How we storyboard

It all begins inside of your mind. That’s where videos are born. Great producers, editors and writers all have a strong mental image of what they are trying to relay. From there the real work begins: bringing it to life. So let’s get into it.

How to Storyboard w/ Your Eyes Closed

Close your eyes. What do you see? 

For 3% of people they cannot see anything. But for 60-65% of people visual thinking is common. More common than forms like thinking through words.

Today we’re going to dissect how to take what you see in your minds eye, and turn it into a storyboard. In it’s simplest form: it’s a set of images that tell a story from alpha to omega (or start to finish).

In this article let’s dive into

  • What tools you will need to get started (don’t worry it’s not much)
  • The process for generating ideas, and where they come from
  • How to translate a script into images or vice versa
  • The template we use to organize our ideas before starting 
  • The animatic: a litmus test of your ability to storyboard

But before we start, let’s dig into the obvious cliche and tear it apart.

“A picture if worth a thousand words” - Anonymous 

The classic saying about pictures and their worth is harder to pinpoint than you might think. Actually it’s hard to know exactly where it started.

Is it a Chinese proverb? Some think so, even though there’s little evidence to back it up.

Or is it attributable to Frederick R. Barnard, who wrote about advertising in 1921 “One look is worth a thousand words”?

The bottomline is: it doesn’t matter. We can all grasp the idea intuitively. Visuals communicate certain things BETTER than words.

But what’s more important to know - is how to make this distinction.

Sometimes words are better than pictures

It’s important to know that words and visuals play different roles. They affect our brain in different ways. And even are processed in different ways.

For example: words are processed by short-term memory. While images have the ability to get into that brain groove we call long-term memory.

Yet, it’s said visuals are processed 60,000 times the speed of words.

This likely has origins with evolution and how much of our brain evolved to understand the world around us (visually). And the fact that writing is a fairly recent invention.

The important thing is to understand that

  • Visuals are easy to grasp, intuitive to understand
  • Words can help build out complex concepts 
  • Together, they can get across more than either alone 

Where do you begin: with words or images?

To be perfectly fair, you can begin with either. In fact, both are valid starting points.

In marketing however or visual communication we often start with words. And it might be for the wrong reasons. The client (or person with a message) often communicates it verbally or through written word. 

And this is why often the starting point is a script, brand guideline, or blog post for a video. It’s not because this is the best way to start the affair, it’s probably for many people the easiest.

Our suggestion: start where you feel comfortable. If it’s drawing a few “key frames” - or key points in the story which can later be developed, do that.

If it’s writing a few lines of text that charge you with emotion - that’s also a perfect starting point. But lets get a bit more specific. How do you take words into visuals and vice versa?

storyboard images

Words & images: but what's underneath them?

Linguists say that our personal worlds are wrapped up in language and how we use it. Nobody uses the same word in the same way.

We all have our associations with words. What they mean. And how we use them.

This is important because underneath words and images is a story. A story can be seen as a series of ideas which progresses towards an end.

In order to make a video. It’s not about the words or images, it’s about what they mean, and that’s a somewhat personal idea.

Your video idea makes sense in your mind first, and to the outside world second. A storyboard or script is about bridging that gap. Getting the good ole’ “head nod” from other people. The “Ah yeah, I get it”.

But how will this script turn into a moving, fresh and breath-taking video in the end?!

from words into images

Visual Sequencing & It’s Power

This is where storyboarding comes into play.

An image alone isn’t as powerful as a series. This is why animation was such a big breakthrough. It allowed people to tell stories which used movement.

Stories that moved.

The storyboard is a slow moving story. It translates the layer between our imagination and reality.

The power is in presenting an idea in broken down chunks. Bits and pieces. Not all at once, but building it up so the viewer can follow along.

Always remember that you’re not trying to just draw something. You’re showing an idea. And to show that idea, you have to strip away all the unnecessary parts.

Does this sound confusing? Well, let’s turn to a more practical note.

storyboard images - example

These are the basics, let’s move on to the more technical side.

Sitting down somewhere quiet and thinking

A lot of the process is research, understanding and putting it all together. This means doing things like the moodboard, researching the market, understanding the product, it’s nature and compiling a lot of references.

The biggest mistake people make is trying to rush into storyboarding.

The deeper your understanding of the topic you’re storyboarding about - the easier it will be to find images that are truly unique. The pictures that are actually with a thousand words.

It’s easy to take the easy route and just put whatever comes to mind first. But that’s not really pushing the storyboard to it’s full potential. That’s simply trying to fill a page up with images.

In fact there’s a lot of ways to approach the visual brainstorming process for videos

  • Think about associations to the product name, industry, what it does, and how you can relay this information in words
  • Look over the script and try to find themes, patterns, and how they relate to feeling 
  • Open up other content within the niche and see what you like, what you don’t and start to dissect “what's right” from there 
  • Create moodboards, reference links, and don’t be scared to get “too much” in one place

The biggest mistake we see is people rushing to finish their storyboard instead of diving into the world of it. But only when you take your time will you start to see the potential for transitions, characters, and little details which will elevate your work to another level.

