How To Bring a Cinematic look to a Small Budget Commercial, part 4

cinematic look

Part 4: Story-boarding On A Small Budget

Welcome to part 04 of this ten part series on how to bring a cinematic look to a small budget commercial. In this series I am sharing with you the behind the scenes process of how we at Bleeding Thorn Films make a project happen – warts and all from script to screen. In Part 03, I covered how to location scout. In Part 4 I am covering story-boarding.


Before I begin story-boarding, I will either create a formal shot list, or I will have a rough idea in my head of the shots I need to tell the story. Then when I visit the location, with the script in hand, I will begin the story-boarding process using yet another iPhone app, Artemis. I have found this app to be invaluable in the story-boarding process, as it allows me to actually see what angles I can get at a location. By placing the phone in the environment I’m shooting in, I can tell if it will be physically possible to fit the camera in that space and get the lens and camera movement I need. With each saved reference frame in Artemis, I can note as much metadata as I want. When I first began using this app, I would enter in everything. But over time, I have found that this slows down my creative process. Now I don’t bother with it, and instead focus on trying different framing choices and camera movements. If I feel a dolly or jib move is needed, I’ll take multiple pictures throughout the move of the camera. If you are having trouble knowing where to begin, start with the basics- the wide shot, medium, and close up. Then think about and detail shots you might need to cover the action.

storyboard frame

Above: Storyboard Frame

As I am story-boarding the script, I am not running around taking thousands of pictures. Instead, I am constantly thinking about the script and how the placement, movement, and framing all affect how the story is told. What I decide to leave out is as important as what I decide to leave in every frame.

When I feel that I have captured enough storyboard images at the location to properly tell the story, I’ll gather my things and head back to the office to create a formal storyboard. By the time I’m in front of my computer at the office, I have usually come up with some other ideas, or changes I want to make. And having the freedom of not having a client looking over my shoulder allows me the opportunity to play around with the order of shots, as well as with the framing. (By adjusting it in Photoshop if needed). When I’m happy with the storyboard, I’ll make it into a formal document that I can share with the client, as well as with my crew. The amount of detail I put in each storyboard varies depending on the client, the needs of the shot, as well as how much information I need to jog my memory about what is important about that shot.

storyboard frame

Above: Storyboard Frame

As I review the shots in the storyboard, I am also paying attention to the set design. Just because I am shooting in a practical location, it doesn’t mean that I have to use everything at the location. My goal is to only use things that enhance the story, add anything that might be missing, and take away anything that is distracting. For example, in the image above, there is a bookshelf that has its back to the desk and is covered in a white sheet. The white sheet draws attention to itself, so that has to go. But even then, the back of a bookshelf doesn’t look appealing, so I’ll have the bookshelf turned around prior to the shoot. That should add some additional texture to the frame. The white chair on the lower righthand side of the frame also needs to go, as it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of the rest of the scene. Finally, the desk and top of the bookshelf will need to be cleaned up. I don’t want a perfectly organized desk and bookshelf, but right now there are too many objects that take away from the look I am after.

partial storyboard

Above: Partial Storyboard

Now that I know what I need to shoot in order to tell the story, and I know what the location has to offer, it is time to move into the next phase of preproduction, creating the lighting diagram which I’ll cover in part 5. Keep an eye on our blog, twitter or Vimeo Channel to follow us on our latest storytelling adventures.

This is part 4 of a 10 part series, click the links below to view the entire series.

Part 1: Landing The Client and Creative Ideation

Part 2: Budgeting and Creating The Proposal

Part 3: How to Location Scout

Part 5: How To Create a Lighting Diagram

Part 6: How To Create a Shooting Schedule and Call Sheet

Part 7: How To Conduct A Camera Test

Part 8: How To Build a Rain Bar

Part 9: How To Approach Data Management On A Budget

Part 10: How To Black Out A House On A Budget

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About the Author

Born in 1980 in Seattle, Washington, Ryan has had a love and passion for the visual arts since a young child when his grandmother, an avid photographer, took him along on photo expeditions. As he grew up, his parents furthered that passion by enrolling him in various art programs and lessons. While he enjoyed painting and drawing, something was always missing - the ability to capture motion. Once introduced to the art of cinematography in high school he never looked back.Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer Since that time, Ryan has developed this passion and turned it into his career. As an award-winning cinematographer his work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. Ryan's distinct experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel. Not only does Ryan seek to deliver cinematic images for his clients, but his commitment, organization, and professionalism means he constantly goes the extra mile to ensure that the results he delivers exceed his clients expectations.


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