Saturday, April 22, 2006

Answering Emma's Question

Emma posted this great question in the comments section, and it deserves a good answer:

"How much of this - composition and emphasis through arrangement of elements and lighting - is a story guy's job and how much is a layout guy's? Where's the line?

Because a story guy has to get the point across, but doesn't design the whole thing (right?)"

And my colleague Mark Walton answered the question pretty definitively in the same comments section. The thing I want to emphasize - that I keep repeating - is something that I want to be clear no matter what. It's one of the immutable laws of storyboarding, and it's this:

Nice storyboards will never save a bad story. A good story is the most important thing, as we all know. So a good story illustrated with poor story sketches is always preferable to the alternative.

I talk a lot about drawing on this site. Some of it is really basic, and some of it is more high-end stuff for people who already know a bit about drawing. Just don't ever get the idea that I'm saying every story artist has to draw superbly well, that's not the case at all. The most important skill that a board artist needs is a good sense of story structure - how to put together a story, how to assemble a sequence, what makes a scene work or figure out why it's not working. If nothing else, a board artist needs to have a good sense of entertainment. Without that, nothing you board will be worth watching!

A good friend of mine always says "Storyboarding isn't about drawing. It's about ideas." There is no truer statement about what we do.

That's where drawing comes in, as Mark Walton mentioned. The more you can draw, the more you can communicate. The better you can communicate, the more range you have as a board artist. But the most important thing about any story sketch is that it should communicate the idea it is meant to express. If it fails to be a clear drawing then nothing else matters. That's the second immutable law about storyboarding:

If the drawing isn't clear, all the pretty drawing in the world won't fix it. A story drawing must be clear, first and foremost.

As Mark Walton mentioned, a lot of it has to do with the director, and also the type of movie. Some directors want to get the whole movie figured out as fast as possible so they can see the shape of it, because everyone knows that once you get the thing up once, you will change pretty much all of it as you go along trying to make it better. So why spend time on pretty drawings the first time around? Other films, ones that tend to be more technically challenging, or more subtle in their emotional range or storytelling, might require a bit more finesse and control in the boarding in order to judge if it's working. It's all on a case-by-case basis, and every film is different. Every studio is different.

But the whole point of my blog is this: as long as you are going to be a board artist, you will have to deal with these aread; how to tell a story, how to assemble a film and how to draw storyboards. For me, if I'm going to have to deal with those areas, then I'm going to want to learn as much as I can about them in order to be better at my job, and ultimately make my job easier. Plus if I'm going to spend the time doing something, I'd just as soon try to do it well. So I'll talk about a lot of stuff, some of it very relevant to the job and some tangentally so. Just remember those two "laws" I mentioned above to keep in all in perspective. A good story is always the most important part!


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great post! Ollie said a similar thing about animation: "conentrate on drawing clear, not clean".

pbcbstudios said...

don't start dragging the walton into this -

Lee-Roy said...

A common question, I think. And a seemingly ambiguous answer, but it all rings true. Basically, it seems that as a board artist, you need to be prepared to draw your characters in an environment and in many cases laying down some basic elements to give the panel perspective is going to help you communicate the camera angle and action you are trying to describe. What if "the boss" doesn't want that? You have to be equally prepared to leave it out or keep it to a minimum. There may still be times when there is no layout design for a particular scene, yet the script calls for your character to walk through a door, or pick something up off of a table, or any number of things. Be ready to design what is necessary to tell the story.

So where is the line? Draw the line.

Emma said...

Okay, so it doesn't matter the quality of the drawings, as long as the story is sound and being illustrated. So really basic drawings would be sufficient for some stories, but stick figures can't show so many subtle emotions (I was going to say, can't show emotional change but then I drew a stick figure slouched over being sad and he DID look sad), so you draw to fit the story...?

So you don't have to keep track of the layout, only when it's important... you don't have to keep track of where the door is through the whole scene if he only walks through it at the beginning. And a shot where the composition and lights and darks are really important you refine and detail that way, but you don't carry it on past its usefulness, because it's not the environment that's important to story, it's what's happening to the character (usually).

Pretty sure I get it now... that's (a small) part of what I've been struggling with recently, is getting anal and keeping TRACK of that door in every panel when it's really not important anymore and can just gracefully fade back into oblivion.

'nother great post. Thank you!

Scott LeMien said...

Is it possible that the story dictates the style of the board?

For example, if two cartoony characters engage in a conversation, you can have lots of great 2-dimensional shapes without ever moving the camera. The in's and out's of the conversation can seem very dynamic, but when you try and shoot this realistically, you have to move the camera, and it may be impossible to convey the intent of these boarded panels.

Does that make any sense? I know I tend to board things with a 2-d sense of composition, and see it as a limitation.

Waste of Aces said...

Hey Mark, long time no see. I just found this, your blog, and am dropping a note to say 'hi', so, hi! Nice storyboarding advice.


mark walton said...

