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Book Review - 'The Storyboard Artist: Guide to Freelancing in Film, TV, and Advertising'

Fred Patten looks at Giuseppe Cristiano’s comprehensive new guide book for storyboarding professionals.

Click on any image for high res version. All images from Storyboard Artist published by Michael Wiese Productions www.mwp.com.

The Storyboard Artist: Guide to Freelancing in Film, TV, and Advertising by Giuseppe Cristiano.

Studio City, CA, Michael Wiese Productions, January 2012, trade paperback $24.95 (xii + 195 pages).

Storyboarding, or its predecessor, comic-book-like story sketches, is known to go back to silent films, but no examples of those have been saved.  The earliest documented storyboards go back to Walt Disney in 1933.  Wikipedia says, “According to Christopher Finch in The Art of Walt Disney (Abrams, 1974), Disney credited animator Webb Smith with creating the idea of drawing scenes on separate sheets of paper and pinning them up on a bulletin board to tell a story in sequence, thus creating the first storyboard. The second studio to switch from "story sketches" to storyboards was Walter Lantz Productions in early 1935.  […]  Gone with the Wind (1939) was one of the first live action films to be completely storyboarded.”

Today, practically every visual production takes advantage of storyboarding to plot its progress; to plan its key shots and how to get from one to the next:  motion pictures, television and magazine advertising, video games.  Even comic books are often storyboarded first.  The Storyboard Artist is a manual from a veteran storyboard artist who explains, “As a professional, I understand that a good storyboard artist is not simply someone who is a good artist.  There is much more involved.  A storyboard freelancer is one who is capable of resolving problems and finding solutions while working on a script with other creative types such as art directors, copywriters, and movie directors.  The storyboard profession entails much more than just possessing the ability to draw; therefore, this book will cover many other aspects of the storyboard profession.” (p. xi)

Note that Cristiano keeps referring to “the storyboard profession”.  Like any profession, storyboarding has its tricks of the trade.  The professional storyboard artist has to be able to do much more than sketch the plot of the production in comic-strip form, as Cristiano warns is a common misconception of what a storyboard is.  “The storyboard is the backbone of a production, a tool that helps a director visualize the work he or she is going to produce.  The storyboard provides the director with the opportunity to fine-tune a script before the shooting starts.  This is advantageous to any director for preventing mistakes and wasted time.” (p. 2)  Storyboarding is often used to save money and time on a production; to tell early which scenes are unnecessary and can be shortened or eliminated before production begins.

Chapter 2, “What You Need To Get Started”, goes far beyond the obvious pencils and pens.  Remember, this is for the professional storyboarder who needs to plan for a career, not a single production.  A computer, a printer, flash drives, light boxes, digital tablets and more are discussed.  “As a professional, I have always tried to keep up to date with the latest techniques to improve my work and expand my art.  So whenever something new came out on the market, I simply saw it as an investment that would pay for itself in additional work.” (p. 12)  Cristiano even notes that, when working with a laptop computer on an airplane, sitting near the emergency exit will give you more legroom. Also, build up a visual reference file, including carrying around a digital camera to take reference photos.

Chapter 3, “Storyboard Artists and Comic Strip Artists”, explains the differences between the two.  “Some artists would argue that it’s easier for a comic artist to become a storyboarder than for the storyboard artist to work in comics.  […] for drawing storyboards, artists must have many other skills and talents.  As an example, they must possess the ability to adapt to the director’s style and transfer his or her vision onto the board.  While maintaining the style and language of the project, the storyboarder must understand what is doable and what is impossible to achieve.  The storyboarder understands that even one frame that varies from the set style and language can change the entire concept.” (p. 20)  The storyboarder must consider such things as what film frame ratio will be used, and what equipment is available.  (If the film can’t afford a helicopter, don’t put any shots from a helicopter’s p.o.v. into the board.)

Subsequent chapters cover drawing, the use of the storyboard in determining a production’s budget, storyboarding for advertising projects, working with directors and producers, storyboarding movies, and how to treat contracts and other legal matters.  For instance, just because most storyboards look more like rough sketches than finished drawings, some may assume that the storyboard artist does not know how to need to draw.  Cristiano shows that the better the storyboarder understands anatomy, perspective and framing, the better he or she will be able to storyboard.  “Since the most common choice, especially when it comes to advertising, is to go for an artist who is capable of drawing realistic figures, it can be very useful to practice copying from photographs.” (p. 57)

“After observing for a while, a storyboard artist will recognize the shots in films and almost be able to predict what the next situation will be, as well as understand certain visual foreshadowing.  This can ruin the intended surprise for the movie viewer.  For that reason, the storyboard artist must be creative so as to avoid certain clichéd sequences.  In the previous example, when movie viewers see the characters approaching the house from the view of the window, they know immediately that it suggests that something or someone is inside the house watching from the window, and that the characters may be in danger as they enter the house.  If that is what the script has in store, we don’t want to anticipate the action, so one solution might be to find another camera position that either doesn’t reveal that there is a threat in the house (although we assume so) or that our characters are going inside (though we assume that too).” (p. 43)  “Movie language” is explained; high and low angle shots, bird’s eye view, a BEW or TOP SHOT, ground shot, canted angle shot, dolly shots and pans, etc., with reference to storyboarding.  “ZOOMING is simply represented by arrows in a frame.” (p. 46)

Into this is worked good advice for any job hunter, tailored to the storyboarding profession:  keep up to date in your field, use references, know how to analyze the project, organize your work, how to behave at meetings, and so on. 

Cristiano ends with a brief autobiography.  He started out freelancing at advertising agencies in France, Spain, and all over Scandinavia, “when out of the blue I got a call from a production company.  It was working on an animated TV series and urgently needed a storyboard artist.” (p. 179)  So storyboarding may have begun in the animation industry, and every animated film needs a storyboard, but so does every live-action movie, every TV commercial, and every video game.  The professional storyboarder will be able to move among all of them with ease.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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