CURRENT WORK: 2003-2005 -Bad Blood's Storyboards
Note: Page updated January 2014. Please check out this excellent video posted in YouTube by TheSheik 1976 (thanks Sheik!) titled: 'The Art of Storyboarding with Ridley Scott'. Here's the link:
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you begin with this reading, I have to make something very clear: This section on storyboarding is intended for 'directors' or people who would like to "visualise" their own projects. Directors should never allow the 'storyboard artist' to direct their films; the film should be the director's vision. Having said thus, storyboard artists will find my observations and experiences useful in their own work and in their interaction with directors.
What to expect from reading this page
In this page I will provide a step-by-step description of how to create your own storyboards by using mine as an example. Regardless of the project you want to visualise -be it a film or a documentary, a television show, a theatrical production, an advertising campaign, or a play-by-play process (such as a sport's play sequence or the creation of a culinary dish), storyboarding will help you "picture" and improve the quality of your production. Now, before you continue reading, keep this in mind: storyboarding equals 'understanding'. It does so by providing knowledge, awareness and insight on any subject, action, or sequence of events.
However, in storyboarding, in contrast to the written word, understanding is achieved through pictures -though descriptive text and symbols are sometimes used to further elaborate on an idea. The pictures can be line drawings, painted images, or photographs. They may even be a combination of all of the above. But if bringing understanding is the primary goal of storyboarding, doing so in a fast and expedient manner has to be your second highly desirable goal. Keep in mind that you will end up doing hundreds of individual panels, so the rendering method you chose to create your storyboards depends entirely on your own artistic skills. Okay? So let's get to it!
My intention to make a film led to storyboarding. I wrote Bad Blood with the intention of directing the film (see Bad Blood in the 'Writings' page to read a few scenes from the screenplay and pictures of the cast). But as soon as the screenplay was completed and budget projections were made, it became obvious to me that, in order to make the film I'd envisioned for a minimal budget (meaning: we had no money!), I would have to do some "creative manoeuvring" to make this film happen (see From Errol Flynn to DreamsVcom in the ‘Writings’ section of this website for the complete story -you will be amused). When you have a burning desire to do something creative -like a movie, but with only the possibility of adquiring very limited resources, you have to dedicated an exhausting amount of time to figure out how to make every penny count. To show more on screen for less money meant preparing well in advance to successfully overcome the enormous challenges of filmmaking. So, how do you make a movie for less? Answer: By spending more time on thinking and planning. And, how do you think and plan for a movie? Answer: By making storyboards.
I was determined to make a movie. My first move was to analyse my situation. It immediately became clear that hiring an established production studio to shoot the film was out of the question; this simply not in our financial landscape. So instead, we used what we had within reach and planned ways to get what we lacked. Consequently, my colleagues and I decided to produce the film on our own. DreamsVcom (Dreams Visual Communications Production Studio), our newly created enterprise to produce Bad Blood, would contract a number of critical talent and professional personnel, but for the most part, we had to depend on own skills and other local less expensive resources such as college students.
The studio’s organizational chart was kept simple. Nancy Lewis and Peggy Krysinski, two of Bad Blood’s four co-producers, would be handling the day-to-day studio operations; John Ban, our third co-producer would be running the crew and dealing with technical challenges, and I would handle the creative aspect of the project. Taking the responsibility of all creative decisions encompassed being the film’s director, production designer, and director of photography. It was up to me to decide the look, the mood, the style, the pace and the feel of the entire movie. Since I was also the film’s editor and the screenwriter, I had complete creative control in the fullest sense of the word.
From my experiences in the theatre and the visual arts, I knew well that the success or failure of any collaborative undertaking depends greatly on good communication. Bad Blood’s production team and its department heads (many of whom I had not even invited yet to join the project), with few notable exceptions, had never worked on feature films before. So it became imperative that everyone involved had a clear picture of what was being done and why things were being done in a particular way so that confusion, the misused of time and resources, and dejection on the set could be eliminate to the greatest extent.
In filmmaking, just to remind you, the process of communicating in pictures is called storyboarding. A director with good verbal communication skills is a plus on the set but I had long known that a picture is worth a thousand words. In this situation a thousand pictures were even better. From my point of view, storyboards are "the bible of a film’s production". They are more than just the derivative visual form of the screenplay. They communicate at many levels! They are the renderings of a director's mind and the most powerful tool of visual communication between the talent, the production team, and perhaps more importantly, with potential investors. When confronted with a difficult problem more often than not a simple drawing is all that's needed to heard the magic words -"I totally get it, dude!"
Forty years of painting and designing placed me at an ideal spot to render a ‘picture’ version of the screenplay. Three movie directors that I greatly admire used their arts background to great effect in storyboarding their entire films. They are Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Ridley Scott. If you don't know who these gentlemen are, then you do not know about films!
To be sure, there are many other prominent directors, such as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and George Lucas, who have used storyboards extensively. Most films use storyboards, especially films that require complex action or special effects sequences. But what set Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Scott from the rest is that they drew their own boards -though they had storyboard artists at hand to elaborate, render changes and further polish their visuals. It goes without saying that, in preparation to make my own boards, I studied theirs. This is how you begin to learn the art: COPY from a master. Go find a director whose style you would like to emulate, study their work and how they "interpreted" the film's screenplay visually. Study a copy of one of their screenplays (you can find copies of most screenplays online or at the library) and then compare each written scene with the finished scene on film. This will help you see things like a director does. Just make sure you pick a good one as your motivational and inspirational guru.
