Search form

Animation Layout: Layout Support Material

This month, the Career Coach, Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, goes tough-in-cheek about her dos and donts regarding sending out your rumto potential employers.

All images are from Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional by Mike S. Fowler. Reprinted with permission. © Mike S. Fowler 2002.

This month AWN continues a series of excerpts from Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional Author Mike S. Fowler has especially adapted his book for our readers. In this essential and educational easy-to-follow guide, Mike, an animation layout artist, supervisor and college instructor illustrates the purpose and function of animation layout. He creates an easy to follow format with so much information and diagrams, people of any animation skill level should be able to learn something new. Whether an inquisitive beginner, the college animation student who wants to better prepare for a job or an animation industry professionals, everyone can learn something new in this book.

In this chapter, we focus on the support material for layout including storyboards, location designs, character designs and prop designs. To understand the role of the layout artist and the use of the previously mentioned support material, here is a process of how animation layout gets started.

The storyboard is presented to the director, supervisors, animation staff and occasionally the investors of the production by various methods. Each studio presents the storyboard differently depending on the production type and restraints. One presentation method is to have the storyboard acted out live. The panels are posted on large walls or moveable corkboard panels. As the board creator points to each panel, she/he acts out the dialogue and action. This has many names including storyboard review, board presentation and story pitch session.

Some studios only create a realtime video of the storyboard panels. Each panel is filmed for a predetermined amount of time and then combined with the rough audio track. This is called a leica reel. All studios use this at some point in the animation production.

A method I prefer, is a combination of acting out and overhead projection. Animation students project their material on a large screen as they act out each panel, (as seen in this picture). This allows all students to clearly see the storyboard, without interference, or having to strain to see a corkboard presentation.

Once the director approves a storyboard, the next step varies from studio to studio. For television animation, props and characters are created before the storyboard is started. Ideally most second or third season television shows that have established characters, locations, special effects and prop designs need only small amounts of new material created for each completed storyboard.

After the design department, the support material is then shipped with the storyboard to the layout department to start production.

What is a storyboard?

A storyboard is much like a very detailed comic book. Storyboards must have clear visuals to explain what the scene, or even entire board is about. Many studios ensure there are no visual questions by having the storyboard artist take the drawings to finished clean drawings.

In fact, artists that have a background in either animation layout, or comic book art, create most storyboard work. Motion film, advertising, and especially animation, rely heavily on creating a sequential visual plan of major actions, long before the main production starts.

Storyboard art is created from a written script. This visual interpretation of the story can range in length from 12 panels long in advertising to well over 1,500 panels for a 22 minute animated show. Feature films conservatively start at 3,000 panels.

What determines the length? The amount of action in the sequence does. Consider a small sequence where a dog runs around a corner and knocks over a vase that was sitting on a table. The storyboard would contain an image of the room first and have the next panel showing the dog running around the corner. The next panel shows the dog hitting the table with the vase wobbling. The final frame has the dog exiting the scene while the vase falls to shatter on the floor. We need four panels to describe the action.

A sequence where a car chase progresses through a city street, just missing bystanders, then ends in a fiery crash may require up to 15 or more panels depending on the length of the car chase.

No matter what the sequence is about, the storyboard must clearly show a strong and dynamic visual, coupled with a written explanation as to what is happening in each panel.

Who uses them? Are they important?

Everyone from the director, to the layout artist, to the animator, uses the storyboards. How important is it? The best way to explain the importance of the storyboard is to explain it the way I was taught by Zach Schwartz and Kaj Pindal.

As a young animation student I remember when these two guest speakers were brought in to teach us storyboarding. To paraphrase Kaj, "By providing a strong storytelling base and pictorial continuity, the viewer will understand and connect with the storyboard. If you have to read what was transpiring in the scene, the visual was wrong and must be replaced."

This made sense to me. I adopted this tidbit of information and applied it both to my animation industry work and to my teaching repertoire when I became an instructor.

