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Storyboarding: Build your visual script

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In this sample chapter from Animated Storytelling, Second Edition, author Liz Blazer covers the basics of storyboarding first and then continues on with some important concepts you’ll need to make your storyboard complete and ready for animatics. The entire process is organic; let your storyboarding evolve gradually from simple to more complex.

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

“At our studio we don’t write our stories, we draw them.”

—Walt Disney

Walt Disney is known for many important innovations in the field of animation and motion graphics. But perhaps his most useful contribution came in the 1930s when he decided to pin up a series of his rough sketches in sequence to help explain a story idea to his team. Like many great innovations, the decision came out of necessity—animation is an expensive and time-consuming process in which a single misstep can be very costly. Being able to solidify story before animating could potentially save a fledgling animation studio like Disney’s more than a few bucks. Plus, the method suited Mr. Disney’s natural showmanship. He used the visual aid of his sketches to bring the full scope of his ideas to life, including his thoughts on timing, staging, framing, continuity, and transitions. He would use these sketches to get people excited—from his team of artists to potential investors. The process became essential at Disney, and within ten years live-action studios caught on as well, making storyboarding as ubiquitous as scripts in Hollywood backlots.

Storyboarding is your opportunity to work out the visual elements that best suit your story. It can help you determine most aspects of your animated piece before moving a single pixel. Boarding saves time and money and can help get people excited about your project before it’s made. Simply put, the better your storyboard, the more likely you are to achieve success with your project.

I’ll cover the basics of storyboarding first and then continue on with some important concepts you’ll need to make your storyboard complete and ready for animatics. The entire process is organic; let your storyboarding evolve gradually from simple to more complex.

Build the Storyboard

As you begin the process of storyboarding, you’re creating individual frames of the action from your story beats. Start out rough and gradually add the needed details. This process ensures the story is first understandable and then allows you to add the nuances that make the story more complex and interesting.

Thumbnailing

Thumbnails are the first rough sketches of your storyboards. They help you work out the sequencing of your “shots” and provide an opportunity to establish important aspects of shot composition, framing, staging, and transitions. Your thumbnail drawings should be rough—stick figures are just fine. Use Post-it Notes as well—they’re re-positionable and purposefully limit the amount of detail you can add to your drawing. Approach thumbnailing as the experimentation phase of storyboarding and keep a wastebasket nearby—you’re going to be lobbing a lot of hook shots in that general direction.

Says professor and story artist Greg Araya, “A storyboard’s first job is to read quickly and clearly, not to be polished art. You’ll discard or rework panels all the time, so don’t invest too much into them. Don’t keep a panel if it isn’t working for your story, even if it’s the best drawing in your board.”

Thumbnail Revisions

Once you’ve drawn up your thumbnail sketches, slap them up on the wall in sequence and get ready for some brutal revisions. Do the shots make sense? Are there leaps in time or logic? Lags in story? Clunky flow from scene to scene? Pitch your thumbnails to yourself frame-by-frame and voice out any dialogue you’ve written, or even sing the music you intend to play over the finished piece. If something isn’t working, be ruthless. Stick a Post-it Note over problem areas and redraw until it feels right. Any fixes you make here will save you time and heartache down the road.

Storyboarding

Some storyboard artists take the time to create beautifully polished renditions of each frame, but the goal here is not high art, it’s clarity. If you are able to capture the action and emotion of your story with little more than scribbles, then go for it, but just make sure you’re able to capture all the detail. Reminder: This is now the place where you should be resolving your shot composition, framing, staging, and transitions. It is important to consider where all of your props and visual elements fit into the frame. So don’t come to me crying when you start animating and say, “Wait, I forgot his hat! My chef has no hat, but there’s no room in the frame to add it!”

Once you’ve completed your drawings, use the space beneath each frame to write either dialogue or brief explanatory notes (such as “hears bear” or “comes to life”). Once you’re done, a casual observer should be able to understand what’s going on in each frame and even follow the overall story.

Storyboard Revisions

Time to test out your storyboards by presenting them to a small audience or, at very least, in front of one person who isn’t afraid to ask you hard questions. Pitching your storyboard to an audience will force you to clarify your beats and the decisions you’ve made about staging and flow. Plus, an authentic human reaction offers a great sounding board. Watch your audience’s body language as you pitch—it’s as important as (and often more honest than) their verbal feedback.

Once you’ve made changes based on feedback, revise your boards and clean them up for public consumption. Many clients will react better to clean, elegantly rendered storyboards. If a client needs to be sold on an idea from boards alone, they better sparkle! If a crew of animators and designers are using your boards to generate their shot list, then the boards should be detailed enough so that no element is left up to interpretation.

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