I began creating Bad Blood’s storyboards in the fall of 2003 and completed them in April of 2005. Yes, storyboarding takes a long time! But no, I did not work on them full time, only at night. In between work commissions to pay the rent, I used some of my spare time making drawings. Every week I tried to do a set amount of 'panels'. A panel is finished rendering (though people often refer to them as "drawings" even though not all panels are made with drawings). A board is a collection of panels. In the end, I storyboarded the entire film in 133 boards containing about 2300 individual renderings and diagrams. What I discovered from doing my own boards is that everything that was foggy by the time I started was completely clear by the time I finished. Storyboarding allows time for the brain to think, to study problems and work out ideas and solutions; it also provides a way to experiment with new approaches. Let me give you an example.
Let's say you are working on a thriller and have to do a scene of a beautiful woman being stab as she takes a shower. The screenplay reads: "The murderer silently approaches the women as she showers, violently pulls away the shower curtain, and stabs her to death." You want to film the gory scene showing the murderer approaching the shower stall, raised knife in hand ready to strike, then pulling away the curtain thus revealing the beautiful nude body of the woman, and then attacking his victim with multiple knife stabbings until she falls dead -every blood drop captured in glorious colour! This is a key sequence in your film, a turning point, and it has to be absolutely memorable.
But when you get together with your various department heads to discuss the actual shooting of the scene, you realise that it will take convincing the actress to, first appear nude in the scene, and then spend countless hours in makeup so that the makeup artist can apply a progression of knife wounds (in between shots). In addition, the prop master has to construct a body dummy to be used for the shots when the knife enters flesh, and then you will need other technicians to operate tubes that squirt gallons of fake blood on both the dummy and the actress! The result is a very time consuming, complicated and expensive scene but you feel its worth it.
However, your budget person tells you there is no money for it, so, you have two options: you can raise more money or... you can go back to your drawing board and think hard of a way to do the scene cheaper and faster -but without loosing its visual impact! Your first instinct is to find other ways to fix the problem while still sticking to your original gory conception. But after more meetings and consultations with your staff you have to face up to reality: no extra days, no nudity, no dummy, no complicated special effects, no additional technicians, no actual stabbing, no knife touching flesh, and no gallons of fake blood. So what to do? I can't answer that for you, but I will advice you get a copy of the film 'Psycho' to see how director Alfred Hitchcock did it in his famous shower scene. To this day, people worldwide gasp in horror everytime they see it -and he did it in Black & White!
So, how did Hitchcock pull off one of the most terrifying masterpiece of a montage in the history of cinema without no extra days of filming (though he spend a week on this scene alone), no nudity, no dummy, no complicated special effects, no additional technicians, no actual stabbing, no knife touching flesh, and no gallons of fake blood? He did it by carefully thinking about the scene elements in advance and ultimately storyboarding the montage as edited in the final scene. Like Hitchcock, you too want to interpret your scenes within the context of the story in your own visual style. But to follow Hitchcock's example, storyboarding will immensely help you visualise your interpretation of a scene working within your means BEFORE you move into production. Even better, you might come up with a more effective and powerful scene! -Money is not everything; necesity is the mother of invention.
Keeping it simple
What follows is a description of my storyboarding method and routine. Please keep in mind that there is no ‘standard’ way of preparing storyboards. Certain things remain constant but each production will determined its own storyboarding needs. My working style and procedure "works for me". For your own production you must "do what works for you. For a more traditional approach to storyboarding I encourage you to seek out other sources. I'm not traditonal! But look hard. Don't be ashame to admit your limitations. EVERYONE has to learn things once. So start learning. Ask questions, READ books, work at it. Movie business is not for lazy people or cowards. The more you know, the greater your confidence, and the less fear of trying out new things and making mistakes. That's how you learn. I'm still learning and I'm almost 50! Thankfully, the city of Cleveland has one of the best library system in the nation. I borrowed and read just about every book they had on the subject. Then I purchased those I found most useful for my personal library. Remember, you can order new or used books about storyboarding, basic drawing and filmmaking online or borrow them for free from your local library. There is no excuse for remaining ignorant.
Before I begin introducing Bad Blood's storyboards, I want to tell you right from the start: -"You do not need to be a Michelangelo to draw your own boards!" Let me prove it to you. Below is a picture of the boards I used when filming a few scenes from my play Death of a Mercenary. They were created for a finals project being done by communications students at Cleveland State University. Five scenes were filmed with a total of one hundred and ninety camera shot/edits during a three-day period. It was filmed in the department’s small production studio, using big and clunky TV cameras, so we had to prepare well to complete all the shots in time.
My good friend Theron Evans, the ex-Marine web designer who put together the Muralmaster site, was then a student in charge of the editing. The class professor and project supervisor was none other than the peerless John Ban. Indie films veterans Andrew Scofield and Frank Mixson were part of the cast, which also included Cleveland arts icon James Levin and acclaimed choreographer Gustavo Urdanetta. Actor Marty O'sullivan stole the show. I was so impressed by these gentlemen that I made a mental note to work with them again if I ever had the chance. Now they are all now involved in the production of Bad Blood -Karma.
