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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Storyboarding

How to Storyboard: A Basic Guide for Aspiring Artists

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What You'll Be Creating

Have you ever what wondered what kind of planning goes into making commercials, short films, or animations? Well, for starters, the backbone of any of these projects are storyboards or storyboard artists.

Storyboard artists are individuals who take a script/concept and turn it into a visual story.

If you want to become a storyboard artist on any type of production set, whether it's a freelance job, a personal project, a TV show, commercial, or a music video, there are some guidelines you need to follow in order to get the storyboards created.

Contrary to what many might think, you don't need to be a great artist to illustrate a storyboard, although of course it's an added bonus. Generally, all that is really required is an understanding of the basic techniques and principles of storyboard art. Your role is to be able to communicate the vision and concept as accurately as possible.

Today's tutorial is aimed at anyone who wants to begin working as a storyboard artist. Along the way, you will learn what essential skills you need to get you motivated and started in the creative field and art of storyboarding.

Let's get you started!!

1. Introduction to Storyboarding

1. What Is a Storyboard?

Storyboarding is the practice of producing sketches for a script/concept. It is an essential part of the preproduction process of any animation. 

A storyboard is a sequence of hand-drawn sketches or visual images that are supported by script notes or dialogue and placed in a sequence, for the viewer to visualise an animation before production. 

Each individual shot in a storyboard represents a type of camera shot, angle, action, or special effect, to effectively tell a story.

storyboard script notes dialogue camera shot angle action special effects

2. What Is the Purpose of a Storyboard?

Storyboarding helps the production team envision and develop an idea, visualise and test out concepts, and highlight any potential obstacles with the structure or layout of a story before it heads into production. 

Why the need for a storyboard? 

  1. It is a step-by-step guide to the production process, so it helps manage timing in production, and it saves money.
  2. Builds a connection with the viewer and between the production teams on a project, so all can communicate from one source of reference.
  3. Helps communicate a vision and understanding of the story.
  4. Helps in production direction.
  5. Most importantly, it's used to sell/pitch the idea to clients to get funding in!

3. Who Directs & Lays Out the Storyboard?

Depending on the type of shoot or budget, the director might sit down with the storyboard artist to present their vision and place their input in the storyboard process. However, in most cases the budget isn't available, and you will need to break down the scenes and rely on your own experience to direct the shots as you see fit. 

The key to storyboarding is to practice, by understanding how moving productions work. 

  • Watch plenty of movies, TV series or commercials, and try to study by sketching out the scenes as you watch. 
  • Look for camera angles and how a story is cut up and told visually. 
  • Keep in mind that storyboards are not a frame-by-frame breakdown, but more a scene-by-scene development, and each scene must serve a purpose in the storytelling.
storyboard storyboard scene sequence breakdown of camera angles and action shots

2. Storyboard Lingo & Techniques 

Now, let's learn some essential lingo to get you started on the right foot and familiarise you with the terms used in the industry. The following list will give you some up-front information.

1. What Are Film Aspect Ratios?

As you know, storyboards showcase a series of images, of what the audience will see on screen. These are shown in formats called a Storyboard Panel or Storyboard Frame, which is basically a rectangular shaped box presented digitally or on paper. 

The size and shape of the panels are different, depending on what is called the Aspect Ratio (the relationship between the width & height of your video). The most common aspect ratios are 4:3 and 16:9

  • TV aspect ratio is known as 4:3. 
  • HDTV is 16:9
  • Standard Widescreen is 1.85:1. 
  • Anamorphic is 2.39:1, also known today as "two-four-o".

Note that the dimensions of your panels should be the same as the aspect ratio the animation will be at the end.

storyboard panel aspect ratio 43 169 1851 2391 240 HDTV TV anamorphic

2. What Are Different Types of Camera Shots?

There are some different types of camera shots that you should know before starting. We will go over just the basic shots. Note that most shots are named in connection with the subject framed in the panel.

