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Concept to Creation: Story and Storyboards

Mark Simon continues his series of twelve excerpts from his new book Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film, with some helpful advice on storyboarding.

All images are from Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film by Mark Simon. Reprinted with permission.

This is the second in a series of 12 excerpts from Mark Simons book, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film. This book is a full-color concept-to-pitch guide that teaches animators, students and small studios the art and business of producing short, cel animation films. Animation producer Mark Simon has detailed the process in an accessible how-to manner using his award-winning series, Timmys Lessons In Nature, as a guide. This 432-page book contains over 600 full-color images, interviews and a CD-Rom containing sample animation, animatics and sample softwares described in the text.

Back in the golden era of cartoon animation, there were no scripts, just directors storyboarding their ideas. They would come up with a basic story in a bull session and then storyboard the action. Good physical gags cant be written, only drawn. Gags are made funny by the expressions of the characters and the actions they go through, not necessarily by written descriptions. Dramatic scenes and situational humor, on the other hand, are best when scripted first.

Script vs. Board

It is up to you to determine what best suits the needs of your project -- writing a full script and then storyboarding, or doing the storyboards straight from a concept. If you are working for a client, always start with a script.

If you script your story ideas, make sure that you write your scripts in the proper script format. Even if no one but you sees the script, it will be good practice for when you need to show a client or potential employer that you know what youre doing. There are plenty of great books that explain script formatting.

When you storyboard an animated project, make sure you board out all key motions and the beginning and ending of each action, not just one drawing per scene. These storyboards will function as a reference for all your key animation. Notice in the following samples, in which Timmy walks up to and past the camera, bobbing his head side to side, that we use a number of frames to show how he moves. This is also true for when Timmy throws the candy at the fox. There are hundreds of ways a character could throw something, but we needed Timmy to look like he was just tossing his candy without any malicious intent. To save time and money, it was important for us to work out the proper action in storyboards rather than in animation.

We used multiple panels to show Timmy walking up to and past the camera. One drawing would not have accurately shown the action.

Practical Advice

Storyboards should never be drawn on the art supply store pads that have black around the panels or that have rounded corners. The black keeps you from drawing outside the image or from making notes. Rounded corners are generally frowned upon because rectangular boards are much easier to crop. The art supply store pads are also not the right size paper.

Storyboard sheets should be letter or legal size (8 1/2" x 11" or 8 1/2" x 14") for ease of copying and storing. Storyboards are often translated into layouts that provide the background design and position of the characters. Very tight storyboards, clean and well-rendered, are sometimes blown up and used as the layouts for a scene. At other times, layouts are provided for the storyboard artists. When layouts are provided, they will often be pasted below the storyboard panels as a reference for both the storyboard artist and production.

A page of storyboards with the layout taped on the bottom for reference.

The main reason for storyboarding is to pre-plan and enhance the story. Dont be overly concerned with the quality of the art. Concentrate on determining the proper shots to help the story flow. There are hundreds of elements that make up a great storyboard, far too many for this book. For all the details you may refer to my book, Storyboards: Motion in Art.

Storyboards: Motion in Art, 2nd Edition (published by Focal Press).

Ten Steps for a Great Storyboard

Here are ten elements that help make a great storyboard:

Varied shots. Make some shots wide, others close.

Building tension. Show the audience what the characters dont see. Cut to a bomb counting down. Show shadowy figures in the background.

Use Close-ups (Cus). Draw the viewer into the action.

Establishing shots. Give your viewers an overview of who is where to help them follow the action.

Cut-aways. Shots of a characters fingers twitching, or trophies on a wall, can say more about a character than lengthy dialogue.

Extreme Close-ups. An extremely close shot of a characters eye, mouth or finger will help enforce the urgency in what is happening.

Point of View shots (POV). Show the audience what your character sees from the characters view point. Point of View shots (POV). Show the audience what your character sees from the characters view point.

Motivate your shots. For instance, in order to have a POV, you need to first show the character looking toward something, which motivates a cut to their POV.

Over the Shoulder shots (OTS). This draws the viewer into the action and makes a scene more intimate.

Use as many drawings as necessary to show the action.

Close-up of character (left): normally head and shoulders or a bit tighter. An extreme close-up (right): the shaking finger of the character tells the audience hes not sure about what hes doing.

The shot of the character looking up motivates the next shot of his POV.

An over the shoulder shot.

The rest of the chapter contains 15 more key storyboard elements, information on digital storyboards, props for storyboard artists and examples and explanations of the entire storyboard from Timmys Lessons In Nature, Lesson 3. To learn about other topics, check out Producing Independent 2D Character Animation, published by Focal Press. It can be bought at any bookstore or online.

Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film by Mark Simon. Burlington, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2003. 432 pages. ISBN: 0-240-80513-5.

Mark Simon founded and owns A&S Animation, Inc., an award-winning cel animation house in Florida, which develops and produces character animation for commercials, TV, training videos and the Web. He also owns Animatics & Storyboards, Inc., the largest storyboard house in the southern United States, which has provided work on over 1,200 productions. Mark's accomplishments include owning an award-winning advertising firm, being a syndicated cartoonist, production designer of film, TV and animations, and writing entertainment industry books and lecturing on both animation and storyboards. Having won over 30 animation awards for his efforts, Mark has directed Timmy's Lessons In Nature (which he sold as a TV series), My Wife Is Pregnant, numerous commercials, training videos and television series special effects. Read more about A&S Animation and the author.