How to Storyboard (Plan Your Movie Without Knowing How to Draw)

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Tl;dr - Learn how to create a storyboard for your feature film using the many available apps that are making it easier for indie filmmakers to plan their shoots.
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Table of Contents

How to Storyboard (Plan Your Movie Without Knowing How to Draw)

What is a storyboard?

Tutsplus defines a storyboard as “a tool for sketching out how a video will unfold, shot by shot.” (photography.tutsplus.com)

Many of us have seen examples of storyboarding in behind-the-scenes footage of complex special effects/VFX and action films like The Matrix. It’s easy to see how utilizing a visual tool can help streamline the video creation process, especially for a feature film.

But, the question is, how can you make one for your film without having to call upon some deep artistic talent or hire a real professional for thousands of dollars?

The good news is, there are many options for storyboarding software out there for people of all skill levels.

Why do you need a storyboard?

Or another question – do you even need a storyboard?

In most cases, the necessity of storyboarding boils down to your own experience as a director and filmmaker combined with the complexity of the scene.

If you look at how most scenes work and the combinations of shots that are found in the majority of basic dialogue scenes, it’s easy to raise the question, “why create a storyboard at all?”

A moderately experienced filmmaker can probably tackle most simple scenes without having an actual storyboard on-hand. And, a large percent of filmmakers don’t have the artistic skills required to create a quality storyboard without hiring a sotryboard artist.

Plus, some could argue that by planning out your film on such a micro-level can limit creativity on set and cause a filmmaker to miss out on opportunities that would arise if a more open mindset was adopted.

Storyboard Software (when you are not an artist)

Cine Tracer

If you are not an artist and taking a stick figure approach is not appealing to you, there are several tools on the market to help you out.

The most impressive tool out there currently (in my opinion) to create a detailed and beautiful storyboard is Cine Tracer by Matt Workman.

Cine Tracer is a storyboarding software and pre-visualization tool created on Unreal Engine that utilizes the latest in real-time rendering video game technology. It allows the user to set up shots with actors, lighting, props, and sets in real time.

Plus, if you have ever played video games on a Playstation or Xbox you will get the hang of the controls and user experience pretty quickly.

With the addition of features like “blocking” for your actors, it really is possible to get a great idea of how scenes and shots will work on the day.

Plus, though the lighting simulations are not perfectly true to life, you can get a pretty good idea of where to begin your lighting setups. You can use this tool to plan out the positioning, color, height, and intensity of your lights.

Matt is working hard to continually add new features and push the limits of what was previously possible in the pre-visualization world.

At the time of writing this article, Cine Tracer is available on Steam for $89.99.

ShotPro

Prior to the release of Cine Tracer, I hopped on the ShotPro bandwagon.

Again, this is a tool that works in 3D space rather than a traditional 2D storyboard. The interface and usability means that you don’t have to be a master CG artist to make it work for you.

At first glance, you may say to yourself that the quality of the images put out by ShotPro are nowhere near as nice as Cine Tracer.

I agree with that assessment. But, when it comes to storyboarding, the quality of the images are less important than the ability to convey the information you want to convey to aid in the video production process.

This is why you’ll see some famous directors scribbling on pieces of paper. The images don’t matter, as long as it tells your team what they need to know in order to complete the shot.

For a pretty inexpensive software, ShotPro does have a lot of features that make it possible to give your team all the information they need to know.

Not only can you specify the type of video camera being used and sensor size, you can also design characters, utilize the “set designer” feature and use some pretty impressive augmented reality features if you opt for the iOS version.

ShotPro is an application that you can download from the Windows, Apple, or Android store for $35, but there are additional options for upgrades and memberships that have more features and assets.

FrameForge Storyboard Studio

FrameForge is a tool that’s been around the block.

It’s one of the original 3D storyboard programs that hit the market in 2003. And has been utilized by hundreds of major film and television productions since.

Not only that, but the software received a Technical Achievement Emmy Award. That gives you an idea of how well-received it was.

The software is still available today, with the most recent release having been updated in 2019.

The benefit of FrameForge is that it is purpose-driven and somewhat industry standard, but the pricing also reflects this.

It comes in at $799 for the Pro Version or $498 for the standard version. Plus there are expansion packs that can be purchased to boost up available assets for the built-in templates.

My favorite feature of FrameForge is that it exports out a finished storyboard alongside an over-head diagram to depict camera movement.

Below these images, there’s the scene description plus all relevant details and important technical information such as shot type, camera height, focal length, and field of view.

Honorable Mentions

iClone

I’m including iClone on this list despite the fact that it’s not really intended for traditional storyboards.

The reason I’ve added it is that it’s a robust real-time software that allows you to create impressive previsualizations or animatics (aka a video storyboard or animated storyboard).

This software was designed to allow users to create complex 3D animated films with a WYSIWYG drag and drop mentality.

That being said, you can go deep into this software if you want and dig up a lot of complex features and capabilities.

Because of that, it can seem daunting or overwhelming for an average casual user who just wants to create a storyboard.

It’s worth checking out if you want as much control as humanly possible before venturing into Houdini or Maya territory.

Shot Designer

Shot Designer is an app that is not specifically a storyboarding tool either. It is a shot planning tool that creates overhead diagrams and is useful for lighting and blocking.

You can, however, include frames from a storyboard in your planning via the app.

But, my favorite use of Shot Designer is to plan out lighting setups as well as camera and actor blocking.

In doing so, the app spits out a completed shot list for you to bring to set on the day of the shoot, complete with diagrams to reference.

By preparing your shoot in this app, you are able to really streamline the process of setting up your shots.

For a short film we directed, we used this app to plan out the entire scene to be lit with one lighting setup that never had to be moved.

This allowed us to maximize our shooting in a rented location where our time was limited.

Storyboard Tips

If you do decide that creating a storyboard is the way to go for your indie film, here are some tips to get you on the right track.

A Storyboard Is Not A Final Product

It’s easy to get caught up in what we are doing, especially when we have a chance to dive into the creative process of filmmaking.

But, it’s important to remember that the storyboard is not the final product.

And, in most cases, no one will ever see them other than a few key crew members.

So, with that said, don’t spend too much time perfecting your boards. Try to do the minimum amount of work in order to convey the information.

Be Specific

When possible, be specific about important technical factors such as lens choice and camera height.

These details will help speed up production so you don’t have to spend precious shooting time determining what lens to use.

Use Real Information

If you know what time of day you will be shooting, taking the position of the sun into account can be super important if you’re outdoors or on location.

Also, having set measurements and diagrams can be helpful to make your previsualizations that much more accurate.

Don’t Be Afraid to Cheat In Your Storyboards

It’s not an art contest. So, feel free to use images or re-use assets from past projects. Create a storyboard template for specific camera angles.

Again, try to save time wherever possible, so if you create a pose in a previous shot and it can be used again, do it!

That’s Not The End

There are quite a few more apps out there than the ones listed. I’ve tried a few other ones, but these are the ones that I recommend the most.

Did I miss any that you use regularly? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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