(Top of the post video is a rough board I've been working on to go along with a song from the BomBARDed podcast - a Dungeons and Dragons podcast about three Bards adventuring together, with a new song every episode!)
The last six months, I've been doing more storyboarding than I've ever done before! It's both incredibly fun, and insanely terrifying. Paring a billion storytelling possibilities down to the one which is right for you is a lot of pressure. For me, this usually means 50% experimentation, trying a tonne of ideas out, and 50% trusting my gut that the decision I made will serve the moment well.
I thought today might be a good time to go over what I learned doing storyboards for animation. I hope you guys find it useful!
First I'll cover a few of the questions we grabbed from you last week:
Do you need the sound before you begin boarding?
I don't think you need the sound before you at least begin thumbnailing - thumbnailing is something I do before I go onto the boarding proper.
Just as in comics, thumbnails are small rough sketches that allow you to get ideas out of your head and onto the paper quickly. You can get these ideas down without having the final music track or voice recording so long as you know the story/feel you are going for.
When it comes to actual storyboards, with music videos it's definitely better to have a final music track before you begin boarding. Unless you have a very good composer who will write music to the boards afterwards, you are going to want to make sure your boards hit to the beats, and having the audio is the only way to do that.
It is possible to board a dialog scene without the final audio - the best way to do this is to say the lines over the export to check there is time for them, or record some scratch audio yourself for the project! When it comes to dialog the most important thing is that you have it before you dive into the animation itself.
How much planning do you do before jumping into boarding? Do you work off of a full script and finished character designs, or do those things fall into place as you board?
This depends! The majority of studios at the moment have scripts and characters designs ready before the story boarders begin (Boulder Media operate this way). This ensures the boarders can get the characters mostly on model, which helps the animators at the next stage. This is for script driven shows (Wander Over Yonder, The Amazing World of Gumball)!
For board driven shows, the character designs tend to be ready before boarding begins, but the storyboarders work from a scene or episode premise rather than a script. They know x and y has to happen in this scene, but how it happens is developed through the boards, affording the storyboarders greater creative input. (Adventure Time, Star Vs the Forces of Evil).
If you are working for yourself, I would say go with whatever feels most comfortable! It can feel overwhelming to have to deal with so many moving parts simultaneously, but it's not impossible! I normally approach my work more like a board driven show. I will have character designs most of the way there before I board, understanding that the design may evolve and change as I get more used to drawing them. I have a premise in mind and tend to thumbnail my ideas first to give myself a rough roadmap (this is my planning phase). Then I will get into boarding, keeping it fast and loose.
Do you have any tips regarding how someone would draw camera movements in long takes/switching focus and such?
If you are working digitally, the program I use (Toon Boom Storyboard) has a camera that you can move around your scenes, so I would have one drawing and then do the camera movements in the program. If the camera movement needs to be shown through drawings alone, then there are lots of different ways you can tackle it!
For camera pans, you can show the movement of the camera frame across a large background.
Or you can imply the camera movement with arrows (usually crossing/outside the border of your panels). It's always best to show your camera movements in another colour to keep it clear what movement is in scene and what movement is camera only.
The same thing applies with zooms! You can show this in one image by drawing the camera move over a larger background, or you can show it through multiple panels.
When it comes to rotations, I'm not sure if there is any other way than redrawing the panels! You don't have to use quite as many positions as I have below - as you'll read later, I have a tendency to Over-Board! Usually a start, end and mid position will do the job!
Techniques like focus pulls can be really fun, and I love using these in my work. They are a great way to direct the eye of your viewers and imply depth in your scene!
When drawing these digitally, I will simply use a blur filter in Photoshop or Storyboard to blur/unblur one of my layers between panels. When working on paper, I use tricks like using a soft line (sometimes I even blur it by rubbing my thumb across it) vs hard lines (mechanical pencils are great for these)
How do I start storyboarding?
Don't be scared and have fun! Grab a pencil and paper and start getting those ideas down. There is not really any one thing that can prepare you to board if you haven't done it before - just getting started is the best way to improve!
OKAY! The time has come to dive into what I have learned, boarding over the last year!
Focus on one idea per shot!
This is just a good starting point for thinking about boards. It's one of those rules you will end up breaking as you get more comfortable - but it's a great way to prevent overboarding (which is definitely something I did when I first tried!)
Over-Boarding is when you do a million cuts for something you could say more effectively in just one or two. Though you can deliberately Over-Board when you want to make the audience feel overwhelmed or confused, if you want them to follow the story clearly, keeping it simple is usually the best way to keep your boards legible!