Years later I met Kaj Pindal at a book signing and asked if he would be a guest speaker at the college where I was teaching. He agreed and spent the better half of two days lecturing, viewing and critiquing the students' work.

Kaj ended the final viewing of student films by articulating the same information he told years before. Then, without missing a beat, he looked at me, then back to the students and said, "I can see both you and your instructor have listened well."

Kaj Pindal May 2002

Kaj Pindal's, (photo shown here), animation career started with the first major Danish animated film in the late 1940's, brilliant commercial work for Richard Williams and directed and animated many animation works while at the NFB, (National Film Board of Canada), such as Peep and the Big Wide World.

Zach Schwartz's, career spans from the early 1930s as a background painter with Warner Bros., Disney and as one of the founders of the revolutionizing UPA animation studio.

Do all studios use the same format of storyboard? For those that were hoping for consistency in animation, this is not the time. No one style of storyboard is universal. Even the same studio will use different versions of storyboards for each different production. I have used storyboards that are nothing more than a 5" x 7" drawing with a few notes on it to an 8" x 11" page with five small panels with copious notes. Television, advertising and feature storyboards also follow different presentation formats.

This page has examples of blank storyboard sheets. This only a small fraction of the various styles available. The format may vary, but the content remains the same for each studio. By learning any one style, the rest will be easy to produce. Note the similarities of each.

I have dissected a generic storyboard to explain the technical information required to complete it. There are three main aspects of the storyboard that must be shown. They are visual, dialogue and notes.

Production Information

The Action / Notes portion that is extracted directly from the written script. Its purpose is to clarify, in words, what the visual is showing. This area can also be used for director's notes on how the scene's timing, colour, or special effects are to be handled.

Dialogue and sound effects are placed in a box with the character's or object's name preceding it. Occasionally the dialogue is spaced over several storyboard panels in order to best explain the actions of the character speaking.

Timing or slugging is added to assist in speaking and non-speaking portions of the show and for creation of the total running time of the show.

Scene Transition and camera directions include information on how the scene will end, or transition to the next scene and whether or not there is a camera movement.

Visual portion must be created from the originating script, using existing location, prop and character designs, and matched to the action and dialogue sections. Action will determine how many visual panels are required in the scene.

What does this have to do with layout? The creation of background layout is based directly on the artwork in the storyboard. Depending on the studio that defines a background layout position, preliminary character poses may be required. For more on this topic refer to the chapter "Background Layout vs. Character Layout".

Once in the hands of the layout artist, the storyboard panels are enlarged or recreated, to suit many different factors and elements. For now, think of the storyboard panels as the first rough sketches the layout artist will see. After studying the content of the sketches, a new, well-defined completed version is created for use in other departments. This completed work is called the layout package.

With that said, there is other information storyboards must contain for them to be useful to the layout department.

The transition terms listed below are the most common for creating storyboards. Other terms not listed here, such as PANS, TRUCK-IN or OUT, and CAMERA SHAKE are camera moves and will be defined in a later chapter of this book.

CUT: A term used to describe an end to the current scene. The next scene consists of a different location or angle that is separate from the previous scene. (The end of the scene.)

FADE-IN: A camera function. Opening the aperture from 0% to 100% exposure, over a number of frames. (Starts dark and gets bright.)

FADE-OUT: A camera function. Closing the aperture from 100% to 0% exposure over a number of frames. (Starts bright and gets dark.)

CROSS DISSOLVE: A combination of fade-out and fade-in produces a "ghost-like" effect as one scene disappears while the other appears at the same time. Start and Stop frame are the same for both the fade-out and fade-in.

POSE SHEETS (MODEL SHEETS):The pose sheet is used as an animation and layout accuracy tool to keep the characters, props, locations, and special effects on model. This is a widely used and accepted tool of the animation trade. Below on the generic pose sheet, I have labeled key information sections that you will expect to see at most studios. For reason of clarity use CAPITAL LETTERS to label all parts of the POSE SHEET.

For the animation student, take the time to prepare these sheets for a professional touch to your portfolio.

