THE ART OF STORYBOARDING
Matt Jones passes on his industry experience for honing your storyboard craft – a key skill for any animation project
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.