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Storyboards ... An Unauthorized Biography
Posted Nov 14, 2005 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Check out the special features of a Hollywood DVD or read the advertising copy for a storyboarding program like FrameForge 3D, and you'll understand the glossy public persona of storyboards. Beautifully drawn—or rendered in 3D—and painstakingly annotated, these slick creations of the film world look like works of art themselves.


But the life of a storyboard isn't always so glamorous, and its purpose is seldom as well defined as it appears in Hollywood's packaging. You'd never guess from the Hollywood image that storyboarding happens much outside Tinseltown on the shoestring budgets of independent and corporate video producers, but it does. Videographers have a wide spectrum of uses for storyboards and an equally varied array of techniques for producing them. Although the applicability of storyboarding to the planned-ahead world of corporate videography may be more obvious, many event videographers shoot at least some scenes over which they have considerable control, and in those cases they reap the benefits of storyboards drawn out in advance. For instance, though they may not be able to adjust the blocking on the altar, wedding videographers can control it in their love story and and other concept videos. These types of projects are ripe for the services of the multifaceted lifesaver that is the storyboard.

Here, then, is the untold story of storyboards—an unauthorized biography portraying not just the slick veneer of their PR image, but their true identity as tough jack-of-all-trades devices that help you get jobs done right.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
Even popular perceptions of storyboards hint somewhat at their multiple personalities. Deep down, there is an essential duality to their purpose; they are both artistic tools and technical ones. Some DVDs include hidden-feature "Easter eggs" that let the viewer click directly from a playing scene to the storyboard that prefigured it—often in graphic novel-like visual detail. Other special-feature segments take you onto the production set, where you might see directors referring to storyboards both when explaining the visual construction of a scene to a producer and when explaining the technical demands of a particular shot to a cameraperson.

Storyboards fulfill these purposes by spelling out the details of a planned shoot. Each page of a storyboard consists of several frames, one for each shot. Frames include a sketch—usually pen-and-ink—of what the shot will look like, a written description of what's going on in the scene and what type of camera work is required, the dialogue for the shot, and a few words about the accompanying soundtrack.

The artistic side of storyboarding isn't just about drawing pretty pictures. The storyboard as an artistic tool can help writers and directors develop their narratives, brainstorm creative visuals, and gauge the emotional impact of various scenes. But storyboards are also valuable as technical aids, documenting important details like camera angle, shot type, and blocking.

However, these functions don't necessarily appeal equally to all media professionals, according to Tim Kolb, contributing editor and forum host for Creative Cow (www.creativecow.net) and cofounder of Kolb Syverson Communications in Appleton, Wisconsin.

"Storyboarding and previsualization at Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks fulfill as much artistic function as technical function, because a lot of the storytelling is developed visually," Kolb says. "But if I have a script for a corporate video, most of the material has been developed in a narrative form. It's written, and now I'm using the storyboard to problem-solve the visuals. I can be somewhat creative, but for the most part I'm trying to make sure I've got visuals that are going to go together sequentially."

Vita Mavronicolas, cofounder of Everlasting Communication (formerly 2C Visual Communications) in Vancouver, British Columbia, agrees. "We tend to use storyboards more from a technical point of view. Yes, it tells a story, but it really doesn't generate too many emotions on paper," says Mavronicolas, whose firm specializes in corporate and advertising video.

This dichotomous view can be deceiving, though. First, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these two functions of storyboards. Imagine, for instance, a scene in which camera motion dramatizes the visual approach to a subject being filmed, be it a couple interviewed on a park bench for a love story video or a piece of heavy machinery visually documented for a commercial job. Would the storyboard panel describing the machinery shoot be fulfilling a technical function or an artistic one? The answer, of course, is both. According to Mavronicolas, these functions "do work together," and scenes like this one can make it hard to distinguish between the two.

Second, and more importantly, categorizing storyboards as either technical or artistic hides many practical uses. How a storyboard functions often depends on who's likely to see it. Our unauthorized biography, then, needs to include scenes of storyboards moonlighting as business, communication, and promotional tools.

Takin' Care of Business
The function of storyboards-as-business-tools is to save you money. And as any good businessperson knows, saving money starts with having a sound plan of action. "It's like going out to build a house and after the slab is poured and the wood is delivered you just start nailing stuff together until you have a house—you can't do that. You have to have a blueprint. Otherwise it's just a bunch of pieces," Kolb says.

Mavronicolas agrees, citing a recent project in which detailed storyboards were particularly important. This production—a promotional piece for Everlasting Communication—had a cast that included a child actor. "We knew that the child was going to be the biggest hurdle, since children get cranky during the day," she says. "We wanted to make sure we would shoot all the shots he was going to be in right at the top of the day."

