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How to Storyboard: A Step-by-Step Guide to Storyboarding for Beginners

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Storyboard being created. WeVideo Film School graphic in bottom left corner.

The storyboard is one of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking. It’s essentially where the first concept of how a scene will look originates. There’s no magical science behind the idea; a storyboard is simply a series of illustrations showing how the filmmakers, usually the director, envision that particular moment of a film. They can range from rough drawings to polished pieces of art from accomplished illustrators. 

The process helps cultivate your ideas from script to scene (some filmmakers say the storyboard process is like a rewrite) and allows you to visually communicate how the film will play out, shot by shot.

Why should you storyboard?

As a novice filmmaker, storyboarding can be a much-needed lifeline. With the nuances of an experienced director, it can be easier to explain to your crew what you are trying to achieve, even if you have the script at hand. Having a storyboard that you can show to your camera operator and even the cast will not only save you from tripping over your words in trying to describe something, but it will also save time in filmmaking. 

When reading a script, each readers visualize the sequences differently, but a storyboard can bridge the gap between your vision and how your team needs to execute their dedicated roles. It not only serves as a tool for you to visualize and organize your scenes, but it also helps ensure everyone is on the same page, enabling a smoother production process. 

More importantly, as a novice filmmaker, you likely don’t have the resources to attempt shots or sequences multiple times. A storyboard will allow you to experiment with the framing of your compositions and the timing of your sequences, long before you’ve put out a casting call.

Storyboard example from Star Wars A New Hope.Storyboard by Paul Huston for “Star Wars: A New Hope”

The impact of storyboarding in film production

While not necessary for all filmmakers, some directors live and die by storyboards. Director James Gunn is one of them. Perhaps Gunn's formula for storyboarding is evident in the success of his Marvel trilogy, "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Take this fun sequence from "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2".

Video via TopMovieClips

In that entire three-minute sequence, there are perhaps no more than two lines of dialogue and a handful of grunts and laughs. On paper, it looks like this:

Page from Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 screenplay.Image via Marvel Studios

How would one get the concept from script to screen? Yep, a storyboard. 

Gunn says

“A lot of my time directing is taken up by creating shot lists and then storyboards. I always do the first batch of boards. Then a real artist comes in who turns my stick figures and arrows into actual drawings. And then, if it's an action sequence or a pivotal musical sequence, we will animate the storyboard. The trick is to get to the animation early, long before shooting, so the sequences can be perfected. I usually stick very closely to these sequences for shooting - but being so controlled also allows me the freedom to find inspiration on set where I might.”

Conversely, there are some filmmakers, like the renowned Terrence Malick, who veer away from the very idea of using storyboards.

Malick says:

“Well, I find it very hard to execute anything that is too preconceived. I've never been able to work from storyboards because it's hard; you always have a bit of the feeling you're trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I think you work that way, right? You let it be, see where you're gonna go on the day, and hope it will go some places that you allow it to happen. But if you try to make things happen, they start to feel presented. They start to feel as though the action had been premeditated and was not being presented to them, which makes it feel like theater. Theater is wonderful in its own right, but in the movies, you don't want them to be like theater.”

If you compare a sequence from a storyboard enthusiast like James Gunn to one from Terrence Malick, you can see a significant difference in their styles. The sequence posted above from "Guardians of the Galaxy" is very calculated, articulate, and meticulously planned.

Video via Movieclips

In contrast, this sequence from "The Tree of Life" flows as if caught in the wind. There’s an organic fluidity to the sequence. While the two sequences are from entirely different genres, contributing to their vastly different tones, we can still distinguish the difference in their filmmaking styles.

How to storyboard

While a filmmaker who never storyboards can still be nominated for an Oscar three times, as a beginner, you will still want to storyboard to set the foundation of your film. There are no downsides to storyboarding at this level, but there are multiple ways of skipping it. 

So, you know what a storyboard is and how it is used. Now, we need to learn how to make one. Unlike scripts, which need to be presented in a very strict format, or video footage, which needs to be encoded in a specific codec for broadcast, the rules around storyboards are very loose. There might not be any. 

This is a storyboard for a film that grossed $869.8 million. 

Storyboard example from Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

Image via James Gunn from "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2"

There is little detail other than the shot framing and character movement. 

Conversely, this panel is from "Lord of The Rings."

