Camera Angles for Storyboard Artists

When you choose your shots for a scene or sequence, you’re basically choosing where you’re placing the audience. Where and how you position the camera for each shot determines how close or how far away the audience is while watching that piece of the story unfold.  

This makes your shot selection hugely important. 

When storyboarding, we use many of the drawing tools and techniques at our disposal to create the illusion of depth and the representation of the particular camera positions and angles we want. We absolutely make use of perspective. We might also utilize line weight, foreshortening, tonal contrasts, etc., to enhance the effect. If working digitally, we might blur out entire layers.

We’ve covered many of the drawing skills you’ll need in another article. Here, our aim is more to help you select the best shots to put those skills toward.

Build up from the basics

The three basic, most common shot choices are wide, medium, and close-up. There are variations on these shots, and shots can (and often will) fall somewhere in between two of them at any given time, but thinking in terms of wide, medium, and close-up and tweaking the choice from there is a good way to start off your storyboards.

Wide Shot

A wide shot is generally used to place characters within an environment. A wide shot is tight enough to discern action, but distant enough that the environment is the prominent element of the shot.

Medium Shot

A medium shot includes a character from roughly the top of their head to their hips. This shot allows for a lot of facial expression while also allowing for broader gestures and actions with a character's hands and upper body.

Close Up Shot

The most intimate shot is the close-up. It starts at the top of a character's head and ends at the base of their neck. This choice of shot is often used when trying to communicate important information about a character.

Shots can fall to the "extreme" ends of the basic three. These have a time and place to be used. You might choose to pull way, way back, to extreme wide, for an establishing shot.

Or you might push way, way in and use an extreme close-up to sell the importance of a specific object.

Shots can also fall somewhere in between the basic three. A full shot is the tightest the framing can be while still allowing the audience to see a character from head to toe.

A cowboy shot isn't quite medium but isn't wide either, showing a character from head to mid-thigh. A choker shot is just a little bit tighter than a close-up, from forehead to chin.

And there are situation-specific shots that might not be as useful as often but are worth knowing for those occasions you do need them. These include shooting over a character's shoulder, or from their point of view, or showing the reverse perspective of your previous shot. You might shoot specifically to show a character's reaction, or insert a specific shot between two others.

The sky's the limit when it comes to shot selection, but all the fancy stuff really starts with wide, medium, and close-up.

Once you know how close or far away you want a shot, it’s time to decide whether the camera will come in straight on, or from above or below…

High-angle vs. low-angle

There is a difference between looking up at Superman and looking down at a Smurf– the difference is in the emotional response the viewer gets, depending on whether you angle the camera up or down on a subject. A neutral camera angle– where you are eye level with your subject– is possible as well.

High-angle shots are shots in which the camera is placed above the subject's eye level. High-angle shots tend to focus viewers' attention on the environment or situation, making it more prominent than any individual character. This is often used to make a character seem less in control of their situation.

An overhead shot is a shot that looks straight down on the action, so that no horizon line is visible in the frame. It is often used to diminish subjects and make them seem insignificant. The bird's eye view is a special type of high-angle shot that is high above the action, as if from the point of view of a bird. This gives a broad view of the environment and its layout.

Low-angle shots are shots in which the camera is placed below the subject's eye level. These shots tend to make the subject seem more powerful or in control because, as viewers, we are looking up at the subject. Low-angle shots can naturally spotlight an individual by the fact that the closest subject to the screen will naturally have his head higher than any other subject in the shot.

This camera position also tends to speed up action, since the scaling effects of perspective are more pronounced when the camera is placed low in the shot. The worm's eye view is a special type of low-angle shot that has the camera shooting from ground level. Speed and perspective seem even more exaggerated and extreme from this viewpoint, and the scaling effects of perspective are very pronounced.

Creating depth in your camera angles

Creating the illusion of depth within a frame is a difficult skill for young storyboard artists to master. The default tendency is to place the camera directly in front of the subject and look straight on at the scene. The job of a storyboard artist is to create a camera angle with the best position to represent the action in the shot. 

A flat image is usually the most boring composition for a subject and much more is needed to create visual interest for the viewer. As artists, we often talk about a scene having deep space or flat space. You want to maximize the depth cues at all times to bring your audience into the action.  

If a scene has a clear, expansive sense of space, it has deep space. If a scene features characters up against a wall or in front of a staged backdrop, limiting the distance our eyes can travel, it has flat space. 

Each spatial choice has a benefit when trying to describe dramatic or comedic moments and specific story points. These depth cues are a conscious choice to create a specific effect for the audience.

