The Art of Storyboarding

By Phill Powell

A Disney animator invented them. Hitchcock swore by ‘em. And to this day, storyboarding is still the leading tool for visualizing how a movie or TV scene will appear once it’s filmed.

Peter_Pan_storyboards
Disney Studios pioneered the use of storyboards in the 1930s. By 1953’s Peter Pan, Disney had perfected the process, even devoting a separate art department for storyboarding.

Storyboards, a sequence of individual frames containing illustrations that indicate key action and characters, are now an essential part of the filmmaking process, helping to clearly define the look and feel of a scene before filmmakers make the financial investment required to bring their vision to life.

Different Boards for Different Stories
There are several types of storyboards, depending on the production’s needs:

    • Storyboards can be as simple as a strip of thumbnails, something that can be quickly sketched and immediately available.

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    • On the other hand, studios may prefer to use more polished storyboards that provide a closer approximation of the final look of the scene.

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  • There are even storyboards that use photos instead of illustrations for live-action films where even subtle physical details are important to capture.

Disney: First On Board
Storyboarding can be traced to 1933, when Disney Studios was working on its early cartoon classic, Three Little Pigs. Disney credited animator Webb Smith with being the first artist to arrange individual drawings into a series that illustrates a scene being planned.

Walt Disney knew that storyboards were worth their weight in gold because they helped animators really flesh out the personalities of the characters being drawn.

Disney went even further, establishing a separate art department whose sole job was developing storyboards for Disney’s various animated projects. Walt Disney considered storyboarding that important.

North_by_Northwest_storyboard
Classic storyboarded sequence from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, showing star Cary Grant being hunted by a plane.

Hitchcock: Chairman of the Boards
Different filmmakers make different uses of storyboards, but the legendary director most famous for depending on storyboards was England’s “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock.

A long-standing rumor held that Hitchcock (creator of screen classics like Psycho and Rear Window) was such a strong believer in storyboards that once on set, he never bothered to even look through the camera’s viewfinder at all and was instead happy to let assistant directors line up the shots that he had specified in the storyboards.

There’s some truth to this, although recent investigations into Hitch’s creative process show that he was more into the hands-on filmmaking experience than once believed.

For a complete filmmaker like Hitchcock, storyboards were an important tool, but he also took enormous care developing the scripts for his films. Hitchcock said that his favorite part of the filmmaking process was conceptual, and he most enjoyed the planning of his productions.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Storyboards
George Miller produced storyboards for Mad Max: Fury Road to help realize his vision.

Ridley Scott: An Artist’s Vision
Director Ridley Scott is known for the incredible visual design of Sci Fi epics like 1979’s Alien, 1982’s Blade Runner and 2012’s Prometheus. Each film has an unmistakeable look, and that’s not by accident. (Check out Scott’s latest in our exclusive extended version of The Martian trailer.)

Scott differs from most film directors in that he’s an actual visual artist, with seven years of training that included a stint at the Royal College of Art.

Because of his advanced graphics skills, Scott is able to sketch storyboards on the go, often drafting simple storyboards while he’s being driven to the film studio.

His rich artistic sense helps him in other ways, too. He is able to consult with the film’s art department, as well as influence the set design and costumes used in the movie.

Alien_storyboard
Ridley Scott’s not just an amazing director; he’s also a gifted visual artist. (He drafted this storyboard for Alien.)

Drawing Boards, Composing Frames
Storyboarding is an art, but it’s not a lost one. At better film production summer camps, like Digital Media Academy, storyboarding is still taught as a vital part of the filmmaking process.

In the DMA Studios film production course, teens get to try on different production roles, as they handle all parts of an actual working production.