As a director, you can always phone it in with standard coverage or rely on your DP can find you lovely backgrounds and nice shot compositions, but if you want to pull off any shots that are interesting, meaningful, or cool, you need to plan them out ahead of time with storyboards or a coverage plan. Great shots don’t just happen.
I believe that being a good director means making a plan that I can share with other people before the morning of the shoot. That’s why I typically put in a bunch of prep time creating storyboards, shooting plans, and shot lists. In this post I’ll talk about what these are and why I think they’re important.
Preparation: The Burden and Opportunity
Typically on a shoot day you barely have enough time to get all the shots you need, let alone explore them. As much as I love the romantic notion of a director figuring out his vision on the set as he and the actors try new things, the reality is, a good director figures all that out long before the shoot. And then maybe, if he’s done his prep, he gets a few more ideas in the moment. But that’s only after all the work is done.
So how do you figure out your vision before you’re actually on the set looking at everything? One of the best ways is with storyboards and shooting plans. Sketching out what you want to shoot is a great way to try new things, refine your vision, and then communicate that to all the people who will help you realize it. In many ways, the director’s real visual exploratory work is done on paper.
(* The other exploratory work a director can do—the performance exploration—is in workshopping and rehearsing with actors. I’ll talk about this in a future post.)
First off, what are these things and how do they work together?
- Storyboards are a visual telling of the story through representative still images of each shot that will appear on the screen.
- Shooting plans are diagrams of the set showing the placement and movement of the actors and camera.
- Shot lists are lists of all the shots planned for a given scene.
They all have their own value and strengths and often a director will use all three.
Most people have heard of storyboards. Here’s a sample from one of my shoots. They give a director a chance to get specific about what he wants to see on the screen. I draw my own—not because I’m any kind of great artist, but because going through the process of drawing them challenges me to think about things like shot selection, framing, lighting, set design, etc. Basically all the things I will have to think about once the production begins. With storyboarding, I’m the only person asking myself questions. I have time to consider—make some wrong choices and see what they look like before I’ve mobilized an army (or just a platoon) to make my decision a reality. No one is breathing down my neck—it’s refreshing! The consequences of being wrong are low—just the need to redraw a panel a few times. And as they say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
String a number of these choices together, and suddenly you have a visual telling of your story. This means you can look at it yourself and critique how well it works (or doesn’t) and discuss it with others to get their reactions or to discuss what will be necessary to make this stuff happen on the set. This is just one of the benefits of storyboards.
Aside from refining your vision and communicating it to your department heads, good storyboards can energize a production. Show them to your clients and they’ll remember why they hired you. Show them to your potential investors and they’ll get excited about your story and the fact that you put some effort into it. Show them to your cast and crew and suddenly they get jazzed because, hey, it turns out the director gives a shit. Yeah, storyboards have a lot of benefits.
Storyboards can be rough and simple or detailed and artistic—and anywhere in between depending on what purposes they’ll serve. Some people just draw stick figures. While this is usually better than nothing, stick figures probably won’t energize your investors, clients, or crew much. To me, it’s when other elements of the shoot show up in a storyboard that things start to come to life. They should be conversation starters. Your DP should ask if those slashy lines mean that you want hard light coming through the blinds. The production designer should ask if you’re thinking about an old-school desk and credenza like that. The costume designer should ask if the actress’s neckline should be cut that low. The great thing about these questions is—even if you completely botched your drawing—you have created some baseline for every department.
One potential problem with storyboards is, it’s possible to create storyboards that look great and seem to tell a great story, but are impossible to actually achieve given your location, equipment, or sometimes just the laws of physics. I often think that making storyboards without knowing the final location can be of limited value because there’s often a post or a 500-foot cliff right where you thought you could put the camera. Creating a shooting plan will help keep you honest.
Storyboards are beautiful and all, and they really bring the tribe together, but sometimes they aren’t necessary or even possible. There are times—when time is at a premium, you aren’t looking to impress anybody with pretty pictures, and you just need to get shit done—when what you really want is a shooting plan.