Storyboarding comes effortless to me. Even as a teen working in my own theatrical productions (for years I did Spanish theatre) I sketched everything to help explain my ideas to others since the crews were made of volunteers. But now was the first time I had to do boards to be followed by a production crew that spoke in filmmaking language. So the first thing I did was learn the vocabulary of the trade (the kinds of shots, camera movements and so forth) and then find an effective way to say it all in visual sound-bites. Notice how plain and simple my storyboards were -eventhough I can accurately paint you a copy of the Mona Lisa! (see my Paintings page in this website). On black construction paper (8-1/2 x 11 inches -that's 216 x 279 mm) I made a series of 1-1/4 x 1-1/4 inch panels (13.75 x 13.75 mm) in comic book style using white ink and a paintbrush. At the bottom of each panel I wrote a description of the action or a piece of script.
These finished boards were then photocopied on legal paper (8-1/2 x 14 inches -or 216 x 356 mm), put in binders and passed along to the crew. On the right hand side of each sheet the shot-numbers were listed and then marked with a red marker as each shot was filmed. Since each panel was basically a amall thumbnail, the boards were relatively fast to create. Also, I was in intimate terms with the material because I was the author of the play being filmed. The drawings were minimal, sometimes stick figures, but they were effective and everyone understood clearly what they were supposed to do. Camera setups were fast and efficient and the actors commenced the blocking of scenes by just glancing at the pictures.
There is an important lessons to be learnt from this (let me repeat): -"you do not have to be a Michelangelo to draw your own boards!" Just keep things simple; say what you want to say with an economy of line. The key is to ‘communicate’ your ideas visually and not to show off your drawing prowess. Take your time to consider what you want to say. As you move along it gets easier. If you have trouble visualising what you want to draw, here's a simple tip I give my art students: take pencil and paper and "write" a description of what you want to say. Make your description is as detailed as possible. Then read it allow to yourself. Is the description clear? Does it make sense? If not, get back and rewrite it until it does. Then "illustrate" what you just described in words. That's your roadmap. Trust me, it works!
When I started visualising Bad Blood I began with an assessment of what needed to be determined with the help of storyboards. This was my final appraisal:
Bad Blood’s storyboards had to provide a lot of information particularly since we would be working with an inexperienced crew and some of the shots were quite complex. So I proceeded to compile all the visual research I had done while I was writing the screenplay and added a few more visual references of the sites I wanted to use for the film’s locations. Early on I had met with most of the talent that I wanted cast for the film and had made a picture portfolio (see Bad Blood in the ‘Writings’ section of this website to see the portfolio). Other visual references included pictures of sites and locations, pictures of building, interiors, and architeral details; pictures of police officers, crowds, musicians and any other character mention in the screenplay; pictures of props, cars, skies, animals; copies of historical maps, weapons, emblems, logos -and anything else I could think of. I was not sure that I would need all the things I was gathering, but I didn’t want to stop the drawing process once I sat down to do it.
A Personal Confession
I have to make a confession: -“I can’t draw…with a pencil, or pen.” I became an artist late in life, too late to develop the skill and hand dexterity one needs for drawing. But I can paint with a brush, and it keeps me from getting too detailed. So, same as with my early thumbnail drawings I did for the Cleveland State student project, I was going to do Bad Blood’s panels in brush and ink. Sometimes I use a pencil to sketch, but it is usually a sketch of a stick figure, which I will flesh out with the brush at a later stage. The most difficult thing for me was to stop detrimental tendencies to embelish the renderings. With so many hundreds of drawings to do I had no time to 'decorate.'
Here's a note of interest: Alfred Hitchcock used a regular lead pencil to do his storyboards; Akira Kurosawa created his boards with a paintbrush and did them in colour; Ridley Scott uses three gray felt-tip markers, with tip widths from fine to broad. With these he could quickly create a variety of tones and washes that gave the storyboard much more atmosphere and depth. In same manner, I combine black and white ink to paint tones and washes into my panels. Try it. It's quick and easy. Just keep it simple. Even if you can afford the latest 'storyboarding software' (there are a few on the market), sometimes the most effective way to get your thought down is with a humble pencil and a blank sheet of paper.
Gathering Visual References
Where do you begin? READ the screenplay. Read it the first time for general understanding. Then read it a second time as a director does, with pencil and notebook in hand. As you read, visualise every scene in your mind and note down every conceivable item, location, and character type and description you encounter in the story. These are the visual elements that make up every frame of film. And since they are going to be images visible on screen, you need to know what they look like in the real world to be able to represent them on paper -in your storyboards! So immediately after reading the screenplay and jotting down the list of visual elements, you go and collect reference images of everything on that list. Search for them in books, in Google Images and all around you. Take photographs, make drawings, do diagrams, collect maps. I recommend you keep things organized as you gathered your visual references instead of waiting to do everything at the end of your search and ending up with a pile of crap to big to handle.