Once you are conscious of different tricks to achieve or limit depth when necessary, it becomes easier to produce a convincing storyboard image. This involves a mastery of perspective, but it starts with a general knowledge of where to point the camera to best film the scene. 

Where to place your camera 

Instead of just shooting your subject from the front, how about using a three-quarter view? Or, try raising the camera a bit. Or, what if we tilted the camera as well? At this point, what you see in your composition would have interesting lines and angles that create visual interest.

Of course, you don’t just want to create random lines and angles in your shots. You want to thoughtfully position your characters and scene elements so the shot best shows the action and story point you need.

Camera Lenses

Most productions will reference a physical camera and lenses when talking about shots and storyboards. It's not necessary to understand technical photography, but the general difference between lenses is important when discussing shots for storyboarding purposes.

Long Lenses (Narrow-angle)

Long lenses have lens measurements from 40 mm to 120 mm or more. Long-lens shots are typically shots filmed at a distance from the subject, but the image is magnified through the use of the lens. Because of this, space is compressed and the perspective seems flat, making objects appear close together in space. The depth of field, or potential range a subject can be in focus, is narrower with a long lens. This pushes the background and foreground elements out of focus. Used correctly, this can create a feeling of claustrophobia. Long lenses can also be used in action scenes where two or more characters are fighting each other. A long lens will make it appear as though the characters make contact, but in reality, they're physically far apart.

Short Lenses (Wide-angle)

Short lenses have lens measurements from 15 mm to 40 mm. Short-lens shots can be used to establish a location. The lower the lens number, the more distortion the lens creates. This is often unfavorable for close‐up shots of characters, but wide‐angle is being used more and more as a stylistic choice in comedies or independent movies. A short lens will also exaggerate the speed and size change of a character or subject. These types of shots are often used in close‐ups during action sequences such as car chases or kung-fu fights.

A fisheye lens is an extremely short lens (18mm or less) that creates an exaggeration of perspective and distortion in an image. A fisheye lens can give a farcical feel to a comedic scene, or, if the goal is suspense, add a feeling of unease.

Drawing Different Camera Lenses

Most of the time when storyboarding, specific camera lenses will not be called out by the production, and you can draw a general representation of a long or short lens and leave the specific lens choice to the final cinematographer. Other times, a director might specify a lens for a particular shot and you might have to draw a closer representation. Still, these are generalities– no one will check to make sure the image you create is an exact representation.

What is most important is that you can draw the difference between a long or short lens when necessary. To do this, you'll use basic perspective skills. You can vary the size of the lens you use in your drawing simply by adjusting the distance of your vanishing points on your horizon line.

The further apart your vanishing points are, the longer the lens will appear. The closer together your vanishing points are, the shorter the lens will appear. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn't have more than one vanishing point inside the picture area. Having two vanishing points within your picture area represents too short a lens for most camera shots and will create too much distortion.

With a longer lens, there is a shorter focal length, which means the foreground and the background will most likely be out of focus. An additional way to sell the shot is to draw them a bit fuzzy on paper or blur them a bit using digital tools. The subject in the middle-ground will remain in focus.

With a shorter lens, there is a longer focal length, which means the foreground and background might all be in focus. You can also use three‐point perspective to further the illusion of a shorter lens. The size change of your moving characters will be exaggerated as they come closer to the camera.

How to learn to visualize different camera angles

As with anything, the more you practice drawing different types of camera positions and angles, the better sense you’ll get for what might work, when and where, and the better you’ll get at quickly laying down the correct lines to represent them within your storyboards without having to think about it too much.

If you want to speed up that process of learning, the best way to go about it is to study films and television shows, both live action and animated. Spend some time with some old favorites and get used to watching them with a more analytical eye, paying attention to shot selection. It won’t be long before you start to see shots that are effective, that you might try yourself some time, and shots that aren’t so effective, that you might take in a different direction if given the chance.

It can also be helpful to track down storyboard books (sometimes “art of” books will have what you’re looking for), and sit down with them in-hand as you watch the final products, or even curl  up with just a board book to a thing you think you know really well.

Some of these books will prove more difficult or more expensive to lay hands on than others, but the film Parasite and the book Parasite: A Graphic Novel in Storyboards are a solid combination you can still find fairly easily and at a fairly low cost. You could do a lot worse than starting there.

(Incidentally, the above-mentioned Parasite film and book combination could also show you just how simplified storyboards can be while remaining entirely effective.)
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