Any storyboard artist really should have at least an intermediate understanding of some basic concepts from the film-editing process. Understanding film editing is really understanding the order of shots in a scene and the order of scenes in a sequence, and the best ways to get from one to the next. The added element of time also comes into play.
By creating storyboard drawings, we’re basically creating the first version of a scene. A storyboard artist needs to envision what the end product will be and create the drawings in that order.
There are several concepts storyboard artists need to understand:
Cutting from one unique composition to another
As storyboard artists, we control what is inside the frame. You want to create an interesting arrangement of shapes in the composition for visual interest. Then, in the next shot, you want to create a different arrangement of shapes, so that when you cut to the next shot, it is very clearly a different camera position and focus.
Varying your cutting style throughout the project will also give your story more visual appeal. You can play more with long shots, or quick cuts. Whichever style you choose should reflect the content of the story. Whenever possible, try to make seamless transitions by cutting on action and creating solid hook-ups. Have one action continue through to the next shot. Lead the eye through to the next shot, by way of character movement or camera movement. If a character exits the scene from left to right, try cutting to an object in the next scene also traveling from left to right.
Avoid jump cuts
During the film-editing process, when a single piece of a shot is removed and the remaining end pieces are placed together, or when two similar shots are spliced together as if they were a single shot, the result is a "jump," either in time, camera position, or both.
Jump cuts are a legitimate technique when editing films, and when done well, can serve practical storytelling or stylistic purposes. But they can also be jarring when done poorly, without reason, or entirely by accident.
Regardless, the conscious use of jump cuts (or the conscious lack thereof) will most likely be a decision that you, as a storyboard artist on a production, have little or nothing to do with. And you can avoid accidentally creating jump cuts in the images you present by coming up with a solid variety of shot choices, particularly in scenes that focus on a piece of action or dialogue for any significant stretch of time.
The focal point of a shot is where the audience will look first in any frame. This screen position of the focal point can move or stay the same from one shot to the next. As long as you don’t create a jump cut as explained above, you can design the position where the audience focuses on the screen. In some cases, from shot to shot, you’ll want to keep the audience focused on the same screen position. In others, you’ll want to move the focal point across the screen over time, or jump it abruptly to another spot for dramatic effect.
Don’t make your audience wait
Today’s audiences are very sophisticated because of the amount of narrative visual content we all consume from a very young age. With this in mind, there should be an efficiency within scenes to get viewers to the point as soon as possible. There is no need to show every detail of someone arriving home from work if that isn’t important to the story. You can simply cut out the middle and jump from the office to the character arriving at their house. This is very apparent when constructing the final edit of a film. Any good editor will cut out the unnecessary, no matter how visually beautiful the content might be.
With that in mind, don’t include unnecessary shots when drawing your storyboards.
Beginning, middle, and end
Stories don't happen without some kind of underlying structure, even when you think they do.
At some point, you should grab yourself a book on story structure. Even if you have zero aspiration to write scripts, it can only help you when you're boarding someone else's scripts and have to solve whatever challenges they might present.
Which book you pick probably doesn't matter– they all offer more or less the same advice.
As you learn the ins and outs of story structure, you're going to see that it all comes down to beginning, middle, and end– setup, conflict, and resolution.
And you're going to find that, big or small, this model is infinitely reducible.
- A status quo is disrupted by want and/or need...
- Leading to a rising conflict until an impending absolute breaking point...
- Which is reached and resolved, for good or ill, and we cool off into a new normal.
You should be able to find this model across any story’s total arc. Look closer, and you'll find it within each of a story’s acts, too. Look closer still, and you'll find it within each of an act’s scenes as well.
The images you create will always need to reflect this model when presented, if a story is going to make any sense. Shifting and reordering of images will always happen, but this is done to strengthen this model, not to confuse it. A beginning, middle, and end should always be clear in your boards, overall and when looked at act by act or scene by scene.
One concept of film editing is to cut on action. Imagine a person opening a door– you could show the person reach for the door, but not actually touch it, and then, in the next shot, you could show the person already walking through the door on the other side. This compression of action and time is a “hook-up.” There is often no need to show every piece of an action. This is especially important in a fast-paced action scene or during a scene featuring tense drama.
The quicker editing, done correctly, can help you create that sense of tension you’re looking for in some scenes.
One thing many storyboard artists will often forget to include are reaction shots of the characters involved in a scene as events unfold. These close-up shots on character reactions will involve the audience more and give an immersive experience of the scene for the viewer– they can feel the emotions play out in the scene, because of how the characters reacted. Any good scene will include plenty of reaction shots.
Pacing for action
Action scenes require a particular method to make exciting. But remember, action is pointless if there's no emotional weight.