You can organize your references in many ways, but here's what I do. First, I create a paper 'morgue'. Then, I scan everything and transfer the material into individual computer files classified by subject. Let me explain how this works. A morgue is like a scrap book or a photo album where you store printed material and other reference material in addition to photographs. Everything and anything relating to a specific subject goes into it, from magazine clippings, to photocopies or photographs; from drawings and sketches to even travel brochures. For example, following my notes on each characters, I went searching through dozens of magazines cutting out images of any article of clothing I envisioned them wearing (dresses, pants, suits, hats, belts, shoes, purses, coats, jewellery, uniforms, and so on). Then in my morgue, under that characters name heading, I would paste all my clippings of images, written descriptions, and even samples of fabric. Also things that you considered obvious need to be researched, like photographs of police officers. Have you ever considered what is the proper uniform and equipment of a police officer in your area? Chances are that if I were to ask you to draw one right now, your memory would not be as good as you think. This is why you have to get visual references of everything!
You can constructed a morgue by simply placing blank sheets of paper into a large 3-ring binder and making dividers for each subject with color paper. For example, as seen on the above image, I collected any images that show the uniforms, insignias, weapons and accoutrements used by the Cleveland Police Department and pasted these images in a series of pages. When the time came for me to illustrate a police officer, all I had to do was look a these images on my 'Cleveland Police' file. This worked well for me, but any method that provides the same results will do.
As your collection grows, so will the size of your morgue. My morgue for Bad Blood ended up being about 6 inches thick! At this point, your morgue is all you will possibly need to begin working on your storyboards. But I took this a step further by scanning the material and transfering each page in my morgue into computer files. This made sense because many of my reference images had been downloaded from the web and were already saved in my computer. So storing my 'paper morgue' into digital files made sure I would never loose or damage my hard earn collection. Another advantage to storing images in your computer is that your image viewer allow zooming to better study specific details. What's more, you can create new visuals in PhotoShop (or any other image compositing program) by cutting and pasting visual elements from multiple sources and combining them into one. In the end, regardless of the method you use to gather and store your visual references, do what's more convenient to your situation and working style. The important thing is that you know where to go to for help when you get stuck on a panel.
Equipment and Preparation
After gathering visual references, I went back to the script. When writing a screenplay I only identify the scenes, never the individual shots. At this stage I like to pass it along to test readers for criticism. Not marking the shots or camera movements makes the reading experience more enjoyable and less distracting, as if reading a novel. Later I reformatted the screenplay, colour-coding the manuscript in preparation for the script breakdown. Color coding is a standard industry practice used for budgeting and scheduling by which elements in the screenplay are underlining in a specific color but ease of identification (look for samples on-line). During the storyboarding process I broke down the screenplay into individual shots. I suggest you get a "paper copy" of the screenplay (or print one) and begin marking your shots. This is your worksheet. Notice on one of the previous images how Ridley Scott worked out the page of a screenplay with details.
Before we move on, let me give you some definitions you'll be glad to know. Films are made of shots, scenes and sequences. A shot is a continuous strip of motion picture film (or video), created of a series of frames (individual pictures), that runs for an uninterrupted period of time. Shots are generally filmed with a single camera and can be of any duration. A sequence of shots create a scene. A scene is a part of the action in a single location. A series of scenes which form a distinct narrative unit, usually connected either by unity of location or unity of time, is called a sequence. It is common practice to film shots out of order since they can be "edited" into a story sequence later on by the editor.
During editing, a shot is sometimes cut into sections and montaged with other shots to form scenes. So what was first filmed as single shot during production, could end up as more than one shot in the film. When a film is shown to the public, what they see is the final version of "the edit" -the finished product. In essence, storyboards are the hand-drawn version of a film. When you storyboard a script, what you want to render is "the finished film". So in storyboards, for the most part, a panel corresponds to each shot in the final edit. My general practice is to create one panel for each shot, so by counting the shots I have a good idea of how many panels I need.
After making a list of shots, next I considered the aspect ratio of the finished film so that I could make the panels match the proportions. For example, the Cleveland State student project was going to be seen on television, which uses an aspect ration of 4:3 (the traditional size of television screens), an image four units wide and three units tall (my thumbnails were only square, but close enough). Bad Blood will have a 16 x 9 aspect ratio (16 units wide by 9 units tall). The panels would be drawn to proportionally match this format. I strongly suggest that, once you determine the aspect ratio for the film, make a template and use it to trace your panels. You will be using it a lot! Notice in the image below the cardboard template I used.
Finally, I had to decide the size of my storyboards. Many artists do them the size of typewriter paper, that’s 8-1/2 x 11 inches (216 x 356 mm). They make a few panels in each sheet of paper that can later be placed in some kind of binder. This method makes handling convenient because copies can be easily reproduced and passed around. Some storyboard artist simply print sheets of paper with a series of empty panels to work on. But I do not like to do it this way. I much prefer a larger format -something with weight on my hands. So what I did was to draw the panels on separate sheets of inexpensive colour paper (also called craft paper or construction paper), and then cut and paste them onto a larger board, as you will see later on. Once completed, the storyboards would be photographed and recorded on CD.
These are my drawing supplies and equipment:
Keep in mind that maybe all you need is a pencil, a sheet of white paper, and a small ruler to make your panels. These are the only items used by many professional storyboard artist. Use what works for you. You do not need a large place to work (you could but it's not necessary). I keep my supplies in a shoe box on top of a small table. In front of the table is a cork-board attached to the wall. I use the cork-board to pin up my references. I've see other artists simply taping references to the wall. I also have a lamp close by since I usually work at night. I don't listen to music while I work -it's distracting. Instead, I listen to the screenplay playing inside my head. I play the scene, I speak the lines, I get inside the world I'm creating until it flows into my storyboards. Every 20 or 30 minutes, I take a break to stretch out and rest my eyes. Then I get back at it, one drawing at a time, hour by hour, day by day -however long it takes, until you are done!
