The Digital Eye: Why Storyboards Still Work

In response to a previous Digital Eye column on why storyboards dont work, veteran previs artist Peter Rubin offers a counter argument about why they are not obsolete.

Anyone who really understands how storyboards are used, on a movie set or in animation, will dismiss Per Holmes assertions in his article Why Storyboards Dont Work out of hand. But I am writing this today for the benefit of those who dont yet have that real-world experience, and for my fellow artists: both 2D and 3D.

Please indulge me a little while I establish my credentials.

Ive been doing digital previs for feature films since before most people knew what it was. Ive been an advocate of digital media in preproduction for 15 years, and, along with a small handful of others, pioneered its use in feature film art departments. I spent four-and-a-half years at ILM as a vfx art director. I have previsualized camera moves, action and vfx for Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Roland Emmerich, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Mostow and quite a few others.

I started as a traditional sketch artist I made the leap to digital in the early 90s, drawing directly into the computer with a Wacom tablet. I incorporated 3D in 1993, on Stargate. I have combined 2D and 3D in my work over the years in just about every conceivable way. Earlier this year, I wrapped directing duties on EAs Godfather videogame cut-scenes, where, incidentally, we used a book of 2D boards three inches thick.

Storyboards and 3D animatics seem to serve the same function, superficially. But in reality they are two different, complementary tools with different places in the process of filmmaking. There is a place for each, and yes, sometimes they overlap. Thats fine.

As Ive been reminded many times, filmmaking aint brain surgery but like the surgeons scalpel, storyboards are there for that initial cut, to get you in and on your way. The animatic, like the medical laser, is a more complex instrument best suited for another stage of the operation.

On the surface of it, the 3D piece is closer to the final product, right? Isnt that better?

Not always.

Storyboards are cheap and fast. Hand drawn storyboards excel at portraying things that are laborious for an animatic artist. Emotion and humor are essential tools for conveying a story, and animatics just dont deliver.

Storyboards get to the heart of the matter telling a story with sequential images, like film right at the top of any production. Budget approvals, breakdowns, quick ideation, brainstorming, would be tough as hell without them. Those things cant wait for 3D animatics, which are simply not as fast and flexible.

Picture me drawing storyboards while my director is pitching a brand-new sequence to producers in the next room. Im delivering the pages as fast as I can draw them, some of them just in time.

And the next shot is oh, thanks, Peter The next shot is, (tacking it up on a wall), this!

Remember, Roland?

Try doing that with 3D animatics I shudder. I cant imagine any team doing a breakdown of a script or a vfx sequence without boards. I cant say Ive never done previs without them almost never but every time I have, Ive had to scramble after the fact to create them so their function could be fulfilled.

You can look at a wall full of hand drawn boards and get the essence of a sequence, in seconds. Then linger here, then there, go back and study this frame or that all much faster than you could play back an animatic as fast as your eye can move. Think of it as random-access, non-linear mental editing. Ive always maintained that you could tell how good a sequence was going to be by putting all the boards up on the wall, standing back and taking it in all at once, not thinking about it much but just letting it wash over you. 3D animatics must be played in real time to be useful. Without playback, they are just bad storyboards.

There are other, more ephemeral things about 2D storyboards that add value as well. Theres a lot of pleasure to be had in looking at good drawings. The relationship between a director and a good continuity artist is a special one, a collaboration that can spark creativity in an entire crew, with wide-reaching positive effects on the final product. And for the individual animator/director working on a private project, they are the very best way to get those first ideas out, shove them around, mold them, make them better, with no overhead and minimal effort.

Should I buy at any level Holmes argument that by using storyboards as a films initial creative grammar, you end up limiting choices?

I dont think so. This is an issue for some live-action directors and dps they believe it hampers their creativity. But Holmes theory is that storyboards are worse in this respect than 3D and the opposite is actually the case. Many of these directors prefer to improvise on the set, and keep their options open. Of course, this is often a disaster for visual effects or action shots, and impossible in traditional animation. Its more possible in CG features but also costly, and aggravating as hell for the animators. Often its preferable for this kind of director to use storyboards and very loose ones because tighter previsualization makes them feel tied down. The danger is that in having something so much closer in nature to an actual shot, it becomes authoritative too early. Animatics are seductive and they can persuade, even when theyre not very good, because they look like a fait accompli. And keep in mind that this is not always about the directors creativity often its about producers who, the director fears, will hold him or her to an early decision, or one made by someone else.