  • Establishing Shot (ES) is usually shown at the beginning of a scene to present where the action is taking place—for example, an island, a school, a basement, etc.
  • Close Up (CU) shots, are obviously close range views. They're often used in emotional scenes to show reactions or create intimacy. They can also increase tension, allow close views of characters or products, or accentuate an action.
  • Extreme Close Up (ECU or XCU) shots are sparingly used, usually when you need to add drama or focus to an event or scene, or represent some aggression or discomfort. 
  • Mid Shot (MS) or Medium Shot is a frame from the character's waist and up. Typically used to show emotions and reactions, or during dialogue sequences. 
  • Medium Close Up (MCU) is what is sometimes called a Head & Shoulders. It's basically a head shot from shoulder up, used to focus on a character's expressions or during dialogue scenes between two or three people.
  • Long Shot (LS), also known as Full Shot, is a shot taken from a distance. It's typically used to show the entire character or subject, and when you want to point something out between the subject and its surroundings or release tension in a scene. It's like giving breathing space to an event/action.
  • Medium Long Shot (MLS) frames the subject from the knees and up. It's a mix between a long shot and a medium shot and is usually used when there are a group of people in a frame or you wish to show the subject's hands and expressions.
  • Extreme Long Shot (ELS or XLS) is more long range and is used to establish the surrounding setting.
camera shot types storyboarding Establishing ES Close Up CU Extreme close up ECU Mid shot MS
Storyboard Camera Shots Mid shot MS Medium Long shot MLS Extreme Long Shot ELS LS

3. What Are the Basic Camera Angles?

Camera Angle refers to the where the camera is shooting from. When storyboarding, always imagine yourself holding the camera, and ask yourself what's the best way to portray the action or subject in a scene. Do that by establishing the most effective way to place the camera angle:

  • Point of View (POV) camera angles are used when you want the viewer to understand what the character is seeing. The view can be close, mid, or long.
  • Over the Shoulder Shot (OSS or OTS or also known as ‘Third-Person) is a view from behind an individual and towards a subject. It's typically used between people in conversation, and the frame has one person/thing on the side of the frame.
  • Two-Shot is an angle where two subjects are both in a single frame together, and usually speaking. When drawing dialogue frames, alternate between two-shots and OTS shots.
  • Up Shot / Worm's Eye View are angles that look up at a subject/object.
  • Down Shots / Bird's Eye View are angles that look down at a subject/object.
camera angles Point of View POV Over the Shoulder OSS  OTS Two shot U shot Down shot angles  storyboard

4. What Are the Standard Camera Movements?

Next, let's familiarise ourselves with the following list of camera motions:

  • Pan/Tilt. Pan is short for Panorama Shot. The camera is on a tripod, and moves right or left. A Tilt is when you move up or down.
  • Zoom In or Out is when you adjust the lens to view in or out, and is used to increase the significance of something. Draw arrows from the edge of the panel inwards/outwards.
  • Dolly is similar to a Zoom, but the entire camera moves towards a subject or away from it. Use thick arrows to show this motion.
  • Truck In & Truck Out is similar to dolly, but the whole camera moves left to right or vice versa.
  • Pan or Panning are when the camera rotates sideways in one direction, often used in dialogue scenes or when following a subject or revealing something near. When storyboarding, draw an arrow in the camera's direction.
  • Track or Tracking is another way of following subjects. It's when the camera moves and follows the subject/action without cutting. It's typically used in walk cycles and is symbolised by using an arrow in the motion of direction. It can also be Hand-held or on a Dolly.
  • Hand-held is carrying a camera by hand, to give to give a more natural documentary feel to a scene, typically used in police or war scenes.
  • Rack Focus is when the camera focuses on a subject in the foreground and the background is blurry, and then it reverses so that the focus shifts to a clear background and blurred foreground. In a storyboard, just draw where the focus starts and an arrow and rectangle where it moves to.
standard camera movements pan tilt zoom in out dolly arrows storyboard
Camera Movements Truck In Out Pan Storyboard arrows
storyboard panel rack focus hand held camera movements tracking

3. The Art of Storyboarding

1. Before Starting to Storyboard

Next, let's take a glimpse at the art of storyboard making.