Creating the Boards
As I mentioned earlier, I paste my story panels and diagrams to a board. I begin by gluing a shot identification label (ID labels) on the upper left-side corner and marking the scene number, the shot number, and the scene's location. I also mark the type of setting (interior or exterior) and the time of the setting (day or night). If the shot requires special effects (XF) I add a checkmark too. If the shot requires in-camera effects or camera movements, then I add a 'Camera set-up' label underneath the ID label. I use this label to write down technical details such as camera placements, lens used for the shot, and so on. This label is not strickly required and it is not the concern of the storyboard artist. But since I'm also the director and visual designer of my projects, I like to consider this information in advance and mark it on my boards accordingly.
After pasting an ID label and perhaps a Camera set-up label, I draw the outline of a panel under the labels using my format template. I repeat the process until the entire board is ready for the next step. The only thing missing on the board are the individual panels. Next I draw/paint each corresponding panels, cut them to size (again using my template) and paste them on their proper place setting on the board. Once the all the empty spaces filled with finished panels, I'm ready to begin another board. Note that I create panels on different colour papers to represent day, night, and interior, exterior and so on. For example: I use blue for night exterior shots, red for dark or mood interiors, black for shots in total darkness, white or green for interiors with strong lights, and yellow or pink for daytime exterior shots. Again, my colour choices are entirely personal. I also like the fact that this gets rid of a blank white space and a colour background adds "atmosphere" to a panel which would be lacking if it were to simply work on white. But in addition to using colour to identify the time and place setting of a scene, I use colour backgrounds for a more artistic reason.
I'm a professional painter; I paint my panels. I know that lines do not exist in the real world -we do not look like line drawings! Instead we distinguish forms by the way natural or artificial light reflects on them. This is the way our minds work, this is how film makers visualise films, and this is how I see things. So to be able to "paint with light" in my renderings I use colour backgrounds which allow me to use white colour ink as my strongest light while modelling forms through variations of grey (by adding black ink to white). The result is a more photographic, three-dimensional rendering. Since I'm a painter rather than a drawer, I can get away with it without much effort. But the resulting panel is also loaded with valuable information for the director of photography and lighting technician since they can see the lighting effect I want to achieve in a shot.
Another thing I do differently than most artists is that I do not add arrows to indicate camera movements as many other artists do. I like my panels to look like stills from a movie. So instead of using directional arrows in certain shots, using a fine point marker I simply write down descriptions, instructions or relevant information about the shot and then paste the note to the boards below the panel. I also cut and paste dialogue lines when required. Sometime I take shortcuts to avoid rendering the same shot. If a similar shot is repeated, like for example, a close up of a character, instead of drawing the same panel again, I simply leave the blank space on the board empty and later fill it with a printed copy of the panel (by scanning and then printing the original panel or by making a Xerox copy). This is what my finished boards look like:
After I complete a board, I number them at the left top corner with a white grease pencil or colour pencil. In case you haven't notice it, I use a black board to paste the panels because it makes them pop out like a movie screen. The finished boards are sturdy, loaded with information, easy to see, and also attractive -since you know you have to dazzle potential investors! My final step is photographing each board in high resolution and storing the data on CD. As a safety precaution I make two copies of the CD and store them at different locations. The original boards are stored in a specially constructed wooden case. Even if they are not intended to be art, they look damn artistic! Some day they could prove valuable.
The next set of sample boards illustrate how some of the action-crowd sequences will play out (read this section of the screenplay by clicking Bad Blood in the "Writings" section of this website). We have at least four large action sequences in Bad Blood. These sequences combine great numbers of extras, in-camera effects, stunt work, mechanical effects, CGI work, and extensive choreography to achieve the desire illusion. Just about every department head will be involved in their planning. I would be almost impossible to accomplish this task without the use and aid of storyboards. The safety of cast and crew is a major concern when designing these elaborate "million dollar shot" sequences.
In my early days in Puerto Rico I used to do big productions from the Spanish Golden Age of Theatre -the equivalent of Shakespeare. In some scenes we had over thirty actors involved in sword-fighting scenes. That's over thirty 'Puerto Ricans' with 'sharp weapons.' Every move was choreographed on storyboards. We never lost a soul. Action scenes are perhaps the ones that benefit the most from the use of storyboards. While it helps to storyboard an entire movie, you don't have too. But it you must board some scenes, make them your action scenes. To visualise these action, I build a simple scale model of the set (see Set Design in the ‘Design’) and photographed the model from several angles, sometimes using tiny paper figurines to represent the actors. Then I used these reference shots to render the panels.
In several shots with complex camera tracking, I rendered more than one panel for each shot to better illustrate the action (notice the camera placement diagram on the board above left). I'm a firm believer in carefully compose shots and fluid editing to visually enhance the artistry and poetry of the story. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean and Jean Cocteau were masters of this type of editing and compose the rhythm and tempo of each shot into truly powerful and mesmerazing montages. But this was not achieved on a whim during final editing. All was planned in advance, storyboarded in detail, and filmed repeatedly until perfection was achieved.