Or you’ll find a lot of great easter eggs to add in. All of those work :)

Storyboarding: what tools do you need?

So you want to make a shiny storyboard that makes people go WOW. 

What do you need? Not much actually.

Some simple skills at drawing will suffice. As will a software like adobe illustrator, or even using something online like Boords

Or if you’re pro-simplicity: a pen and paper with a camera to take pictures. 

The most important: a big dose of imagination. Also arguably the hardest thing of all these to acquire!

On our team, we have a wide range of artists who use a wide range of tools. And all of them are able to make beautiful looking videos.

storyboard image example

We generally prefer using Photoshop and a digital drawing tablet, but really, anything will make it, it depends on your preferences. Using sand and a stick? Fine also.

An important part of the storyboard is a few explanatory extra sentences next to each drawing that will help to tell what movement is happening on that specific scene.

So you can spend under $5 on your storyboard setup. Or over $5000 depending on how fancy you want to get.

The storyboard template we use err’ day

We are using the good ol’ google docs to put them side by side.

Yeah I hope you weren’t expecting something fancy. Well, this is quite fancy. It allows you to judge the visual with the script.

We use this for all types of videos: SaaS explainers. Frame by frame animations. 3D videos. Because the first thing you need is a sequence that everyone can agree on.

And you don’t want to invest too much time into making it look perfect. Actually you could literally do this on napkins. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that napkins are easy to lose and damage. 

Think about all the great visual ideas which have been lost to the fragile nature of napkins (RIP!).

storyboard setup

Using a template like this we’ll storyboard about 12-20 images per minute of run time. More if the video is one of the more complex ones. 

In the end it all depends on how much movement you want to show. Some storyboards focus oni showing keyframes which are the “big movements”. 

While a more detailed one may break things down to an almost molecular level.

Feedback, feedback and more feedback

Since storyboards are usually made by one person and interpreted by another - feedback is always a part of the game.

Something is incorrect. 

Lets use a scooter instead of a horse. 

Lets change the man to a woman. Lets give her a different colour of hair. 

All these things are part of the process and you can only get ahead of them by showing someone a storyboard. 

Luckily this part of the process doesn’t take much time if you don’t invest into making a perfectly polished storyboard (leave that for later).

At the beginning you really want to

  • Capture the essence of your logical sequence/story
  • Keep things simple but honest with composition, layout, etc
  • Focus on the concepts and what you’re getting across more than perfection
  • Get more rounds of feedback and meetings to discuss

We communicate through Google docs comments or on verbal calls. Which we think is the best way to work creatively if you’re not in the same room as your team mates.

Storyboard vs Animatic: evolution

Once the fundamentals are laid off via the storyboard and the basic ideas are approved - a step further in the process is called the animatic. An animatic is basically an animated storyboard. It introduces an extra “layer”: actual movement

storyboard vs animatic

Instead of using text to describe what on each drawing is actually happening we introduce very rough movements. 

Usually at this point we’ll also use a voiceover instead of the script text. Which does two things: first it turns the animatic into a chronological walk through of timing.

Second it allows us to judge the rhythm, pace, and HEAR the words instead of see them.

But it’s still very rough: the animatic serves to explain the bigger movements, the transition between scenes and so forth. The time for details is yet to come.

This is still carving with an ax. The fine chisels, the details, those are yet to come.

The animatic usually sparks a new round of enthusiastic feedback from the client. As they start to see the ideas become “closer” to reality. And it can also show some inconsistencies which may no longer work when you see them in motion.

It’s an essential part of the process, and it’s suggested you get there sooner rather than later.

The iterative process is the way forward

You can’t do this in a bubble. You can’t do this in a cave.

You have to make something -> show it to your team or the client.

You need feedback. 

You have to know what to change. And this is what takes time. Is running the ideas by people and making those changes.

But this is also what yields results. Remember those images in your head that told a story? It’s easy to think you get it, but when people start to see how you interpreted their vision that’s when they will have a knee jerk reaction about what it really means.

From storyboard to final video: how it looks 

At this point to illustrate how the process evolves lets look at a few of our videos and see what happened in the steps in between:

Another one:

Animatic and Final footage

The complete animatic:

(Full Video of coordinateHQ)

This gives you a better idea of the journey one must take. And how it looks once you’ve completed it. 

So There You Have It, Any Questions?

As always it ain’t easy to explain something visual with words. So consider this a starting point and go inform yourself about other topics on our blog.

We cover stuff like 

And also you can check out videos like this one, for more thoughts around design process inspiration, and how to get started: 

Whatever you do - don’t procrastinate. Just start. Put words on paper. Draw images.

Immerse yourself in the visual world and you will start to slowly (but surely) make sense of it. And that is simply put the best way to storyboard anything.

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