Before you get started, gather your notes, read over your script, and research whatever source materials you need. Clients might give you some reference material, but in most cases you need to gather your own.

Consider asking the client a few questions before storyboarding:

  • Do you have a script or breakdown of the script?
  • Who is the storyboard for?
  • Color or black and white?
  • Budget?
  • Format to be used?
  • Reference material?
  • Delivery date?

2. What Are Thumbnails?

Before you start illustrating the storyboard, you need to break down the script, in order to examine the scenes and translate them into individual storyboard panels. 

The easiest way is to Thumbnail the scenes. 

Thumbnails are a rough sketches of the storyboard panels, mainly quick illustrations of stick figure forms, notes, and laid-out sequences of events on a page. This is done to quickly determine how each shot/camera angle/movement will be used. It also helps to evaluate which images need to be storyboarded and which not. With thumbnails, you can swiftly step back and analyse your entire animation in individual panels, before even starting with the actual storyboard work.

Here is an example:

before storyboarding prepare thumbnail stick figures noted direction

3. How to Break Down the Script 

Once you have thumbnailed your script and gathered all your material, it's time to start drawing out your frames.

Figure out what aspect ratio will be used, lay out what each panel needs to show, and then transform those ideas into a series of storyboard panels.

Decide what elements (characters, objects, background) are in each frame, and the best shot type to communicate the event.

break down script storyboard camera angles motion backgrounds

4. How to Lay Out & Structure the Storyboard

Every artist has a preferred method of drawing and structuring their panels. You can work with a number of templates available online (one example is the "6panel" single-page template below) or create your own. There is no right way of drafting a storyboard. You can use the good old-fashioned pen/pencil and paper, Adobe Photoshop, or any sketch app and storyboard software available today!

Here is a short list of software and apps you can lean on:

  1. Storyboarder (Free) - Screenshot Below*
  2. StoryBoard Artist Studio ($$$)
  3. Storyboard Fountain (Mac) (Free)
  4. Toon Boom Storyboard Pro ($$-$$$)
  5. Procreate (iPad Pro) ($)
  6. Paper By FiftyThree (iPad) (Free)
  7. Celtx Shots (Free)
  8. Autodesk Sketchbook (Free)
template panel storyboard sketch frame label scenes description and notes
storyboarder software animation sequence panels

5. How to Label the Storyboard Panels

Learn to label your shots correctly, so that they are in order and you and the team can stay organised.

There’s more than one way to effectively number storyboards. 

In short, the process is like having an ID for each panel. If you’re using storyboard software, it will automatically assign panel numbers. However, if you're not on any software, and a client/director wants to move, add, or delete a panel, you can't name a panel, for example, Panel_6_New_New_New. You will end up needing to find old/new files, and it becomes a messy, time-consuming burden. 

The proper way would be to follow this order: Project Name_Script#_Scene_Frame_01.jpg

6. Numbering Presentation vs. Production Boards

It's important to know which style of boards your client wants: Presentation or Production boards.

Presentation boards are typically short and are presented internally or used in pitches. They represent only the key shots needed, and not every shot of the director's vision. Only the key elements are illustrated in individual frames.

So, in numbering presentations, it’s easy to add a letter, number, or decimal at the end of each panel number. 

For example, if you want to add an additional shot between 23 and 24, then you would call it 23-1. If you want to convey a single shot, in several panels, it could be 23i, 23ii, 23iii, etc.

If you make an alteration to your panel then the correction will be labelled 23-a. That way they’re clearly connected, but still have their own unique ID numbers.

Production boards are numbered the same, but the difference is that they are a breakdown of every scene's "action", so each action is broken into camera angles. This means that whenever the camera cuts, you must change the scene number to represent a new shot. So, for example: 

  • Scene# 2: Shot 1A
  • Scene# 2: Shot 1B
  • Scene# 2: Shot 2
  • Scene# 2: Shot 3
  • Scene# 3: Shot 1...

