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Producing Animation: Storyboarding

This month, Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi delve into the crucial pre-production step of storyboarding. This is the last step to economically keeping a film on track and shouldn't be taken lightly...

You can purchase Producing Animation now.

You can purchase Producing Animation now.

In Producing Animation's Chapter 8, we cover all the specifics as to how a project gets off the ground and fully prepared for production. The topics covered include:

Here is an excerpt describing one of the most critical stages to every animated project: Storyboarding.

The Purpose

It is every filmmaker's goal to come up with an innovative way of telling his or her story. In animation, it all begins with the storyboard. After all, it is the first time the words are taken from the script and translated into images. The storyboard artist's job is to draw panels that illustrate scenes depicting the characters, their action and their environment.At this stage of the game, there is a full range of possibilities open to the director since they are starting with a blank slate.

By allotting adequate time for storyboarding, the producer gives the director and the artists the opportunity to nail down the story and improve it as much as possible. The more time spent on fixing script problems in this stage, the better. In fact, in an ideal world, production does not start until the majority -- if not all -- of the boarding is completed and approved. Since the storyboarding phase is the last comparatively inexpensive portion of production, it is one of thebest places to allocate resourcesto avoid potentialproblems down the line. If, for example, the story is not entertaining or is predictable, this is the time to delve into it.In suchcases, production should be halted, if possible, or slowed down so that writing issues can be addressed before spending further monies. Unfortunately, we have worked on too many shows where the deadline to start productionand/orthe lack of funds has forced this phase to be rushed. The result is that story points left unresolved at this point haunt the entire production. To quote a veteran storyboard artist, "Somehow there is never enough time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over."

Getting Started

Before the director can hand out an assignment to the storyboard artist, the following items have to be in order:

  • The script
  • The voice track (if available)
  • Character models
  • Location designs
  • Prop designs
  • Office space and supplies (if the artist works in-house)
  • Page and panel setups
  • Sample completed storyboard panels illustrating the show's style and complexity level (if applicable)

Initially, the director divides the script into sequences. Each sequence is further broken down into scenes that become the individual units which go through the production pipeline and are then assembled to make the final project. The location where the action takes place and the time of day are typically the factors that the director uses to delineate a sequence. On a primetime 22-minute show, for example, it is common to have three artists working for six weeks (or 18 staff-weeks) on a storyboard. Due to time and money limitations, once the artist gets guidance from the director, they focus their efforts on making the story work. For the most part, however, there aren't many departures from the script. On these types of shows, storyboard artists in essence take on the role of editors and cinematographers. They work on how the show should be cut by the way they depict the scene, asking such questions as, 'Is it in a single master shot? Or are there many cuts?' They also create the template for the look of the film through how they choose to set up camera angles and how the characters are framed and composed within the scene.

Feature Storyboarding

The primary goal for the feature storyboard artist on the other hand is to tell the story. In long format, the script often plays second fiddle to the storyboard. Instead of the script being closely followed, it provides a frame of reference that the artist can use and improve upon. On a 75- to 80-minute project, the storyboarding staff has approximately a year to complete their task. Often when there is only a treatment or a description of a particular event, the storyboard artist is given the material in order to explore a theme and come up with possible paths to be followed by the script. As the feature storyboards evolve, the script is revised to match the latest set of boards. (In Chapter 5, "The Development Process," we further discuss the relationship between feature storyboarding and the script.)

Another distinction between feature and television storyboarding is that on features, there is usually a department supervisor. This person functions as a liaison between the director and the artists. The department supervisor also manages the workflow through his or her department with the aid of an APM. In this department, the story goes through many variations; it is the role of the story APM to keep track of the creative notes and update production personnel on script changes. They meet with their crew on a weekly basis to discuss the overall status of the script and talk about the work in progress.

When a sequence is ready for storyboarding, the department supervisor assigns or casts it to the appropriate artist (that is depending on the project, someone who works well with drawing action adventure or has a knack for timing and illustrating comedy). Another approach is to have a group of artists work together on the same sequence. The artists are each assigned a story beat to work out. After artists finish their sections, they are pitched to the group for comments. Their panels are either approved for viewing by the director or sent back for revisions.

On the Same Page

Because the storyboarding procedure is the cornerstone of any production, it is vital to establish a few ground rules. It should be noted that before starting storyboarding, the size of the panels must be standardized. The ratio used for television and direct-to-video projects is approximately 1.33:1 (soon to be changed to 1.78:1 when the digital format begins to take over). For direct-to-video projects that are intended for limited theatrical release and for feature films, the standard ratio is 1.85:1. For projects that opt to use the cinemascope format, the ratio is 2.35:1.

For both television and direct-to-video projects, sample storyboard pages should be created so that all artists use the same setup. It is common to have three panels per page and allocate space underneath each panel for dialogue and action. On series and direct-to-video productions, it is advisable to distribute an approved storyboard section to the artists. This is used as a tool to ensure consistency of style for the show and to standardize the amount of detail expected on each panel. The model storyboard also has other benefits. One important advantage is for the artist to be able to gauge their assignment in correlation with its due date. Too often, there is an immediate conflict between artists and the production staff when the time needed by an artist to finish the job and the allotted time schedule don't correspond. The sample storyboard enables everyone to see the final goal and have realistic expectations of the show's requirements.

Catherine Winder has worked as both an executive producer in television and feature animation. Her background in development, as well as production with studios from around the world has given her a rare global expertise in the field of animation. In her present position as vice president production for Fox Feature Animation, she is overseeing production of the studio's 2D traditional and 3D CGI animated movies. She has co-written Producing Animation with Zahra Dowlatabadi.

Zahra Dowlatabadi, an award-winning producer, started her animation career in 1986. Since then, Dowlatabadi has worked in almost every major studio in Los Angeles along with many internationally acclaimed animation studios and talent. Dowlatabadi is the founder of an organization entitled Animation Team, which assists studios with production staffing needs ranging from qualified line producers to experienced production assistants. She also has co-written a book entitled

Producing Animation with Catherine Winder for Focal Press.