Watch: An Inside Look at Storyboarding with the Coen Brothers' Storyboard Artist

Coen Brothers storyboard
Storyboarding serves many purposes in filmmaking other than being an illustrated representation of a film.

They can help you "see" the film before you even turn on the camera, find storytelling issues, sell your idea, and get everybody working on the project on the same page. If you're interested in knowing more about the world of storyboarding, who better to learn from than J. Todd Anderson, who has been the Coen Brothers' go-to storyboard artist from Raising Arizona to Inside Llewyn Davis

For many indie and micro-budget filmmakers, the responsibility of storyboarding falls on the director, DP, or even a friend who can draw. What little money meets our hands is probably not going to be spent hiring a storyboard artist, but that doesn't mean the craft isn't an important part of production. It helps filmmakers visualize their film before they shoot, as well as work efficiently when they do shoot. Anderson says:

It's my job to get what's inside a director's head on the paper. It's not my job to create the shot. It's my job to interpret their language into a visual language. It's very important that I get as close to the image that's in their brain on the paper, so that everybody when they walk on the set is making the same movie -- they're not all imagining what's going on.

Storyboard_No Country

Check out the video below of Anderson explaining storyboarding.

Video is no longer available:

The video explains that the storyboarding process for a feature takes about six weeks to complete. Since it's essentially a visual representation of motion without the help of animation, storyboarding has its own language. Different kinds of arrows denote action and motion: solid black arrows typically are for character action, and outlined white arrows for camera movements.

Alfred Hitchcock's films were known to be extensively storyboarded. He once commented that his films were often anticlimactic for him after they were edited, because he'd already experienced them in the storyboard. However, storyboarding helped Hitchcock plan out his films shot by shot, solidifying his vision. Anderson's work does the same for the Coen Brothers.

What do you think? How thoroughly do you like to storyboard your films? How much do you think it helps your project? Let us know in the comments.

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This guy has a small but hilarious/memorable role in George Clooney's [excellent] directorial debut "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".

August 26, 2013 at 6:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Mike D

Storyboards are essentail in certain situations. Lately I've been working on several music videos and they've helped me try the story before shooting, and in this case it allows me to actually see if I can fit the whole narrative inside the duration of the song (and all the ups and downs it was designed to accompany).
I'm lucky enough to draw since I was a child so I don't have to hire an artist and communicate my vision, I just go and do it myself, but although sometimes it's nice to have nice little drawings that stand in their own, you can just make do with drawing stick figures as long as you're able to make clear your angles and compositions (which isn't easy, but it's easier than making it look like full blown comic book page).
It is time consuming, though, but if you can get to do it it's a tremendously useful tool.
Here's a comparison showing how the storyboard I made for a narrative music video translated into the final piece:

August 26, 2013 at 7:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great work, Ernesto. I love those behind the scenes vids and comparisons.

August 28, 2013 at 4:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thank you! I will be making more of them along my works as long as they're relevant to showing the making process.

August 28, 2013 at 3:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I find storyboards to be absolutely essential. I scout the location and draw it all up. Once I'm on set we have a clear vision and I don't waste people's time. I take time to experiment with camera angles etc after we've nailed the sequence on the storyboard. Just did a video recently on the subject:

August 26, 2013 at 7:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I can't draw. So as a director, instead of drawing for indie shoots, I do live previz using action figures or origami or stick figures or I would do production scripts that explain in words how the shot should be framed. It works and I also help several meetings. Just like with actors, we practice and train a few months prior shoot dates.

August 26, 2013 at 7:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Johnny Wu

That's great. Basically storyboarding is a previsualization of the final product. It helps you test and find problems, as well as more clearly communicate with your crew. You can draw, use toys, sticks, origamis, etc. as long as you can get your point accross and help translate your vision.
You could also use with a cellphone or the very camera you're gonna shoot the piece with and try the shots and edit it before you get on the actual shoot.

August 26, 2013 at 8:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Aren't there computer-aided storyboards nowadays? I think Amazon was trying to even offer that feature as a freebe enticement for those who submitted their scripts there.

August 26, 2013 at 9:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


3D Previsualization is absolutely taking over the conventional storyboard process. Storyboarding is helpful to communicate an idea but it cannot show you a full camera move with physically accurate lenses on a LIDAR scan of the location environment. Your motion is very limited in a storyboard where 3d allows you to make many more decisions before the shoot even begins. Even Zach Braff's kickstarted film is being prevized.

