I wrote this several years ago for a regional trade magazine, New England Point of View. While the faces and technology have most certainly changed, the basic working process and the client/production concerns remain relevant.

David White Storyboards

By David White

How can storyboards help you?

Virtually all projects in video, film and a/v require the combined skills and mutual understanding of more than just a few people. There is a distinct need for an effective method of visual communication between the creators, production team and clients. It is crucial to the health of a project to start everyone off with the same picture in mind, regardless of budget size, delivery date or script length. This is where storyboards come in.

Storyboards are a series of pictures aligned with an appropriate portion of a script, resulting in a visual approximation of the intended finished project. Visual qualities such as mood, style and pace can be described in storyboard form much more effectively and accurately than is possible with a written description. Since so much is visualized ahead of time, many costly misunderstandings can be avoided. A good board provides a springboard for the ensuing creative proceedings.

In the feature film industry, storyboard artists are sometimes derisively referred to as "wrists," capable of quickly rendering whatever is called for. However, the needs of the corporate and commercial producers are broader.

Because the storyboard artist is responsible for the initial visualization of the entire script, he or she should have an intrinsic directorial eye and a reasonable working knowledge of lighting and lenses. They must imagine what the characteristics of many elements look like; assign point-of-view and lighting to each scene; and create a rough visual flow of the shots.

"As a freelance producer," says Ayse Mertagle, "I often bring together crew people who may not have worked with each other before. With a storyboard, I can communicate what needs to be shot and how it's supposed to look with very little confusion. Since the camera angles and the lighting are indicated in the board, the cameraperson can tell, at a glance, how to set up each shot."

(see the whole board)

Storyboards provide writers, producers, directors and account people a better opportunity to 'see the big picture' and provide input on its development. "The projects that have worked out the best for us were the ones that were storyboarded most carefully," admits independent producer Ken Lehrhoff. "You think you have it all worked out in your head, but once you've put it down on paper you realize that what you really have is a series of strong sequences, not a whole. The storyboard allows you to work out the rough spots."

Many questions need to be answered in order to illustrate a given scene or sequence. The storyboard should not draw attention to extraneous details; rather, it should focus attention on the story so that aspects awaiting further development (or, for that matter, areas of dispute) can be gracefully sidestepped while still giving the production team a clear idea of what the program will look like. It's important to note, however, that while storyboards do provide a clear direction to pursue, they do not limit the creative contributions of the production team.

Storyboards For Graphics and Animation

Any project that uses graphic elements, animation or special effects is a prime candidate for storyboards. For all forms of graphics, they play a crucial role in client comprehension and the production process. "Storyboarding is the best way to develop an idea," says Karen Perrine, art director at Video One. "It is much easier to imagine what the final production will look like when it is drawn out in pictures. Once storyboard images exist, they are useful for communicating the idea to the client."

(See the whole board)

In most cases, the graphic segments of a project have no tangible form apart from the tape or film on which they reside. Storyboards offer the only glimpse of the style and substance that the client (or anyone other than the creator) will see before the elements have been created. Viewing the storyboards is the only way to judge the combinations and movements of those elements and effects which are to be composited in the edit suite.

Storyboards help in the design process as well. Bryson Dean, a freelance designer, points out that a storyboard is as much a tool for the artist as for the production staff and clients. "When I sit down to do a storyboard," she says, "I'll have certain ideas in mind. As the boards progress, however, the creative process often leads me down new avenues, and ideas and solutions arise that might not otherwise have presented themselves. The storyboard, therefore, acts as a valuable tool for the creative development of a project."

Storyboarding is a very important phase of a project because it is then that the concept is formed and developed," stresses Suzanne Kiley, senior designer at Target Productions. "We do a great deal of storyboarding on the Paintbox. Polaroids of Paintbox frames are presented in conventional storyboard form." She warns, howevever, that "when boards this tight are used for references, it's important for the client to remain flexible and allow for some fine-tuning of details."

