The Secret’s in the Storyboard
Hitchcock is notorious for having used them. Spielberg has been known to hire armies of artists to create them, and, as filmmakers and educators, you can use them too. In fact, if you don’t, you could be opening yourself up to problems you might not otherwise have. We’re talking, of course, about visualizing your film before you shoot by creating a storyboard.
Film is, after all, a visual medium, and the storyboard is the most often used tool for getting a sense of how an idea will work before filming takes place. Storyboarding involves drawing still, comic book-like images of what you want your final scenes to look like. It is used as a guideline for smooth filming on set, as well as a template for the pre-production editing process.
Alfred Hitchcock was well known for storyboarding every shot of his classic films. In fact, he was so meticulous about storyboarding that he considered the procedure to be the most creative phase of the filmmaking process. Shooting the actual film was just a necessary evil. The storyboard not only determined exactly what the film would look like, it even decided what kinds of camera movements and shots were necessary to create the perfect scene.
Who can forget the shower sequence from Psycho, its every shot communicating a new terror? Or the plane chasing Cary Grant in North by Northwest? If Hitchcock had waited to decide how to shoot the scenes of either of these sequences on location, there is little doubt that they would not have ended up as well crafted and memorable. But how can drawing a few storyboards have such an effect on the final outcome of a film? The main reason is time.
If you don’t storyboard, you’ll be spending more time with your camera in hand, forcing your actors to wait on the sidelines and working hard to figure out what to shoot next. Your time is better spent planning on your own and going over your script in detail.
Pretend you are shooting the film on paper and drawing each shot as you go. (For beginning filmmakers, it is helpful to have a list of possible camera shots to assist you. This will help you visualize the difference between close-ups and medium shots, cutaways and cut-in shots, etc. and allow you to choose what will best help “show” rather than tell your story.)
Review your drawings in sequence to make sure every shot will fit together smoothly, and if they do not, it is best to know this beforehand. That way, you can make changes before filming begins, eliminating the stressful need for a re-shooting.
How do I get started?
To give you some practical insight into how the storyboarding process works, here is an exercise. First use a storyboarding template and make additional copies as needed. Next, grab your favorite movie and watch a short scene with your pencil and template in hand.
Choose something short. You may be surprised how many shots (or edits) there are in a short film sequence. For example, the shower sequence from Psycho has 52 shots in a span of only 2 minutes and 8 seconds.
Freeze frame your scene and stop at the first shot of the sequence. Sketch what you see on the screen as a still representation on your storyboard. Continue sketching each new shot (or edit) within the sequence.
If the scene includes a long pan, or moving shot, (for example, a pan of the skyline or a zoom in on an actor’s face), you can indicate motion within your storyboard. Use an arrow to indicate the motion the camera will make. An arrow can eliminate the need for multiple drawings. Under the storyboard box, write careful descriptions to effectively communicate the movement happening within the shot as well.
To test yourself, or if you are a teacher, to test your class, try the American Film Institute Screen Education handbook and Door Scene Exercise. Teams of students must create a storyboard of a simple scene involving a door and a number of camera angles and shots. Then, they must film and edit their finished scene based on the storyboard.
To ensure that the students’ storyboard is complete and easy to follow, they must trade their storyboard with another student team. A second film is made exactly as this “new” storyboard instructs with no other communications from its creators.
Will the films turn out the same? If they do, congratulations, you have created an excellent storyboard, one that can effectively communicate your vision without explanation. If the two films are different, you should go back and try to figure out where your visual communication could have been clearer and more concise.
A storyboard is the primary communication tool for filmmaking. It does not matter if you are creating a work of fiction or a documentary; each benefit from the kind of planning that storyboards provide. The dilemma here is that a storyboard should not leave anything to the imagination: using your imagination could be dangerous as no two people “imagine” the same thing.
Use your original script to create a solid and interpretable visualization of your story. Take the time to plan, or otherwise you will be dealing with reshoots, footage you cannot use, scenes that are difficult to follow and a lot of miscommunication. Follow the great directors who went before you and grab some paper and pencils, because storyboarding is the secret to a successful film.
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