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Storyboards: What it Takes — Part 2

The second 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.

Cinematography

Camera movement, lighting and composition are essentially the paintbrushes used to create a shot, be it live or animated. They can be combined in near infinite ways and, along with editing techniques, they dictate the pace and mood of the story.

Camera movement must, in animation, be combined with knowledge of Animation Mechanics, of which there will be more in a moment. Even in television animation, simple pans and zooms can enliven an otherwise dreary cartoon though it is essential to know when and where to use them. Panning around for no real purpose other than to add movement is a waste of resources. And complicated camera moves can have two unwanted results: on the one hand, it can be so clever a move that it takes the viewer out of the story so that he is admiring the virtuosity of the shot. Great for a demo reel, not great for a story. (For a particularly fun examination [and execution] of this phenomenon, see the opening shot of Robert Altman's live-action film The Player.)

Complex shots are often costly in time and money, and they may add little or nothing to the final effect of the story. In Pinocchio there is a stunning truck-in down through the village to Geppeto's shop, made all the more incredible when you realize the limited technology they had to achieve this move. It cost beaucoup dollars, and when the film was finished, no one even noticed it. A simpler truck-in would've have gotten across the same effect. Walt swore that he would never do such a shot again.

But the fact remains that a simple one-field pan can completely alter the emphasis of a composition, as well as the mood of the shot. Camera movement is one of the board person's most important tools.

Lighting in traditional TV animation has always been somewhat limited, though there are many effective tricks one can use to evoke mood. But in features, and with the advent of 3D animation, lighting has become as important to animation as it is to live action. Though other artists do the actual lighting work, crucial decisions about lighting, especially mood lighting, are made at the storyboard stage. Initial lighting setups and movements of characters in and out of lights can add immensely to the overall effectiveness of a scene. Although it is slightly outdated and overly technical for animation, a good primer on lighting is Painting With Light by John Alton.

A good place to start learning more about lighting is John Alton's Painting with Light.

A good place to start learning more about lighting is John Alton's Painting with Light.

Composition, where you decide to put the camera, is one of the prime creative questions in filmmaking of any sort. It is, in live action, decided by the director and cinematographer. In animation, it falls into the domain of the board artist.

The basic answer, of course, lies in how the event is staged and what you want the audience to see at any given moment, but the aesthetic answer also considers how you want them to see it. Clarity is usually a consideration, yet straight on shots can be so dull as to disengage the viewer from the story. But complex, poorly thought out compositions can have the same effect by obscuring essential detail. Composition is always used in the service of the story being told.

Composition must also be considered in relation to the length of the shot; in other words, it is closely tied to editing. If a shot is intended to be on the screen for only a brief time, say 12 frames, then the composition of the shot must be that which most quickly focuses the eye on the information to be conveyed. More subtle composition can be explored in a lengthier shot.

And finally, composition must be considered in relation to editing in another way, that is, the relation of the shot to the one preceding and the one following it. Cutting from one composition to an identical one can either be confusing OR it can tie the two scenes together dramatically. And a progression of compositions over several cuts can help propel the dramatic impact of the editing.

Cartoon Network's Samurai Jack has broken new ground in terms of editing. © Cartoon Network.

Cartoon Network's Samurai Jack has broken new ground in terms of editing. © Cartoon Network.

Editing

Editing is an art form unto itself. There is something magical about taking two unrelated pieces of film and splicing them together to create a new idea. It can make or break a movie, and many a film has been saved by a creative editor. Without meaning to disparage animation editors, most of the functions performed by live-action editors are done in animation by the board artist. And though Sinbad had the luxury of shooting coverage (multiple takes of different angles of the same scene) that can be played with later in the editing room, it is a lot more likely that the rest of us will have to edit entirely in our heads.

It is an old saw that that each shot must be considered in the context of the shot that precedes and follows it. That's true, but simplistic. The progression of images over time has a cumulative effect on rhythm, clarity, mood, pace and impact. Too much reliance on, say, closeups, or pans, both diminish the dynamics of the story as well as the impact of the particular shot. In a live-action movie like John Ford's The Searchers, there are only two closeups in the entire film, and their impact, because of their rarity, is overwhelming. The 1951 The Thing From Another World has no closeups at all, and the lack of them creates an incredible and subtle tension. (Watch the scene where they examine the severed arm of the Thing for an outstanding example of how composition and camera movement, rather than a closeup can add impact to a scene.)

Anime relies on such dynamic editing for much of its force and interest, and amazingly, solid editing combined with strong composition and staging can mitigate the lack of actual animation in such cartoons. (Even our old pals Ren & Stimpy often get their laughs from powerfully composed still drawings put on the screen at just the right moment, as opposed to the more commonplace mélange of meaningless head bobbing, finger-wagging animation. But then is that discussion better opened under composition? Or drawing? Hmmmmm.) A hybrid type show like Samurai Jack has broken much new ground in editing, often going far beyond rote editing techniques learned from other animation or live action.

A dry but solid book on the subject is Film Editing by Karl Reisz.

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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