Above all, it's important to remember to make action scenes as cinematic as possible. Dull staging or compositions that just aren’t very creative could easily ruin an otherwise good action scene.
Start off by building up the anticipation for the upcoming fight or action sequence. Increase the speed of the cuts. Move the camera in closer with each cut. Increase the level of danger for greater intensity. It's absolutely key to have objects coming toward and moving away from the camera to maximize depth. Try tilting and lowering the camera.
Keep the action moving throughout the scene as well– don't stage the fight or action in one place, but have it travel along the set and track the camera with the action. Camera movement, along with moving action, adds a greater dynamic effect.
As an exercise, try using these staging guidelines to start building a kung-fu fight scene:
- Establishing shot (either a downshot or an upshot)
- Build anticipation by cutting closer from one fighter to the other in multiple shots
- Medium shot on initial exchange to establish skills of both fighters (usually upshots)
- Intensify with a lead-in close shot on one fighter in an anticipation pose
- Over-the-shoulder shot of said fighter striking, on the other parrying, blocking, or evading
- Close-up on a significant anticipation. Wide on displays of acrobatics or exchanges
- Wide downshot to show danger in fighting near a ledge or similar setting, and occasional upshots for dynamics
- Close-ups on impacts
Keep the camera moving along with the action, but the camera should always follow the action, never lead it. Have your action occasionally swinging toward the camera, and away, for dynamic effect.
When pacing a kung-fu fight scene, try these rhythms:
- Strike, strike, strike, block
- Block, block, strike
- Block, block, strike, strike
- Strike, block, block, strike
The choreography should reflect the skills of each character. Do your research, and get inspired with “good” kung-fu movies. The more authentic you can make your fight scenes, the more realistic they will seem– a Navy SEAL will have a much different fighting style than a ninja, for example.
Playing with pacing
When creating a storyboard sequence, you can speed up the pacing as you might want to do with an action scene, or you can slow it way, way down, and draw out the unfolding of events.
You might want to try the latter technique with, say, a suspense scene.
If you create a gradual change in pacing– look at it as if you're easing on the brakes of a car– you can build in the audience a sense of something inevitable coming. Maybe it's the anticipation of something good. Or maybe, if we’re taking thrillers, it's the sense of dread for something bad.
You could take that further, after drawing it out, and either slam on the brakes fully to come to a jarring halt– to continue the car analogy– or switch to the gas and speed up suddenly. Either way, the audience will be disoriented by the shift in pacing, which might be exactly what you want.
Consider also what you might want to leave out. Sometimes, the images you leave out will be as important as the ones you include. Maybe even more so.
When boarding something faster-paced, like say an action scene, there are certain beats you want to hit– certain things you want to show– or else an audience might get lost. But when working on something slower-paced, you can play more with what information is revealed and when.
It can be hard to nail down just how many images you should draw to cover off your scripts, or scenes within said scripts, or actions within said scenes within said scripts.
The next time you're not sure whether you need one storyboard, two, a dozen, or good-lord-so-many-storyboards-you'll-need-multiple-hand-surgeries-afterward, here's a thing to try (and if this looks familiar-ish, well, it should– it's good ol' three-act structure):
Approach each action with three beats to start– a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Draw your three thumbnails, then take stock.
If it reads, leave it.
If the gaps seem a bit too airy, or if you see an opportunity to sell a little subtext, add something.
If you're drawing the same thing with only minor changes for no good reason, or you have a clever way to call it in two or even one, trim the fat.
Every so often, you will legitimately need to produce a few dozen drawings to show some particularly intricate action the way it needs to be shown if anyone else is going to make sense of it later.
But more often than not, you probably won’t.
An animatic is a timed-out version of the storyboard panels in video format. It will often include temporary dialogue, music, and sound effects to offer a first-pass representation of the story. The idea is to create a rough “story reel” video that can be watched by the key creatives of a project and analyzed for story issues and improvements to be made in subsequent storyboard passes. A well-executed animatic gives a very accurate representation of the shots and action needed in a narrative film project.
As with any aspect of storyboarding, creating an animatic reel takes trial and error to get right. With advances in digital storyboarding software, you can more easily move from drawing to timing out scenes. A basic understanding of video editing in programs like Adobe Premiere or Toon Boom Storyboard Pro will get you started. There are also technical hurdles to consider, such as panel resolution and aspect ratios, but what’s really important is that you have clear information in your storyboards that translate well when timed out in video format.
When ready, you can export the video project for review with the creative team.
Animatics, just like storyboards, will likely require multiple iterations to get just right before final approval happens.
Today’s storyboard artists need to be familiar with how to create animatics and properly present storyboards for the editorial process. This skill is a natural extension of making storyboard drawings and is another reason why storyboard artists should be familiar with the film-editing process.