Why I Don’t Believe in Storyboards

Or do I?

Well what is a storyboard? Let’s try and work that out first.

I think it could be a lot of things. It could be drawings, sketches in little identically sized boxes laid out on pages with arrows drawn between them. That’s the first image that comes to mind for me. Something like this:

Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers

Could anything else be a storyboard? Well what is the goal of a storyboard?

We have a script. We have the lines and the shot list and breakdowns. What are we trying to accomplish with a storyboard? Is it something we need to do before making an animatic (rough looking animated version of the movie)? Is an animatic just an animated storyboard?

The goal of storyboarding in my view is to convey the framing, beats, and visual content of the film with some indication of movement. We need to know where the camera goes, what’s in the frame. What’s moving. What’s in focus. What’s out of focus. How close are things. What’s the lighting like might be important to know etc.

Storyboards are basically a tool for the filmmaker(s -usually accompanied by some sort of production team) to better understand the visual look of the film, prior to filming it. This is a very important task, because to film things (or animate) even in this day and age is extremely expensive and time consuming. So the filmmakers want to be prepared when they walk on set (or sit down to animate the characters).

This is not news to anyone familiar with the process of filmmaking.

So we’ve established what a storyboard is meant to accomplish: clarifying an understanding of the visual narrative.

That’s especially helpful when we have a team of people that we need to align behind a common vision. And in that situation I might be more willing to agree that storyboards are useful, but let me elaborate on my own experience with storyboarding…

First off, beyond my own personal experience, a lot of the directors that I follow closely (though certainly not all), use storyboards only sparingly (to the best of my knowledge). That’s not to say they never use storyboards. There are certain types of scenes, action sequences… where storyboards can come in handy a lot more than say in a dialog sequence. Alfred Hitchcock for instance made use of storyboards often.

There’s also, I think, a separation here between live action films, where everything is given to us, and animated films, where we have to build everything from scratch. But isn’t there’s a difference between storyboards and concept art to visualize the assets for the movie? Those are separate things… so does it really matter if the film is animated or not for the question of should we make storyboards?

This is where I’ll jump in with my personal experience:

I wasn’t originally going to make storyboards for this short at all, at least not in the traditional sense of having a separate phase of the production after script and before animatic (or blocking/ layout). Partly, because I’m producing this completely on my own so there’s not a need to convey the vision to others (which saves a LOT of time in just general communication and collaboration -though the trade-off is a LOT more work for me). Partly because I can’t draw well (that’s not a big deal though, I’ll come back to that). But the main reason was I really wanted the movie to be character-animation driven. I wanted the story to HAPPEN in the animation phase, or at least at the blocking/ layout phase.

I’d build the assets, characters, sets. Rig them up. Throw them into the scene. And start animating following the script only as a guide, and allowing the process of character animation to play out and then to some degree block camera around the animation as opposed to the other way around.

If you’re an animator you’re probably immediately going to point out how much more time consuming it would be to animate first, and only then decide how to cut the shots.

I probably would be working on both at the same time and wouldn’t really go farther than the blocking stage of the animation before locking the shot down into an edit. But the reason I wanted to do it that way is the majority of animation I see lacks a naturalism to the characters in terms of how the shots are cut. You can’t always tell, but a lot of the time you can sense it, that the shot length was determined before the character was animated. From an editing standpoint, that’s terrible form. And I wanted to avoid this.

So a friend of mine, Alex Slover, last summer suggested that I make storyboards for the movie. I didn’t explain my whole reasoning for not wanting to; I sort of just brushed it off. But today I was trying to practice drawing Nemu and I decided why not pick a pose from the actual movie, and then I proceeded to start planning the animation of the first scene in my interpretation of the the traditional storyboard method, drawing little boxes and arrows and so on.

What started to happen was, first off my drawing skills have been improving over the past year, but certainly aren’t that great yet, and I found myself reverting to my old habits. I wasn’t paying any mind to proportions or anatomy or rendering. It was just totally: get the point of the poses and the basic layout of the scene out on paper as fast and as simply as possible. So obviously they look like chicken scratch:Nemu Storyboards 1Nemu Storyboards 2Nemu Storyboards 3

If anyone can understand what’s going on there other than me,  I’ll be impressed. I also wasn’t laying out boxes evenly or in any order so it’s a bit of a mess with the story just zigzagging and going all different directions across the page, but I got the whole first scene down more or less in that fashion.

I think storyboards are supposed to be total chicken scratch though anyway, or we’re spending too much time on storyboards. The majority of the scene I was able to sketch out pretty quickly, and my focus was just about getting the poses for her character to look right. I was trying to capture the gesture and expression (which is something I need to work on a lot in my drawing). Character animation centric movie remember? So gesture/pose and expression are what mattered.

But I ran into a snag towards the end of the scene. She’s just woken up and found herself in this room with people sleeping all over the floor and empty bottles and things and is sneaking her away towards the door when a glint from the dresser catches her eye and she goes over to check out this shiny ring. In the script, she then hears the sound of someone moaning and turns around, afraid of being caught, but it’s just someone turning over in their sleep. Then there’s this quick succession of other events: a knock on the door which wakes up the man sleeping in the bed and she gets frightened and quickly flees the scene with the ring.

->I should also add here, that the movie is going to be silent (Music only. No dialog. No Sound Effects). So I changed a few things. Instead of hearing a noise or a knock at the door, which the audience might be able to follow if I animated her well enough, but just to be safe, I replaced those shots with a bottle rolling on the ground when the person rolls over and the door shaking, a bottle falling off the dresser and breaking on the floor, and the doorknob turning back and forth.

