1. STORY STRUCTURE - Three Act Story Treatment

2. STORY BEATS - TONAL KEYS - 7 images










Begin by reading this article on story structure The Story Spine, Pixar's 4th Rule of Storytelling.

Write a three paragraph synopsis of your story, devoting a single paragraph to each act: Beginning, Middle and End. There are many theories as to what makes a good story, but whatever theories you find, I would encourage you to follow the simple three act structure and above all. . . trust your instincts. I've listed some elements below that should help you structure your story into three acts.

Beginning/Set-up: Introduction, exposition, visual "hook", establish status quo, inciting incident.

Middle/Raising Action: The journey begins, point of no return, up the stakes, threaten the status quo.

End/Resolution: The Crisis, mandatory clash of good and evil, tie up loose ends. . . and possible epilogue.



The Story Spine is a structure that helps break three acts down even further. See if you can fit your story into the the following 7 sentence structure.


A Working Title: simple and to the point like "Big Robot"

Controlling Idea: This is the central theme of your story often framed as a question. Ask yourself what you think your story is about and try to frame a sentence that gets to the larger questions in play. Brad Bird used "What if a gun had a soul?" when pitching The Iron Giant.


  • Working Title
  • Controlling Idea
  • Three paragraphs, one for each act.
  • Word .doc or .rtf

SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/simpsonB_treatment_bigRobot.doc



2. STORY BEATS/TONAL SCRIPT (7 images + 2)


A. Story Beats: Based on your written story treatment create 7 images, each one conveying an essential moment in your story (see the 7 sentence "Story Spine" above), then if you need to, add a couple more images to help your story flow. We call these the Story Beats. Use the story template in your sketchbook to draw the originals and then convert your beats to separate panels so you can rearrange and rename them in Adobe Bridge. You can also draw these beats in Photoshop as long as you resist the temptation to zoom in tight and start drawing details.

B. Tonal Keys: This is where you plot the emotional arc of your film and lay the ground work for lighting and color choices down the road. Import your beats into a single Photoshop file and paint on a single layer so you can work on all of them at once without getting too complicated. Work small with a limited tonal palette to establish your basic lighting schemes. Tonal keys will also help your audience focus on essential elements in the frame, distinguish for-, mid- and background elements, and register the emotional tone underscored in each scene.



Emotional Tone of each Panel: 1. Sad disaster, 2. Happy day, 3. Simple beauty, 4. Overwhelming Beauty 5. Wait for it (repeat 2), 6. After party



1. Download Tonal Template here.


2. Open the file in Photoshop and import the panels you have chosen as your tonal keys. Flatten (cmd E) or Group (cmd-G) the imported panels and place them at the bottom of the layer stack.


note: you will need to rasterize the imported layers if you choose to flatten them (right-mouse/Rasterize Layer).


3. Download and import this Tonal Palette or create your own by opening the Swatches panel (Windows/Swatches) and clicking individually on a range of five swatches (1. white, 2. light, 3. medium, 4. dark gray and 5. black). Notice your choices will stack in order at the top of the Swatches panel.



4. Next create a new layer between the Black Frame layer and your Tonal Keys and set the blend mode to multiply. You are now ready to start painting.

5. Work all of the panels at once until you are happy with how they work as a progression. When you are finished save your original PSD file to your project and then export a jpg by saving as and changing the file setting to jpg.


6. Once you have all of your keys painted on a single layer, you can tweak their values with the Levels tool (cmd L) adjusting the tones in all or separate panels to achieve the contrast in tone that best suites your scenes. To adjust all the panels simply open the Levels tool (cmd L) and adjust the sliders to achieve the contrast you're looking for. To adjust a single panel simply use the Marque tool (M) to select only the area you are want to adjust.


Note: Moving the first slider to the right will increase the black threshold, sliding the last slider to the left will increase the white threshold, and the sliding the center slider will help find a visual balance between the two. I recommend you work them in that order.


Refresh your Reading on Tone: A Quick Primer on Values.pdf



  • Use a 5-tone BW palette
  • Multiple panels arranged in a single image against a black or neutral background.
  • Export as a 2000px min. jpg 

SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/simpsonB_workingTitle_tone.jpg



Now that you have your main story beats you can begin working out the visual flow with action beats and transitional elements. We call these "Thumbnail" panels because of the small, quick-sketch nature of your drawings at this stage. Film craft, composition, readability and flow are essential to this stage in the process. Each panel should be framed in such a way that it moves the story forward and carries the weight of the moment that you want to convey. Every shot that has multiple actions should be represented with extra panels. Include only the essential details at this point as we will be recreating these panels digitally when we begin building our animatic/storyreels in Storyboard Pro.


SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER: Because you are sowing the seeds of an actual film at this point, it's important to take a moment to consider your film making options.


Story Structure: Consider experimenting with the order of events. There is no reason (except maybe for clarity) that you need to tell your story in linear time. Can you start your film from the end of the narrative and work backwards?  How much of your story can you avoid telling by letting your audience fill in the gaps? 


Point of View: From whose perspective is the story being told? Does the audience know more than the characters or are they also discovering clues as the plot unfolds? Your answer will determine whether you begin with an establishing shot, informing your audience of everything, or wether you begin with extreme close-ups, keeping your audience guessing as each new plot point is revealed? 