I think my Game Grumps animated, which was the first project I had boarded to completion, was right on the edge of being Over-Boarded. The animation is only 17 seconds long, and there is SO MUCH information being crammed into that time that it can be a little difficult to get everything the first time around - most people aren't going to be rewatching it over and over to make sure they got everything.
In contrast, look at K7vin's animation - one of my favourites of the collaboration.
>> CLICK HERE TO WATCH <<
He uses (more or less) one shot for the entire 23 second sequence. It's very funny and much more readable.
The boarding for my section at least helped with the feeling of chaos, and the frequent cutting was eased somewhat using both consistency between cuts and motion between cuts - Both of which I will write about in full later in the post (scroll down if you want to read it now!)
So what do I mean by one idea per shot? Well, Storyboards are primarily a tool for communication - your most important job is relaying information to the audience.
Only when the audience understands what is happening can they connect to your story, and only when they connect to your story can you make them feel for the characters. The best boards can make us laugh, can make us cry - I know that for this, clarity is crucial!
This information can be a feeling/atmosphere/mood, an action, a piece of dialog, a story beat - whatever it is, you have to know what you are trying to convey in order to convey it clearly.
The golden mantra of storyboarding is what am I trying to say?
I feel The Adventure Zone Animated segment I animated was more successfully boarded. Each cut has a point, and together they tell a small story arc that hopefully helps the animation feel more satisfying.
Let me break it down to show you why I chose each shot, and the point I was trying to communicate with each.
Shot 01 - Mid shot of group
The idea I was trying to communicate in this shot is the story beat that Magnus wants to kill Black Spider, but Taako and Merle are not happy about it.
Because the focus is on Magnus' decision, I chose a shot in which we can easily see all three characters. This allows us to see both Taako and Merle's reaction to his statement of 'Okay, I attack Black Spider...'. The straight on nature of it makes it instantly readable, as the silhouettes are clear and no characters or elements are overlapping.
This shot also works as our establishing shot for everything that comes after. Establishing shots are used to... well establish things like scenery and character placement when you begin a new scene. Usually you see these in movies as vast, wide shots of locations.
In our case, showing all three characters allows us to establish their location in relation to one another. Taako is on left, Magnus is in the middle, and Merle is on the right.
These screen positions will be maintained throughout the animation. To suddenly reverse these positions and place Merle on the left and Taako on the right would break the 180 rule. Doing this will usually make it seem like two characters have switched places and disorient the audience, pulling them out of the story and causing confusion.
This is one of the reasons I didn't want any shots from behind the characters - I would have to switch Merle and Taako for that one scene to keep their screen positions consistent with the establishing shot.
Shot 02 - Mid shot of group
The idea I was trying to communicate in this shot is the story beat that Taako and Merle try to stop Magnus from killing Black Spider.
Now that we have established our group, we can start pulling out some more adventurous compositions without worrying about viewers getting lost!
Cutting in closer ups the intensity of the scene a little bit, and focusing on Taako and Merle allows us to clearly see their efforts to stop Magnus.
As this is our priority and the aim of the shot, I tried using a side shot on Taako pushing on Magnus' chest. Throwing them both into silhouette helps with clarity, making it easier to read what is happening. It also allows me to keep Taako on the left and Merle on the right.
Because of Merle's short stature, Magnus' head gets cropped off the frame, but I like how this makes the staging a bit more unusual and makes Magnus seem even larger by comparison.
Shot 02 - Close up on Magnus
The idea I was trying to communicate in this shot is the story beat that Magnus struggles against his friends.
This reaction shot showing Magnus' struggle could have been done with another mid or long shot, showing him wrestling with the other characters fullbody. However, I wanted to take the opportunity to cut in even closer.
The proximity of the camera to him makes Magnus appear more trapped and harassed, as the viewers themselves feel like they are being given less and less room. I tried to put them in Magnus' shoes this way - just like Magnus' view to Black Spider is blocked by Taako, our view of Magnus is similarly blocked. The close up also helps to up the intensity of the argument another notch.
It also gives us the most contrast with the next shot.
Shot 02 - Long Shot on Group
The idea I was trying to communicate in this shot is the story beat that Magnus overcomes Taako and Merle.