I really appreciate the recognition, Mark! I'm honored! It does seem kind of silly that I'm putting so much time and thought into these posts instead of putting the into my own 'blog, but it's always been easier for me to react to and riff off of other people's ideas than generate my own material. I guess that's why I'm a better board artist than I would be a director (actually there's a LOT of reasons for that). Once again, though, you have cut to the heart of the matter far more clearly and eloquently than I could: the ideas themselves mean more than anything, and after that, communicating those ideas as clearly as possible.
As for Scott's post, I tend to err on the side of staging things in a 2-D, "flat" way, probably to a fault. But I've seen some great ideas become obfuscated or lost in a bunch of fancy, unnecesarily complicated camera work, too. Don Hall has said (and I tend to agree) that flat staging is usually best for comedy - putting the empahsis on the action and the the idea (particularly when it's based on character business, rather than, say, the glacier cracking in one of the Ice Age movies - even then, you don't want fancy moving camera shots to get in the way of showing the idea clearly, which they sometimes can. Notice how those squirrel gags have a lot of static, lingering shots to allow you to really focus on and enjoy the funny acting on that character). Obviously, if your camera never moves, it may not seem very "real", but nothing draws attention away from the story and to the technique (for me, anyway) then too many shots that spin around the subject (nobody seems to think that audiences are tired of "matrix" gags yet - they keep pitching them here!), or at an impossible speed through space, or contstantly drifting cameras that scream "this could only be done in CGI!" Sometimes limiting most of the camerawork to what could actually be done in real life makes the film seem more real, more plausible (not that you should never do fancy camera work, but only if you're making a story point or heightening an emotion, not just showing off). I remember Ed Gombert's scene of the poacher and the monitor lizard trying to steal his eggs in Rescuers Down Under" which is a very long, static, flat shot with no background detail, and it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen - the choreography and the timing is so great, you wouldn't want anythng else happening to distract you from it.

SMacLeod said...

This blog is wonderful! You give and you give. Now, give me more or else!

Hey, will everyone please come to the calarts prod. show? Our open show is this friday night at 8pm in the cafeteria, but the prod show has to be good this year b/c there are loads of good films! Today was our deadline and it was craziness.


mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the comments! Hey Jun!

Scott, good question. I have worked in feature boards for a long time now and that's what I'm used to, but obviously there are some TV shows and some features where the characters are purposely flat and the challenge is to stage them using good design and not necessarily trying to get depth, etc.

Obviously the most important thing is to tell the story clearly and effectively, no matter what the characters look like. I tend not to board camera moves unless there's a really specific storytelling reason - too much room for confusion, especially if the editor starts re-ordering panels - then your camera move starts to look really confusing. Amyway, don't know if I answered your question - drop me a line if you have more questions.

Skribbl said...

Hear Hear! Staging for clarity and for story emphasis. THEN Layout can add the extra camera goodness BUT as long as it's still clear.

Hey Marks, are you going to the CalArts Producer's Show?? I've got my tickets reserved. I hope Walton busts out again with his dance routine!!! W00T!

Kennedy you ought to work out a routine with Walton. Aw heck, why don't you add chickennuggets to the mix too! :-P

chickennuggets said...

i don't dance for free, bitches.

mark kennedy said...

Hey Skrib-
Uh, I never go to those, maybe I should? I dunno, I'll e-mail you....Walton danced at one of those things? It's supposed to be about the students, Walton.

Nuggets - um, yikes.

Skribbl said...

"i don't dance for free, bitches."

Tell me about it!!!

The hightlight of the evening is the unofficial after party. That's where the "magic" happens. I guess you have to see it to believe it. Yeah, e-mail me.

mark walton said...

Yes, I will be there. I have absolutely no memory of creating any "magic" last year, but irregardless, Kennedy, nobody's stopping the students from stepping up to the plate and getting down, are they? The best way to teach is by example, yes? If you students can't stand the heat from the fi-yah, the teacher will school your sorry a**!
OK, sorry...I really need to get more sleep.

Anonymous said...

Hi, great job on this blog Mark! I'm Leo, an European story artist, vis dev, BG painting etc etc. (small studios here in Europe so we get to tend to most things).

Anyways, just wanted to recommend both Hollywood camera work DVDs specially the 5 and 6 th DVD. Also the book "on film-making" by alexander mackendrick. great stuff.

A thought that popped up is that richard williams was going on about in animators survival kit about the story panel being the absolute key frame of the scene which I think is a very good thought. The closer you nail it the better, whilst staying on schedual and budget of course, So values, BGs etc etc. I try to include as much as possible in my boards. Usuallly the BG is a seperate layer in Photoshop (scanned) and the characters are overlays (also scanned drawings). I'm trying to draw digitally but I'm still faster and better (if I'm good at all right? ;) with paper and pencil.