Matt Jones passes on his in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence for hon­ing your sto­ry­board craft – a key skill for any an­i­ma­tion project

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Dur­ing the early months on Pixar’s In­side Out, I gave my­self a per­sonal as­sign­ment to draw a se­quence from the point of view of an ado­les­cent girl run­ning away from home af­ter an ar­gu­ment with her par­ents. I had re­cently moved to San Fran­cisco from the UK and based the se­quence on my ex­plo­ration of the Bay Area. She fol­lowed a path across the Golden Gate Bridge through Sausal­ito, Marin and up to Point Reyes light­house – the edge of her known world. I could see a par­al­lel with the in­te­rior story of the Emo­tions lost in the Mind (at the heart of the film).

I was try­ing to find sym­bols that could have cor­re­spond­ing in­te­rior imagery: the light­house as a beacon of joy, the Golden Gate Bridge span­ning two worlds, the fog that hangs above Twin Peaks.

I drew the se­quence rapidly in a flurry of in­spi­ra­tion, on pa­per, but then lost the orig­i­nals. I’ve recre­ated the se­quence dig­i­tally, taking more care over the draw­ing. They’re ‘ beat boards’ – sin­gle pan­els to rep­re­sent a scene.

The ori­en­ta­tion of the face to­wards the cam­era can de­ter­mine the level of em­pa­thy the au­di­ence feels

1 Get­ting started

Faced with that first blank panel, where do you be­gin? Well, think! Read the script pages mul­ti­ple times and vi­su­alise the se­quence in your mind. Start sketch­ing key im­ages or shots you think are in­te­gral. It may be an es­tab­lish­ing shot of the lo­ca­tion or the height of the emo­tional beat of the scene. For a com­plex setup with mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters mov­ing around, a good idea is to draw a map with cam­era place­ments to stay on track.

2 Get thumb­nail­ing

Thumb­nail sketches are ‘think­ing’ draw­ings and help me quickly work out the stag­ing and act­ing of a se­quence. I won’t start a se­quence un­til I’ve fully thought it through and know where I’m go­ing with it. I’ll im­pro­vise act­ing and poses once I get into board­ing, but I need this frame­work to sup­port the se­quence and en­sure it flows with the right cam­era an­gles, moves and cuts. I usu­ally thumb­nail on the script page, rough­ing out com­po­si­tions and cir­cling lines of di­a­logue with speech bal­loons at­tached to the rel­e­vant shot.

3 Sto­ry­board ba­sics

Con­tem­po­rary fea­ture an­i­ma­tion board­ing usu­ally re­quires sev­eral pan­els per shot. For in­stance, if a char­ac­ter is mov­ing out of frame from a stand­ing po­si­tion you would have an A pose (stand­ing), a B pose (walk­ing out), and a C pose (gone). For the pur­pose of a smooth an­i­matic the editor might de­mand some in-be­tween poses, for ex­am­ple, an an­tic­i­pa­tion pose, be­fore the walk and a half-out pose as the char­ac­ter ex­its the frame. This is where mod­ern sto­ry­board­ing con­verges with old-school 2D lay­out and even ap­proaches an­i­ma­tion. It de­pends on the wants and needs of par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tors and ed­i­tors, but of­ten story an­i­mat­ics or story reels feel an­i­mated. They may be roughly drawn but are so fleshed out they feel an­i­mated, which helps the au­di­ence read or fol­low the story.

4 Gen­er­ate em­pa­thy

The ori­en­ta­tion of the face to­wards the cam­era can de­ter­mine the level of em­pa­thy the au­di­ence feels with that char­ac­ter. A fig­ure in pro­file re­veals less of their face, shows only one eye and there­fore we see less of their emo­tional state (al­though it works for a de­tached or cold state). The Pixar style has evolved to have char­ac­ters vir­tu­ally full face with their eye­line just left or right of the cam­era. (The char­ac­ters in Cars needed this be­cause of their wide fa­cial de­signs).

