Anatomy Of A Storyboard Part 1: Terms & Techniques

Don’t look so confused.

Sure, an article about storyboarding may not be the first thing you’d expect on a site about making comics. Art, writing, marketing — these clearly apply to comics as they do many other creative pursuits. But storyboarding? That’s a movie-making technique.

While it’s true that storyboarding is an efficient process for visualizing a movie or television show prior to filming, storyboards actually share many similarities with comic books. They both tell stories through a sequence of drawings, using the same composition and framing techniques to help the audience follow along. Another shared attribute, one few people realize, is that each medium is transitory. Storyboards are meant to be tools that facilitate a film. They aren’t intended for public consumption, and exist only to serve the final form of the project. Comics are storytelling tools as well. No individual panel or drawing is meant to interfere with the story. The action exists in the imagination of the reader.

There are also differences. Storyboards are constrained by the proportions of the television/movie screen and maintain the same dimensions for every frame. Comic panels can be a variety of shapes and sizes! Storyboards need to translate the movements of actors and the camera to a static form, while comics can only suggest motion through panel layout and composition.

My approach to this two-part article will be to focus on the broad similarities between comics and storyboards, particularly the techniques that originated with film and were later adopted by comic book storytelling. This article will cover aspect ratio, shot classification, and camera techniques. Part two will cover the concept of continuity, specifically what it is and how it can be achieved to help an audience follow a story without feeling lost (visually).

Aspect Ratio (Storyboard Frame Size)

The dimensions of storyboard frames are fixed. The reason for this lies with what the frame represents: the movie or television screen. The standard ratio of a frame is 1.85:1 (more commonly known as 16:9). Or to put it in different terms, for each inch of vertical height, a frame gains 1.85 inches of horizontal length.

If you intend to draw a storyboard, either as practice or for whatever reason, use this ratio to set up your frame template. Why a template? You will be creating a number of storyboard frames and you will want to keep them consistent. Pick a height measurement and then multiply it by 1.85 for the width measurement. Photoshop, as with most graphics programs, has rulers within the program that you can use to place your frame border. If you are working analog, try marking off the frame with a physical ruler and cutting a template out of a piece of cardstock.


The Rule Of Thirds

Composition is a vital, complex topic. I will be giving it only the most cursory of mentions here (we will delve deeper into it in the future). The goal of proper composition is to structure an image so that the viewer gets all of the necessary information out of it. That’s right — artists manipulate the arrangement of visual elements to make the viewer look at whatever they want!

Principles like the balance of elements within a frame and use of focal points guide the viewer’s attention. Symmetry tends to distract. A handy shortcut to avoiding symmetry is by following the guidelines shown in the second example, above. Avoid the inclination to place a figure or point-of-interest in the center of the frame. Do this by dividing the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and place anything significant or focus-worthy near one of the intersecting points in the grid. This is what’s known as the rule of thirds: dynamic compositions result from asymmetry.

Shot Classification

A shot is what’s referred to as the precise recording made by a camera in a single take. All of the frames in a storyboard correspond to a single shot (sometimes a complex action requires multiple storyboard frames per shot). As such, they are essentially blueprints for where to place the camera and what to point it at.

Now, that may sound incredibly movie-specific, but it’s not. Comic panels are framed in the same way. Envision the panel as a camera lens, looking out upon a scene before you. The scene exists regardless of the position you choose to view it from. Some viewpoints are more effective than others at communicating the story taking place.

As a shorthand, many scripts use terminology to refer to specific shot framing. Primarily, these are an indication of camera distance from the subject of the shot. Familiarize yourself with the following classifications; these terms will continue to pop up in the future.


Wide Shot

This type of shot establishes the location and context for the scene. Such kinds of shots are called “establishing shots.” The subject of the shot is visible from a distance, with the primary focus being on the environment and lighting conditions.

Why lighting conditions? Good hypothetical question. The reason is that the way a scene is lit is one of the first impressions you get of its tone. High-contrast lighting, which is to say a stark contrast between light and dark, instantly establishes a dramatic tone. The scene I have presented in these examples is the opposite — low contrast. As a result, the first impression the viewer gets is of a relaxed, possibly cheerful tone.

Full Shot

The camera appears to be much closer to the subject(s) of the shot, resulting in a narrowing of focus. This is aided by the fact that much of the surrounding environment is cut out of the frame. Full shots, by virtue of the name, allow the entire subject to be seen, head-to-toe.


Medium Shot

The distance from the subjects is further reduced. Everything is cropped out of frame except for the upper torso of the character(s) involved (waist and up). The viewer is drawn further into the situation, not merely an observer, but a participant in the conversation.

