.
- Location. Either with digital photos, sketches or overhead plan-view, have your location and sets at the ready.
- Develop an overhead view (like an architects diagram) of your blocking and staging. Use symbols for camera, character and elements.
- By understanding the geographic and architectural constraints you’ll be establishing your boards within a dramatic context and you wouldn’t have to resort to a series of talking heads.
- By combining both storyboards and over-head plans of camera movement etc—on the same page—you will be able to fill out in broad terms a clear series of images that will help to explain your intentions. Each can explain the other, should clarity wane.
- Before you draw a single frame, let your mind wander over the pictures you have, the diagrams and drawings. This is rehearsal.
- Draw this as though watching an ant colony.
- Draw your camera angles.
- Then you can begin by drawing rough sketches (later to finish) or draw the frames of what you have seen your cameras capture.
- Add footnotes to help explain either of these two elements. You now have three elements with which to explain your ideas: Frames, Plan view, Notes
- Find inspiration from all around you. Art, Photography, magazines, comics, whatever it takes to create a series of frames that expresses your story but also your dramatic intent.
This is just the start, there are dozens of other approaches, a wide variety of tricks -of-the-trades (blue penciling, photocopying, duplicating etc), which are time savers and other approaches, but the fundamentals are really quite basic. You simply draw, as directors, the story you see as the script takes it affect. The effectiveness of your storyboards occurs when others see the same story. To dive further into the process there are dozens of trade books and DVD extra features to watch. But like anything, you learning by doing.
The Following storyboards are from various productions on which I’ve worked. I’m going to show you the bumps and bruises in order show process as well and try and illustrate some of the ideas and points I’ve been writing about. To end, I’d like to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: You have a frame. Close your eyes and fill it.
The Following is a Set of Storyboards drawn for a Car Crash on a Film