Let's say you want to make an animated film - or actually any kind of film at all. Where should you begin? The best place to start is with a storyboard.
Crafting the storyboard: Don't be intimidated by a lack of drawing skills. A storyboard isn't meant to show off your artistic talent, it's meant to communicate the placement of characters in shots, and the action that occurs within. Storyboards are now a common extra on DVDs, and I recommend you take a look at a few before you start your own. Remember: The Matrix was storyboarded with a bunch of stick figures, you can surely do the same! Storyboards should be made once you've figured out, through whatever creative process you normally use, the beginning, middle, and end of your film. If you write, fine. If you doodle, fine. Even if you're making an experimental film, it's a good idea to plot where it's going to go, and realize ahead of time that audiences grow bored if there isn't any change within a film, no matter how interestingly it's shot or written. Change, or conflict, is extremely important when you make a film. We all change, and that is why such things as character arcs ring true to us.
If these terms I'm flinging around seem entirely too new to you, I would advise that you read up on the art of storytelling, or take a writing class at your local community college. Story, by Robert McKee, can be a good (if an intimidatingly weighty) place to begin. Or, a la Tarantino, watch a lot of films. I mean A LOT of films. Watch Westerns, Horror Films, Romances, Cult Classics, Film Noirs, Sci-Fis. Don't start with color films or anything from the nineties on, start with stuff from the thirties and forties. Watch a Chaplin. And take notes: what do you enjoy about the film? How was your favourite scene staged? In what order did the shots occur? Watch more films. Are there any similarities or patterns that arise, despite the differences between genres? I'll bet there will be.
A storyboard is sort of like a comic book of your film - a bunch of illustrations that describe the action that should take place in the course of your piece. Figure out what order they should go in, and start drawing out different panels that represent shots. Notice that it's often good to vary the type of shots you use: the typical Hollywood pattern is wide shot, long shot, then either medium shots or close ups. Like someone walking into a room for the first time, you notice the space first before you notice details. Without an establishing shot, or wide opening shot, the following space you cut within can be confusing. Some filmmakers like to make the audience feel lost - if this is your intent, then that's fine, but realize that your content better justify that decision - as should be the case whenever you break the rules. Try getting a hold of the book Film Directing Shot by Shot, written by Steven Katz. It's good stuff to start with.
In the Industry, storyboards never have "action shots" or splash panels like comic books do. What that means is that storyboards make show Mr. X on the left hand side of the screen, and in a second panel show Mr. X on the right hand side, but you never draw him walking in between unless it's important to the story. If Mr. X is supposed to be exhausted for some crucial reason, then sure, draw an extra shot of him zipping along. But normally, don't bother. If someone jumps, you show the character take off and land, but you don't draw a mid-air panel. You only draw changes in a storyboard: if a new character enters, if a prop is moved, if the location changes, essentially if there is change - these things are indicated. Otherwise the board just gets overly long and dull.
It's nice to make these illustrations as big as you can, and to pin them up on a large cork board or some other board so that you can look at your entire film at one time. Walt Disney began the process of storyboarding with his first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and since then it has begun common practice to use storyboards in live action features as well. If you get a chance to rent the DVD, look for the extra that shows Walt pitching (or presenting) his storyboard in front of a group of animators. Note how he pitches the storyboard as if he were telling a story. This is important. You should try pitching your own story in front of a group of (hopefully kind) friends to start out. Then you can gauge for yourself: where do they lose interest? What should I speed up or slow down? What should I remove altogether? What, frankly, isn't working? Never fall in love with your storyboard - the only thing you should realize that you shouldn't change is the stuff that makes you want to make the film in the first place. This is very important: I've seen a lot of great ideas become a burden to a filmmaker or animator because they changed too much, and lost the heart of their films. Don't do that! Accept criticism from critics that understand what you're trying to communicate, and change stuff that isn't necessary to tell your story - realize that a lot of stuff you like a lot can and should be cut - but don't change the heart. This is tricky, and takes a great deal of judiciousness. Take a few days off after a hearty critique and think about what your story should mean, what you instantly fell in love with. After all, why do you want to spend months, and possibly years, working on this project? Figure that out, and you should be O.K.
Get started, kids, and once your storyboard is a work of flawless storytelling genius, come back.