Storyboarding has been a vital tool for me as a composer over the last few years. Although frequently used and advocated as a basic approach in film and television, when researching methods for my own opera project in my PhD I never found an example of a storyboard used by a composer or librettist in any literature. So I developed my own, mainly informed by Robert McKee’s approaches in his—perhaps overly wordy— but nevertheless excellent book Story. This was suggested to me by the director Rachel McDonald, along with the snappier Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Both of these books suggest the board and story card approaches, but the storyboard I developed came from discussions with visual artists Lyndall Adams, who sketched out a rough table like template, which I then went away and adjusted to include and allow for musical elements and sections.

For purposes of definition, a storyboard is a way to visually represent various scenes or story points sequentially on one or several pages or boards, most commonly associated with the planning of film or television programs. I found storyboarding to be an essential tool for analysis of other works as well as for the planning and drafting of my work, be it creative writing (libretto) or score-related (orchestration). At each juncture storyboard elements were altered slightly in order to accommodate the elements of that specific creative task (story development, planning of musical scenes and elements, full orchestral realisation) but the basic design remained the same: a landscape-oriented table plotting scenes or events, often with a hand-drawn graph above indicating the natural rise and fall of dramatic tension in the piece. 

I use storyboards in two main ways. Firstly, as a way to plot the basic story points or beats of the storyline. This can either be an original story you have developed, or a story you are adapting yourself from an existing text. Here are some examples

This is a story breakdown and rough arc of action for the Selfish Giant
This storyboard for an opera includes musical elements (in red)

Secondly, I use a whiteboard in studio to plot the basic action and musical developments as they progress. Sometimes this will also include design elements of images, almost like a “mood” board. Some example I have used previously include:

Planning board utilised in studio for the opera Beyond the Wall
Planning board utilised in studio for the Ballet Snugglepot & Cuddlepie

My next opera commission is a comic opera adaptation of Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. I have utilised the same storyboard process to great effect in order to plan the new libretto, and will soon be onto setting up my studio whiteboard once musical realisation begins. Storyboarding is a way for me to keep a somewhat organised plan, in what often becomes a very messy process. It helps to have those tools to keep yourself sane!

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