(In this post, I will be referring to the "layout department". For anyone unfamiliar with what that means, they're the department that takes to storyboards and turns them into actual film frames by designing the "sets"' figuring out what the backgrounds of each shot will be and how the characters will move through each scene.)
In the earlier days of storyboarding, often the story artists would just draw the important part of the action and didn't always put much thought into how to direct the viewer's eye. There wan't a lot of extra information to distract from the primary idea, so directing the eye wasn't much of a consideration.
Much as I love those drawings and all the personality in them, times have changed. These days, story artists are expected to utilize every tool at their disposal to help tell the story in the best possible way. This usually means more layout, more camera moves and more character poses. With all of that extra pencil mileage and those extra elements to juggle, it becomes more important to know how to control the viewer's eye.
Obviously, these ideas I'm about to discuss are suited to painting, illustrating and designing as well. They have been used for centuries by all kinds of artists. So hopefully everyone will get something out of this discussion.
Here are some examples to show you a few things I've found helpful over the years to help direct the viewer's eye where I want it to go. They're all incredibly simple.
For our first example, I did a quick, crummy drawing of a guy taking a picture of a bird in a forest. I did this sketch with two objects of interest (the guy and the bird), which, by the way, is a big "no no" when you're doing story sketch. One of the cardinal rules of story sketch is that you should only have one idea presented at a time. Each new idea needs a new sketch. Otherwise, the audience is confused and doesn't know where to look.
Also, if I was going to sell the idea that this guy is taking a picture, it would require a closer shot of him and his camera phone, or just the phone, or something. This is too wide and far away to see such a subtle action clearly.
But the point is, I did a drawing with two focal points (and a lot of pencil mileage) to show you how to control the viewer's eye. So here we go...
Here's the original. Yikes! That's a lot of pencil mileage. How can I get the viewer to look where I want them to look?
Here, I added detail to the bird (in the first drawing) and the guy (in the second drawing). Adding detail to an area of a drawing can help draw the viewer's eye to that area of the picture.
The same thing with adding a texture. Your eye is drawn to the texture first because it's a contrast to the rest of the frame, which is all lines of the same weight and empty areas of white. SO simply adding texture can help create an area of interest.
Always remember that the eye will always be drawn to the area of greatest contrast first. The maximum amount of contrast possible in any drawing or painting is absolute black against absolute white. If there's an area with black against white in a picture, the eye will always go there first. If there isn't an area of black against white, the eye will go to the greatest area of contrast, whatever that may be.
Here, in each example, I put black against white in one area and then added grey to the rest of the frame to reduce the amount of contrast in the rest of the drawing. You can see how your eye goes to the area of the most contrast. The big grey areas are minimized and you take them in secondarily.
Remember that it doesn't have to be black against white to get the maximum contrast. Anything in the frame that contrasts everything else in the frame will do. Get creative and look for different ways to use this effect to your advantage.
Anything that's different from everything else in the frame will attract the viewer's eye.
If there's a spot of color in a black and white drawing, the color becomes the place of the most contrast and does the job of grabbing the eye quickly.
This is a good point to pause and remember, though, that storyboarding isn't just about being clear and getting the audience to look where we want them to look. You're also trying to tell a story in an effective way, and also provide a blueprint that can be turned into a film. So just because you create a shot like the one above, and it works as a story sketch, it doesn't mean that it works as a film frame. Once the film is finished, the whole frame will be in full color and the trick I used above will be useless. If it's important that the audience focus on the man in brown, I'll have to insert a close up of him first…or start close on him and pull back to this wide shot…or something else that does the job of telling the audience to focus on him. No layout person or lighting person can take the wide shot above and put that much focus on the man in the crowd without creating some sort of weird, stilted effect. So keep that in mind as you balance the problems of where to place contest and the audience's attention with actual film language that makes sense and tells the story in the best way.
Speaking of storyboarding with an eye towards creating a useful film blueprint, let's diverge for a moment to talk about tone and how useful it is in minimizing contrast to get the viewer's eye. As I touched on before, in the older days of storyboarding, artists would often just add tone and contrast in a way to center the eye on what was important. Very little thought was given to how the actual scene was eventually going to be laid out and lit. The storyboards were just a tool for figuring out the story and characters.
So if you had a scene like this, you might just throw in some grey tone to make it easier to see what's going on. The layout team would take your boards and figure out how to lay out the scene and light it after it was approved to move into layout.