5 Over­laps help cre­ate depth

Use depth to bring a more cin­e­matic qual­ity to your pan­els. You can de­fine space in two di­men­sions by hav­ing char­ac­ters at dif­fer­ent scales within the frame, or over­lap­ping them to de­lin­eate size dif­fer­ences. Use over­lap­ping ob­jects and ar­chi­tec­ture too. Char­ac­ters ad­vanc­ing to or re­ced­ing from the cam­era also give the il­lu­sion of 3D space.

6 Main­tain eye­lines

Screen di­rec­tion must be ad­hered to. If char­ac­ter A is talk­ing to char­ac­ter B then A must face B and those eye­lines should be main­tained. Char­ac­ter A shouldn’t be look­ing in the same di­rec­tion as char­ac­ter B when they’re talk­ing. If both char­ac­ters ap­pear to look screen left then one of them has bro­ken the 180-de­gree line, and the viewer will feel they’re no longer ad­dress­ing each other.

7 Build­ing tech­niques

Story artists should not only be good at tack­ling char­ac­ter ex­pres­sions, but must also be adept at en­vi­ron­ments, the back­grounds of sto­ry­board pan­els. Sketch from life and fa­mil­iarise your­self with dif­fer­ent ar­chi­tec­tural styles to build a men­tal li­brary of de­signs. Study prin­ci­ples of per­spec­tive and use it to dy­namic ef­fect in your boards. Low or high an­gles on build­ings tend to look more cin­e­matic.

8 Body lan­guage

I love to tell sto­ries visu­ally, with as lit­tle di­a­logue as pos­si­ble. It’s the unique power of cin­e­matic sto­ry­telling and I rel­ish the chal­lenge of com­mu­ni­cat­ing nar­ra­tive through draw­ing alone. The draw­ing above be­came an ex­er­cise in ex­press­ing emo­tion through com­po­si­tion, fram­ing, body ges­ture and fa­cial at­ti­tude.

9 Make good use of light­ing

I like to in­di­cate light­ing to add a sense of mood and tone. To do this quickly (story artists must work fast these days to hit short dead­lines), I start all story pan­els on a grey back­ground, from a tem­plate. I use lighter greys for skin tones, white to high­light eyes, clouds, teeth and dark greys to bal­ance and black for con­trast. (This means a white back­ground can be used, for star­tling ef­fect, when re­quired).

You must sup­press artis­tic ego. The draw­ings are en­tirely dis­pos­able

10 Aim for in­ter­est­ing stag­ing

Di­a­logue scenes don’t have to be char­ac­ters stand­ing around. De­cide if it might serve the scene bet­ter to have them move around. The stag­ing can help you ex­press who has the power in a scene – who is dom­i­nant. Power can shift within a scene or a shot as char­ac­ters be­come small or large el­e­ments within the com­po­si­tion.

11 Big or small?

Size re­la­tion­ships can in­flu­ence the emo­tions of the au­di­ence or re­veal a char­ac­ter’s psy­chol­ogy. A very small fig­ure on screen can seem lonely or over­whelmed by their en­vi­ron­ment. If the hori­zon line is at a low an­gle, a char­ac­ter can feel dom­i­nant over their en­vi­ron­ment or heroic, even.

12 Lead the eye

In sto­ry­board­ing, you’re lead­ing the eye with con­trast. The viewer’s eye will in­stantly go to the point of high­est con­trast. Use white against black, in shape terms, straight against curve, or neg­a­tive against pos­i­tive. Our brains are hard-wired to de­tect con­trast and it’s aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing. Con­trast is dy­namic, com­mu­nica­tive and cin­e­matic. Don’t be afraid to use heavy blacks – think like a cam­era op­er­a­tor and cre­ate draw­ings that feel like frames from a film.

13 make your shots count

Close-ups can be re­served for im­pact – don’t make ev­ery di­a­logue shot a close-up. Re­mem­ber, the char­ac­ters are large on a cinema screen. An in­ti­mate close-up of a char­ac­ter’s face is only re­ally nec­es­sary for very sub­tle shots of emo­tional res­o­nance, to show some­one think­ing, chang­ing their mind, re­al­is­ing some­thing, shock, sur­prise and so on.






















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