Once you have submitted the board, your job is done. The client might transform it into an animatic.

7. What's an Animatic?

An Animatic is simply an animated storyboard!

Once you submit your storyboard, the production team might take the illustrated panels, import them into an editing program, and add a Voice Over (VO), audio, sound effects and/or demo music, to prepare the timing and pace of the production for presentation purposes. 

4. Storyboard Artist Job, Tips & Hints 

1. How to Storyboard Effectively

The whole concept of storyboarding is to represent the concept, as closely as possible to what the animation will look like in the end. So your audience should be able to follow and understand the story through the sequence of frames you illustrate. Your job is to make the script come to life.

Elements that might help communicate a story more accurately include:

  • Use of Arrows or Symbols to show camera movements. Arrows help show movement, direction, and transitions.
  • Color an object/subject to differentiate it from the surroundings.
  • Add Captions under or in the images
elements arrows color caption to communicate better storyboard

2. How to Enhance the Look & Feel of the Storyboard Frames

Creating a comprehensive storyboard that looks and feels professional is not just an art but a skill. 

If the audience doesn't understand a part of the storyboard then usually it will need to be enhanced or altered. They should be able to understand the visuals without the dialog. Your best "test" audience would be your parents, siblings, or cat/dog. Try it out.

There are different approaches to illustrating a storyboard. Some artists like to use splashes of ink and color, others draw rough doodles and scribbles, some may only draw outlines, or in greyscale, or you may be the type that adds lots of details.

There are no rules to storyboarding, but there are some guidelines and tips to enhance your images and help stretch out your skills:

  • Add details to a scene or character—this helps the viewer's imagination. For example, add utensils in a kitchen scene, or a zebra crossing on a street scene. The more you communicate through a board, the more accurate the production will be.
  • Experiment with different camera angles, especially within dramatic scenes. Try over the shoulder shots, worm's eye views, or extreme close-ups.
  • Avoid positioning the subject in the center of a panel, and make use of most of your negative space.
  • Avoid tilted frames, complicated angles, or splitting screens in half with horizontal lines.
  • When drawing people or a setting, where a crowd is needed, add a number of people, instead of just two people in the background.
  • Be sure your subject/character is facing the correct camera direction.
  • Ask yourself what type of camera shot/angle you will use. Do you need a close-up? Will the camera move?
  • Make every frame count.
  • It pays to practice! Practice at home while watching your favourite movies.

3. Understanding the Job

Now that you have equipped yourself with some visual references and storyboard terminology, here are a few things to remember.

Be professional and punctual, and add your personal touch to the work.

Being able to draw is one thing, but you need to grasp the technique of good visual storytelling. 

Understanding how to frame shots will help the production team to save time and costs.

You should be able to take the client's script, notes, and references and turn them into a readable visual. If you can analyse how a scene can be transformed into a great visual, that's a bonus.

You also need to draw fast!! Like really fast. Delivery on time is essential. Be punctual!

Clients tend to need storyboards delivered the next day, or within two days, or you might get emergency work to be done the same night. They might even request additional frames after delivery, and you will need to deliver them by the hour. So, unfortunately, there is not the luxury of time.

Storyboarding is paid by frame, so the longer you take, the less you make.

If you also have a specific artistic style/touch that clients like/want, you will make good money and be on your way to becoming a good storyboard artist!

storyboard panel vs commercial shoot transformation

4. How to Land the Job?

The best way? Well, you can start by working for free or a small fee.

  • Seek internships.
  • Apply to entry-level storyboard artist positions.
  • Apply to little production studios first, to test out your skills.
  • Build a portfolio that will show off your abilities.
  • Draw, draw, draw.
  • Be ready to take criticism. Constructive feedback will help you develop.

Let's Start Storyboarding!!

You have your basics ready, so it's time to get started.

Chances are if you continually get called on for work, then either your price rates are cheap or your delivery is fast or your style is just right!

On the other hand, if you feel you are not cut out for the task and wish to hire a storyboard artist then feel free to email me, anytime.

Good luck! 

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