Did you ever wonder how filmmakers can dream up how a movie will look without any visual aids? This may disappoint you, but… they use visual aids.

As with so many things, the easiest way to do this is also the most old-fashioned. Graphic illustrations and photo collages are drawn up or assembled by a storyboard artist who, together with the writing team, the cinematographer, and the director, will go through a story scene by scene to discuss how the story will proceed in terms of timing, pace, and chronology.

The idea of storyboarding has been around just about as long as films themselves. When legendary early director Georges Méliès began making movies in the late 19th century, he used simple illustrations to create a visual plan for what the finished film would (hopefully) look like. While these early storyboards have long since been lost, along with many, if not most, from the silent film era, they must have been significantly simpler than the ones used today, because the modern technique is credited to Disney screenwriter Webb Smith for the 1933 short Three Little Pigs. (A rival to this claim is Howard Hughes’ for the 1930 aviation epic Hell’s Angels, but this is hard to prove.)

A storyboard for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) demonstrating the transition from sketch to celluloid.

Smith was responsible for the relatively simple idea of creating sketches and pinning them to a bulletin board in sequence to give a more detailed, progressive idea of the visual plot of a film, and this innovation was apparently novel enough that his is the form distinctive enough to remain in use. By illustrating different scenes and motions on separate pieces of paper, filmmakers can experiment with the pacing and sequence of their stories by shuffling them around and seeing which progression they like best.

This technique was so obviously advantageous that, by the end of the ‘30s, it was in use at every animation studio in California. In 1939, one the earliest confirmed cases of storyboarding for live-action was undertaken for Gone With the Wind, which was storyboarded from first frame to last. By the late 1940s, the technique had spread to boardrooms, planning committees, technical bureaus, and advertising agencies. In fact, in a classic case of wheel reinvention, a form of proposal storyboarding was developed with no input from Hollywood at all at Howard Hughes’ Hughes-Fullerton Aircraft Ground Systems Group, where it was given the decidedly less-than-sexy title of Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications (STOP).
The Coen Brothers are well-known for their use of storyboards, as shown here in the storyboarding for No Country for Old Men (2008).

The Coen Brothers are well-known for their use of storyboards, as shown here in the storyboarding for No Country for Old Men (2008).

A storyboard from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003).

A storyboard from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003).

In advertising and corporate video, storyboards, also called presentation boards, will be used to map out the creative team’s vision for a project to clients, to help them understand the proposed trajectory of the creation and execution of a corporate film. In this way, the clients are made a part of the process and allowed to see what their investment will be used for.

Storyboards are a useful technique, but not a required one. Some filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock, were renowned for careful storyboarding. The storyboards for Citizen Kane depicted shots that were technically impossible at the time, but it helped his production team to visualise and then create the techniques needed to realise his vision. Others, like Christopher Nolan, avoid them altogether, either from disregard or great experience. Imagine that - The Dark Knight (2008) was made without a single storyboarding session!

In addition to directing actors, storyboards also give camera directions as above. The symbol is normally shown near the edge of the fame, where as a movement for a character or object would be placed near them.

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