By establishing a rhythm in the previous shots of the camera getting closer every cut, I was hoping that breaking it here with a long shot would help sell the comedy of the moment. Making and breaking rhythms is a great tool in Storyboarding when you want one moment to stand out and shine. It sounds complex but it really comes down to contrast!
Being able to see the characters full body for this moment allows me to show the ease at which Magnus deals with both Taako and Merle at the same time, which helps to sell the final moment of the small arc I tried to build over the sequence.
Flat staging felt best for this moment because it is so fantastic for comedy. Dynamic and deep shots can make action feel epic and dramatic, but it's hard to beat a simple straight on shot for readability and humour.
For some good examples, check out Edgar Wright's films to see how he composes the comedy moments.
Hopefully you can see how I tried to approach each cut story first, searching for the shots that would best show each new story beat. I also only cut when there was a new beat I felt I needed to show, rather than cutting more on my gut as I did in the Game Grumps animated. I think the storytelling was improved because of that. When you feel yourself over boarding, remember! New idea, new shot.
Choosing the right shot for the moment!
So you know what it is you want to convey - the next thing to worry about is how to convey it. One of the stressful aspects of Storyboarding is the pressure of making the right creative decisions under time pressure.
Here is a run down of some of the common shots and what they are used for, to help you make informed choices when it comes to deciding how to present your story moments.
Low angle shots
Where the camera is placed lower than the subject of the shot, so we as the viewer are looking up at them. These shots are fantastic for when you want a character or object to appear large and intimidating.
These shots are also good for conveying isolation or space, as they allow us to surround the character in a pool of sky, which can make them feel lonelier composition wise than when we can see the detail of the ground or surrounding architecture. Whether the shot appears triumphant or isolating depends largely on the character pose you choose.
For example, characters looking directly at us from a high angle can make us feel uncomfortable, powerless. This is often used to put us in the shoes of victims in horror/thriller films.
High angle shots
Shots where the camera is placed at a high angle, so that we are looking down at the subject! If low angle shots can make a character look powerful, then high angle shots can make a character look small and vulnerable. These shots are perfect for when your character is at their lowest moment, or when they are being overpowered by their obstacles.
These shots also work well to build tension, having your character look up at something offscreen that the audience cannot see, before pulling back to finally reveal what it is.
Flat shots vs Dynamic shots
I'm not sure if there is a 'proper' name for these shots comparatively, but depending on the way you place your characters or objects within the frame, you can create either flat or dynamic shots without changing the camera lens.
Flat shots are easily readable at a glance, and lend themselves very well to comedy. There is little distraction and the silhouettes are clear, which puts all of the focus on the characters and dialogue.
Dynamic shots let you play more with size relationships, and communicate the mood and story using composition alone. They feel more dramatic and serious, lending themselves well to tense scenes or action shots.
The standard focal length for cameras is around 50mm, which is considered close to the way in which the human eye operates!
Then there is the telephoto lens, with a very low focal length. This creates the appearance that the elements in a frame have been pushed together. Objects with a lot of space between them become more similar in size and that space appears reduced, making the composition feel flat. Telephoto lenses are used often in Anime for some beautiful results. They allow you to pack a lot of visual information into a small space.
(5cms a Second, and Neon Genesis Evangelion) Note how the distance between the buildings and props feels reduced in the images above!
Opposite to this is the wide angle lens, which has a high focal length! Using this lens creates the opposite effect. The difference in size between objects becomes exaggerated and the elements appear pushed apart, creating deep and dynamic compositions. This allows for great forced perspective shots which can appear super dramatic!
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Dead Pit)
The Adventure Zone animated previously posted was Storyboarded with telephoto lenses in mind. The backgrounds don't divert attention and the flatness of the compositions keeps the focus on the characters! In contrast the Game Grumps Animated used a lot of wide angle lenses to try and make the action shots feel more dynamic.
The meaning in the cut!
Where, when and how you cut goes hand in hand with the images you choose to create meaning!
Slow cuts are what I call it when you have lengthy shots and not very many cuts. These can have a variety of effects from creating tension to giving a vibe of peacefulness. It all depends on the context you use them in. A camera holding on friends chatting on a sunny day can allow the audience to relax into the moment. In contrast, following a character fighting for their life against a gang of thugs in a painfully lengthy shot can make you feel incredibly tense - how long can he fend them off? You can feel this tension at work in the very lengthy shot that K7vin created for his Grumps piece.
