I’m a firm believer that artists’ roles aren’t specific to their chosen concentration, or even their natural inclination. Whether you’re an illustrator, author, photographer, actor, or musician, you no doubt find some measure of solace in creative expression. Storyboarding is a great way to encourage that, as it’s far more approachable than, say, painting or life drawing. Plus, the stakes aren’t as high with storyboards since, as I’ve mentioned before, they’re a means to an end, and not “the end” itself. So whether you’re ready to map out a feature film, or just curious how to pick up the practice, here’s everything you need to know to get started!
Draw Your Own Boxes
A “Ridleygram” by Ridley Scott for his film Prometheus (2012).
I love drawing my own storyboard boxes, even if I eventually move on to a pre-made template. By creating your own borders, you’re allowing yourself to experiment with different aspect ratios, and thereby discovering how economical you do or don’t have to be with what you’re including in the shot.
Furthermore, creating the outline of your frames by hand creates a physical, tactile relationship with your work – what’s good about this is that it cultivates an organic connection between the imaginative (the drawings) and the mechanical (the border containing said drawings). Doing this can literally push you to draw outside the box (i.e. open compositions), or at least change the type of box you’re using. This can manifest in some borders being bold (“very important”), dotted (“not very important”), wavy (“dream sequence”), or even color-coded. How you define these is completely up to you. The best way to think of this action is as a warm-up or a handshake with your canvas of choice.
Horizon Line, Vanishing Point, and Perspective
A single line drawn behind or above your key figures, however imperfect it may be, can do wonders: by adding this, you’re rendering an essential, if seemingly rudimentary, aspect of depth and space. It’s something many of us probably learned in elementary school, and its place in our childhood education is well-earned, because it brings our sketches out of the plainly 2D world and into the (faux) 3D one. As one of my college professors liked to say, drawing is all “a con game” — meaning that, when it comes to graphite on paper or pixels on a screen, we’re creating the illusion of an object in space, not the object itself. Reminding myself of this simultaneously takes some pressure off and frees my imagination.
The other half of this step is equally simple and childlike, but also crucial: To create your vanishing point, simply draw a dot anywhere on the horizon line. From the dot, radiate a few lines toward you (Y axis) and parallel to you (X axis). I rarely use a ruler, as I find it slows down and distracts me, but it is always good to have one around regardless. If you’d like to go a step further, you can even draw circles on the grid you’ve just made to represent (in an almost topographical sense) where your key figures/objects will be.
Ultimately, regardless of your weapons of choice (pen and paper, stylus and tablet, etc.), your goal is to lend volume to your figures and depth to your locations and settings. The act of sketching a horizon line and vanishing point, while not always necessary (such as with close-ups or low angles), is always a helpful practice.
Basic Shapes, Composition, and Scale
Before you fill your mind (and subsequently your frame) with irrelevant details, it’s important to establish the relationship between your figures and the area they occupy. It’s tempting to jump right into the lines of a face or the windows of a building, but if you loosely sketch the silhouettes of these key elements first, the sum of your sketch will be greater than its parts — which gives you greater license to then fill in the specifics.
When exploring scale (grandiose establishing shots, sweeping aerial views, literal/metaphorical “David and Goliath” scenarios), the best way to start is with basic lines and shapes.
For example, just by drawing a larger, bolder shape next to a smaller one, you’re eliciting an emotional response. Similarly, leaving a vast amount of negative space around a single mark may suggest loneliness or being lost. That’s the power of scale. Just as music is sometimes about the notes you don’t play, storyboarding is sometimes about the lines you don’t draw.
The order of your actions could also save you precious time (not to mention headaches). Working in broad, meaningful strokes at the start organizes the key elements of your shot rather than muddling it. If you can help it, you never want to get distracted by drawing a character’s stubble before you even finishing sketching their head.
While the rule of thirds is ubiquitous for a reason — it’s the clear articulation of why we find certain images so compelling – simplifying a composition even further, into quadrants (or even halves), can get to the heart of that interest even faster. Much as the human eye is able to read a word or sentence with the bottom half cut off (but rarely with the top cut off), the same could be said for the staging of a scene. Take, for example, David Lean’s immortal Lawrence of Arabia. On a purely functional level, it’s easy to notice the way the essential action is framed to reside in the upper half. In a slightly more complex, yet entirely story- and character-driven way, take note of the way that Peter O’Toole as Lawrence moves from his upper left quadrant of the screen to the upper right in an act of aggression. None of this is accidental. Your work should, and always will on some level, be a result of your instincts, but your proudest moments will undoubtedly be when you marry instinct with deliberate thought.
Depth of Field and Backgrounds
DREDD (2012) storyboard by JOCK. His bold, blocky style is deceptively minimal and entirely functional.
Earlier, I mentioned how using a ruler slows me down. Since time is often of the essence in storyboarding, you, as the artist, must prioritize the visual information while being mindful of time management (sometimes subconsciously). This will happen over time, through practice and repetition, and you’ve likely already instilled your own way of doing this. The point being that – and this is a recurring theme of storyboarding – you’re focusing on the key visual information, not necessarily all of the information. Frankly, there are times when you don’t have to draw a background at all. If you’re ahead of schedule, maybe you’d like to, but depending on critical factors like time allotted and budget given, you’ll represent the action over the established location every time. This is because things like setting will naturally become implied when you’ve drawn it in previous frames and shots.
With that said, when you do create a background, even the most primitive version (a horizon line or a wash of tonality) will still heighten your depth of field, because just the suggestion of the locale can be enough to maintain flow and momentum.
Rendering Your Storyboards
Justice League storyboard by Steve Skroce. His background in comic books is a natural fit for storyboards; the use of color clearly identifies the key figures within his looser, more gestural drawing style.
Once again, depending on time, resources, and/or budget, you may wish to maintain a simple yet energetic drawing style, or perhaps a more thorough, graphic novel-inspired approach. You may want to add full-on color, stick to grayscale, or do a mix of both. These are all choices that will sometimes be made for you, either by a director or the circumstances of the project. Regardless of the outcome, one style isn’t better than the other; it’s simply a matter of preference and of what’s appropriate. The tone, background, or intention of the project will all inform the way you do things.
For example, films like the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road are notable for using their storyboards in place of a traditional script. Aside from the long pre-production periods that enabled the entirety of both films to be storyboarded, these movies each employed comic-book artists (Chris Weston on Eli, Mark H. Sexton On Max) to lend a deliberately larger-than-life and highly aestheticized look that was maintained throughout production. Concept artists and storyboard artists almost always come in before costume designers, production designers, and others – so however you choose to render your drawings, don’t underestimate the influence your work will have on the cast, crew, and movie as a whole.
The Book of Eli storyboard by Chris Weston. His style is defined by a Brian Bolland-esque level of detail and atmosphere. Weston’s work was presented as a graphic novel to the actors in place of a traditional script.
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.
Top image: Selected storyboards by Jim Penola for an upcoming music video from Lindsey Stirling.