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Storyboards: What it Takes — Part 3

The third 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.

Animation

Did I really have to put this in here? Yep. I am always surprised at how some board artists havent the least idea of how to use animation effectively. Every time I see a scene where someone says, Lets go, gang and a group of characters turns and walks off stage I cringe. What a waste of pencil mileage, even in a feature.

This is not to say one should stay away from scenes that require lots of animation, but resources, even on a $150 million dollar feature are always limited, and it is best to use those resources wisely. Anime circumvents problems like these with strong composition and editing, then wows us with the real deal when the climax comes. It will be to your benefit to take at least a beginning animation course, if for no other reason than to be better able to communicate your ideas to the timing director and animators who will ultimately get your section.

Acting

Many artists are fairly adept at drawing emotions on faces, but few seem to know what to do with the body of the character. In dramatic cartoons, except in moments of rage or laughter, characters tend to stand around with hands on hips or arms folded, or just arms hanging at the side. And in both realistic and funny cartoons, there is a tendency to reuse the same old poses over and over again, ad nauseum. (There is one pose, the one with the character holding both arms and hands up in a kind of shrug or explanatory manner that I would like to make illegal because of its overuse.) Posing is really about acting with the body, and you can t do it if you don t have some experience moving your own in a dramatic way. One well posed drawing is a thousand times more effective than a bad pose with lots of animated head bobs and extraneous arm moves. Look at the best anime, or Dexters Laboratory or, to show that it s not a new idea, the original Jonny Quest. Acting knowledge will also improve your staging and, believe it or not, your drawing ability.

Want to be a better board artist right away? Take an acting class. Not a voice over class, but a class where you actually have to physically move. And there s a lot to be learned about acting and silhouette from the silent comedians as well.

Silent film stars like Buster Keaton have been influencing animation for nearly a century.

Silent film stars like Buster Keaton have been influencing animation for nearly a century.

Gag Structure

Do you know a person who cant tell a joke to save their life? Thats someone who doesnt understand gag structure. Acceptable socially, it is death to the board artist. And gag doesnt have to mean a funny incident. If Batman has to save Superman by the use of some clever trick, that is also a gag. Like a musical piece, all gags can be broken down into set-up, development and payoff. Whether humorous or dramatic, gags most often seem to fail because they are not set up clearly or because they are rushed in execution. (O.K., its true that some gags are just not funny or dramatically satisfying, but their structure remains the same.)

I think gag structure can only be learned by watching and analyzing lots of gags, and not just those from Warner Bros. cartoons. In fact a lot of their inspiration came from silent comedies, and the study of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy pays rich reward, as does the study of anime, and great action and suspense sequences from classic live action movies.

Remember though that the goal is not to repeat the past. What is funny or dramatic, like everything else, evolves over time but basic structure remains the same. There is much room for innovation... once you are thoroughly grounded in the basics.

Storytelling

The purpose of the board is to tell, in the most expressive, entertaining way possible, the story that has been decided upon. Although storytelling is a technique in itself, it is, lets face it, also the whole point of what you are doing in a board, whether you are doing SpongeBob SquarePants or the new Miyazaki movie or Scooby-Doos latest adventure.

And how do you learn this skill? There are, of course, books on the subject. There are countless films to watch, books and screenplays to read. Ultimately, however, this, even more so than the other skills discussed, must be learned by doing. You can tell yourself stories, then analyze them. Write them out on paper, tell them to friends. Study cartoons and movies and books that you like and challenge yourself constantly. The broader your base of knowledge and experience with story, the more skilled you will be in using all the tools we have discussed in the service of telling the tale.

Though we have discussed all these aspects of boarding separately, they are obviously interdependent. The script is the foundation and the board is the blueprint from which an animated film is built. It is of course a mistake to think that the script and storyboard are the finished movie. There are many creative decisions that must be made by dozens if not hundreds of other artists on down the line. But, as the old saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.

There are lots of writing classes and seminars and books to help the writer master his (or her) craft, but there are few comprehensive storyboard classes. Youre pretty much on your own. But the material is out there. Go get it!

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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