In general, the audience's pulse rises with the speed of the cuts. Fast cuts are fantastic for action sequences, or sections where you want to create a feeling of chaos or disorientation. Edgar Wright frequently uses a series of very fast cuts to create a mini-montage that he utilities to show time passing or characters 'gearing up' as in the below clip from 'Hot Fuzz'.
In general, you want your boarding to start at a slow or medium pace and then gear up to the climax! To truly see this in action, look at a duel in a spaghetti western and count how many cuts are used when building the tension vs how many cuts are used when the action kicks off.
Readability in the cut!
This becomes more and more important the faster your cuts are! In storyboarding, you always want the audience's eye to be in the right place at the right time. In the little storyboard below for Mike and I's Youtube series Quick Quests, I wanted to tell a whole story of these characters going on a quest in 10 seconds. Because of this, the shots were very short and fast, with a high number of cuts per second.
I knew this could easily become confusing if I didn't prioritize readability, and so I chose for all of my shots to be central compositions. This ensured that the viewer's eyes were always in the right place to catch the most important piece of the action. Even if they missed some of the stuff, they would catch the vital pieces of information necessary to understand the story.
The worst thing you can do is to have a lot of very fast cuts in which the audience's eye has to constantly dart left to right to up to down to left to catch what is going on. Ideally, you would end a shot with the viewer's eye where you want it to begin in the next shot.
During fast boards, I also tend to hide a lot of my cuts in the camera transitions. Camera whips and wipes can do a lot to disguise cuts and make them feel more fluid. Remember that in animation, you have all kinds of tricks up your sleeve! You can have one shot morph into another, or zoom into an eye to show a reflection which becomes the new scene - the world is your playground, so have fun with it!
In the Quick Quests sequence below, I use the ogre as a screen wipe for the previous shot of the two characters walking to basically transition to an entirely new shot.
Once there, I bring in the weapons from the two characters, revealing that we are looking at the ogre from the characters' point of view.
Then the movement of the weapons pulling back continues into the next shot to make the cut seem more fluid. I had to cheat which side the weapons were on, but no one seemed to notice.
This brings me to the most useful tip I know as storyboarder!
Cut on Movement!
Characters don't freeze every time the camera needs to cut! If there is one thing that makes your scenes feel more alive and convincing, it's cutting on the action, and then continuing that action in the next scene. This will make your boards feel much much more fluid!
Have a character running into a position before you cut to a shot on his face? Don't wait for him to finish running and then cut. Cut mid run, and show him stopping in the next shot.
In this sequence, I could have had the character whip his head up and then cut to the high angle shot. However, it felt much smoother to show the anticipation and then have him complete the movement in the next shot. This was helped even more when we had the camera zoom out with the motion. Try this in your own boards, you'll be surprised how much it helps!
When to Cut
Remember that storytelling can happen in what you don't show. We've all seen the movies where the villain is about to bump someone off in a horrible way. They raise the axe and -- cut! You can imply a lot in a well placed cut. Cutting a scene prematurely can create mystery, or allow the audience's imaginations to fill in the gaps for them. It can create more anticipation by explicitly delaying a reveal or plot point until later in the story.
And then there is the cut designed to create the most contrast. A character says they would never be caught dead doing x y or z, only for the camera to cut to a scene of them doing exactly that. There are a million ways that you can use imaginative cuts to imply story or create new meaning.
Likewise, holding long on a cut can create some great comedy! The assassin throws a smoke bomb at the floor to disguise their exit, but rather than cutting to the next scene, we hold to reveal him running into the distance, looking back at our heroes every few seconds as the smoke clears.
Blocking and Grids!
Grids are something that I need to use more. Heed my words! Grids are incredibly useful for getting you used to perspective, what's more, most freelance clients and all studios will expect you to use grids in your work.
There is no better way to quickly show a floor plane or perspective. They increase with clarity and putting your character on an easily discernible plane can help with drawing problems like foot placement or character positioning. They do not need to be super accurate, they just need to provide some much needed context for your characters.
I would love to dive into Camera motivation and motion as well as deeper language and composition learnings, but I feel like my hands are about to drop off!
If you enjoyed this post and would like me to continue delving into the wonderful woooorld of Storyboarding let me know! Otherwise, we will give you the usual updates and Mike will do an intro to 3d modelling in Blender (free 3d software!). When we are working on comics and animation, we regularly model environments and props so we can reference the different angles when drawing them.
Thank you guys for your help and support. We're in a busy time, and it means more than ever to know you're rooting for us. We will share more of our work as soon as we can!
Stay adventuresome - and get boarding!
Doig & Swift