Terry Gilliam on the Importance and Power of Storyboarding

The spine of any smooth production is its organization, and storyboarding is a key vertebra. Regarding this important phase of pre-visualization, we've heard in the past from great filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, Sam Mendes, and Conrad L. Hall. A not-so-recent interview with another visionary, Terry Gilliam, has recently surfaced -- and if you've seen any of Gilliam's work, you have a good idea of what fantastical imagery can be accomplished even on a budget (The Brothers Grimm was budgeted at $88 million, true, but Time Bandits was made for $5 million; 'nough said). I think it would be safe to attribute some of Gilliam's success in achieving somewhat under-funded flights of fancy to his artistic background, and therefore his ability to storyboard.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtJ5N93Sw8Q

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hj7P1sczHZo

Gilliam says something interesting immediately, and that is his use of drawing sometimes during the writing phase. Storyboards in a strict sense are traditionally done once a script has reached a certain plateau of finality -- meaning it may not be locked outright, but only relatively minor alterations will be made in subsequent drafts. Gilliam here describes his storyboarding process sometimes affecting the script as new visual ideas come out, which is an interesting inversion of convention as I see it. He highlights the benefit of using storyboards as the skeletal basis of a scene's structure, allowing out-of-sequence shooting to work just as well as shooting in-sequence -- with some creative variability for how to achieve each frame still retained by the shooting process itself. On the other hand, Gilliam says that storyboarding improves the worst-case creative-scenario, which is running dry on ideas -- because even without the in-the-moment idea on set, adhering to pre-conceived storyboards while shooting will still result in a cohesive, coherent sequence.

The director also cautions against being too reliant on previously designed documents, for fear of becoming a filmmaking-type of zombie. There are some things that are undeniably beneficial of the process, as Gilliam points out in these videos -- the camera department has a grasp of what's to be done, production design and art departments have something to work with that's far more visual than just words (in lieu of conceptual artwork), and hopefully, budgetary considerations can be wagered with far greater confidence. I think his whole perspective on the function of storyboarding is valuable because at every angle from which he examines it, he emphasizes more than anything else the value of creativity and accomplishing a vision.

Have you guys ever saved money or time on a production with some preliminary planning with storyboards -- or been able to accomplish something complex that you may not have otherwise been able to? Have you ever found yourself upset for being unable to storyboard yourself, being artistically untalented like me?


(Thumbnail photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics via Slant Magazine)

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Your Comment


Terry Gillian is a genius and a visionaire whose influence reaches far beyond film making. I think his masterpiece "Brazil" is a must see, not only for the incredible attention to detail and the use of wide angle shots with tilted camera technique being art in itself, but also as a serious social commentary, more pertaining now that when conceived almost 30 years ago. Thank you for the article!

November 7, 2012 at 3:10PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Agni Ortiz

Story boarding is torture.

November 7, 2012 at 4:43PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Story boarding is bliss

November 8, 2012 at 4:45AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


That's water boarding.

November 8, 2012 at 1:36PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Yes! Storyboarding is essential IMO if I want to shoot everything I need. I've shot (directed,produced,etc...) Two feature films and every time I would pass on the storyboard for a day I always got late and missed shots. That said is great just go to a scene and work with the actors and find new angles for the camera and spend time trying different things but unfortunately my type of shooting *no budget/micro budget* doesn't allow that much. Most of the time I don't have time to try new things out. I decide everything prior to the shooting, camera angles, etc... and on the day all I have to do is execute what's been decided. A storyboard is just a tool to help me get to the final objective - finishing the movie!

November 7, 2012 at 4:44PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Nice one! Crazy thing- just last night I was looking for how Terry Gilliam did his cutouts and came across this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs7WaL44_Iw

At around 7:30 he shows the storyboard for that sequence- and it's extremely basic. Kindof a comfort for those (like myself) that have trouble drawing stick figures.

November 7, 2012 at 10:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

David Komer

Thanks for the link, David! That was a lot of fun :).