This specific example is also referred to as a “two shot”, indicating the number of people in frame. It is also a conversation sequence, meaning it can follow a principle of continuity called “shot/reverse shot.” I will be addressing continuity issues in the second part of this article.


You’ve heard of these before, right? We all have. Close-ups frame a single subject from a short distance. Because only the head, neck, and shoulders are seen, we are invited to focus on the facial expression of the subject. How are they reacting to the situation at hand? The close-up offers answers.


Extreme Close-Up

Pass the Doritos and Mountain Dew! It’s time to get extreme.

This type of shot is the closest you will get to the subject. Usually focused on the eye area of the face, extreme close-ups put you, the viewer, into the place of the character. You are meant to understand the thoughts the character is thinking. Weird? Absolutely.

I say “usually focused” because it’s possible to have an extreme close-up feature something other than eyeballs. Maybe you want to focus on the car keys that were left behind when the character exited the house. The car keys! Look! He’s going to need those! Point the camera at them.

Camera Notations

This leads us to the subject of camera notations. Put simply, these are the notations that indicate how the camera is moving between frames.

I’m going to be straight with you: these don’t translate directly to comic panels. Some refer less to camera movement than they do frame order. Those principles do tie back to comics though, since you can arrange panels on the page however you like.

So why talk about these notations? Cross-pollination of technique has allowed comic artists to benefit from filmmaking. You may not be able to replicate the zoom of a camera or the way in which a shot pans, but as a comic artist you can control eye-movement on the page. The shape and arrangement of panels helps to direct the viewer’s focus in a related way.


Dolly and Zoom

These are terms that refer to increasing or decreasing the apparent distance to the camera from the subject of the shot. This can be achieved by physically moving the camera, in which case the technique is called “dolly(-in or -out).” If the physical distance to the camera remains unchanged and the effect is achieved through focusing the lens it is called “zoom.”

There are various parallels in comics. In a sequence of otherwise identical panels with the same subject, this can be virtually simulated by decreasing the distance to the subject with every panel. A less literal parallel could involve the composite effect of perspective and implied motion within an image to direct the eye.

In this frame, I chose a high vantage point from which to view the street café. The arrow indicates that I intend for the camera to physically move closer to the scene. I already know how the following shot will be framed, so I use a combination of the dolly-in and the movement of the approaching figure as a bridge between Frames 1 and 2.



After the cut to Frame 2, I continue to follow the right-to-left movement of the approaching figure with a right-to-left pan. The camera — distance unchanged — moves in the direction indicated until the frame marked “B.”

This type of movement is all about transitioning to focus on the desired subject. In a comic page, an unusual panel or large composition might be impossible to comprehend as a whole. The viewer does the work of the camera pan with their eyes.

Side note for artists: make sure that the composition of elements within the frame is strong at every point during the pan.


Cut-In and Cut-Away

Jumping ahead in the frame sequence, let’s talk about the cut-in/away. Visually, the notation is simple. Draw a smaller, inset frame (within the frame) to indicate the position of the extreme close-up to follow. Connect the corners of the inset frame to the corners of the full frame.

This is less about camera movement and more about indicating shot order. Despite the appearance of the notation, the camera doesn’t zoom or dolly.

So why do this? Think of this technique as the visual equivalent of an “aside” in writing. If you want to draw specific attention to something for the sake of clarity without derailing the flow of the scene, use a cut-in/away. The difference between the two hinges on whether the extreme close-up is of an element within the frame, or outside of it. Same frame? Cut-in. Somewhere else? Cut-away.

Stay Tuned!

Read on to part 2 of the article.



14 Responses to “Anatomy Of A Storyboard Part 1: Terms & Techniques”

  1. Arnie

    Devin THANK YOU! I have wanted to know more about storyboarding but assumed it was some complex intellectual challenge that was well above the standards of a comic artist. This tells me that “cross-pollination” is a factor of the master story tellers that have gone before us. No may have to come back an asks some questions, because that was a lot to absorb. However it was very well laid out and i’ll be reading of these a few times.
    Thanks again.

    • Devin

      Arnie, thanks so much for the support! If you have any questions let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them for you.

      That goes for anyone with questions about anything, by the way. My contact info is under the “Makers” section at the top. Reach out!

      • CJ

        could you give me some advice? How do you apply the aspect ratio with varying panel sizes, such as a vertically oriented panels? And how can you balance panels in a page if they are created as independent shots? Thanks for your time!

  2. madhan

    How to do story board for a single long shot films !!! I have been planning for Single shot 8 minutes short film which is sequenced with both exterior and interior and I hope the story board might help to visualize the scene. Please help me with it.


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