Boards, stupid!

What’s a good storyboard worth? Perhaps you have never thought about this standard pre-production tool in such direct terms. The role of a storyboard is to convey the flow of the narrative on a scene by scene basis, typically as a sequence of key images and instructions that depict, in basic terms, the contents of the captured frame at each crucial juncture.

Additional information can be appended to illustrate the transition between key frames (pivotal moments), something that an unmodified image cannot provide. This will usually take the form of added footnotes, in-frame labels or arrows to indicate motion. On a more prosaic level, the boards document and describe the essential ingredients of the scene at any given time, including script.

All of these considerations establish and maintain correct continuity and chronology, and make sure that there are no awkward omissions of footage at the editing stage. Even a simple note such as “in the gardens, outside the house at 8pm” conveys crucial information that will have a knock-on effect in terms of the narrative, timescale, flow and content of the piece.

The time of year will have been determined earlier in the the script and the storyboards, so no need to state it on every occasion (unless we have suddenly jumped in time) - let’s assume that a scene is set in mid Summer. With that information at hand we are now aware of the lighting characteristics that will be required: we also know for example that there is approximately two hours of fading, colour changing twilight left before darkness. Naturally, if the resulting action is to run in screen-time for a significant portion of this period then we will have to ensure that it makes sense in the context of the changing environment at the time in order for the audience to suspend disbelief.

As we map out the narrative, it may suddenly occur to us that a character is still in his or her day-clothes as night falls, so it would make sense (and add to the immersion) for the individual to now reach for a cardigan as the air cools. We may also come to realise that we have scripted the players to have a loud and heated exchange; something that may need to be modified in order to fit within the environment and time of day. Perhaps if the location was urban, then the dialogue would be less dynamic, so as not to disturb the neighbours. As a result, the actors (and therefore the shots themselves) would be positioned closer in than we perhaps initially envisioned them. We could then adjust or redraw the storyboards accordingly as a result. Yes, I am exaggerating to illustrate a point, but the point is that storyboarding is not just descriptive but part of an organic, creative process as evidenced by the level of consideration Matthew Luhn (of Pixar) lavishes on his boards.

When I get my script, I pretty much just let it sink in a little bit. Just kind of think about it. It’s really an 80% thinking and 20% drawing kind of thing. I don’t want to just sit there and hope that my doodles might turn into a sequence” - as featured on Karen J Lloyd’s blog.

Changes will also occur as the developing boards reveal elements that seem over or understated, or that positions of the camera or the characters, or even the content of their lines no longer “work” in the context and flow of the piece, now set out in black and white. Aside from mere correction and adjustment, the process may offer up benefits in terms of new perspectives and camera positions/angles to utilise. What if this section was shot from “there” - a vantage point not previously considered before images were committed to page?

The storyboarding process is traditionally centred around a series of monochrome sketches; literally a return to pen and paper, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Video-boards made with a handheld camera and some 3D models were utilised by James Cameron in pre-production for his lauded sci-fi sequel: Aliens. Suddenly the “board” process became a whole magnitude more dynamic in defining pacing, perspective, scale and motion. The paradigm has also shifted further with the help of modern technology that allows the fast creation of CG Animatic sequences that essentially block out the elements of a scene and their motion, on screen in 2D or 3D. That’s aside from the existence of 2D CG variations on the original storyboarding process.

An Animatic is a remarkable sketch of the final project, a means to convey the finished vision in ultra fast, ultra low-cost terms that are vastly more descriptive and evocative than static boards could ever be. Powerful stuff.

To truly highlight the power and worth of a (even a static) storyboard, we only have to look at Ridley Scott’s work on the precursor to the aforementioned Aliens. Whilst in pre-production for Alien, Scott mapped out the entire film on boards and subsequently presented it to 20th Century Fox. They were so effective in conveying his vision that he was able to get the production budget doubled from $2.4 to $4.8 Million. Long live pen and paper!

Images by and Eelke