There are actually several way of storyboarding. But I am going to address two that I am most familiar with:
The other day, I was talking with my friend, Keith Lango as he passed through town on his way from Dallas to Brazil. (www.keithlango.com for more details). Yes, we talked about big life matters, but the conversation always turns back to cartoons, and soon we were talking about storyboards. I started to tell him about some of my current restrictions, and it got me thinking about more stuff. So here are a few thoughts.
In the world of Feature Animation, storyboarding is another re-write of the script. In TV animation, (generally) writer’s write and the storyboard artists stick pretty close to the script. In live action, storyboards are used to plan out complex action to save time and money in shooting, but the artist doesn’t dare add dialog. But in Feature Animation, the story artist adds to and edits the script as much as any writer. Sometimes a story artist will create a sequence without the aid of a script at all.
I really like this.
If you have ever taken a screenwriting class or read a screenwriting book, you will have been told to “write what you see”. A film can’t tell you what a character is thinking like a novel would, you have to tell the story in pictures. That’s why I consider storyboarding the purest form of screen writing. Instead of:
EXT. RAILROAD WORK CAMP - DAY
JOHN HENRY and POLLY enter the camp of the C&O RR. Several men, mostly African American, work hard driving spikes to lay rails. One by one, the men stop their work as they watch this mountain of a man walk by on his way.
You would draw:
(Disclaimer: These boards are not actual production boards from "John Henry". They are visual development ideas that I cobbled together for this example.)
As a storyboard artist you have greater input into the editing, the lighting and the cinematography than a writer. It’s very euphoric when you do it right, but you never do the first time. Just like a writer re-writes, you re-draw. Each time you ask, what would make this better? More dramatic? Funnier? Why isn’t my scene getting the reaction I want? In the end, it gets you a better picture.
It also gets expensive. You see, the larger animation studios draw and re-draw their storyboards (as they should) trying to get the perfect story and drawing takes longer than screenwriting. It also is expensive because the sets (which are built in CG) have to reflect the storyboards. If a modeler is told to build this camp based on the initial storyboard, he should plan it with all these shots in mind and not try and build too much or put too much detail in areas that don’t show on camera. It’s much like a live action film that way. Then when the board gets re-drawn four months later after a test screening and the artist gets a great idea to have John Henry ride a push car into the scene, past a small twon where folks pop their heads out of the windows to gawk, the modeler says, “What windows?! What street?! I have to go back and put buildings? And windows that will be rigged to open? Do we have to put horses on this street? How long is this street anyway?”
Of course, if this is a large budget film, these delays are built into the expenses. And hopefully, these changes only serve to make the story markedly better.
That is the first way of storyboarding.
But if you are on a lower budget film (as I am currently), you need to plan out things more thoroughly and stick as much as possible to the plans. Like a live action film, if you build a three wall set, you know you can’t shoot back toward that 4th wall or else you will see the crew. Or if you are only shooting one side of a street at night, you keep all the action on that side so you don’t have to break everything down and relight the street to shoot the other side the next night. (Read Robert Rodriguez’s book, “Rebel Without a Crew” for a great idea of how to make a film on a shoestring budget.)
This is the 2nd way of storyboarding I mention in the title:
I am working on an interesting system of building pre-vis sets and finding all (or at least most) of our cameras before we storyboard. It’s a bit restricting at times (but it sure helps me drawing perspective!). It reminds me of working on live action films where you are on a tight deadline, so you plan detailed camera maps for the week’s shooting so as not to waste set-up time. If a storyboard artists knows he can’t shoot toward parts of a set that aren’t built out, he has to find creative ways around it. It’s all part of the cost of making a lower budget film look more expensive than it is.
I remember a interview with the director Akira Kurasawa about his film, “RAN”. He was asked about a certain shot in a battle scene and why he chose to compose it that way. He answered, “Because if I turned the camera slightly to the right, I saw the Sony factory, and if I turned the camera slightly to the left, I saw Tokyo.” He planned his shots around his restrictions.
So in a way, storyboarding not only tells a story, it can also set the budget for your film. Don’t plan a film that you don’t have time or money to make. “But an artist shouldn’t have restrictions!” you say. There are always restrictions. If you shoot in black and white you are restricted - you can’t have ruby slippers or an emerald city. If you write a song in a particular key, you are restricted to certain notes. Just make your restrictions into creative choices.
No matter how big your budget is, you will always have restrictions, just don’t let your imagination be one of them.
I told Keith I have a rule of thumb. I know if an audience will be bored with my show if I get bored drawing it. If I am not excited about my images, I stop and re-think what I am doing. Usually, I will find a way to make the scene more interesting. Not more expensive or flashy necessarily, just better drawn and more fun too look at.