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Storyboards: What it Takes — Part 1

First in a three-part series on what one needs to know to be a top-notch storyboard artist, based upon a course Larry Latham taught at Walt Disney TV Animation.

Larry Latham.

Larry Latham.

Just about everybody thinks they can do storyboards. I once had a secretary tell me that she, with no drawing or film experience, could do that!

As a producer and director with more than two decades of experience [hundreds of boards to his credit], I can tell you that storyboarding requires a unique set of skills and talent.

Board people gained more respect over the last five or 10 years, mostly from the increased awareness given to the use of storyboards in live action. But there are some big differences between the two mediums, the most obvious being that live action (unless it is heavily special effects laden) can be made without boards, whereas boards are absolutely essential to animation. Everyone knows this, yet training for storyboards is still hard to come by. I recently gave thought to the specialized knowledge board artists need to do their jobs. Here is what I think every good board artist needs to know.

Strong composition combined with simple animation can be more effective than lots of pencil mileage. From Lovecraft is Missing © 2004 Larry Latham.

Strong composition combined with simple animation can be more effective than lots of pencil mileage. From Lovecraft is Missing © 2004 Larry Latham.

Drawing

I put this first because it's the most obvious, but it is a long way from the most important, a fact many terrific draftsmen fail to grasp. I have held many beautifully rendered boards in my hand that were, from a production standpoint, totally unusable, both dramatically and mechanically. And I have seen, in moments of deadline panic, fantastic, expressive, workable boards done with stick figures. As in animation, gesture and expression are far more important than beautiful technique. Board artists in television deal with short deadlines. Drawing quickly and efficiently are pluses, but none of it matters if the artist can't stage or edit or tell a story. A well-staged board with so-so drawing can still work. Terrific animation on a well-drawn but badly staged board is a waste of time and money.

The best way to improve your drawing is to draw... a lot! That's something you will be doing already if you are currently doing boards. Make that time spent at the drawing table do double duty, and use it to constantly improve your draftsmanship.

Staging

If I had to pick the most important element of boarding, this would be it. Gags fail and dramas crumble because of inept staging. This is where the board person becomes the equivalent of a live-action or theatrical director. It involves the meaningful arrangement of people and objects in space, and their movement through that space in a clear manner that is always in the service of the story, as well as the judicious use of resources. There's the old joke about the writer talking to the board artist, saying, and when I say a thousand screaming Bedouins come riding up over the sand dunes, I mean three!

Of course, computers have made scenes like this not only possible but commonplace in features, but in television, the writer still generally means three. But you may use clever staging and editing to give the impression of a thousand. (I am reminded of the Confederate general that kept marching his limited troops around in a circle so that they would pass the clearing that was visible to his Union counterpart in an uninterrupted line. This actually worked and the Union general withdrew. That Confederate general might have had a career in theater if he had pursued it.)

Complex camera moves can be simulated with a simple perspective and knowledge of animation mechanics. From Lovecraft is Missing © 2004 Larry Latham.

Complex camera moves can be simulated with a simple perspective and knowledge of animation mechanics. From Lovecraft is Missing © 2004 Larry Latham.

The staging of the scene will dictate or at least heavily influence your acting, composition, camera movement and editing. It will, in turn, be influenced by the needs of the story at that moment, as well as the storypoints' purpose in the overall structure.

The quick way to understanding staging, besides just studying tons of movies and cartoons, is to read deeply in the literature, most of which is theatrically oriented. Nonetheless, the principles are there. I recommend Directing for the Stage by Terry John Converse for a starter.

Film Continuity

Basically, this could be called keeping things clear. You've no doubt seen the shows, live and animated, where the hat is on in the closeup and off in the longshot; or the lady is standing on her left leg in one shot and her right in another; or the characters are facing each other in the two-shot but seem to be looking in the same direction in the singles instead of one looking left and one looking right. Mistakes like this knock the viewer out of the story momentarily, which is at best annoying, and at worst confusing as hell.

New filmmaking techniques have allowed for much freer use of the rules, and shots that once would have been considered jumpcuts are now used as dramatic effects. Film continuity is definitely more critical in realistic cartoons. Most features and traditional TV shows, from Finding Nemo and Spirit to Justice League and Kim Possible, would look pretty awful if they weren't sticklers for continuity, whereas really out there shows like Ren & Stimpy often dispense with it entirely. But in these cases it is important to realize that the rules are being broken by people who know the rules in the first place.

Directing for the Stage and Directing Motion Pictures are essential books for storyboard artists. Concepts such as staging and crossing the line are clearly explained in them.

Directing for the Stage and Directing Motion Pictures are essential books for storyboard artists. Concepts such as staging and crossing the line are clearly explained in them.

Aside from just paying close attention to what you are drawing from panel to panel, making sure that poses and props hook-up (you'd be surprised how many continuity mistakes are committed at the board level), you also need to keep screen relationships clear. This can get tricky when characters move around a lot. It is even trickier when more than two characters are involved.

When a mistake is made, it is usually because the camera has crossed the line, meaning it has jumped over an imaginary line that runs between two characters, or even a character and an object. Even pros will often get confused as to whether they have crossed the line. The best and most detailed explanation of how not to cross the line that I have ever seen is a chapter in an out of print little paperback called Directing Motion Pictures, by Terrence St. John-Marner. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy.

Animation Mechanics

In that antediluvian era where we all used cels, we were limited to only six levels, which included OLs and ULs along with character parts. Then it was essential for the board artist to understand layout and animation mechanics, at least if he didn't want angry layout artists and animators stalking him through the halls. Many great effects were the result of creative combinations of mechanical elements.

Now that level limitations are a thing of the past and, except for monetary and time constraints, almost any shot you can dream up is possible, it doesn't seem like this would be so critical an issue. I contend that it is. On some shows, with certain budgets, some things are still not possible and without a usable knowledge of mechanics you run the risk of having the shot misunderstood and executed poorly in some cheaply simulated way, or worse, having your shot discarded completely by someone further down the production line and broken up into simple, more manageable and possibly less interesting shots. You also limit your ability to tell the story in the most effective way.

Most of the animation books on the market deal with this subject, but even doing simple animations in Flash is great training.

Larry Latham is designing and building theatrical sets and working on a young adult novel, as well as doing storyboards for Sherm, a new show due out next year. Latham has worked on a number of animated productions and taught a storyboard training course at Walt Disney TV Animation.

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