It always amazes me when directors say that they don’t storyboard a film. How can this be? A script is a nice place to start, but a film is so much more than the words the actors speak. Film is visual, so you need to be thinking and communicating in visuals. Why would you write ten drafts of a script, and then only storyboard it once? Storyboards will give you a vision and an understanding of your film that you simply would not get any other way.
Hitchcock used to say that by the time he started filming, he already knew every shot because he had storyboarded the whole thing. He just had to follow the plan. That’s an extreme view of storyboards, but Hitchcock had incredible visuals and he knew how they would be cut together; he knew what would work, because he had already drawn it out.
There are directors that refuse to storyboard as they want each shot to be spontaneous, or to allow the actors the space they should to do what they need to do. Mike Leigh, who I love, comes to mind, as does Robert Altman, who I don’t love. There are great directors who don’t storyboard, but they are generally not visual directors. Sometimes, they are older directors who used to storyboard, but now are looking for a less stylized approach to their work and maybe have enough experience that they feel they don’t have to storyboard anymore.
In my mind, there is no reason that you can’t have storyboards and give the actors all the room they need. This is a film, there should be a give and take with the actors and the shot, but the actors come to set prepared, and the director should too. In film school, we were taught that even documentaries should be storyboarded. This was simply so that you knew what you needed to get. Let’s say you were going to film a basketball game, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know they are going to dribble the ball and shoot. You can plan some shots according to your approach of that game.
Storyboards, like a script, serve two functions. One is strictly practical. They show you what you need and when you need it, so that when the DP or the producer asks you, for example, what equipment you need to get the scene you are going to shoot on a certain day, you can tell them. I need a crane on this day to get this shot. And the DP can look at that and know that he needs to get a certain amount of lights to shoot it.
Or, a scene, which only is a paragraph in the script, is going to take three days to shoot because this is the way we are going to shoot it. How would you know that if you hadn’t done your storyboards? I do a few storyboard passes on a script, but the first one is always with this in mind because the first questions that come up in a production are scheduling questions. I can’t tell you how important this can be. These early decisions, usually made when the film has no cast or financing and might not even happen, tend to get set in stone very quickly and before you know it, you’re on a set living with decisions you made months ago.
The other reason is artistic. It costs nothing to draw a storyboard. You draw them before you’re under any stress of production, or even preproduction. It gives you a chance to try things out in a way you’ll never be able to when there’s a crew standing around and dollars are evaporating. It makes you think about details that in a script, you shouldn’t even think about, because a script works in a different way than a film. Scripts need just as much description as it takes to give you an idea of what a place should look like. A film actually shows you the set.
I remember when I was storyboarding CHASING SLEEP, I had Ed Saxon put some ice on his head. When I wrote the script, I didn’t think about what happened to that ice, but drawing it, I realized that the ice was going to have to be put down somewhere and it would melt. This gave me some ideas and some shots I wouldn’t have come up with if I had just realized that on the day of shooting. It was a nice couple of shots, if I don’t say so myself, and the alternative would have probably been to just forget about the ice and hope that the audience forgot about it too, because that’s what happened in the script.
Storyboards aren’t set in stone. Once you are on the set, maybe something doesn’t work, or more commonly, you can combine a few shots, but that’s what making a movie is all about. You need to come to the set with more ideas than will ever make it into the film and then, when some of the ideas don’t make it into a shot, there are still plenty of ideas still in there when the shot changes. You can’t get everything you want, but everything you get is what you wanted.
Besides, if you’re a director, what the fuck are they paying you for?