The Storyboard Process

by Virginia Parker Staat

“Storyboarding can be likened to taking your thoughts
and the thoughts of others and making them visible by
spreading them on a wall as you work on your problems.”
~ Michael Michalko

Whether you are a photo essayist, a videographer, or a writer with illustrations, using the storyboard technique can enhance your story process. Storyboards are graphic organizers, offering a visual element when planning how you will tell your story. Storyboarding is a creative thinking technique that enables you to visualize your sequence of events. Done well, the storyboard becomes the blueprint for your project.

While long associated with script writing, storyboards have become key in many fields, including communications, logistics, and web and software design. Animator Webb Smith is credited with inventing storyboarding in the 1930s while working at Disney Studios. Smith drew a series of events on pieces of paper for the short film Three Little Pigs and pinned them to a bulletin board. The rest, as they say, is history.

The process of storyboarding begins with identifying the key elements of your story, including the narrative (text and/or audio), the image (photo or illustration), and the transitions. Roughly sketch or print your images and arrange them with the appropriate narrative. During this process, the storyboard will likely resemble a comic strip. Next, determine if the content of each element meets your targeted audience’s needs. As you brainstorm through the elements, continue to rearrange your notes and images until a logical flow appears.

Storyboard templates can be found for free online. Notebooks are also available to purchase (see Circa and Moleskine products). My storyboarding is far more archaic. I simply use sticky notes and the side of my refrigerator, a door, a wall, or a bookcase. I sketch crude illustration ideas or print thumbnails of photos, then tape them up along with narrative ideas to accompany each page or slide. As the story develops, I rearrange the photos and sticky notes until I’m satisfied with the sequence.

preliminary storyboard
Virginia’s early storyboard for her photo essay Ballet of Birds

In this example, I have included a small portion of a preliminary storyboard attempt from my photo essay Ballet of Birds. The photos were taken at Mary’s Point in the Bay of Fundy during the sandpiper migration. I printed thumbnails of digital photos that I wanted to use in the essay and sequenced them according to a ballet folk dance. My field journal provided narrative ideas, which I transferred to sticky notes for placement next to the appropriate image.

storyboard for a flipbook
Final storyboard for Virginia’s Chasing a Raven flipbook

The storyboarding process can also be accomplished in Photoshop®, PowerPoint®, or similar software. The second example is a completed Photoshop® storyboard for a tiny flipbook that I made called Chasing Raven. While on the Dempster Highway in northern Canada, we watched a brown bear feeding on a caribou carcass. The entire time, two flocks of ravens tormented the bear, alternating between one flock providing distraction while the other fed. After taking nearly a hundred digital images with a long-distance lens, I pulled only those photos that had the bear positioned in the right side of the grid. Through trial and error, I reorganized the photos into a sequential pattern suitable for the flipbook.

If you’ve never used the storyboard process, I encourage you to give it a try. Storyboarding is a helpful creative thinking technique, providing a clear anchor for sequencing events. It can quickly narrow a bulky or difficult topic. Because visualization is a powerful tool, storyboarding can bring a logical flow to your work and improve the relationship between your images, narrative, and your audience’s ease of reading.