What is a Storyboard?
First, lets start by defining what is a storyboard. Storyboards are a series of drawings or images laid out in sequential order that give visual information about a story. They can feature camera angles, camera movement, blocking, location, characters and sometimes dialogue. They’re used in commercials, television, film, animation, video games and many other projects.
Miseducation of Drawing
Now many say they can’t draw. “Not even a stick figure” is the common saying I’ve heard most of my life. But isn’t it a wonder that as kids most of us start out drawing before even knowing how to write our own names? But as we grow older we quit drawing all together and continue the writing skills. I believe this is because of how writing and drawing are taught. Writing is taught as a necessary function for communication. Where as drawing is considered more of a hobby for talented individuals who desire creative expression.
But what if basic drawing skills were taught as a necessary way to communicate the same way writing was? What if we learned composition, perspective, color theory and elements of design the same way we learned about grammar and sentence structure? Cavemen and Egyptians used images all the time to communicate before there was a written language. In fact, the modern written language is an evolution of hieroglyph drawings.
Now, of course, there are those blessed with God-given talent. But the fact is that you don’t have to be Picasso to draw storyboards no more than you have to be Langston Hughes to write an email. Drawing is a skill set. And like any skill, it can be learned. And we must change this attitude if we’re ever going to overcome this. Because the fact is if you can draw a simple line, a square, and a circle, then you have all the necessary techniques to draw almost anything. The rest is just a matter of fundamentals. If you don’t believe me here are a collection of drawings I want to show to demonstrate this point.
Shortcut to the Brain
These simple drawings above work well because as humans we need very little information to comprehend a concept. This is, according to Scott McCloud’s book ‘Understanding Comics’, because of iconography and the way our minds process symbols and images. Iconography is like a shortcut to the brain. Our brains will intuitively connect the dots based on context clues and previously known information. This is why when watching a play we only need to see a couch, a table and a lamp on stage to know it represents a living room. Or like the way you can recognize someone you know from a distance without the details being clear. And our world is full of these types of visual cues and shape language that we subconsciously don’t even realize it. So take advantage of this mind trick and keep your drawings simple. It’s about doing as little as possible to communicate. A great exercise to begin practicing this is to redraw common objects you recognize using only basic squares, triangles and circles.
Spend only a few seconds on each object and keep them very simple. If you do this for just a few hours a week and train your eye to see the world this way, I promise you will improve. Then once you get more comfortable with the technical aspects, you’ll think less about drawing and more about the next step which is design and visual storytelling.
Understanding Visual Storytelling
Visual storytelling is telling a compelling emotional story with the use of visuals. In an earlier post, we talk about The Fundamentals of Composition in Visual Storytelling and how arranging objects in a frame can be used to show relationships between objects. As a storyboard artist, it’s important to lead the viewer’s eye through an image and give information about what they are seeing. This is accomplished with the use of composition and elements of design which give further information about an elements relationship. For example, if there are two figures in a frame and one is larger than the other, we can instinctively assume the larger figure represents dominance and is more important. Or if a subject is positioned with straight lines it can represent structure and confidence. We pick up on this through visual cues and from conventions in everyday life. And because ninety percent of communication is nonverbal and visual, our society has been teaching us to understand this subconsciously. I’m a decent artist myself and still find this part of visual storytelling to be the most challenging. But this isn’t a problem with knowing how to draw, this a problem with deciding what to communicate.
However, if all else fails and drawing is still too technically difficult for you, then there are still workarounds. Thanks too modern technology with apps and Google, you can use research and the plethora of images online to form your own storyboards. It helps to know software such as Photoshop in case you need to manipulate an image, but with a little web surfing, you can design entire scenes and sequences without knowing how to draw. Apps can also aid you in storyboard design and give you great results. Below are some examples to demonstrate this point. Notice how common storyboard concepts are still applied in which a host of problems are solved including logistics, the number of characters, blocking, camera positioning, continuity, etc. However, these methods can actually be a lot harder because of the time it takes to search for photos and manipulate them and can limit you in customization. However, it is still possible to design entire films this way.
So to wrap it up, let’s end the myth of not storyboarding because of the stigma that I can’t draw. It’s about having the right attitude and not making excuses. Because excuses is where most fell at a young age. We all have the potential to draw and think visually to communicate what’s important. And although nothing beats raw drawing techniques, with Google and technology you can still get the job done.
Here are some great resources to help you improve your visual storytelling. Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers, Bruce Block’s: The Visual Story. and Resources for Your Next Film Project. Looking at storyboards and comic books are also great to study as well.