Storyboarding in Animation: What is It and How to Create One

Storyboarding in Animation: What is It and How to Create One

8 min read

For most creatives, the best ideas start on paper, but for animators—it’s essential.

Almost all animation productions begin with a storyboard. This visual plan on paper includes rough sketches of key moments and scenes and acts as a guide when animators begin bringing the story to life. Whether the final frames are created digitally with animation software, painted by hand, or even modeled out of clay, this vital first step helps animators and production teams define their creative vision and illustrate complex concepts.

In animation studios, storyboards are typically created by professional storyboard artists. However, anyone can make one. Whether you’re a pro animator or just getting started, learning how to create a storyboard is an essential part of the creative process. It will help you stay organized during the complicated and time-consuming animation process.

No need to get overwhelmed by character key poses, transitions, and onion skinning just yet, though. If you have an animation project in mind, let’s take it one step at a time.

Once you’ve defined your script, visual references, and character designs, it’s time to bring everything together in an organized visual representation of your ideas. Read on to find out everything you need to know about creating a storyboard and why it’s so important.

What is a Storyboard in Animation?

A storyboard is essentially a series of drawings and annotations based on a script or story idea. Once it’s complete, the storyboard is used as a visual guide during the production of the final animated videos.

Each storytelling drawing acts as a keyframe—an image that defines the start or end points of a transition. This visual sequence of shots gives the animation team a jumping off point for how they should bring the ideas to life with movement.

Other than drawings, a storyboard should also include notes on what the viewer will hear, as well as the technical information for each scene. This could include specific camera movements, transitions, or special effects. The more information a storyboard has, the easier it will be for the animator or animation team to start production.

A Brief History of Storyboarding

The concept of the storyboard was first developed at the legendary Walt Disney studios during the early 1930s.

One of the studio’s writers at the time, Webb Smith, was known for drawing sequential scenes on sheets of paper and pinning them up on a bulletin board to tell a full story. The first complete storyboards were created for the 1933 Disney short film, Three Little Pigs. And by 1938, all animation studios in the United States began using storyboards before they started production.

However, it isn’t just animators that benefit from creating storyboards. The pre-production step also became a vital part of creating live-action films. Gone with the Wind (1939) was one of the first live-action films to be storyboarded, and many production companies continue to embrace the process. The storyboarding stage helps directors see which shots are the most complicated and expensive, which is vital for the planning stages of any live-action film.

Why is a Storyboard So Important?

We get it—animation is an already time-consuming process, but it’s worth adding a storyboard to your task list. Here’s why.

It helps you stay organized

When you first come up with a brilliant idea for an animation, it’s tempting to jump right in and start making it a reality. However, if you don’t have the full picture, it can be easy to get lost and unfocused. A proper plan makes everything easier, and that’s where storyboards come in.

It saves you time

Even though creating a storyboard is an extra step that will take a bit of work, it will actually save you time in the long run. If you’re making an animation for a client, sending them an initial storyboard gives them the chance to request any changes before production begins. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to adjust a scene in a storyboard than one that’s already fully animated.

It'll show you if you've missed some necessary details

Another reason why storyboards are so important is that they allow you to identify weak points and holes within a story. When looking at a storyboard, it’s usually pretty clear when a scene isn’t quite right or something is missing. During this stage, you can work on filling in the gaps until your ideas are fully fleshed out. Once you have a solid plan, you can feel confident that production can begin.

Types of Storyboards

Now that you have an idea of what a storyboard is, it’s also useful to know about the three types you can use when planning your animations. Whether you’re working alone on a solo project or with a team on a huge production, some types of storyboards are better suited than others.

1. The traditional storyboard

Traditional storyboards typically include a series of pencil sketches paired with written explanations of what's happening in each scene.

The example above shows a traditional storyboard made for an episode of Tom and Jerry, titled Jerry's Cousin. Note how the sketches are pretty loose, but they still capture the movement and emotions of the characters. The notes below include character dialogue as well as key details in the scene.

2. The thumbnail storyboard

Thumbnail storyboards are typically used by solo animators or small teams who already have a good understanding of how they want to produce their project.