November 13, 2012 at 11:18AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Most. Overrated. Director. Ever. And get the wide angle lens away from whoever's shooting his film !

November 8, 2012 at 3:46AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Opinion. Opinion opinion, opinion opinion opinion. However, opinion.

November 8, 2012 at 2:23PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


yeah, just like the bunch of lesser known wannabes : Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Atom Egoyan, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson or David Cronenberg to name a few, but I am sure you would have more names in mind.

November 8, 2012 at 7:01PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Agni Ortiz

But sometimes even the best storyboarding in the world can not save you.

November 8, 2012 at 6:34AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Very insightful find. I always love learning things from people who are enthusiastic about talking and teaching about their craft, and Terry fits the bill here. I've often myself attempted to storyboard out scenes that were still lacking definitive form in my mind. You obviously don't have to treat them as concrete blueprints, but they definitely help you begin the process of visualization before you step onto the set/location. I also think they're great at getting people thinking about the finer details within a shot, especially considering, depending on how fast you draw, that you actually have to sit there for a few minutes for each shot and really think about what's going to be inside of that frame. It's one thing to take a camera and point it in the direction of action, but when you have to take a blank page and fill it with content purely from your own mind, then I think you are activating new levels of creativity and pre-visualization.

But that said, it isn't for everyone or every project, obviously.

It's also funny to see him discussing Watchmen, all those years ago.

November 8, 2012 at 8:18AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's funny to hear him saying that film is a really simple medium, some would yell for less than that.
I've always been fond of his movies, but he doesn't really tries to explain the difference he finds between comic books / bande-dessinées and his movie crafting...Are movies really just an animated / real life version of bande-dessinées with sound effects & music ?

Well, i loved spielberg movies too when i was a kid, but getting older i realize this is more entertainment than medium & intellect pushing. Movies can do that, but it can also push itself further. Or it's a delusional statement ?
Anyway thanks for the video, i guess i'll always see Munchausen with kids eyes, and i'm glad i will.

November 8, 2012 at 1:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Storyboarding is like outlining...you get all good and bad ideas out of your brain and go into writing, rewrites and production on an overall more solid foundation. Hitch storyboarded and severely outlined all of his scripts with his writers and this allowed them to toss out the crap which hopefully, in many cases, didn't get shot and then left off the cutting room floor. I think you could easily save 30 percent of a film budget if you storyboarded it all down before. Pick and choose later on. No way I'll tell my producers and money people that a lot of their money is on the floor in post...since I wasn't sure what I wanted before.

November 8, 2012 at 8:40PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think somewhere in the early to mid-2000's Gilliam changed his approach a bit and stopped storyboarding and went with a more improvisational style. I remember hearing a commentary somewhere (it might have been from Lost in LaMancha) where he talks about how he used to be very specific with his storyboards, but that now he is finding new freedom in letting things happen on set and finding the best way to shoot them then.

November 9, 2012 at 8:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Sometimes you don't get to make the movie but your storyboarding is so amazing that it impact other people's movies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg4OCeSTL08

August 20, 2014 at 7:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Should change your text "Storyboards in a strict sense are traditionally done once a script has reached a certain plateau of finality..." starting the sentence off with "In live action films,"

Disney studios crated the application of storyboards back in the 1930's, and in animation they are often done from outlines or notes in conjunction or often times before a script. It isn't surprising that Gilliam worked this way since he is a trained animator.

Being an animator and working with live action directors, I often see the advantage of our process, especially in terms of saving costs and time, as well as telling a better story.

August 20, 2014 at 9:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Bob Harper

Whatever works. No need to put down storyboarding (like Werner Herzog with his "storyboards are for cowards" BS). No one is forcing you to stick to them when you're on the set, but when you're out there at 4 in the morning having a brain fart and the whole cast and crew is waiting on you, they're awfully nice to have. And I think it's fun. It's another way of writing.

May 17, 2017 at 5:57AM, Edited May 17, 5:57AM

Karl Shefelman