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The Unifying Power of Storyboards

Mark Vargo, ASC

The best way to bring an entire crew together behind a single project is to share a vision. That’s where storyboards come in.

Storyboards have been around for a long time. Think prehistoric cave paintings. In fact, some of my drawings look just like some of those ancient pictograms! One of the reasons I encourage film students to learn how to draw is because sooner or later, a drawing will convey a vision far more effectively than words ever could — particularly if you’re working abroad, where language is already an issue.

The Unifying Power of Storyboards — Collage

Storyboards over Time

The collage of storyboards above is a good sample of the boards I’ve worked with in my career. In the ’80s, most visual effects companies had in-house art departments that would create storyboards and key frame production paintings that captured the scale, mood, and dramatic intent of a particular scene or moment in the script. Most storyboards in those days represented all of the elements in each shot that could break down into schedule-able and budgetary terms — a visual menu, if you will. Art departments needed a lot of wall space because each board was tacked up, in sequence, for all to see and discuss.

You should draw your storyboards with the project’s aspect ratio in mind. The three boards across the top are in 2:40 to 1 — or “widescreen” format. In the old, old days, art directors would actually draw with a specific lens in mind from a shoot-able spot determined from a plan view drawing — now that’s knowing your set.

The Unifying Power of Storyboards — Ghostbusters

Storyboards vs. Pre-Visualization

What’s inherent to storyboards is that they are static and pre-visualization is not. The animated process of pre-vis gives the director a peek into the possibilities of framing, speed, and scale in a sequence. It’s a moving storyboard that you can edit and improve prior to actual shooting. The downside of pre-vis is that the animator may create something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to shoot. A lens may be too wide, a camera move may be too fast, or there may be a focus and magnification issue.

Further, if everyone falls in love with the pre-vis, there is no room for a filmmaker to improve the sequence in the real world with real people. This happened to me once on a very big feature film: I thought I came up with a better, more efficient way to shoot a scene, pitched it passionately but was ultimately shot down because, “the studio likes it the way it is.” They had seen the pre-vis and wanted it shot exactly that way. Boring, and we also had to reshoot parts of it because the pre-vis didn’t translate well to live-action. I tried to warn them!

The Unifying Power of Storyboards — Sample

Be Prepared.

On the other hand, a storyboard is a guide that accommodates improvement during production. It’s an inventory of beats that the cinematographer will photograph in a real setting. Screen direction and blocking are TBD on the day of shooting. In other words, don’t be constrained by the boards.

It’s why we mostly only board action bits and Visual FX sequences. Anything complex and potentially expensive needs meticulous planning. Never show up on the day without the equipment you need and only a couple of sketches on a napkin. The crew will punish you for it.

We don’t board much in TV because they don’t want to pay for the illustrations, and there is rarely enough time to shoot the scenes properly as it is. In those cases, I’ll do some simple drawings of my own to keep track of the moments that are essential to the sequence.

Work on your drawing, it’s a very handy thing to know how to do.

All images courtesy of the author.

What organization tips do you rely on? Let us know in the comments.