The Art of the Story

On­line school CG Master Academy of­fers a rich se­lec­tion of classes, in­clud­ing one on sto­ry­board­ing for an­i­ma­tion. by Ellen Wolff

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On­line school CG Master Academy of­fers a rich se­lec­tion of classes, in­clud­ing one on sto­ry­board­ing for an­i­ma­tion. by Ellen Wolff

“A sto­ry­board artist has to be able to take a script — some­body else’s work — and not only in­ter­nal­ize it and

‘plus’ it, but then be able to take crit­i­cism and redo ev­ery­thing, and come at it with a new an­gle. Sto­ry­board

artists can’t get too pre­cious with any­thing.”

Ala carte is a term more fre­quently as­so­ci­ated with restau­rants than ed­u­ca­tion, but that’s how DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion mod­eler Manny Fragelus de­scribes the on­line art school CG Master Academy. “With an a la carte model, you can take any class you’re in­ter­ested in,” says Fragelus, who co-founded CGMA three-plus years ago with DreamWorks col­league Ted Davis and artist Lil­liams Gar­cia. “We have stu­dents from all walks of life — from high-school kids to doc­tors, and hob­by­ists to pro­fes­sion­als — who are think­ing about switch­ing ca­reers.”

CGMA cour­ses run eight weeks and are struc­tured around recorded lec­tures and weekly as­sign­ments that are eval­u­ated by work­ing pro­fes­sion­als. Each week, there’s also a live Q&A ses­sion with the in­struc­tor that stu­dents can log on to, and it’s recorded and re­mains ac­ces­si­ble to stu­dents on­line. Among the cour­ses on CGMA’s cur­rent menu is “Sto­ry­board­ing for An­i­ma­tion,” led by story artist Glenn Har­mon ( Ho­tel Tran­syl­va­nia) and fea­tur­ing recorded lec­tures by Steven Ma­cLeod ( How To Train Your Dragon, The Croods). The course in­cludes ex­er­cises to help stu­dents vi­su­al­ize story ideas and build a starter port­fo­lio.

“The fo­cus of the class is not so much tech­ni­cal as it is about learn­ing how to tell sto­ries,” says Har­mon, who works along­side Ma­cLeod in DreamWorks’ story depart­ment. “You have to be able to draw in or­der to com­mu­ni­cate. Even if some­one is tech­ni­cally savvy, they still need to be able to draw some­thing so that it com­mu­ni­cates a story.”

Har­mon’s own sto­ry­telling skills are no­table,

— DreamWorks artist and CGMA in­struc­tor Glenn Har­mon

hav­ing earned him the Gold Medal at the 2009 Stu­dent Academy Awards for Pa­jama Gla­di­a­tor, his the­sis film at Brigham Young Univer­sity. Har­mon then worked at Sony An­i­ma­tion be­fore join­ing DreamWorks in 2011. Hav­ing been a stu­dent so re­cently him­self, he ex­pects that those tak­ing the sto­ry­board­ing class may be tech­ni­cally adept with dig­i­tal tablets and Adobe Pho­to­shop. “But they could do their as­sign­ments on pa­per and scan them in,” he says. “Story has never de­pended on tech­nol­ogy.”

Ma­cLeod agrees: “All that stu­dents need is a com­puter where they can up­load im­ages.”

Ma­cLeod’s recorded lec­tures build upon tra­di­tional prin­ci­ples of sto­ry­board­ing and re­flect his own ed­u­ca­tion at CalArts (he grad­u­ated in 2007) and his in­tern­ships at Pixar and James Bax­ter An­i­ma­tion. Ma­cLeod also has taught at CalArts as well as CGMA.

“I’ve struc­tured the sto­ry­board­ing lec­tures to max­i­mize an in­di­vid­ual’s au­thor­ship,” he says. “I try to re­mind stu­dents that ev­ery­body has unique ex­pe­ri­ences to draw from. But I also of­fer dif­fer­ent prompts based on my ideas if they want to use them.”

Based on his ex­pe­ri­ence

teach­ing the course sev­eral times, Ma­cLeod es­ti­mates eight out of 10 stu­dents are specif­i­cally in­ter­ested in sto­ry­board­ing.

“Out of those eight, there are prob­a­bly two that are pretty se­ri­ous about ap­ply­ing for work.” He laughs when he con­sid­ers, “I might be train­ing my re­place­ment!”

Clean­ing Some­one

Else’s Dog

Har­mon wants to make sure that stu­dents leave the sto­ry­board­ing class both with draw­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and the abil­ity to break down script pages.

“A sto­ry­board artist has to be able to take a script — some­body else’s work — and not only in­ter­nal­ize it and ‘plus’ it, but then be able to take crit­i­cism and redo ev­ery­thing and come at it with a new an­gle. As a friend of mine says, ‘It’s not your dog. You found this dog and you clean it up, but you’ve got to give it back.’ Sto­ry­board artists can’t get too pre­cious with any­thing.”

Har­mon says that sto­ry­board artists should look at their work with a cin­e­mato­graphic eye. For ex­am­ple, he says: “Sub­jects on screen are of­ten much smaller than story artists like to draw them. We like to draw things nice and big, and very prom­i­nent. But that’s too much — es­pe­cially if you’re think­ing about a 60-foot screen. You don’t want an eye­ball that’s the size of a drum.”

Given the fact that CGMA has teach­ers from DreamWorks, Sony, Pixar and Blue Sky, there tends to be a fea­ture-film bias.

“This sto­ry­board­ing class de­votes time to in­dus­try rou­tines and work­flows. We show the process, but we re­mind them that this is just one view of the in­dus­try,” Ma­cLeod says.

Fragelus, who has worked in an­i­ma­tion for 15 years, fully ex­pects that the fo­cus of CGMA’s cour­ses will broaden over time. “This is just a frac­tion of what on­line schools will be 10 years from now. The pool of stu­dents is so enor­mous.”

Fragelus says 40 per­cent of CGMA’s stu­dents are in­ter­na­tional. “It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to ob­serve di­a­logue be­tween them in our Q&A ses­sions. We had a stu­dent from Aus­tria who’s a sheep-herder tak­ing a class with a stu­dent in Texas. As they were com­mu­ni­cat­ing, some sheep in the back­ground be­gan mak­ing noises. The stu­dent in Texas had a dog that started bark­ing when it heard the sheep. Then the sheep started re­act­ing to the dog and the sheep-herder had to leave the class! That’s on­line teach­ing. You can’t make that up.”

For more in­for­ma­tion on CG Master Academy, visit academy.cg-masters.com.

Learn­ing from the Masters: CGMA stu­dents will ben­e­fit from course leader Glenn Har­mon’s ex­pe­ri­ence on fea­tures like Ho­tel Tran­syl­va­nia (seen here and at top).

Pro Vi­sions: The Sto­ry­board­ing course fea­tures recorded lec­tures from Dreamworks artist Steven Ma­cleod, who cre­ated this fam­ily scene for The Croods.

Steven Ma­cleod

Manny Fragelus

Glenn Har­mon

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