No text is needed here, and the drawings are usually created very quickly. The purpose of a thumbnail storyboard is to simply visualize an action sequence.

Directors with distinct styles may also use thumbnail storyboards when planning large productions. The example above shows the sketched storyboard for the the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's classic live-action film, Psycho. No written direction was needed since the storyboard shows exactly how every shot should look on the screen.

3. The digital storyboard

As you probably already guessed, a digital storyboard is made using specialized software.

If you'd rather skip the paper and pencil phase and go straight to using digital tools, there are plenty of free programs you could use. Check out Boords, Milanote, and Storyboarder.

This style of storyboard is particularly helpful for anyone creating videos with pre-made graphics. You can already use the same graphics that will be shown in the final video, so clients will have a clear idea of how the final animation will look.

Tips for Making Your Own Storyboard

Once you've decided on the type of storyboard you want to create, grab a piece of paper or open up your computer. The storyboarding process is simpler than you might think. Here's our tips.

Break down your script

Whether you plan to make an animated short or a feature-length film, it’s important to dissect your script into smaller scenes and shots.

Make sure to number each section so that you can label your storyboard panels. You can later refer to this shot list during production.

Define your visual style

This step is particularly important when you’re working with a client. The visual style of an animation can’t be communicated through a script alone, so it must come through the storyboard.

This is the time to think about your color palette, character designs, and backgrounds. But if you’re still not sure which direction to go, it can be helpful to first gather reference images in a beautiful mood board before starting your storyboard.

During this stage, it’s also helpful to make a list of everything you need to draw, according to your script.

Create a template

Once you’ve chosen which storyboard type to use, it’s time to create a blank version of it.

If you’re creating a traditional storyboard with more detailed drawings and notes, you can create templates with pencil and paper or digitally. The process is up to you, but all you need is a series of equally-sized individual panels with space underneath for your notes.

Download a storyboard template for Vectornator below.

If you’re opting for a thumbnail-style storyboard, you can draw out smaller panels and fit more into the grid. No need to leave extra space for notes.

Don’t forget to number your panels according to the breakdown of your script. This will really help you to stay organized when planning production.

Start drawing!

Now for the fun part.

Establish the location of your scene in the first panel, and then match the sections of your script with the frames you want to create.

Fill in each panel with sketches or illustrations that show the most important parts of the story (like character movements). But keep in mind that your storyboard is not the finished product, so you shouldn’t be too detailed here.

Add descriptive notes

Once you have your visuals down, you can start adding more details with handwritten notes. You could include any character dialogue, actions, or a brief description of what’s happening in each scene.

Explain any technical details

It’s important to direct animators with specific details for how you want each shot to look. For example, if you want to see a zoom, a pan, a tilt, or a specific transition, add it to your storyboard.

These details can be communicated with notes or simple arrows that point in the direction you want the camera to move.

Gather feedback

It goes without saying that gathering feedback is an important step for any creative project.

Once you’ve created a first draft of your storyboard, you can expect that it will be subject to a few changes.

Ask your client, team members, family, or friends for their feedback and then apply any necessary edits.

When everyone is happy, you can move forward to animating!

Famous Examples of Storyboards

Looking for more inspiration? Here’s some examples of storyboards created for iconic animations and live-action films.

The Lion King

Harry Potter

Spirited Away

Spider-Man 2

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Jurassic Park


What’s Next?

Once you’ve made a great storyboard that outlines your vision, you can confidently move on to the next production phase of your animated film.

Many animators choose to create an animatic. This is an animated storyboard made by cutting together storyboard images with sound effects or music. This rough depiction of movement can then be further refined again and again by adding more frames and dynamic movements.

Whether you create an animatic or dive right in to animating a scene from your storyboard, it’s important to know the classic tips and tricks for creating the illusion of movement. Check out our previous blog post on Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation to learn how master animators draw dynamic character poses and expressions, frame by frame.

For more inspiration, check out our list of the best animated music videos of all time. And if you need to hone in on your motion graphic skills, here's our roundup of the best animation courses you can take online.

Have you tried out Vectornator yet? Our tools make is easy to create your own storyboard.

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