Every board artist knows this one by heart but it's worth repeating. At Disney -and most other places - we board the movie in chunks called "sequences". A sequence usually has anywhere from 18-32 sequences and is typically takes place in one place or expresses one overall idea. The easiest way to explain it to someone is that the "chapter stops" on a DVD usually correspond to the sequenes of the movie.
Anyway, when a board artist is issued a sequence to board, the most important question to ask yourself is always: what's different in the movie by the end of this sequence? What conditions are there in the story that are changed by the course of the sequence? That's how you figure out why the sequence is in the movie. How does it advance the story?
Another way to look at it is to ask how the movie would be affected if you removed the sequence from the movie. Would you miss it? If not, why is it in the movie? It should be essential to story you are telling. Audiences have a built-in sense of when the story is advancing and when the story is meandering. Whenever you're in a theater watching a movie that's riveting people to their seats you can tell. When a movie hits a point that goes off-track or starts to halt the story in order to explore an unessential area you can see people shift in their seats, go the bathroom or leave to get some popcorn.
If you don't know why a sequence is in the movie then you don't know what it's about. I don't know how you can board a sequence if you don't understand the purpose it's trying to serve. It's like being an actor and not understanding what your character is doing or why. How could you deliver a performance?
There's no worse job for a storyboard artist than having to tackle a sequence you don't understand. You have no frame of reference to make decisions about how to do it, and so you can't help but struggle to try and figure out how to put the sequence across. But put WHAT across? It's like being an athlete on a team where you don't understand the rules of the sport. How would you know what you're trying to do?
This applies to every other aspect of filmmaking, of course. How can you write a scene, light a scene, edit a scene or direct the actors if you don't know what the point of the sequence is?
And when you end up pitching the sequence to a room full of people, all of those people will throw out ideas to make it better. They will have ideas about how to make the characters sharper, make the staging better and make the scene funnier. They'll be throwing out ideas a mile a minute - which is great, because that's the whole point of pitching it to a group. But your head can swim trying to figure out which ideas are right and which don't fit. So go back to your "compass" - the reason why the sequence is in the movie. Which ideas help you do this better? And which ideas push it off track?
Now don't think I'm saying movies have to be plot machines with every sequence pushing the story forward at a relentless pace. Every film has a different style and moves at a different speed. Think about the "Baby Mine" sequence in "Dumbo" where Dumbo's mother holds him and sings him a song. Or the sequence in "Lady and the Tramp" where Lady shares a romantic dinner and some spaghetti with Tramp. Obviously these sequences aren't advancing the plot, per se -and yet they are. Those sequences deepen the emotion and up the emotional stakes that drive the movie. The emotion you feel when Lady and the Tramp are separated, and then re-united, would be completely undercut if you didn't understand how much they cared for each other. That's why I would argue that the dinner sequence IS essential.
And I think a lot of Disney films recently have dropped the ball on this last one. It's hard to describe in a writing meeting why you absolutely need to spend the time developing the pure emotional parts. Some people seem to think the audience is going to be bored if the movie slows down for a bit. But the only way to cement emotion in the audience's mind is to slow down the pace and let the story get emotional. If the audience doesn't care about the characters and their problems then they're not going to feel any emotion at the end of the film. And if the film is all relentless drive, then the effect is assaultive. A film needs slow parts mixed in with the fast parts to make the fast parts FEEL fast by contrast. And it's okay in a "Die Hard" movie to be relentless, but the great Disney films have always been emotional, first and foremost.
I can't tell you how many movies I've worked on that seemed to work really well in the editing room and then fall flat (to me) when it's released and I see it in a theater. Somebody felt the need to "tighten" the movie, to "take the air out". Well, I think that's where the emotion always lives - in the quiet moments, in the "air" of the movie.
As I'm writing this I can't help but think of "Alice in Wonderland". What did the board artists tell themselves the point of each sequence was? Each sequence was an episode that explored some imaginative territory, but how did each advance the story? I think they were trying to have each sequence push her further and further into frustration and make her appreciate her rational (albeit sometimes boring) normal life. Certainly the sequence playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts and Alice's trial have a nice narrative drive, and you get what's at stake, but what would you miss if you removed the sequence where the flowers sing Alice a song?
So is this a clue as to why the movie doesn't feel as emotional as the other Disney Classics? I think so, and I think it's a good illustration of why this concept is so important in our work.