Inspiration, Pro Tips

Drawing Inspiration: The Keys to Creating Killer Storyboards


If you’re capturing moving images, storyboarding is one of the most practical and helpful filmmaking tools you can utilize. Before and during production, storyboards bring previously abstract images and intentions into physical reality, creating a common visual ground for your cast and crew to inhabit. The value this provides in terms of describing, planning, and shooting cannot be overstated. Here are some tips on how to use this process to its full potential.


Sketch Outside the Box

When drawing storyboards, it’s important to remember you’re not drawing a graphic novel. In other words, you’re not bound to the same level of polish, since storyboards are a single step towards a bigger product, and not the product itself. As such, you should make a habit to literally draw outside the lines and let your art breathe. Follow through with your strokes, whether you’re rendering a person, a room, a piece of furniture, or any other object.

By allowing a few strokes to exceed the border, you can suggest the world beyond the frame.

The practical purpose of this is ensuring that everything is in proportion and not stifled by the “safe area” of your border. The more subjective purpose is the way the breadth of your drawing will suggest the world and scenery that’s unseen. When you’re happy with what you’ve drawn, you can add line weight and value while cleaning up or erasing any unwanted marks, such as lines that escape the border.


Draw Thumbnails

Draw small before you draw big — you’ll save time by getting ideas down faster and provide yourself with a guide to fall back on later. It’s something you can always improve on if you find a better path along the way. Jumping into your final sketches can be tempting (and sometimes necessary, depending on any number of factors), but if you have a choice, sketching out thumbnails allows your instincts to be conveyed without the pressure of “getting it right” immediately.

Drawing thumbnails before jumping into full-size sketches allows you to acknowledge your first instincts.

These tiny sketches can be in the margins of a script, on scrap paper, in a notebook or moleskine journal — anything that you can easily grab or reference once you’ve begun working full-size. Again, these miniature renderings are your safety net, the drawings you can always land on and revisit in times of doubt.


Think of the Audience

Aside from the obvious task of translating the words of a script or shot list, the flip side of storyboarding is creating an interesting flow from one shot to the next. Ideally, each new shot should be motivated in some way by the viewer experience. For example, in an action scene where you know there will be quick cuts in the final edit, you may want to keep the important information centered to eliminate ocular fatigue. Conversely, if you’re storyboarding a slower-paced film or moment, it may behoove you to try a more detailed approach where the viewer’s eyes can linger on and explore the picture.

Storyboard Comparison by Jim Penola for “Less of You” short film (2014). DoP: Oliver Lanzenberg, Dir: Byron Camacho

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you should be mindful of your audience behind the camera as well, especially the director. If you’re fortunate enough to work with the same filmmaker on multiple occasions, you’ll naturally develop a shorthand that is both verbal and visual, giving you an established relationship with their vocabulary.


Embrace Accidents, Mistakes, and Functionality

Storyboards are a single step in a long process, and because of that, it’s crucial to let go of the notion that your sketches should be finely tuned masterpieces. Embrace accidents and unwanted marks – don’t ignore them, necessarily, but accept them and work around them. Use your pencil more than your eraser. Doing this will make you a sharper, faster artist. Your storyboards can and should be visually pleasing, but functionality is paramount.

Storyboard Comparison by Jim Penola for “New Year’s” music video by Diane Coffee (2014). DoP: Oliver Lanzneberg, Dir: Tighe Kellner

In other words, don’t get bogged down by details such as likenesses, especially when roles are often not even cast during the storyboarding phase. If you can maintain and convey the essential qualities (composition, scale, depth of field), the aesthetics will fall into place automatically.


Adapt to Each Project

As an artist, you’ll naturally maintain your own style and creative voice. That said, you should be open to adapting and improving your methods whenever possible. You may find that drawing with a No. 2 pencil on index cards works better for one project, while drawing with a stylus in Photoshop works better for another. The vessel for your storyboards will not only change based on your personal preference and needs (not to mention the ever-changing landscape of the industry), but will also evolve based on the directors you work with, and ultimately what makes the most sense for your combined workflow.

Drawing on individual cards and hanging them up allows you to easily re-arrange shots.

When I was working with writer/director Harry Bainbridge on his short film “Men Suck” (2016), we discussed the project at length before a single image was ever produced. This allowed us to discover that drawing on individual cards and hanging them up was the right path. As a result, we could easily re-arrange shots at will in order to find what was extraneous or missing.


Stay Inspired

Getting out of your own way can be the hardest part of any creative act, and one of the most reliable ways to do that is to stay inspired. Inspiration can and should come in any form — looking at other storyboards, screen-capturing Instagram posts, surrounding your workspace with cinematic “Art Of…” books, or simply putting on your favorite movie. It may help to think of your DVD/Blu-ray collection and Netflix queue as assets as much as entertainment. YouTube and its limitless supply of interviews can be an ally as well, just as long as you leave these things on in the background more than you actively watch them. Not to mention everything outside of visual art — literature, music, podcasts, whatever works! The power of creative rejuvenation and excitement in low energy lulls is vital to your stamina.


Research and Reference

Who are the key artists of the genre you’re working in? What are the key films? It’s easier than ever to give yourself a crash-course on any subject, and while no one expects you to be a living encyclopedia, allow yourself the space and freedom to absorb the knowledge that will make you a wiser, more versatile illustrator. Similarly, take advantage of the infinite pool of media waiting to be discovered online. Is your current project a car commercial? Film noir? A parody? Maybe it’s a combination of all three of those things. No matter what the subject is, you can rarely have too much reference material.

Original storyboard image for The Empire Strikes Back by Nilo Rodis-Jamero (1980).

Immediately make your own “look book” or folder of collected material to consult when needed. Your gathering could include brand logos, film stills, architecture, concept art, and head shots of actors. Organize it in whatever way you feel comfortable; just make sure you have it. The best part in building these arsenals is that they will likely come in handy again for other projects, so clearly label and shelve them (and certainly don’t delete them unless necessary).


Be Completely Committed and Unattached

Remain committed to your craft as you do it, and simultaneously unattached when you share it with others. When you’re receiving notes, criticism, or maybe just witnessing the final, color-corrected shot of something you worked on, remember that storyboards are meant as a guide or a springboard for your fellow filmmakers. A director could and should adapt on the day of a shoot if a better idea presents itself.

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Storyboard Comparison by Jim Penola for “Blue Eyes” music video by The Rosebuds (2014). DoP: Oliver Lanzenberg, Dir: Tighe Kellner

The great thing about creating a successful storyboard is the way it manifests confidence in the cast and crew going into production – it’s a tangible, shared tool, as opposed to a nebulous description stuck in a single person’s head. As such, you’re not only conveying the visual rhythm of a given sequence, but instilling courage and teamwork, and there are few things more valuable than that.

Jim Penola is a freelance illustrator and storyboard artist. He has studied closely under his mentors and industry veterans Robert Castillo (The Sopranos, Precious) and William H. Frake III (Pocahontas, Ice Age). Jim received his BFA degree in Art/Illustration from William Paterson University. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jimpenola.