STORYBOARDS HAVE been used in motion pictures for decades, but for the movies they are mostly about planning the camera movements required for each shot. Storyboards can also be powerful development and communication tools for theatrical scenic and lighting designers, especially for shows with multiple locations and many changes of scenery.

A typical musical or Shakespeare play might have a dozen or more scene shifts and lots of moving actors and props. Keeping track of all those moving parts can be a big challenge for a designer. Storyboards can help you visualize the flow of movement required for your show, as a tool for designing your set. Once your set is designed, storyboards can help check that those moving parts work. “Blocking” the show on your set can help you make sure your design will meet the needs of the play. If you share these schematics with the director, it can convince her your scenic solution will function.

Your drawings will communicate to a director how you envision the set being used and why you included certain elements. For example, if you created a particular platform in your design to be used for a key moment in the play, and you don’t express that idea to your director, you’re gambling that she will guess what you had in mind. Don’t be heartbroken if the director makes other choices.

Once you and your director come to an agreement on the movement of scenery, then your storyboards become gold for the stage manager. Always provide (director-approved) copies of your storyboards to your SMs. Not only will it help them remember where scenery is in rehearsal, but it will also be an invaluable aid to create their tracking sheets and to assign jobs for the run crew. Tech will always run smoother if the stage manager has your storyboards in advance.

In this image, figures and notes are all on the overlaid tracing paper while the theatre and set are underneath. Sketch by Sean O’Skea.

Lighting designers can use storyboards to visualize light angles, shape, and intensity of the major cues throughout the show. Some designers use charcoal pencils or ink to create a series of value studies for each major scene, while others might use watercolor, pastels, or design markers to create full-color storyboards. Either way, a good set of cue-to-cue storyboards can be a lifesaver for a tired designer sitting in a dark theatre at midnight trying to remember all the grand ideas they had for cues. But just like scenic design storyboards, lighting studies can help a designer visualize where they want to put lights to achieve looks as they build their plot. Of course, lighting and set designers will want to share their sketches with each other.

There is one drawback to storyboards — they take time. Drawing the set over and over can be tedious, even for a quick and confident sketcher. There are a few tricks that can help.

Tracing paper is your friend. Instead of drawing the theatre and the fixed set pieces repeatedly, you can draw them once on a sheet of regular paper. Then place a sheet of tracing paper on top and draw only what changes in the cue. For example, a production of Romeo and Juliet might have several moving units but a fixed set of stairs and arches onstage for every scene. These pieces, along with any theatre architecture — the proscenium arch and thrust, per-haps — can be drawn in ink on a sheet of regular paper. Tape this down to a drawing table and place tracing paper over it. The 12-inch rolls of tracing paper are perfect for this as they are cheap, and you can make a scroll of your storyboard panels so that you don’t have to worry about getting them out of order.

Write the name of the scene somewhere on the cell. It might be “Act 1, scene 1,” or “the prince’s entrance” or even a particular line, lyric, or phrase of music — “There are giants in the sky!” For our Romeo and Juliet example, you might sketch Samson and Gregory lounging on the steps, then indicate where the Montague servants will enter and how they will confront the Capulet men. That’s all you need to draw on the tracing paper for this moment — some simple figures, arrows, and labels explaining movement.

Perhaps for Act 2, a crumbling wall with an arch and iron gate tracks in from stage left, obscuring part of the set for a time. This unit has been sketched on a separate scrap of paper and taped into position. Sketch by Sean O’Skea.

Then slide over to a fresh piece of tracing paper. This cell might show where the brawl will take place. Next you need to get the prince onstage. Here’s where you might learn something about what your set needs. Maybe you had a left and right archway leading onto the stage. That’s fine; the Capulets can come from one side and the Montagues from another. But where will the prince enter? He can’t use one of those arches, as it would suggest he has a connection with one household more than the other. Plus, he is the authority and needs to break up the fight. He needs somewhere powerful to stand to deliver his fateful edict. You might conclude that you’ll need an up-center entrance at the top of the stairs so he can enter from center stage and stand above the fray. So, add it.

After we meet Romeo, we need to move to the Capulets’ house. How is that transition achieved? Does something fly in or out? A revolve move? A curtain open? Whatever action makes that transition, draw it out with more arrows and labels explaining what’s happening. Are the three Capulet women revealed by the scene shift or do they enter afterward? Continue like this until you have a simple graphic novel of your entire show. Probably you’ll discover and solve a few problems along the way.

When you’re ready to share your storyboard, you can simply invite your colleagues to join you at your table to watch you explain the show, swapping out sheets of tracing paper. But a little technology can help greatly. If you place your tracing paper cell on a flatbed scanner and your background on top, the tracing paper itself will be barely perceptible in the resulting scanned image. You can then swap the tracing paper and scan the next moment, repeating until you have all your sketches scanned. Remember to number them as you name the files. Then drop the images into a word processor or presentation software. You can type captions for each moment if you want to add more information. Once you’re done, export as a PDF or save the file and share. That way you can email your storyboard to all who want it, and they can easily scroll through your document. Lighting designers can even use the slide timing and transitions tools in PowerPoint to suggest the tempo of a cue shift. That way the director can get a sense of your cues before you’ve hung your lights.

Photoshop’s layer system is perfect for digital storyboards. This image is from a series created for Metamorphoses at Southern Oregon University. Illustration by Sean O’Skea.

Of course, if you have access to Photoshop or other image software you can import your scanned images and enhance them. If you see a moment picked out in a stark circle of light, you can simply fill another layer with black, then use the eraser tool to burn light into the darkness, exposing your sketch underneath. You can skip the tracing paper altogether and use Photoshop layers as virtual tracing paper on top of your set sketch.

Even if you don’t have access to a scanner, you can do the same trick with a photocopier. Of course, you’ll lose the color, and you may have to adjust the contrast until you get the transparency of the tracing paper right, but with a little effort you can achieve similar effects. The copier can help in the other direction too. You can make a stack of photocopies of your blank space and draw your storyboard on top of the copies. Nothing stops you from cutting out bits of paper and gluing them down onto the copy to hide areas of the default set that might be obscured by moving scenery.

There are plenty of tools and tricks that can help you quickly create storyboards, both to create your design and later to explain it to others. It does take some time, but it will save you hours of frustration, confusion, and perhaps disappointment later.

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