Camera Placement and Motion, Staging and Scene Length. Give some thought to the placement of your camera and how you are staging your characters. Will you be shooting in long takes or quick cuts? Will you move the camera or the characters, or both? Will a single wide shot or multiple close-ups best serve the scene? If you need to, take a minute to make a quick map, or plan view, of your locations to help you understand the progression of your story through space, or the staging of a difficult scene.


Lens Choices and Image Space: Will you be shooting primarily in deep, flat or limited space? Will you use wide-angle focal lengths to place your viewer inside the scene accentuating depth and adding intensity? Or will you use longer lenses that compress space, distance and focus, placing the viewer outside the scene to create a voyeur-like intimacy?



  1. Think through some of the strategic questions listed above before you begin.
  2. Use the flexibility of limited panels to experiment with the structure of your story by rearranging them in Adobe Bridge.
  3. Use the Sketchbook Story template, a digital story template, or work directly in Photoshop.
  4. Draw lots of images and when possible expand on visual possibilities! Work small to save time, ignore unnecissary details, and focus on composition and readability.
  5. Create as many panels as you need to for your story to flow. A panel per action beat will suffice at the stage.
  6. Work sequence at a time, exporting panels to your project and use Adobe Bridge to test the flow and sequence of your images as you go.
  7. When you are done with your first draft use Batch Rename in Adobe Bridge to preserve the order of your images.
  8. Finally, load your numbered panels into Powerpoint, practice your pitch and when you are pleased upload your .ppt file to Basecamp.



Here is a finished animatic.



  • Work in a 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Images should focus on composition, readability and flow
  • Load sequential panels into Powerpoint and post to Basecamp

SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/simpsonB_workingTitle_thumbnails.ppt






Based on the feedback from your Action Beats, you should have a pretty good idea where you need to make adjustments, what bits need to be left out and where you'll need to add drawings to make the story flow. Once you have made these revisions, it's time to start building out your scenes in Storyboard Pro.


Step 1. - Import Panels: Make any needed adjustments to your Action Beats, import your panels into SBP and arrange them in the thumbnail view.

Step 2. - Staging: You'll want to know where your characters are in relation to the camera. For complex scenes you'll want to create a Production Map from a Bird's-eye perspective,

Step 3. - Plan & Build Scenes in SBP: With the original thumbnail as your guide, build out each scene as needed cinematic impact and visual continuity. You'll want to break most scenes into foreground, mid-ground and backgrounds to take advantage of layers in SBP.

Step 4. - Set up for multi-panel scenes: Isolating your characters into their respective layers and creater duplicate layers for any changes in pose or expression.

Step 5. - Upload Working SBC File: Zip the SBP project into a single file and upload to the Basecamp Dropbox.


SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/






Let's give some thought to how movement through character action, blocking and camera motion can add impact to your story. At this stage you will expand your your panels creating multiple action beats within a scene. You will also add animated cameras and moving elements.


Step 1. - Extra Panels: Expand single panel scenes to accommodate action beats.

Step 2. - Plot Camera Moves & Animate Layers: Determine where camera motion and animated layers can best serve your piece and build your scene elements accordingly.

Step 3. - Establish Shot Count: By grouping panels into "Scenes" you can indicate where there are hard cuts are as opposed to actions within a scene. Once panels are groped appropriately you can use the "Renaming Shot Tool" to update your shot count.


CLASS DEMO: SBP Camera Staging Demo

SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/




It's time to see how all the elements come together with timing, basic tone and scratch audio. By adding a tempo track to the scene you can establish a consistent pace to your editing. Sound effects will help support you action beats and add presence to your storyreel. Finally, adding tone to amplify mood, increase depth and enhance readability.




Step 1. - Tonal Palette: Choose the key scenes in your PSA and develop a visual guide for how lighting and tone will play in your final piece. Limit your palette to five (white, black and three grays). Eventually you will apply these tones to every scene. Go here for detailed instruction on how to build a Tonal Key in Photoshop.

Step 2. - Timing/Tempo Track: Choose a tempo track that suits your story and import it into SBP. In the Timeline mode, drag your panels along the timeline to create a rough cut of your storyreel. Time your panels against the tempo track to create the pacing your storyreel requires. You can mute the audio on the Tempo Track and use the visual ticks to guide your editing.

Step 3. - Sound Effects and Score: Sound is arguably the most cost effective way to bring presence to your animatics (or pre-visuals) it's even cheaper because everything is considered temporary sound. Scratch sound effects can go along ways toward selling an animatic. Temp score is effective too but be careful not to overwhelm the timing of your piece with an ill-fitting piece of music. Good timing is more important than emotional tone at this stage of the game. With a little effort we should be able to do both.

Step 4. - Export Movie and Review: Once you have exported your final storyreel be sure to watch it in Quicktime pro. It will feel different that in SBP. Take notes while your reviewing your work, make needed revisions and reexport.

Step 5. - Export & Submit Animatic: Once you like what you see rename the movie file and submit it.



  • Export movie file 1920 x 1080 H264 with sound
  • Once exported, add a date to the end of your movie file to keep track of revisions.
  • Upload movie to the Basecamp 308_Storyboarding for Digital Media/308_dropbox

SUBMISSION & NAMING: Basecamp 308_dropbox/Final Project Submissions/simpsonB_Final/simpsonB_workingTitle_042521.mp4



TUTORIALS: SBP 6. Project Exports - 30 mins

After completing the tutorial above, follow this link for instructions on exporting a thumbnail pages from Stopryboard Pro.



Follow this link for detailed instruction on the final submission steps your finished Stories for Change PSA Project.























Stephan Leeper/Central Michigan University 2020