The challenge of having a child on stage was really just part of a bigger issue; her overarching concern was for an all-to-common business constraint: time. "We had a very small window of time to shoot in studio," Mavronicolas says. "It was a three-hour slot, and we used the entire three hours. The storyboards gave us a really good idea of the angle we would be shooting at, what we would see, and where actors would be from a blocking perspective. We got everything we wanted and a few extras, and we really couldn't have done it without storyboards."

Communications Breakthrough
Part of storyboards' role as communication tools falls squarely into the technical side of the technical/artistic distinction. Detailed storyboards are extremely important if someone else is doing the shooting for you. In this case, a storyboard must communicate all of the technical details of the shoot; it serves as a liaison between writer and videographer. Less formal storyboarding can also facilitate in-house brainstorming. Kolb uses storyboard sketches to swap ideas for motion graphics with his staff when working on DVD menus.

However, storyboards' communications savvy goes beyond mere internal relations. According to Mavronicolas, storyboards are also a great way to communicate ideas to clients. "We visualize what their story can look like for them. Oftentimes, clients have incorrect visions or can't visualize well enough, and the storyboard really allows us to give them a better idea of the flow and the sense of emotions that could be delivered," she says.

But she says the flow of ideas need not be one-way when storyboards are involved. "Once we've fleshed out a concept, we usually take it to storyboard and work closely with the script process at the same time, building the story and getting final approval for the story and shooting," she says. "It's always up front and it really allows us to flesh out ideas both from our side and the clients'. They can say, ‘Oh what an interesting shot. What if we looked at it from this angle, what could we see?'"

Getting Promoted
Since they can help clients better understand your ideas (and encourage them to share theirs with you), it's not surprising that storyboards might also serve to promote your business. Mavronicolas believes they give Everlasting Communication a competitive advantage. "I would say it gives us a leg up. The client sees it as an added value. We definitely feel, especially with people who have never had a video put together, that the level of knowledge is very low, so we really try to streamline the whole process and make it clear from beginning to end what they're going to get."

Others would doubtless agree. Like Everlasting Communication, some production companies make it a point to advertise their storyboarding services. Richman Films of New York, New York even posts a sample storyboard on their Web site.

For those videographers who want to use storyboards for promotion in this way, it's important to realize that, to a certain extent, the storyboards become products themselves. This begs the question of how to make them look their best. Of course, those who use them as simple brainstorming or shot-planning tools have vastly different concerns. In the end, there are as many ways to produce storyboards as there are uses for them, so whether you want yours dressed to the nines or in business casual, there's a production method to match.

You Got the Look
Not all storyboards need to look like the glamorous Hollywood types of "Making Of…" documentary fame. Even the T-shirt and jeans variety—i.e., boards hand-drawn by people who, like Mavronicolas, "can't draw to save their lives"—will work for some applications. Kolb is especially fond of "little storyboarding Post-it notes," which also have the obvious advantage of being rearranged with ease.

Very rough sketches work well when you're doing the shooting yourself in familiar situations, since other people don't need to understand the storyboards. This kind of work is commonplace for corporate videographers, Kolb says, and so an ultra-formal storyboarding process is not always crucial.

"In so much corporate communication, the visuals are sort of predetermined. If I'm making a sales video about this bulldozer, I'm going to have X amount of pictures of what the bulldozer has to do. I've got to cover all the capabilities of the machine. Regardless of how they flow together visually, they have to flow together logically," he says. In these situations, storyboards require not much more effort than the straightforward shot lists that many videographers already use, since the most basic storyboard sketches will often suffice.

There are several significant advantages to this kind of approach—hand-sketched boards are quick, cheap, portable, and revisable. However, for those who can't draw very accurately, one disadvantage of this method can become embarrassingly clear. "You can draw whatever you want to see in your head. But then you might get on site and realize that, unless you're standing in the middle of a pond that you thought was farther back from your subject, the lens on your camera isn't going to make that shot," Kolb says.

For those who can't draw well enough to convey their intent to others, Mavronicolas recommends hiring a professional illustrator who can capture the look of a planned scene in an accurate way. Of all the options available, professionally drawn boards look the best and may be good for impressing clients. Of course, if you have to hire outside help, the biggest drawback is monetary. Mavronicolas treats storyboards as budgeted items, and she sometimes even decides to bear some of the cost if the client's budget does not allow for an outside illustrator but the project seems to call for one.

Like the Real Thing
Storyboarding software combines the accuracy of professionally drawn boards with accessibility to the non-artist. An added bonus of many of these programs is that they are interactive, allowing directors to experiment with blocking, camera angles, and lighting before they get on set or on site.

Again, there is a range of options, from the relatively simple to the extremely sophisticated. StoryBoard Quick from PowerProduction Software is an electronic aid for those who want simple storyboards but cannot draw. It is a 2D program that allows users to place pre-made actors and objects onto stock backgrounds or imported digital photos of real ones. Each actor has five different positions (walking, sitting, running, jumping, and prone) and can be scaled and turned around as needed. Storyboard Quick also allows users to import scripts from word processors and script writing programs.

