Storyboards to a classic Disney cartoon

How to make great storyboards, even if you can’t draw

Storyboarding is the gold standard of visual planning. Storyboards are the cheapest and most effective way to explore your visual strategy and communicate that vision to your creative team.

Some directors, like the Coen brothers and Michael Haneke, storyboard exhaustively.

Others, like Martin Scorcese, use professional storyboards mostly for action sequences, relying on quick sketches for other scenes.

There are a few directors, including David Cronenberg and Christopher Nolan, who skip storyboards. However, these directors typically made several films before ditching storyboards. They also work with the same Director of Photography on almost every film.

If you’re a newer director, creating storyboards is a great tool to investigate your vision, create more precise films, and save time on set. Think of your storyboards, in concert with your script, as the hypothesis for your experiment. If you never write down your hypothesis, you won’t know why your experiment succeeds or fails. Storyboards don’t just help you make a good film—they can help you make the next one even better.

“But I can’t draw,” you might say. No problem. There are several ways to make useful storyboards for the pencil-averse. The following are seven ways to create awesome storyboards, even if you can’t draw.

1. Write a prose storyboard.

If you are afraid to draw, consider writing the verbal equivalent of a storyboard. Pretend you are sitting across from a storyboard artist. What would you tell them to draw? Be as descriptive as possible, you can always edit it down before you hand it off to your DP. For example:

Medium, wide-angle. The camera starts on the enigmatic stranger’s black dress shoes as they step out of the car and lifts up past their gray suit and up to their black tie and steely eyes. The wide lens exaggerates their grim features. When they raise their gun it almost fills the frame, but their eyes remain in focus.

It’s a silly example, but you could draw it from that description. Your DP would know how to shoot it. You haven’t completely translated it into a visual language, but you’re on your way there.

If you write a prose storyboard, it’s a good idea to do one description per shot (instead of describing the entire sequence like a comic book style storyboard). Otherwise, all that text could be more confusing than useful.

2. Work with a storyboard artist.

While Scorcese and Haneke draw their own storyboards, many filmmakers—including the Coen brothers—use a professional storyboard artist. If you have a bunch of money lying around, you can hire a professional. Or you can recruit your friend, buy them lunch and spend the rest of the money on your movie. Better yet, have your DP draw the storyboards.

The key here is that you must be involved in the process. If you just hand off your script and get pictures in return, you’ll have great pictures but bad storyboards. That won’t help you make a better movie.  The process of communicating your vision and recreating it visually is the entire point of making storyboards.

However, if you wrote a prose storyboard, that might be enough for a storyboard artist. It’s a quick way to see how clear your visual communication is.

3. Make storyboards with an app.

There are apps for everything these days, and storyboarding is no exception. Some apps let you pick characters in different positions and position them in all kinds of locations. This is an attractive option for someone who hates to draw.

I haven’t had much luck with storyboarding apps, but they have lots of fans. If you’re looking for a solid storyboarding app, this list of 11 storyboarding apps is a great place to start.

There are also great apps for creating overhead diagrams. I use Shot Designer. Their free version lets you diagram and block one scene at a time, including character and camera movement. You can customize movement speed, so your camera might take two steps to do what your character does in one. I recommend paying for the upgrade to the pro version ($20), which lets you save as many scenes as you want.

4. Pull frames from other movies and use them to create storyboards.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun. The goal here isn’t necessarily to find films similar to yours, but to find individual shots that match your shot list. Mix and match those shots to create simple storyboards.

These storyboards aren’t going to be as exact as those you’d get from a storyboard artist, but if you really can’t draw they might be good enough. The key is to focus only on composition and not let yourself be distracted by the content of the original frame. Go broad in your references to minimize unconscious influence.

For one example of how this process can be useful, imagine that you are shooting a dialogue scene in a car. While your scene is unique, you are not the first person to shoot dialogue in a car. There are, perhaps, twenty common shots used to film dialogue in cars. You’ll be pressed for time, and probably won’t need more than six of them. Which six? Go searching for car scenes and see which shots match the vision in your head. Watch the films on silent and pay attention to only the frame.

I put together an example reference storyboard page. It’s not incredibly elegant, but you can see how it could be a starting point for collaboration.

5. Shoot stills and line them up to create storyboards.

This one is easy and incredibly useful. I don’t know why more people don’t do it. Grab a couple friends and go to the most similar locations you have access to. Shoot pictures that match what your storyboards would be. Presto. Storyboards. For a bonus, bring your DP along to take the stills.

One caveat: make sure your still camera has the same sensor size as your cinema camera. For example, the Arri Alexa uses a Super35mm sensor, which is way smaller than the Canon 5D sensor. The best solution is to either use a smaller still camera or to batch crop all the images from your full frame camera.

Because you’re shooting a digital storyboard, it’s easy to throw the images into your nonlinear editor. Record yourself reading the screenplay, and edit the stills over the audio. Does your coverage plan work the way you thought it would?

6. Pre-shoot video with stand-ins and pull frames for your storyboard.

This option takes more time and volunteers. Most of the time, shooting stills is going to be an easier and more useful method. But there are times when pre-shooing is the best way to prep for your shoot.

Say you’re playing with the idea of doing a scene in a oner, or you have an established actor coming in for the shoot and very limited time with them. Maybe you have a really expensive location for only a couple hours. When pre-shooting, it’s critical to have your DP on board, and a good idea to at least have a prose storyboard on hand.

It’s a good idea to use stand-ins, even if your actors are available. Use this as an opportunity to direct the camera without worrying about performance. Then, on set, you can focus on performance, comfortable with the knowledge that your visual strategy is strong.

7. Draw your own storyboards, even if they’re bad.

This post is about making storyboards even if you’re bad at drawing, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like sitting down and drawing your own. Storyboarding is a great way to think visually, and the process if useful even if the resultant storyboards aren’t.

The book Shot by Shot is a great primer on storyboarding and includes strategies for drawing good storyboards with limited skills. There are a number of great resources online—like the video below— that demonstrate how easy it can be to make useful storyboards. You don’t have to show them to anyone, and you can pair them with one of the other six methods to create a more comprehensive plan.

In the end, creating storyboards is its own reward. You don’t have to rely on them when you get to set, you might even leave them in the car. But visual planning is an important step between the script and production. It’s a time to discover possibilities and embrace visual grammar. Where you go from there is up to you.

What storyboarding techniques do you use? Are there any great tools we’ve left out? Is there a storyboarding app that’s actually easier than drawing? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to share links to your work.

Stephen Heleker

Stephen is a producer and writer/director living in Los Angeles. His first feature film as a producer—Good, starring Keith David—debuted at the 2020 Austin Film Festival. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @stephenheleker