Production days are inherently stressful. You’re directing and the cast and crew are asking dozens of questions. The production assistant forgot to put in the lunch order in time and stomachs are growling. Daylight is fading and you have only two hours to finish shooting before the location becomes unavailable.
It’s easy to forget a shot in the conflicting demands of an active set. Maintaining order in the middle of the chaos is an uphill battle and having a plan in place is essential. A shot list is a navigation beacon keeping you and and the production on course.
There are plenty of other articles and guides online about shot lists and storyboards. Rather than repeating the same information, I’d like to share my own experiences with putting these together and what worked and what didn’t and a preview of a work in progress.
Back when Sanj and I were creating YouTube videos, we would have a general idea about what we wanted to shoot and we would write out an outline before we knew what shot lists were and that was fine when the video was only a minute or two and we were the only ones involved. When the cast grew we had more complicated scenes and more people to manage and we broke down and wrote a shot list for a silly kung-fu inspired spoof: STIR FRIED JUSTICE.
If you’re curious about the rest of the entries, our original shot list is available for download: SFJ_ShotList
And here’s the short in all of its glory. I play the most evil small time landlord in history. Sure, it’s cheesy. That was the goal.
The final edit happens to align with the shot list sequence. That’s just a happy circumstance. A typical shot list includes takes that might not make it into the final edit. It’s insurance. Additional takes are an editor’s safety net. If I don’t have a solid storyboard in mind, I want to gather additional footage since I’m not sure what will mesh in the final edit and what won’t.
For a simple two-person dialog scene, it’s common practice to record a master shot that shows the faces of both actors, then shoot the dialog from over the shoulder of one actor, then the other. Of course, this needs to be balanced against time constraints. On an indie production, the location might only be available for a few short hours or an actor needs to leave early. No budget productions need agility and that’s where the story board comes in.
Every hour spent in preproduction reduces the chaos on production days. Putting a story board together is certainly a time consuming task, but it’s time well invested. While preparing to shoot KAISHAKUNIN, our director, Jerry, put together several pages of storyboards that translated a ten page script into images and camera direction. As a director of photography, I’m able to review and identify potentially challenging shots. This month, I’ll be testing out a shot that shows an actor’s face reflected in a cup of tea.
Once I find the best way to pull that off, I won’t have to waste time on location trying to get the right angle.The sample story board to the right is from Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER. It doesn’t have to be fine art, it just needs to be clear enough to describe the scene, action and camera direction and, as we can see, Scorsese did not draw in detail. It’s a communication tool and it cuts down on repeated conversations with cast, crew and editor.
Hitchcock felt that once the storyboard was done, the film was complete. It just had to be shot. He had a background in illustration and advertising and brought that experience to his meticulously detailed sketches. No doubt, he spent a great deal of time on them. Most of us are not gifted artists. I can barely draw a stick figure. I also happen to work a full time job on top of these indie film endeavors. While I would like to say I’d put together a storyboard for every project, there simply isn’t enough free time. That’s when I rely on the school of Lloyd Kaufman.
In his book, Make You Own Damn Movie, Kaufman urges to storyboard stunts, if nothing else. It’s a matter of safety and I completely agree. Leave as little to chance as possible when performing a stunt. In most cases, retakes are simply not possible. Multiple camera set ups are involved and expensive expendable items that limit the takes to a bare minimum or one – or two if you’re lucky on an indie budget. If you’re don’t storyboard anything else, storyboard the stunts.
I’ll add one more item to that list. Storyboard any scenes that involve special effects, like green screens, bullets, blood, etc. Troma films are not well-known for their digital special effect, otherwise, I expect Uncle Lloyd would have included this. Even scenes that don’t involve over-the-top special effects need to be considered.
Let’s say there’s an office scene that involves a cityscape out the window that is not available at the location where you’re filming and you’d like to composite a view that wasn’t present at the filming location. Storyboard it and discuss it with your post editor and special effects editor. Getting footage in preparation for special effects warrants its own blog post. For now, suffice it to say that any sequence involving special effects needs to be storyboarded and feedback from the post editors is necessary.
I will never go into a shoot without a shot list at a bare minimum. If there are any stunts or special effects involved, those sequences will be storyboarded. Ideally, if I have enough time, each take will be storyboarded. Jerry put a great deal of thought and consideration into the storyboards in KAISHAKUNIN and I think the final edit will be a significant improvement over what we’ve filmed in the past and gives us a goal to strive for moving forward.