->Second aside: I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to this scene here for reference: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

When I started boarding this I was doing it from memory without looking at the script. So I boarded the shot where she’s inspecting the ring, and then the man in the bed starts waking up in focal blur behind her, so she turns, frightened. We then pan to the door to see it visually vibrating back and forth. This is when I worked out how to represent the knocking noise without sound, and I came up with this concept of the room being like an ancient ruin or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland that she’s carefully navigating where the whole room suddenly comes alive after she finds the ring. Things on the dresser start shaking, bottles fall off, people start waking up etc.

Then I was a little confused because something didn’t seem right and I went back to check the script. Aside from the fact that it didn’t make sense for the man to wake up before the knock on the door I had left out the first person on the floor rolling over as the false alarm. I backtracked and started a second branch from the shot where she inspects the ring and added a new shot where she pulls her gun on the person rolling over, which I liked. It was a good character move, and I want the animation to be so fast, all in one motion, like it’s second nature to her and this is the type of reaction she takes by default because of the situations she’s regularly in all the time.

It didn’t make sense then, if she pulled her gun out in response to a noise, for a knock at the door to suddenly send her into a panic. Also it felt better to save the fear (the punchline, the payoff) until the last minute, like Disney animator, Glenn Keane explains in this video:

So the next shot, when the door knock happens, she turns to acknowledge it, but keeps her pistol pointed towards the corner of the room, and maintains her calm, only getting frazzled a bit because now she has 2 possible threats to deal with instead of one. She’s still keeping her composure though. That meant I had only one more opportunity to frighten her so that she flees the scene (the necessary end result of the sequence). That would be the man in the bed waking up. But if the first 2 things didn’t scare her, why all of a sudden would the man waking up change anything? It was seeming like she was more afraid of the man in the bed, specifically, than anything else, and that’s not the impression I wanted to convey.

The problem is, how to cut to the man in the bed waking up, show her reaction of fear, and sell the need for her to flee the scene. The scene wasn’t working. I was cutting back to close-ups of her after each event and holding the first 2 for a beat (A moment in the rhythm of the story or the thoughts of the character. That’s a beat.) so there’d be the noise then a shot of her for a beat each time. But my goal is to create this compounding sensation of the room coming alive around her all at once so that she feels overwhelmed and needs to get out of there quickly. I needed things to happen faster, not in a speed sense, but in a narrative progression sense, in terms of beats. I needed things to be more concise.

I kept the first hold after the false alarm of the bottle rolling on the floor, and took out the second so that she acknowledges the knocking at the door, and then she acknowledges the crash of the bottle falling off the dresser, immediately, at the same time as she’s turning to the man in the bed, anticipating it will have woken him up. Then I cut to a reverse angle (remember she’s turned her head) to catch her cringing in fear. And I use the mirror to show the man waking up in that same shot because it’s not actually necessary that we cut away to him. The audience will be anticipating him waking up just like Nemu when we see the bottle crash.

So she almost doesn’t have time to think through those beats. Things start happening so fast she struggles to keep up. That’s what I wanted to convey. 2 quick shots to convey the pay-off for the scene. It’s great what you can do with film. Then she flees with the ring.

All of this may change when I get into the edit for any number of reasons: time constraints, technical or practical reasons, or it just doesn’t play on screen, which is always a possibility. The point of telling you about this snag, is this process of storyboarding, in allowing them to be just chicken scratch means I can go and test things very quickly.

Which leads me to the second big thing that happened while I was doing this. After reverting to my old drawing habits to work faster, I started reverting to my comfort zone: Writing. What I wasn’t able to draw or to make sure I remember it when I go to animate I jotted down little notes. And towards the end, I was entirely ignoring drawing all together and just planning the scene out in writing.

I work faster in writing. So it makes more sense for me to use that as a way to visualize the movie, and that’s exactly what I did when I wrote the script to begin with. Coming from that background, as a writer, if we can’t clearly visualize the movie after reading the script, to me, that means it wasn’t written well. My first instinct is to refine the script, not make storyboards. Writing is the tool that allows me to visualize the film the most clearly. It’s something I’m very familiar with and I trust my writing skills far more than I do my drawing ability.

A lot of that is simply that I need to learn to draw. Storyboards, even chicken scratch ones, are new territory for me. Like any other tool, storyboards are something we have to learn how to use properly, for it to be any use.

I follow a lot of comic artists online that often prefer to jump straight into sketching out panels, and when they think about script writing, that’s a challenge for them, because they’re not as experienced with writing as they are with drawing. For me it’s the other way around.

And I don’t think there’s a clear delineation of what a storyboard needs to be either. These tools are interchangeable and we can use writing, boarding, whatever to get the understanding of what the movie is going to be. These storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (1944) are a good example. A fantastic movie by the way.

Storyboarding is messy. What matters is figuring out what the film needs to do to tell the story.

Anyway, this was a long post for what took me all of maybe an hour or two to do. So do I believe in storyboards? Well I’m getting better at using them. While I still fallback on writing when I’m in a tough spot, I’m getting better and better at drawing, and with practice this will become a more and more useful tool to rely on.

I believe in working out the story. I use a lot of tools to do that. Storyboarding is just one of them.

Links mentioned in this post:
Alfred Hitchcock Storyboard Gallery
Glenn Keane Animating a Dancer
Alex Slover

P.S. I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to the scene I talked about here: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

What do you think of storyboarding? Are you more comfortable writing or drawing or something else? What tools do you use to work out the story? Tell me in the comments below.


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