EVERY major Hollywood movie goes through the previs process. They also do 'post-vis' where the previs guys do basic animations over the greenscreen plates so the editors have something to work with before the VFX crew gets involved. Imagine being an editor that has 60 hours of an actor fighting imaginary robots in front of a green screen and trying to decide which shot to keep without some basic idea of what is happening.

Ridley Scott is known for his beautiful 'Ridleygrams' that keep everyone on the same page but even he had to have Prometheus previsualized to get everyone on the same page. Of course previsualizing a movie through 3d is not the only option. Amilee was made first with a dv camera so Jean-Pierre Jeunet could pick the shots without wasting expensive film.

August 27, 2013 at 12:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Very usefull information, thanks

August 28, 2013 at 11:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


great, thank you!

August 27, 2013 at 1:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I like storyboarding and think it really helps. That's the phase when the movie starts to take form for me. On a recent project I tried something different:First I recorded myself reading the script, doing all the voices. Then since I had access to the location (my house) I shot the film (in a very rough way, with no lighting set ups) with stuffed animals, my kids and paper cutouts standing in for the actors. Then I edited it together and uploaded it to Vimeo to show the crew and most of the cast. People found it really helpful and it took a lot of stress off for me because I had already worked out a lot of the problems and tough decisions that arise on a shoot.

August 27, 2013 at 6:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I like how his work doesn't look "beautiful" but is very practical. I feel like I could almost do what he is doing, so that is something to look forward to when I have a budget where storyboarding would make sense. Right now we barely know what the location will look like so it's all off the cuff.

August 27, 2013 at 9:08AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Blows me away that storyboarding is not considered essential for everything except documentary.

August 27, 2013 at 10:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I for one would do them for every project, but sometimes it's prohibitive due to the lack of time and/or money. It takes a lot of work and energy to do them and although it will surely help a lot if you have it I think it's not mandatory in all situations.

August 27, 2013 at 11:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


@ Dixter. Thankfully, it isn't mandatory: many toweringly great directors have never storyboarded their films. Is pre-vis useful? Sometimes. Is it indispensable? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

August 27, 2013 at 12:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I work entirely off of storyboards for my films as that's what I've always thought directors were suppose to do. I don't like computer generated boards as I much prefer hand drawn boards. Once these are done, I edit a sequence using the boards and add dialogue and music to give the sense of the film's feel. Nearly every decision is made far in advance of the cameras rolling. Sometimes something magical happens on set and you have to work around an actor's performance but for the most part, I stick to the boards throughout the shooting process. I've always preferred films that you can tell were heavily boarded over say a verite style of filmmaking. The way David Lean worked was he knew how he got into the scene and he knew how he got out, the middle was improvised on the day. There is no one way to make a movie, any approach is equally valid but right now my art is centered around pre visualization as opposed to improvisation.

August 27, 2013 at 11:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I will use photographs that represent the shot the best then make notes below or photos from a location scout along with the shot designer app. corresponding to each storyboard, so I have the camera floor plans corresponding to the shot list app. Super useful.

August 28, 2013 at 12:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


For 10 years working in film as D.P. , I bring some people on location and create the frame shots with still camera base from the director vision from the scrip. The director like the idea then we moved on to the next scene. When I am done for the day I download all the pictures and create the story board along with the script and pointing arrow direction of camera. When everything is good then we moved to the production process.
That's my share.

August 29, 2013 at 10:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Jessie Domingo

Very interesting the shots from "Confessions and the Coen Brothers"....

August 29, 2013 at 1:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Are there any storyboard softwares out there??

September 1, 2013 at 1:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great artcle. Simple question coming up . What sort of pens and paper do you use ? Why not ink and a small brush. Thank you

September 1, 2013 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Derek Wallace

I've tried a bunch of different combinations: a normal #2 pencil, an array of sketching pencils for outlining/shading/detail, colored pencils. The thing I always go back to is just a simple, run of the mill black pen, though. But, obviously you'll find what works for you -- if you try ink and a small brush, let us all know how you liked it!

September 2, 2013 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

V Renée
Content Manager at Coverfly

It is not generally known how story boards came into being.

In the late thirties, when Walt Disney was preparing to break into the feature market with 'Snow White', the story developers, who always included Walt himself, found that, by comparison with the traditional seven minute shorts, the plot development was tending to get cumbersome. The story board was introduced to 'the Hotbox' (an overheated meeting room) as an aid to keeping control of the process.

Disney, of course, have used it ever since but it made it's way into live action.


September 5, 2013 at 3:00AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


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September 10, 2013 at 1:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Its no surprise that these brothers can create unbelievable storyboards. They are simple talented brothers. Thumbs up!

October 1, 2013 at 12:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


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June 25, 2014 at 10:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM