I'd mull it over for a day or two, doing little thumbnails of "moments" - sometimes just visual, sometimes a little piece of business, sometimes a little emotional moment (I was always given the emotional scenes for some reason)... nothing in continuity. I'd browse through reference and inspiration for the location, acting, etc.,.. if any was available. Then I would pick the thumbnails that seemed the most interesting and entertaining and try to piece them into a continuity of thumbnails before boarding fully.
Each movie and each sequence within were all very different, so as far as staging, style and acting - I would approach each one with varying ideas. But I always approached a scene more based on the direction I was given rather than the script pages.
We weren't always given script pages at Disney in the late 80's early 90's and would just be given verbal direction or an outline for the scene - only once in while and much later in the story phase of a film would we be given pages. When we did get pages, we were given carte blanche by the directors to "run with it"... and back then, we always did.
If I had an idea outside of the directors' original kick off - I would board out what the directors asked for first, then thumbnail out my new idea to pitch afterward. That was useful in that the directors felt I'd made the effort to do what they'd asked for, so they were more open to looking at my new idea. Many times they would use mine, but if they didn't - that was fine, too.
I read the script twice to be sure I completely understand what the scene is supposed to communicate. If there is any confusion in terms of the writer’s intent, what the story point is, geography of setting or design issues, I talk with the writer or director and clear these things up immediately. My thought process begins as I’m reading the script for the first time, as the story will suggest images in my head.
Once I fully understand what the scene is about I start thinking with my pen. I sketch a floor plan of the set in order to understand the geography and rough placement of the characters. With the layout established, I brainstorm compositions and camera-angles in small, rough thumbnail sketches.
A storyboard artist requires knowledge and skill in many areas of filmmaking. He or she is part director, part writer, part cinematographer, part set-designer, part animator/actor, and part film editor. The storyboard influences everything that follows in the production process. (Don’t believe me? See Bill Peet’s “Song of the South” storyboards. His boards influenced everything on that movie, right down to Brer Bear’s bloodshot eyes.)
That said I’m mostly thinking like a director at this stage, orchestrating all of these elements; aiming for clarity in staging, strong acting, expressions & poses. I’m searching for interesting & variety compositions, depth & perspective within the shot, screen direction, action-flow, shot pattern, and adhering to this basic editing rule for good cutting: Change the angle or image size - preferably both. I look for places where I can inject humor or plus a situation. I try to use what I’ve learned from Hitchcock and other directors I admire, using close-ups sparingly and for emphasis.
A key thing I strive for is to make the storyboards read as if the sound is turned off. Shot order and image size is like orchestrating music and I try to work towards this in my work. I look for ways to combine or create new compositions within a shot without cutting. In general, I try to keep the shots and cutting simple and economical. This exploratory, thinking part of the process is the most important step as many staging, posing and continuity problems are discovered, reworked and solved before the any boarding begins.
Once I feel good about this, I pick the shots I like and rough out the continuity on story sketch paper (or on a Cintiq) in gesture form with a black marker or brush pen. Brush pens force me to work more boldly and deliberately. The black line against white paper ‘reads’ like a million bucks when pitching as well as on screen. I’m not concerned at how pretty the drawings are at this point. If I’ve done my job right, the roughs will read fine. (I’ll spare you my thoughts on the pros and cons of using paper vs. a Cintiq as it deserves an entire article on its own.) I pin the roughs up on a board and review what I’ve done back and forth as is if I’m watching it like film on an editing machine, checking for problems, clarity issues, and better ways of communicating the idea(s), etc. Once the director has reviewed the work and made corrections, changes or suggestions, I go over the roughs with a new sheet and tie the drawings down a bit more. At this point, the animator in me takes over and I strengthen the poses and expressions in finer detail, but still try to keep the drawing “alive”, loose and expressive. Finally, I add any shading if necessary to establish clarity, depth, or mood.
When cleaning-up story sketches, and because I still consider myself an animator at heart, sometimes the emphasis on making “the perfect drawing” can get in the way. Usually my first rough gesture will suffice and I have to remind myself that it’s only a story-sketch. It’s a byproduct of the filmmaking process intended for the use of the filmmakers themselves, not something that will hang in a museum – it’s supposed to be rough!
I have a healthy appetite for observing people and behavior. Never satisfied with my work, I constantly strive to grow as an artist, writer and filmmaker. My goal when working on any picture is about making the film better. The last thing I want a director to feel is that I’m trying to tell him how to make his movie. Depending on the director, stating you’re honest opinions and ideas can be a very slippery slope. This area I’m sure, will be one I’ll have to contend with and gage accordingly as long as I’m involved in the story process.
Don Graham's book "Composing Pictures" is THE must have for any aspiring storyboard artist.