CHARACTER POSE SHEETS or FIVE POINT TURNAROUND consists of normally one character in five poses that include: full body frontal view, 3/4 view, side view, 3/4 rear view and a back view. Supplemental sheets include various action poses, facial expressions and the lip synch guides.

Character Line-Up Sheets consist of all or as required, characters from a show, arranged like a police line-up for size, height and other comparisons.

CHARACTER MOUTH SHEETS AND PROP SHEETS. The Character Mouth Sheets contain six to eight standard mouth position for dialogue. Many sheets are created to convey different character emotions.

Created by a year two animation student Ryan Lavigne.

PROP SHEETS consist of normally two to three various positions of an object. Only one prop per sheet is shown. The prop sheet is used to ensure consistency in size, form, structure and proportion.

As illustrated above, a storyboard is included to indicate where the prop is used. The details supplied on each prop depend on the type of animation the show consisted of.

LOCATION DESIGN consists of an overall view of the environment where the animation will take place. Traditionally, a story, in the form of a script is provided to the lead location designer. Working with the director, it becomes the designers responsibility to shape the style, or look of the show. This includes artwork of floor plans, aerial view artwork, long pan backgrounds and tonal interpretations of the concept. The art director has final approval of any material designed.

Once the layout department receives the storyboard, prop, location and character designs, the work begins.

The layout department dictates the quality and direction the artwork will take on. If the perspective is off; if the characters are off model; if the background elements are not designed with character movement in mind, then the overall quality will be lost.


By not fixing perspective, continuity, fielding and staging problems all following departments, (ink-and-paint, BG painting, animators, and compositors), will unfortunately produce inferior work. Remember, when in doubt; draw a thumbnail sketch to fix it.

Whether for television, or feature production, it is always advised to re-read your assigned storyboard sequence several times to ensure it is understood. In feature film, always check with the lead layout designer for continuity and style questions that may arise.

The focus of the layout artist is to now dissect the storyboard scene by scene, and panel by panel, looking for: perspective, required camera shots and angles, composition and framing, staging and perspective grids, element placement and level separation. This has all been covered thus far.

Having read to this point of the book, you should now be more familiar with the foundation building blocks of the layout artist. The next chapter prepares the layout artist for the technical side: the dark side.

Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional by Mike S. Fowler. Caistor Center, Ontario, Canada: Fowler Cartooning Ink, 2002. 168 pages. ISBN: 0-9731602-0-9. US$35.00. Buy it online at Mike's Website.

Do not miss this chance to meet Mike Fowler at this year's SAFO 03 in Ottawa, Canada. Mike will be signing copies of his book, Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional on Sunday October 19, 2003 at 3:00 pm. His book will be on sale through out the SAFO 03 Animation Festival.

Mike S. Fowler has a passion for art and animation. His animation abilities as a supervisor, layout artist, poser, storyboard artist and fun pack designer are showcased in numerous shows. Credits include: Bob and Margaret, Ned's Newt, Hoze Houndz, Elliot the Moose, Little Bear, Eckhart, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, Rainbow Fish, Anthony Ant, Franklin, Redwall, Ace Ventura and Blazing Dragons, to name a few.

In addition to being a published political and panel cartoonist, graphic artist and classical animation graduate from Sheridan College, Mike has supervised various Flash Web series, promotional bumpers for major television shows and segments of an educational Flash-HTML based University learning program for U.S. and Canadian markets.

Mike has developed, from concept through to production, several critically acclaimed montage/demonstration films, artists' showcase books and educational promotional material.

Fowler's educational background covers Graphic and Advertising Design at Conestoga College, a diploma in Classical Animation from Sheridan College, Management and Human Relations at Conestoga and Sheridan Colleges and a Certificate in Adult Education from the University of New Brunswick. As the lead animation college instructor, he teaches animation, layout, storyboard, Flash and computer graphics.

With the release of his first book,

Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional, Mike adds being a published author to his list of achievements. Read more about Mike.