The next examples shows a panel illustrating a long shot of 'The Macho Man', the gay biker bar at the beginning of the Bad Blood, and a diagram detailing the set piece to be used on the shot and through out the scene. It also shows the camera setup. The inexpensive illusion of the bar will be created by attaching a false porch to the side of an existing brick building.
This simple panel and diagram shows the construction supervisor, the lighting manager and the art director (or set dresser -if you can afford it) what they need to prepare and dress the set, and also gives the matte painter the required information needed to complete the shot in post-production. Notice the image on the right illustrating how the false front porch is moved forward to allow the camera the needed space to film from that angle. While this illustration is not technically a storyboard panel like the one on the left, it is a handy diagram to have on your boards. This way I use storyboards not only to visualise the film on paper, but also to explain how the visual illusion is created in some shots and scenes. Having prior knowledge of set pieces helps the storyboard artist understand the mechanics of a shot and the best way to illustrate it. To see how this set piece features in the scene, click the link "Introduction Animatic to Bad Blood" at the beginning of this page.
Below left is a top-view diagram for camera placement and movement. A track illustrates the direction of the move, begining with the 'black camera' position, and ending with the 'white camera'. The diagram also shows the initial position of the actors and arrows marking the direction of their movements in the scene. Additional information for the camera crew is added on the labels. Bad Blood was going to be filmed (old fashion) Hollywood style, using one camera and careful lighting of each shot. The film would be edited ‘on camera.’ Only what is required would be on the shot.
Every shot is planed in advance and the photography follows the storyboard precisely. Since I wore all the creative hats, I could have a conference in my head and there would be very little second-guessing. Unless there is a good (creative or logistical) reason for changing the shot, or to add additional shots, the production would continue on a well thought-out schedule. However, you do not have to include production diagrams on your boards. I do so because is satisfies my own needs. On the other hand, thinking as a producer, if a potential investors asks how we plan to shoot a particular scene, I can easily explain how with these diagrams on my storyboards. This not only shows how prepared we are, but also that we know our business and thus his or her money is well invested.
Above right are the panels for the same sequence played as detailed in the diagram on the left. I pasted the panels side to side in this instance for space considerations. These small ink drawings were done very fast. Using the white drawing pencil I make a few guideline and stick figures and then finish of the panel with brush and ink. I use a white pencil because it shows well on the blue colour paper which I selected to render night exteriors. On light colour backgrounds I draw my sticks with a red pencil. Again, colour here is a matter of personal preference. A note worth repeating: I do not use regular lead pencils because graphite smears easily and dirties the work.
I use a fine point marker to write descriptions on separate pieces of paper, which will end up glued to the board. Notice also that I am very specific about where the main source of light is placed and how the shot is choreographed. All this is noted in the diagram. These are the types of shots that forces you to think hard and plan ahead. As I storyboard a shot I'm thinking of how to make the best transition into the next shot and how they will strenghten the telling of the story. I feel that storyboarding is more than just showing how a character moves from point A to point B. It must also capture the manner of the movement and how this movement affects everything that is seen on the screen. In doing so I transition from being an illustrator and transform into the filmmaker.
I take inspiration from the Russian film pioneer Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein. He was an award winning director, writer, editor, producer, actor, art director, production designer, costume designer, and creator of one of the top-15 most influential films of all-time -Battleship Potemkin (1925). Eisenstein used his considerable art background is carefully planning and constructing every shot in his films. Such a degree of dedication produced some of the most memorable images in cinema.
Even though the use of storyboards was not an established standard in his day, he was a great admirer of Disney animation. During a visit to the United States in 1930, he was welcomed by leading Hollywood figures, including Fairbanks, von Sternberg, Chaplin, and Walt Disney. Disney and his staff had developed a storyboard system in 1928 to organize and facilitate the creative production of their animation projects (in fact, Disney takes credit for being the first to use storyboards as a standard filmmaking tool). Eisenstein visited the Disney studio and was greatly impressed with their use of storyboards. Thereafter he adopted the process and produced countless renderings and diagrams which serve as practical storyboards to prepare for his huge projects.
I can still vividly remember specific images burned into my subconscious by four movies I saw televised through WVPR, channel 6, the first educational television station in Latin America (Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corporation, f. 1958). The were Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Orson Welles Othello, Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and Lawrence Olivier's Richard the Third. They were broadcast in their original languages, unedited or uncensored. Even the scene showing bare female breasts in The Seven Samurai was there!
This was remarkable enough considering that this was 1969 and I was only 10 years old. Yet the truly remarkable thing was that then I could only speak Spanish, not Russian, or Japanese and much less Shakespearean English (a language more foreign to American ears than Klingon talk), but still I could follow the story and sit spellbound by the artistry of the imagery! That's the power of cinema in the hands of masters! And what did these masters have in common, aside from genius flowing through their veins? You guess it: they did extensive preparation and visual renderings before shooting began. These are the results that storyboarding can help you achieve. About genius flowing through your veins, well, that's entirely another matter for others to decide.
