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How to Identify and Interpret Script Key Frames

While there is an established way of formatting a screenplay or shooting script, there is no one way of visually interpreting them. If there were, the role of a storyboard artist would have been given over to automation long ago.

In practice, much of the action described in a script is intentionally left open to interpretation. This presents a challenge to the director in the form of greater creative control over the story being told.

This is precisely why storyboard artists are hired. It is the reason I was hired.

Over the next few hundred words I will be discussing my experiences working as a storyboard artist on two separate film projects—one feature and one short—and crunching the numbers as far as frames per page went.

Getting Started on a Film Project

Towards the end of 2017, I received requests from a director and a fellow storyboard artist to contribute tens of storyboards towards their respective projects.

From here on I will refer to the feature film project as Project Lambda and the short film project as Project Rho.

In each case I was presented with a finished script and various look and feel materials such as Google imagery of conceptual ideas for assets and locations, headshots of cast members and photos or 3D mock-ups from the set.

Then came the hard part. I had to go over my assigned scenes within each script line by line, all the while sketching small thumbnails in the margins identifying the key moments of action audience members expect to see.

Understanding Key Frames and How to Spot Them

Key frames are defined by their importance. They are the intentional movements, reactions and repercussions of characters that propel the story forwards whether they take place in the foreground, middle ground or background.

If a line of action described a character taking cover from gunfire, returning a volley of shots of their own and wounding their assailant in the process, I could see there being something like five individual key frames for that alone.

For example, you might have shots of:

  1. A shot of the firefight situating the characters
  2. A shot of the protagonist being shot at and diving to cover
  3. A shot of bullets flying overhead with the protagonist biding time
  4. A shot of the protagonist calculatedly returning fire
  5. A shot of the assailant taking a bullet.


When I talk about key frames, what I am really referring to is the smallest collection of sequenced drawings needed to sell the action in the script.

That said, adding in extra ‘in-between’ frames or a shot from another perspective can help you sell the story better. And of course things will vary depending on things like how much time you have and what the budget is.

Ultimately, it really is a judgement call you need to make as a storyboard artist for what you think the director you are working with will require.

Case Study One: Project Lambda

With the hypothetical scenario out the way, let’s move onto the first of our real-world case studies. For Project Lambda I was asked to storyboard a total of five scenes totalling 27 pages from an 82-page full-length feature film script.

In the five-and-a-half weeks I had to complete and deliver the project in two parts, I illustrated 258 frames all up. And I feel safe in saying I could triple that to around 784 frames to estimate how many boards a project of this size and scope would equal.

Of the 258 frames I drew, around four in five would be an all-important key frame. But I permitted myself to add a minimal number of extra frames throughout to really sell the action I was asked to visualise.

Case Study Two: Project Rho

A similar thing happened with this next case study, though Project Rho was a collaborative effort and the process taken was not my own. A colleague sub-contracted part of the storyboarding project out to me to be completed in as near their style as possible.

This meant that of the 60 frames I had to draw in a week and a half, I had to use their previous boards and assets wherever I could and the process became less about drawing and more about image manipulation.

I was required for eight scenes totalling five pages from a 16-page shooting script for a short film and amounting to 60 frames in all. And again, I completed about a third of the project with the total number of boards for the entire 16-page project ending up somewhere near 200.

Key Frames and Their Relationship with Freelancers

So why am I here writing about this? Why is it important for aspiring storyboard artists to know how to identify and interpret script key frames? The reason is simple.

Too many storyboard artists just starting out easily underestimate the sheer volume of drawings needed to convey even a single line of action. And too often do we simply accept the paid contract at face value without doing the math.

It is not only essential that we know what the director expects but also that we know what we can accomplish in a given deadline and appropriate parameters.

If you can skim through a script and come up with an accurate guestimate for how many key frames you’ll need, you’ll know if the project will be worth your time and energy.

And lastly, I would just like to add that I ultimately cannot tell you how to create your storyboards, I can only tell you how I go about drawing them and hope that it helps you.

If you do need help storyboarding your next film project or you would like some advice on how best to tackle your script, drop us an email and we’ll be sure to get back to you.

Welcome back dear readers and here is to a great 2018!

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