Peter Rubin

Peter Rubin

So whats good about 3D? So many things.

When you need to see exactly how a vfx shot times out, what the relationship of objects over time actually might be in the real world, and how those objects and their movement would react to different lenses, well, the 3D animatic beats the static boards.

When you want to produce a precise-as-possible edit in advance of a shoot, the 3D animatic wins again. (Untrue, though, if the scene you are pre-visualizing involves lots of dialog or is heavily dependent on an actors performance in some other way.)

If you have accurate designs to work from, you can show a director exactly how his cameras will interact with things that have only been imagined, never seen. Thats immensely valuable. Storyboards dont usually give you that (although, once upon a time, it was incumbent upon story artists to learn the math that would do this on paper. A lost aspect of the craft see the last pages of Steven Katz Shot by Shot and youll see what I mean). 3D just does this better, and faster. And its perfect when you need to fill a missing shot slot in an edit, when the vfx wont be ready for weeks or months. If you need to simulate big-budget action in order to beg for that budget, 3D is great. Just storyboard first.

And 3D has its pleasures for the artist as well. When I get an animatic to work right, the combination of movement and light and space and objects just so its very satisfying (well, all right, it makes me giggle like a kid). And working in 3D has been of enormous benefit to me in my 2D work having the freedom to play dp, and experiment with camera moves that I could in no other way have afforded, was a boon to my imagination.

So which should the director/producer choose if theres only money for one? (A hypothetical question it will always be cheaper to storyboard, at least until the day that video iPods come down to the price of paper. But lets pretend.) All else being equal, animatics or storyboards? That depends, and not on technology. It depends on the personal preferences of the director, the schedule, and the gifts of the available artists. 2D or 3D, in motion or static, a previsualized sequence will only be as good as the person executing it. I would argue that if you can afford previs, you cant afford not to storyboard as well.

Lets look directly at some of the assertions in Holmes article.

The article starts off by saying that storyboarding is so far removed from real camera work that probably 90% of shots and moves simply cant be drawn in this format.

This is hard to comprehend. Storyboards have been used to effectively plan camera work for what 85 years? The language of film has worked hand-in-hand with the storyboarding craft for nearly the entire life of the industry. Think of one of the most innovative directors in the history of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, who began his career as an illustrator, and achieved his signature style through storyboarding.

The circular logic of his argument is Escheresque. Holmes says on his website that he learned what he knows by reverse engineering Hollywood movies (by which I assume he means watching and taking notes. Well, good. I recommend this for anyone). Those Hollywood camera moves particularly the most kinetic, complex and lengthy ones were planned using storyboards. Now, he offers to teach the world what he has learned, and he begins by asserting storyboarding doesnt work.

He later contends its unfortunate that storyboards are still in use, because for this reason alone theres very little camera work in 3D animated features. Now I really have to wonder has he seen the same 3D features that I have? The Incredibles, anyone? Anyone who knows animation knows that storyboards are an irreplaceable part of the process.

Another statement he makes is that a car chase, being inherently sequential, would be frustrating to block from this mindset of multiple cameras. Great Googly Moogly, my man, multiple cameras are a staple of car chases.

Well, OK, this article is aimed, not at live-action filmmakers, but at struggling artists who may be trying to make their own 3D-animated films. Fair enough. All the more reason to ash-can this advice:

Dont storyboard! Block it out in 3D right away! And then, once youve blocked your scene and rebuilt your environment several times and rigged your cameras twice, because you didnt know, until you were already deep into it, what youd need then, and only then, should you start to, um, ah, block it out in 3D.


All of this would be merely academic, and darn funny, if the livelihoods of some outstanding film professionals (and, some would argue, the quality of the final work) were not already being adversely affected by opinions like this. Storyboards are still widely in use but some productions are now starting to deny it, so that they wont seem behind the times (this recently happened to one of my ex-ILM colleagues). That should make us, artists and directors of all dimensions, just a little bit alarmed.

Peter Rubin was born in Texas and raised in Southern California, Arizona and Manchester, England, and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and three daughters. He has been working as an artist in various aspects of film production for the past 17 years.