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Script and Storyboard: A Look at Amazon Storyteller

By David Konow

Amazon wants to get into original film production, so it's created a piece of software to help screenwriters create storyboards and sell their projects.

Amazon's Storyteller software sounds like a useful idea. It's a web app that can create storyboards for your screenplay, so you can see your whole script laid out visually. Although this technology hasn’t exploded on the same level as say Final Draft or Movie Magic, this could be a boon to new screenwriters who may be more comfortable with a visual process. It's akin to fleshing out your screenplay in comic book form, complete with stock character and background images so you don't have to create all original art. I was curious to see if this approach could work, especially in an industry entrenched in its existing tools. As it turns out, I actually know a screenwriter who has worked with Storyteller, and she was more than happy to share her Storyteller experiences for us.

Jeanne Bowerman is the editor of Script Magazine, and she’s a screenwriter as well. Bowerman wrote a short film called Impasse, and she wanted to learn everything she could about how to turn a screenplay into a film. She asked the cinematographer and director, “What do you guys do when you get a script? What’s the next step?” They told her they make storyboards, then Bowerman checked out the Amazon Storyteller software.

“It’s good for a screenwriter to step out of their box,” Bowerman says. “It’s good for a screenwriter to step out of prose and words and start visualizing their script. I wrote another script purely for this exercise. I didn’t want to use the short films I had already written, because I already had a pre-conceived idea vision in my head for those. I wanted to do something completely fresh and new and see how it would change the script.”

When Bowerman writes a screenplay, she tells us, she thinks about what it would look like illustrated. She says, “It makes me think about props. It makes me think about the whole room, not just what the characters are doing. It takes you on a little deeper level. It definitely makes you realize how many camera angles you would need in a scene.”

This could also be a big time saver for indie filmmakers. Think about camera angles. If you don’t carefully plot out where you put the camera, you could have to reset everything before you start shooting, which could end up taking a day, even if you’re in just one location. “Storyboarding can show you how many potential camera angles you have for your production set-up,” Bowerman explains.

When I learned of Amazon Storyteller, it also reminded me of the struggles George Lucas and The Wachowskis had with Star Wars and The Matrix. Both were very difficult movies to make work on paper, and both had to be heavily visualized with paintings and storyboards before anybody finally got it. Could Amazon Storyteller help sell a screenplay that’s harder to visualize?

While we haven’t heard of any scripts that have been sold with the help of Amazon Storyteller, at least not yet, any kind of visualization can often be an enormous help in explaining your ideas.

“There was one time I pitched a studio, and I didn’t have storyboards of the pilot I was pitching,” Bowerman explains. “But I did have physical photos of the locations I wanted to secure, and just having that visual element in that pitch meeting really helped the executive understand the tone for the pilot and the series. Storyboards can serve exactly that same purpose, especially if you’re doing something sci-fi. It certainly helps to put it in a format for someone else to visualize too.”

As Amazon explains on their frequently asked questions page, “The Storyteller library of backgrounds, characters, and props currently works best for contemporary dramas or romantic comedies, [but] we’re working to add backgrounds, characters and props that will help Storyteller better visualize other time periods and genres.” And indeed, it would be hard to imagine this tool not being able to illustrate a sci-fi, horror, or superhero story.

But this also may not be a right fit for everyone. “I think it could be a crutch for some people,” Bowerman says. “Some people could say, ‘I can just draw this out and tell the story that way.’ As a writer, your job is to write a great story, your job is not necessarily to do storyboarding. I know people who liked the whole visual element of Amazon Storyteller and they made storyboards for their outlines. But you still have to focus on story first, and the storyboards come later.”

A lot of times writers can also get caught up in the toys and gadgets they can play with, and it can give them excuses to procrastinate. “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, I need this, if I had this I could get this script down,’” Bowerman says. “I think it is important to explore the tools that are out there, but it’s also important not to procrastinate. It doesn’t mean you have to storyboard all your scripts. I still like to outline my scripts the traditional way, and I remember the lessons I learned from storyboarding and apply them.”

The basic version of Amazon Storyteller is free for anyone to use and try out. But there's also a lot of fine print, and Amazon Studios has some claim on rights to buy scripts created using Storyteller. In the age of digital, it’s not that expensive to shoot a webisode or a short film, and Bowerman feels a lot of writers could embrace Storyteller for independent projects, and storyboard their stories more than they have in the past.

“Writers are taking more control over their work these days, and they’re getting it out there,” she says. “Web series are incredibly popular these days. You can take the pilot episode of a TV show you’re trying to pitch, break it into two or three minute sections, and create a little mini web series. You can put all the episodes together, and turn them into a pilot, storyboarding them along the way.”

It’s great when any tool can make you look at your craft in a new way, or open up new avenues you didn’t find before. Some writers recommend that when you get stuck, try doing the opposite, and as Bowerman tells us, “Some people get stuck in their patterns, and they’re not open to trying anything new, but I’m very open to trying new things. Amazon is still developing the Storyteller software, there are limitations to what you can do with it, but it has so much potential. I liked playing around with it and seeing what it could do.”