There can be drawback to being well prepared. Alfred Hitchcock considered the shooting of a scene the most boring aspect of production because he had already done all the guess work and creative planning on his boards -he rarely made a change and his production team worked like clockwork (he also required everyone in his production crew to wear a tie). This shoots to flames the argument that a director needs to make spontaneous decisions on the set to capture "the magic" of the scene. Granted, Hitchcock was Hitchcock and we are not. But I have been in sets where the crew and cast languished for hours while the director tried to find magic with his or hers "spontaneous" decisions. So do your planning ahead and come prepared to the set; if an epiphany hits you, then by all means be spontaneous. In the meantime, time is money; don't waste it. And if being too prepare causes you the same type of boredom on the set it produced in Hitchcock, well, congratulations!
A digital camera is an invaluable tool for helping you visualize a shot. Remember, you create your panels from the point of view of the audience! It is they who are looking through the camera. Your panels show what they see. So the camera "frames" what the director wants the audience to see and "hides" away all distractions (everything that exists outside the frame). He or she directs the viewer's attention focus by what they are "allowed" to see. This is how you tell a story visually. So practice using the camera like a director would. Compare the reference photos below with the boards on the left.
For the most part, while storyboarding Bad Blood, my models were inexpensive wooden figurines about six inches tall. On rare occasions I was fortunate to have one of my friends to model for a pose. Unless you need facial expressions, I suggest you stick with the wooden dummies they are less distracting.
Figurines are great aides in planning multiple character shots, camera angles and movements. This is the same technique I use to plan movements of actors on the theatre stage (called ‘blocking the scene’) or when planning a complex painting involving people. For some scenes I use cardboard boxes and other at-reach objects to simulate furnishings. Even paper cut-outs can help complete an illusion and even GI Joe can do double duty.
I pay less than $10 for a car replica at a toy store. The wheels turn, its doors and hood open so when you get tired of drawing you can play with it! For scenes involving more than one vehicle a couple of matchbox cars will do the trick. It helps if your camera has a zoom lens and a macro feature for extreme close ups.
Sometimes I draw a larger panel (still maintaining a proportional aspect ratio) when a complex sequence needs to be explored in detail, like the one in the example above. Well lighted and composed shots are not only attractive to look at but can also save a lot of time and money when used to convey stylised scenes of violence and action. This rendering was particularly important because it would be used to illustrate my intention to dolly back and forth and pan through the various parts of the mise-en-scène to focus on three different elements of the story in one shot.
I studied the films of Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles’ Othello and Citizen Kane, and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in preparation for storyboarding Bad Blood. Being the writer, director and editor of a film is enlightening experience for many reasons, but in particular for discovering how one can tell a story through a screenplay one way through the use of words, or by giving the story a completely new spin by the way the camera focuses attention, or by accelerating or slowing down its heartbeat in editing.
Finding the right location to fit your vision is not always easy, especially if it costs money to secure. For Bad Blood we intend to combine set pieces into the illusion of a huge space and to later add computer generated details (set extensions, etc.) and matte paintings in post-production. Notice below right how a local Cleveland theatre under renovation served as the model for the scene sequence of the 'Lollypop Night Club' on the left.
Studying a location in advance (whenever possible) is an excellent way to plan complex shots before the rush of production. It is also a good idea to visit the location and walk through the space to get a feeling of the actual scale. This shot sequence was designed to take place at an existing location dressed up to look like a more impressive (and expensive) set than what it really is. Have the experience and the references from an actual location really helps to visualise the feel of the scene.
Sometimes there is only one place to place the camera to get that million dollar shot. Working the logistics of the shot on your storyboard means that once you are filming on location you will get that shot. I have been on sets were the director has spent hours hunting for the shot, shooting at everything but never getting it. If only they had prepared in advance...
A great benefit about doing your own storyboards is that you are forced to think long and hard. Here’s another example showing a shot sequence diagram on the left. In this scene, taking place inside a police station, the camera tracks officers Dusti and Olivero as they make their way to captain Mason who is in the process of packing his personal belongings into a box. The two panels illustrate the beginning and the end of this continues shot. This is all it takes for everyone to understand a complex shot.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the advantages of working with black and white ink is the ability you have to visualise 3-D form instead of just 2-dimensional shapes (as in a line drawing) by adding light and shadows. Inks (or liquid acrylics) are very fluid and easy to work with. I use the same brush to do all my panels. I simply rinse and blot the excess water before switching from one colour to another. I like to use construction paper because it absorbs ink well and because the paper's colour immediately adds substance to the scene. As I paint I am not very concern with the colour scheme at this point but with tone and mood, with lights and darks. But don't misunderstand; colour is also important to me. However, one of the few drawbacks of digital filmmaking (as of this writing) is the loss of the rich colour captured by film (we intend to film in HD video). So instead thinking about colour, I concentrate on value and compose my scenes in an artistic way that takes advantage of the contrasts between lights and shadows.
When creating your panels, work at achieving good composition by the correct placement of your visual elements (characters, props, and so on). One advantage of doing your drawing on a separate piece of paper is that you can run the template over your rendering until you reach the best composition for that shot. If you are not too confident of your compositional skills, just move the template over your rendering until what is inside the frame "looks right". Then you mark the frame with a pencil and cut away the panel when you are ready to paste it on the board. Framing with the template is comparable to looking through the camera’s viewfinder when you are shooting on location.