A shooting plan is an overhead diagram of where the walls and furniture are, where the actors go, and how the camera will film the various angles. It’s like a plot of the actor and camera blocking. What’s nice is that you can knock it out quickly. Say you’ve blocked a scene and are about to turn over the set for lighting while you rehearse with the actors—in less than two minutes you should be able to sketch out a shooting plan to hand to your DP or AD so everyone knows what to light for and what you’ll be shooting when you get the set again.
When I made The No-Sit List (released as Babysitter’s Beware by Phase4 Films) there was no time for full storyboards. I was given 14 days to write the script from an outline I’d proposed and coincidentally, we shot the film—kids, dogs, lizards, yogurt balloons, exploding closets and all—in 14 days. All with about 3-5 weeks between finishing the script and rolling cameras on day one to handle casting, locations, and all the rest. So extensive storyboards were out of the question. But to film a solid 7-8 pages per day, I needed a good plan. So every night after shooting, I’d go back to my “luxury suite” at the Burbank Extended Stay America and crank out a shooting plan for tomorrow. The investors were already “in for a pound,” the crew was onboard, there was no one to impress—I just needed to go into every scene knowing exactly what we were shooting so we could knock out four-ish scenes per day. A shooting plan gave us what we needed.
A good shooting plan shows the bare essentials. It’s a top-down view, so the circles are people’s heads. Lines show direction. Either there’s a line out of the end of the circle to represent a nose and show the direction the person is facing, or there’s a line across the circle, which represents the brow—again to show the direction of the face. Circles usually have an initial of the character’s name to indicate who’s who.
Arrows show motion. Triangles are cameras and the angle of the triangle roughly indicates the lens’s field of view. So narrow little acute-angle triangles are long lenses and fat triangles are wides. If you were to extend the lines of each angle, they should indicate what is in the shot. I find this really useful when I know the rough dimensions of a location because I know what angles I want and where to put them. It’s very quick once you get to know the system and you can always sketch out some super-quick storyboard frames based on what’s shown in the background according to the field-of-view lines. The letter inside each camera indicates what shot it is. A number by it indicates what part of the shot it is in a moving shot like a track or dolly.
List up all the shots for a given scene from your storyboards and/or shooting plan and, voilà, you have a shot list. Shot lists are nothing special. AD’s love them because they know what they’re shooting and probably in what order. But as a director, I always view them as a shorthand for a much larger process that I’ve been through. Of course, when you’re phoning it in with coverage—or when a scene is just very, very simple (it happens), you may just throw together a shooting plan. “It’s a pair of overs and a long-lens wide from across the street.” For a 30-second scene this may just be plenty. (* That’s two over-the-shoulder shots and a shot from a telephoto lens.)
Putting it all together
Mix and match your storyboards, shooting plans, and shot lists as necessary. In the end, you should always have a shot list—you can just get there in a lot of different ways. An experienced crew will appreciate a shooting plan—it tells them where everyone is facing and where to set the lights. They probably don’t need or want to decipher a bunch of storyboards. Clients, producers, and department heads, on the other hand, love storyboards—and the earlier you can share them the better. Your AD and line producers just want a shot list that they can put on the next day’s call sheet.
Do your prep. Keep everybody happy. And give yourself some tools to take control of the never-ending questions you’ll have coming at you on set. Because once you’ve put the time in to think about the shoot, draw out several versions, and circulate them to the keys, well, you as the director are perfectly within your rights to say, “Just make it look like the damn storyboards!”
More to come…
I hope to add more stories and examples shortly. I plan to show some extended sets of storyboards for a look at visual storytelling, plus maybe some storyboard to finished shot comparisons. Please let me know your questions about storyboards and I’ll address them here.
Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series. Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising. The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE is currently in release on YouTube and IndieFlix. More information at: DouglasHorn.com and WhatIsDivergence.com .