If it's a feature film, chances are I've already been working in development on this project and have some idea of what the director(s) want for the character interpretations and story beats. I will read the assignment and then find the most interesting and entertaining way to stage the sequence action. This will depend on the character leads and the presence of secondary characters, if any. I sometimes suggest alternative dialogue.
I do ruff thumbnails of different approaches on Post-its and pitch these to another story man/woman if one is available, or just run them by the directors. I then work up the final boards on the cards. If it's a television script, everything will be more set and my object would be to rough the action in the most entertaining way, making no changes to the script, and finishing on television boards with mechanicals.
Storyboard artists are cast in the same way that animators are: some specialize in action scenes, others like acting and comedy, some are generalists. I like to work on acting and comedy scenes, and I'm usually cast on them. You wouldn't necessarily cast me on a superhero show but if it was in the style of BATMAN BEYOND, I'd have no problem.
For more on Nancy's approach to storyboarding, check out her book, "Prepare to Board".
1. I read the script. If I hate what I read, I've learned to not freak out. My job is to present the story visually. The line is not as important as how it is presented. Before I get into any of that……
2. I talk to the director or story supervisor. See what THEY want. This will save you a lot of time revising it later. I have learned this the hard way: no matter how brilliant your take may be, if the director's going in a different direction you're wasting time (and production money). If a director doesn't know what he or she wants, or there is a conflict among creative management, prepare to take a long, lost journey through the Hack District while they window shop for a story..
3. I like to see the final shot staged like my boards, so I check out applicable character models, set designs, and props. I may not like the look of the designs, but that's what the show is going to be. If an art director has provided visual tools, it seems foolish not to use them. Designs should give you a head start, particlularly in providing comparative scale. Its worth taking the time to look through this stuff.
4. I think. I re-read the script for my scene with the direction in mind, and block it out with thumbnail sketches. I consider the set and how the characters interact in it. How characters place themselves in relation to each other can say more than the dialog being spoken. Where the camera is placed can tell the audience something about the characters as well, or can place emphasis on a particular story point.
Often, to satisfy production needs, a sequence gets moved out of story before the characters are fully realized, or thought out. How often have I heard "We'll fix it in animation"? I've never seen this work. Maybe it has, but I've never seen it.
5. Drawing. In the good old days before the Cintiq invasion, boards were pinned up to pitch. The best boards were the ones that read clearly from ten feet away. I still think that's a good discipline. Boards must immediately lead the eye to a focal point. As opposed to a picture book, where you drink in the illustrations, a storyboard sketch will be viewed in the reel for generally less than two seconds. No time for drinking it in.
Creating clear boards has it own disciplines - draftsmanship, avoiding tangents, and working with tones . I've tried, and still sometimes try, to board straight ahead, without thinking it out with thumbnails, and I get miserably lost. If I know where I'm going, then I can just think about making a decent drawing. If I use color, its sparingly, because it doesn't come easily to me. I try to limit myself to two or three grey tones to lead the eye. I can still hear Bill Moore, teaching design to CalArts animators, saying "Always work with a limitation." (I was terrible in his class.)
I try not to change the scripted dialog - it’s a slippery slope with trouble waiting at the bottom. Instead, I use staging and expression to make the dialog work. Ironically, often a horrible line will force me to come up with the most creative visual solution. It's not the line - it's how it is presented. Context!
I always consider the body language of ALL the character in the scene. The trick is to do so without upstaging the focal character. Figure this out in the board stage and your story will be so much richer for the effort. A board should serve as a springboard for the animators.
Avoid silly boards - hilarious sketches that look nothing like the model. I once worked on a project with a reel full of hilarious drawings. We laughed our butts off at screenings. Problem was, when animated to model, the gags were not funny anymore. Entertaining as individual sketches, the boards did not serve the story and the film ultimately suffered. Storyboards must represent the final film.
In animation, long scenes tend to be cumbersome and create production bottlenecks. Some directors take this to heart, and rule that a scene should never run longer than seven feet. BULLSHIT! If a scene cut isn't necessary, then don't do it. The chemistry between characters gets lost when a scene is a series of singles, always cutting to the one who's speaking.
I consider how to lead the audience's eyes around the screen. Even with a lot of fast cuts and loud noise, if your eye is stuck in one spot, the film loses impact. If we are watching a character move across the screen, I match the focal point in the cut and continue to move within the next scene. This will create an overall visual flow to the scene. If I'm looking for contrast or conflict, I'll have the focal point change directions. For a contrasting cut, I'll use he previous scene's negative space as the next scene's focal point. This creates a sharper impact than using matching focal points. It all depends on what tells the story best.
There's no stock approach to boards (but there are stock board artists!).There are some basic rules and techniques, but it is how they are applied to tell the story that makes the difference. Its all in the telling.