Some panels in the storyboards look more elaborate than others but in reality there is not much difference. I follow the script in chronological order and this helps maintain a sense of visual continuity. On average it takes between 10 to 20 minutes to produce each panel after I have studied the particular section of screenplay I’m about to work on. Some panels need to be more detailed and can take as long as one hour, but many take about a minute. At times I simply photocopy a panel and paste the copy where the same shot is repeated. One page of the screenplay is roughly about one full storyboard (about 12 panels). So for an average 120-page screenplay you will need about 120 boards (if done in my style). That adds to about 1440 panels. This means that to complete storyboarding the entire screenplay can take between 240 to 480 hours of work, or, another way to look at it, 6 to 12 weeks of full-time work. Longer or more visually complex screenplays like Bad Blood will take even more time and work to complete.
As you can see, storyboarding an entire screenplay is a lot of work. But keep in mind that I am not just doing a visualisation of the movie. At the same time I am also designing my lighting, placing and moving the camera; I am deciding what kind of lens to use on a particular shot, what sequence of shots to make the scene more effective; I’m finding ways to maintain quality while keeping costs down, or better yet, lowering cost. I am creating sets, wardrobe, adding music, thinking of sound effects, visualising the individual performances and finding ways to make stunts safe. In the end, it took over 2000 rendering to complete my storyboards.
Doing storyboards in this fashion is labour intensive. It is a test of both your knowledge and your artistic skill. But I enjoy it. Everything I have learned or experienced in art, life and work comes into play. Nothing is wasted. It is also a great way to keep your mind occupied while waiting for funding to fall into place. At length, I am keeping track of the overall quality and consistency of the film. This attention to detail will greatly benefit the whole project, the talent, the production crew, the management, the producers and ultimately, the investors. And as an extra bonus, if you have done your work well, the audience will take notice.
There is an area of filmmaking where low budget movies have not ventured much. Take a look at this shot below. In Bad Blood one of the locations is the hottest nightclub in town: the Lollypop. People line the limousine parked streets waiting for hours to be admitted. Since there is not money in the budget to secure this shot, rent the limos and so on, it would make sense to drop it and somehow find a way to tell the story in some other way.
However, using one of the oldest techniques in moviemaking, the matte shot, it is possible to this shot by simply building a wall and a staircase, and placing your extras on that waiting line (as illustrated on the diagram at the bottom right). Oh yes, you will need a few vehicles, but no limos. The club patrons inside the balcony arches will be filmed separate and added later in the composite shot. The way this shot is designed incorporates live action into a matte painting (of the buildings and city background), thus creating a believable matte shot. By the way, the limos will also be painted in.
All that is needed to create a large or complex scene is a little know-how and ingenuity to give a cash-poor production a million dollar shot. And of course, you need a painter who can do the matte and a skilled compositor to put it all together. The computer will do the rest. These are the types of shots that need to be designed and arranged well in advance. This is also the place where you can not cut corners when it comes to hiring skilled personnel. Bad Blood has several million dollar shots like this one that will add more luster to the finished film.
Putting it all Together
The last thing you do with your completed storyboard panels is perhaps the most important task: preserving them. I accomplish this in two ways: first by making a photo-record of each board and burning the data into a compact disc, and secondly, by keeping the original boards in a sealed box.
To do the first set up an easel or support for your boards against a wall and then set a fixed camera in front of it. Shoot in daylight or light well. Then photograph each panel in high resolution. Then transfer the data into your computer, save into a file (which will be huge so make sure you have enough space in your hard-drive), and burn the data into disc. Make several copies and keep one as your “master”. Test the copies to make sure everything works correctly and then, and only then, erase your computer file.
To preserve my original boards I made a wooden box with a hinged top to keep them safe and secure. The most important thing is store the box in a dry place and not to keep your boards exposed to sunlight for too long or they will bleach and fade away in time. Keep in mind that the more boards you have the heavier the box will be. So make your container sturdy enough to carry around. Don't forget to properly identify your box or case with your name and contact information. You will carry your original boards to show them around on occasion and, just in case they get lost, you want to make sure they can find their way back. This is a real possibility if you travel by plane and have to check your belongings. So don't take unnecessary chances but do take every precaution!
I leave you with a storyboard sequence from Bad Blood. The script for this scene is included in Bad Blood in the ‘Writings’ section of this website. Read it to compare how the writing is visualised in the storyboard. Next, click on the following link to see an animatic of the scene and how the scene plays out. And finally, go and do your own.
'Bad Blood storyboard animatic, video 2'
2009 Update: How much do storyboard artists make? Wages range dramatically. However, Hollywood union artist (which also covers animators) make anywhere from $800 to $1200 for a 40 hour week. Some senior artist are often hired for more. The rules of supply and demand hold court. In some cases, artists are paid by the hour in the 23-28 dollar per hour range. Now, non-union wages anywhere else is another matter. Some get paid the same, but most -especially entry level into the business, get paid considerably less, especially people working non-Hollywood indie films. The few times I have been involved in similar situations as an artist, I get paid by the hour, other artists get paid by the panel; you negotiate your fee. But remember, professional artists do not do charity work -and neither should you! So demand a living wage. If a producer ask you to work for deferment, walk away. And, never surrender your boards until the check clears!
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