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Storyboarding & the art of finding your story

Storyroom Storyboarding as we know it may have been pioneered by filmmakers and animators, but we can use many of the same concepts in the development of other forms of storytelling including keynote presentations or short-form presentations such as those made at TED or at conferences, pecha kucha nights, and so so. The storyboard process allows you to flesh out themes and look for patterns as you apply your creativity toward presenting your content in a structured yet engaging way. Storyboarding is a great way to begin to visualize the story of your content.

What can Pixar teach us about storyboarding?
Ever since Pixar made it big with Toy Story in 1995, they have been generous in sharing the "secrets" of their story design and their story process for the world to see. Even if you are not interested in becoming an animator or a filmmaker, the lessons and inspiration one can get from studying the Pixar methods can be a huge help in your work. This 4-minute clip below illustrates a great example of the storyboard process. And if you remember seeing A Bugs Life, the clip will be all that more enjoyable. Joe Ranft, who died in a automobile accident in 2005 during the making of Cars (the film is dedicated to his memory) was the Head of Story in A Bugs Life and also did the voice of Heimlich. At the end of the clip Joe demonstrates the pitching process. Joe was not only super smart and creative, he was a master storyteller and hysterically funny.


In this next clip below, you see the great Joe Ranft storyboard the classic army men sequence from Toy Story. Amazing stuff.


It goes back to Walt Disney
Walt_disneyThis video below is a wonderful introduction to storyboarding with clips from Walt Disney and others. A great storyboard artist is a great communicator (not necessarily a great illustrator/animator). Walt Disney developed the use of storyboards in the 1920s. Storyboards allow film makers to see a blueprint of the movie before going into production. You tack them (your sketches/ideas in visual form) up on the wall so you can see the entire sequence, flow, continuity, etc. Storyboards are an effective, inexpensive way to develop the story. You can "board it up" on the wall and see if it works. Because ideas can be changed easily and quickly, storyboarding works. The key is to put down in your storyboards the minimum amount of information that gives a dynamic and quick read of the content (and the emotions) of the sequence.

A good storyboard artist is a good storyteller. The drawings do not have to be pretty, but they must have the meaning and the feelings behind the idea. A good storyboard artist is a good pitchman. Walt Disney, they say, was an amazing pitchman/storyboard artist. Walt's great ability was his passion and vision behind the pitch. The storyboard pitch is one of the great performance arts developed in the 20th century at Disney (yet no one ever gets to see it). The use of storyboards is one of the reasons Walt Disney's early films were so remarkable; the practice was soon copied.

"At our studio we don't write our stories, we draw them." 
— Walt Disney

With storyboarding you tell the story in the simple form (storyboard reels) before entering the more complex form. The storyboard lets the whole team in on what's going on with the production. The storyboard is "an expensive writing tool, but an inexpensive production tool." The storyboard can cut out a lot of unnecessary work. Storyboards allow you to see what is not working (and toss the bits out that don't work).

"If I can make things work on paper, then I can make them work on the set."Kevin Costner

Applying the concepts
Can you visualize your presentation like a comic? No, not literally perhaps — but something like the sequential flow of a comic or rough sketches in storyboard form. You can do this on a whiteboard, but one of the best analog ways is with sticky notes (Post its) on a wall on in a notebook.

In Presentation Zen 2nd Edition I outline an analog approach to preparing digital presentation visuals. Near the end of the process is when we really start thinking about what visuals we'll want to use. This is the time when I start making very rough sketches of how I want the slides to look. It is a form of storyboarding. I use sticky notes in my own sketchbook. The advantage is I can get the flow and structure down before I ever make slides. Below is a sample of just eight slides from a much larger set. (Click images for larger view.)

Sketchbook    8_slides_order

Suggested reading
From Word to Image: Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process
by Marcie Begleiter
Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas
Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll



Great stuff! Thanks for sharing. For people like me who are not really good at drawing: What kind of tools do you recommend for the drawing, and do you know of any good tutorials to get started?
Thanks again for your great work and resources.


Patricia, as for books, how about "You Can Draw in 30 Days"? Good book that can really improve drawing for "people who think they can not draw."

Also Dan Roams "Back of the Napkin" for learning to draw very simple stick figures for use in live talks. Helps for drawing at the whiteboard, but also you could use the stick figures in slides too.


Thank you! I will check them out. Appreciate your reply.

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