StoryBoard Quick has a straightforward interface. To place one of the pre-made actors, users simply click on the desired actor in the toolbar, choose a pose from the pull-down menu, and click on a location within the frame where they want the character to appear. The toolbar also has a pull-down menu for props, which are placed in the same way as characters. Both actors and props can be resized by clicking on the zoom buttons in the toolbar, and actors can also be rotated using the toolbar's rotation arrows.

Choosing Show Captions from the Captions menu opens the Caption window for the frame. Users can enter any necessary information about the scene into this blank text box or import captions from a pre-written script. The dialog box for importing FCF files from script writing programs allows users to select what types of information from the script will go into storyboard captions (choices include general, slugline, action, character, parenthetical, dialogue, transition, scene character, and act scene break). StoryBoard Quick also has an Overview Window where users can click and drag frames to reorder them.

More powerful are a line of 3D storyboarding software titles, including Storyboard Artist, also from PowerProduction Software, and FrameForge 3D Studio from Innoventive Software. These programs offer the same types of pre-made objects and people as their 2D counterparts but allow the user to position them within 3D digital sets. What really makes these programs helpful, though, is the way users can move virtual cameras throughout the set in exactly the same way they would in the real world. This type of software is great for those situations where storyboards act as a liaison. They're also helpful for planning camera and light placement in advance, and creating a preset shot sequence.

The extra spatial dimension in 3D storyboarding software adds another dimension of difficulty, but, again, the interfaces are fairly intuitive. In FrameForge 3D, users can place props by dragging them from the image library onto the set. Because the set is 3D, it's sometimes a bit tricky to drag objects to exactly where you want them, but the object controls on the left side of the screen allow you to move, elevate, spin, tilt, stretch, and scale an object once it's on the set.

Actors are also added by dragging them from the library to the set. Once there, users can move them with the object controls or click on them to bring up the Green Room view. Here, actors can be posed and dressed in an impressive variety of ways. Like StoryBoard Quick, FrameForge 3D allows users to enter captions by hand or import them from a script. The import interface in FrameForge is a lot more flexible, though. The Import Script command brings up a word processor-like window containing the script, and the user then highlights all of the text to be associated with a particular shot. FrameForge also has a timeline-like view called the shot manager, which is handy for shuffling scenes and adding notes.

"The software becomes helpful if one person's making the boards and another person's doing the shooting," Kolb says. "Now you've got standardized visual references. Drawn boards can confuse what's a medium shot and what's a close shot. If a stick figure's head isn't the same size when you go to the next frame, you're confused as to whether you're supposed to make the shot wider because the sketching is not precise. The storyboard software is very nice for avoiding that sort of thing." Similarly, the accuracy of this type of software can help you avoid the pitfall of finding out you've planned an impossible shot.

Disadvantages of these programs, especially the 3D ones, include price (FrameForge 3D retails at $349), learning curve (with great power comes great responsibility—to read the manual), and the fact that, frankly, the 3D images are often cheesy-looking (though extremely useful). However, this last issue is no problem for storyboards intended solely for internal use, and even users who plan to share their storyboards with clients really need only explain how the advantages of digitally produced storyboards outweigh their distant resemblance to something out of a dated Dire Straits music video. What's more, these programs are far cheaper and easier to use than traditional 3D modeling tools like 3ds max and Maya. You don't need all the models and splines and nurbs and behaviors these tools offer, and unless you have a 3D designer on staff, you'll need to hire one or master the program yourself to create a working storyboard that you could have created more quickly in a storyboard-specific tool.

Mavronicolas' company creates storyboards in Poser—efrontier's 3D animation software—when budgetary concerns rule out professionally drawn boards. Though not really practical for beginners since animation software is so difficult to learn, this method eliminates the need for outfits who already have on-staff 3D design expertise and tools to purchase separate storyboarding software.

Event Horizon
Whether sketching, drawing, or digitally modeling the people, places, and things corporate videographers shoot, the very act of creating a storyboard implies an element of control often foreign to event videographers. Both Kolb (who does not shoot events) and Mavronicolas (who does) admit that there seems to be limited usefulness for formal storyboarding techniques in event coverage.

Still, the vast spectrum of uses for storyboards should give pause to anyone who would deny event videography a place in this biography. (Remember, it is unauthorized.) After all, Kolb suggests that the shot sheets videographers frequently use are pretty much "storyboards in their heads." Thus, in their most basic form—a list of important scenes and a rough idea of what they'll probably look like—storyboards can be spotted ducking out of the Hollywood glitz to help out with weddings and bar mitzvahs. Just don't tell their publicists.



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