Storyboard example from Lord of the Rings.Image via Mike Ploog

The panels are not only infinitely more defined, but they also show how the set, props, and lighting could look. 

Your storyboard could be created using professional storyboard software such as StudioBinder, or you can create your storyboard on napkins you took from the local diner. The goal is to display the intent of the shot. Of course, the clearer you can make your storyboard, the better.

Storyboard panels

Now, if you want to take the more formal route, either using software or neatly drawing sketches on storyboard cards, there are a few formalities we should look at.

If your storyboard is created in software, you typically have a panel design. The idea is that each storyboard panel is sequential and will run through your scene. Reading vertically from page five to page six, the example below is from "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Storyboard example from Captain America The First Avenger. "Captain America: The First Avenger," storyboard by Rodolfo Damaggio

Although it’s worth noting, it’s not common practice to storyboard the same shots as if it were an editing timeline. For example, if Shot 1 is a medium shot of a character named Mark and Shot 2 is a reverse medium shot of a character named Steve — we can presume they are having a conversation. Since you'd cut this conversation back and forth in the edit, you wouldn't necessarily need to storyboard it.

Unlike a comic book, however, you will typically find that storyboards are read vertically rather than from left to right.

Storyboard example from Jurassic Park."Jurassic Park" by storyboard artist David Lowery

Nonetheless, as previously noted, there are no strict rules for storyboarding. You can create a storyboard that reads from left to right; just ensure the formatting is consistent throughout to avoid confusing your crew.

Shot information

Underneath the panel, you can include a few snippets about the shot. Unlike a comic book, where the illustrator and inker can imply movement, it’s not entirely obvious when drawing stick figures or using software. Therefore, write the shot type and describe how the shot is moving. Look at this example from Bong Joon Ho for his film "Parasite." (By the way, you can buy the entire storyboard for "Parasite" as a book. It makes for excellent homework.)

We see information about the shot, including the type of camera movement.

Storyboard example from Parasite.

Again, it’s not a firm requirement to do this. You could easily have a storyboard without technical information, but if it helps bring your vision to life, then the more clarity, the better. If you’re unsure how to label the shots, here’s a glossary with various shot types

  • CU - Close-up
  • ECU - Extreme close-up
  • MS - Medium shot
  • MCU - Medium close-up
  • MLS - Medium long shot
  • LS - Long shot
  • ELS - Extreme long shot
  • OTS - Over the shoulder
  • POV - Point of view
  • ES - Establishing shot

Camera movements:

  • Track forward - Camera moves forward
  • Track backward - Camera moves backward
  • Pan - Camera rotates horizontally
  • Tilt - Camera rotates vertically
  • Crane - Camera moves up/down
  • Handheld - Camera held by the operator with an implied shake
  • Zoom in - Camera lens zooms in
  • Zoom out - Camera lens zooms out
  • Static - Camera is stationary

Additionally, if a shot calls for a particular technicality, such as having a higher frame rate for slow motion, you can include this as it helps denote how the shot will play out, which can help paint the film's flow. 

Character movement

Implying motion in storyboards can be pretty tricky, and implying character and object motion in storyboards can be even more challenging; that’s why it’s common for filmmakers to use arrows within their storyboards.   

In the example below from "Spider-Man 2," storyboard artist Chris Buchinsky uses arrows to demonstrate the kinetic action in the sequence. From Doctor Octopus’ metallic arms to the direction of the train, the arrows help convey the movement and flow of the action.

Storyboard example from Spider-Man 2.

Shot numbers

Finally, it’s worth adding a shot number or letter to the scene number. Your scene number will be displayed on your script, allowing easy organization.

Closing thoughts

Filmmaking can be incredibly challenging, not only with the aspect of making a film, but with all the formalities that come with it. Storyboards can be one of the more relaxed and accessible parts of this process.

From this article, you should now know how storyboards can bridge the gap between the director’s vision and the crew’s execution and ensure that everyone is on the same page — quite literally. Whether you choose to create detailed illustrations or simple stick figures, the key is to convey the intent of each shot clearly. 

After creating your storyboard, you can take it further by adding it to an editing timeline. This allows you to sync sound effects and music, helping you work out the timing of your sequence and see if it will work with live footage. Just sign up for a free WeVideo plan to bring your vision to life!