I’ve saved film shoots and changed lives as a storyboard designer

Storyboard designer

A storyboard designer can draw accurately enough to stand in for a camera before the film is actually made. This happens not once, but twice, during the making of a film commercial.

When a client approaches an advertising agency, or a funder approaches a film-maker, they are commissioning a story which will eventually be told through the extremely expensive medium of film... where cameras, sets, props, actors, lights, rigs, cranes and drones will be hired and it will cost the client thousands upon thousands of rands a day.

Before this large expense is agreed upon, the client needs to be sure that the story is worth it. They need to see the story represented in a manner close to film, without the huge expense. This is where a storyboard designer comes in. A storyboard designer can create the storyboard for the client in photographically realistic images that are drawn by hand.

Once the advertising client agrees on the story, the advertising agency looks for a film director who can create the storyboard designer's vision in film. They usually invite three directors to pitch for the film, from which the best one is selected. The director also cannot yet afford the expense of filming, and thus uses existing photographs to create mood boards with which to explain how they will style the film.

Once a director is chosen, they work with a production company to source everything that is needed for the film. They will call actors to come and try out for the job, as well as looking for the correct locations, wardrobe and props. Once all this is done, the director calls in a storyboard illustrator again, and this is where I come in.

The work of a storyboard designer, otherwise known as shooting-board artist or illustrator

I am what is technically known as a shooting-board illustrator or shooting-board artist, although I'm just called a storyboard artist. My job is to draw frames briefed to me by the director, which show the actual sets, characters, wardrobe and props they want to use. By the time this happens, the sets and equipment have generally been hired and every second wasted costs a great deal of money.

This is why I, as the storyboard designer, need to be very fast and very accurate.

This second storyboard will be used by the director to keep his vast crew organised, because by looking at the storyboard they will be able to see what the next shot is, and prepare for it. This second storyboard is also used by the director as a visual agreement with the client so they know what they will be seeing. If there is a plant-pot in the storyboard, the client will expect a plant pot in the final film, so the storyboard artist/storyboard illustrator must get all these details right.

The director briefs every frame of the storyboard to me, and as s/he is speaking I am already making a rough sketch to be sure we have the same idea. Now with Skype and Zoom, this can be done just as fast remotely. The moment the meeting ends, I start making the final drawings at lightning speed.

When I was starting out, long ago, I used to work on tracing paper and do a rough drawing first and then trace it, but twenty years later I am much much faster, and ink straight onto my first pencil sketch. All these years of practice have made me very very fast. I have often helped to save a vast shoot that is spinning out of control, by very quickly producing drawings that can be used to pull it together again.

While doing this, I need to get the right facial expressions and moods in my characters, so I have to act the storyboard in my mind as I work. I often find myself frowning or laughing, or making a surprised face in the mirror, to get the right expression. This can be quite emotionally draining, in the same way that acting is draining, although less so.

Most commercials are 30 seconds long. My turnaround time is 24 hours or less. That is the best clients can expect, so they are generally very grateful, and also grateful that I don't charge for corrections because my aim is to get it right the first time. When the drawings are done, I scan them, crop them, label them, and send them to the producer. For a couple of days following that, I know I can expect panicked calls for changes or new frames, so my whole life stays on hold for that time. Then, at last, all goes quiet and I know they are on set, well prepared for the big event of filming.

Storyboard designer