Miguel Muelle, design director at Digital Images, agrees. "You have to be very careful," he says, referring to Paintbox storyboards for 3D animation. "The danger of storyboards on the Paintbox is in presenting something that can't be done. You can't render true perspective or correct lighting situations." He notes that the Paintbox images are still, and may seem lifeless to a client who can't visualize the movement. The designer may then be tempted to put in more detail than is necessary. Yet, because it looks so good, the client may see it as a piece of actual animation.

"Then," he continues, "they don't understand why the final 3D animation doesn't look exactly like the original Paintbox images. It's important to get the client excited about the project, and the Paintbox is good for displaying the richness of colors and certain effects, but I generally prefer a hand-drawn storyboard with maybe a detailed Paintbox drawing of the background. The conventional storyboard is drawn showing some detail, but is not completely realized. This leaves the images open for further development."

Storyboards are an important tool for the graphics production staff, helping them keep track of the various combinations, order and number of elements. "When we are creating a multi-pass animation sequence," explains Frank Verni, design director at Multivision, "we create a 'tiered storyboard,' that depicts which objects need to be recorded at each layer. This insures that all members of the production team understand the correct order of assembly. This is important because once a new layer is recorded over the existing layers, alterations can't be made without starting from scratch."

Boards are also essential in communicating with artists and animators who have not been involved in the creative process right from the beginning. Although not a substitute for direct communication with the video graphics animator, the storyboard can facilitate the graphics production process signficantly.

Steve Button, an independent producer and Macintosh computer user, points to another method of creating storyboards. Two software programs, Fullpaint and Director, are linked through an interactive program such as Hypercard. The result, he says, "can be combined with typefaces and digitized video images to create an 'on-screen' storyboard which can go a long way toward organizing the layers and sequences indicated for the final piece."


Storyboards can act as a visual shot list during your Paintbox and edit sessions. A less formal version of the storyboards called 'thumbnails' can be very effective in these cases. These are usually small black & white frames set alongside the audio portion of a script. Sometimes called 'production boards' or 'shooting boards,' thumbnails are quicker and less polished while remaining clear and easy to interpret.

Other Examples: here, here, here and here

Since thumbnails represent a cost and time savings, they are a viable method of defining the blow-by-blow sequence of events. This can often mean spending less time verbalizing instructions to others, leaving more time to shoot live action sequences, create graphics or edit. If the level of understanding between the producer and the client is great enough, the thumbnails could be sufficient for the final approval stage before starting production.

Selling a Job

Client presentations are perhaps the most obvious uses of storyboards. Displayed along with the usual written materials, they will add visual punch, clarity of direction, and a level of confidence to proposals for which clients are being asked to appropriate large sums of money.

Storyboards can be of particular importance in presentation circumstances including new business pitches or meetings with clients who are new to the production process. They are also an effective tool in dealing with approval hierarchies or long-distance jobs, as well as postponements. "If a project is put on hold for several months," says Multivision's Verni, "the storyboard serves as a good reminder of exactly what has been promised in regards to creativity and budget -- almost like a visual contract."

Gigi Pakradooni is account services manager at Group Five Communications, and has been involved in marketing video and a/v production for years in New England. She comments, "You have no idea how many hands a proposed creative approach passes through before it reaches the ultimate decision-maker at your client's company. A common scenario for developing a new product marketing video will have the proposed contract pass from your creative team and sales person to a purchasing agent or corporate communications coordinator; to his or her department head; to the product manager, who confers with departmental colleagues; then up on or two levels of management to 'The Boss.' Without a good storyboard, you can be sure the idea will have lost all its visual excitement and the creative spark that made it a unique solution."

David White is the principal henchperson at David White Storyboards, a firm that provides storyboards and other pre-production art, as well as illustration, design and animation services. This article is adapted from New England Point of View, Volume II, Number 7, October, 1990.

(View Publishing Group, sadly, no longer publishes Viewfinder. During it's time it was the only comprehensive production guide for the New England Film & Video/Broadcast/Interactive community.)

Copyright © 1990 by David P. White. All rights reserved.