What is a storyboard?

Origins of storyboards in classical painting

Classical artists like Rembrandt drew mockups, called “cartoons” of their paintings before launching into the final work. This allowed them to plan their compositions beforehand, fending off a lot of trouble down the line when the time-consuming, expensive oil paint was in place.

Storyboards in modern film-making

Film-makers have learned everything they can from methodologies of the past. Just like Rembrandt drew cartoons, they have storyboards. However, as with most things in film, there is a lot going on behind the scenes to create the final image you see. There are specialists, called storyboard artists, who draw the cartoons, as the director is busy with a lot of other things, like casting, wardrobe, locations and lighting, all of which require entire teams of experts and crew to bring them all together for the shoot.

Below are some examples from famous movies. In 1979, shooting “Alien”, director Ridley Scott was still experimenting with storyboarding. He drew his own, which were very arty and revealed his art-school training.

By 2007, when Joel and Ethan Cohen directed “No Country for Old Men”, storyboarding had progressed a lot towards its present, more technical role. Here we see a much more schematic version of the scene than Ridley Scott’s arty rendering. We can also see, at the top right, numbering that helped the film crew understand where this scene would fit in the filming schedule.

Note that in both these storyboards, the proportions of the final film are key. By 2007 there has been progression from the shape of an old tv set to the wide cinemascope framing that is in contemporary use.

Storyboards telling the story, frame by frame

The storyboard artist doesn’t draw every single frame (i.e) 26 per second. However, the storyboard does need to tell the story. A safe rule of thumb is one frame per second, or every time the camera must move, Thus, a 30-second television commercial will require 30 storyboard frames, drawn as rectangles of the same proportions (height to width ratio) as the movie, and showing in proportion, albeit in schematic form, all the important items that form the composition.

Expert storyboarding

The storyboard artist is a minor, unknown, but pivotal character in film-making. They don’t create the story, but are briefed by the director about every frame. A skilled, reliable storyboard artist will take quick visual notes and get the storyboard done really fast, so that the director can get on with their busy life, with the aid of a storyboard to quickly get their point across to the rest of the crew, cast and clientele.