These days, with compressed production schedules, we tend to expect our story artists to put more thought into exactly how the scene might be lit. That's because the people that have to turn the storyboards into an actual film (the layout artists, animators, lighters, etc.) have, in many cases, very little time to do their jobs. As amazing as these people are at solving problems, if you give them a storyboard that makes no sense from a layout or lighting perspective (or acting wise, for that matter), they're going to have to do a lot of extra work to rework your boards and figure out how to get what the directors wants while retaining what works about the boards. So we try not to create big headaches for the people that will be using the boards as a blueprint for the film, and we try to do things that make sense wherever possible.
So to create light in this room where our character sits reading a book, I would figure out what the best solution is within the bounds of the story. Is a fire in the fireplace right?
Is a reading lamp?
Could I use bright moonlight from outside? I doubt this one would ever fly (who would sit inside a room and read by the moonlight coming in the window?), but it all depends on the situation.
So consider the lighting when you're boarding a scene, and what will be possible and impossible. Are you solving problems for other people while you board, or just creating headaches? Lighting is such a big part of how you create a mood for a scene that it must be considered at the storyboard stage. For example, if two people are walking along a deserted road at night, you have to think about how to set the appropriate mood. Is it a scary scene? If so, then maybe it's a moonless night and they have only a small flashlight between them…and the flashlight's batteries are running low.
But if you wanted the same scene to be a romantic scene, you'd want to create different lighting altogether. Maybe there's a full moon that casts light everywhere. Maybe there are fireflies. Maybe the two of them are carrying a lantern, or a torch…whatever creates the best lighting to sell the mood you're trying to create and is appropriate for the time period and the characters. And by putting some thought into it at the storyboard stage, we can help everyone else down the line as they build the film.
Depending on the mood you're trying to achieve, a harsh contrasty light might be best (for example, in a scary or dynamic action scene) or a soft, gauzy light might be better (for a romantic or lighter type of moment). All these things should be considered by the storyboard artist as they think about a scene. Our job is to tell the story in the best way and lighting and mood are a valuable tool at our disposal. Even if you make a choice that ends up being rejected as the wrong choice for the scene, you've helped everyone have a better understanding of exactly what the right choice is in that particular case.
So, why are some other simple, easy ways to direct the viewer's eye?
Perspective is always an easy way. If you have strong lines created by the vanishing point of your drawing, use that to point to what we're supposed to be focusing on.
I'm not a stickler for straight lines in my perspective (as you can tell). I just draw whatever looks right (of course, I don't do anything that's so much of a cheat that it'll be useless to the layout department). I don't draw super straight lines and make sure everything converges exactly…a lot of times when people are precise with their perspective it looks distracting and stiff anyway (at least to me). So know how one, two and three-point perspective works but don't be a literal slave to it. A good composition is always more important than exact precise perspective (layout people might disagree with me though).
Also, you can draw everything in a composition to point where you want it to point in order to get the viewer to look at what's important. Things like plants, trees, roads, signs, etc. are all endlessly malleable to tweak so that they point at the center of interest.
Line weight can make a big difference in creating a hierarchy of what's important to look at and what's merely background. Look at this drawing of a man in a gallery:
All the equally weighted lines are creating confusion. Everything is equally important. But if I redraw the background, unimportant paintings to a smaller line weight...
It eliminates all the graphic confusion and you can focus on what's important.
This is another useful storyboard trick that has to be considered when you're asking yourself what will be helpful to layout. In a case like this, I would find out what the lighting situation in the gallery would be. I would definitely add lighting to this story sketch to accentuate to two important parts of the sketch (the man and that one painting). But I provide it here as an example of how to use line weight to minimize confusion and enhance readability.
(Personally, I doubt we'd ever design a gallery like that anyway. That's a pretty jumbled mess of paintings!)
Speaking of paintings….the last way I can think of that I use to direct the eye is the old frame-within-a-frame trick. If you create a frame within your composition, you can put the most important element (or elements) in the frame and the eye will be attracted to that spot as a center of interest within the composition.
Again, get creative with this one. Yes, you can use doors or windows, but the possibilities are endless. Any type of "smaller stage" within the bigger frame will work.
I hope that helps and it all makes sense. Sorry for the janky drawings, I did them in a hurry. All of these techniques fall into the category of being so simple that they seem a bit useless, but if you look at the work of great illustrators and painters they've been using these tricks effectively for a long time. And, as I always say, the simple things are the things that people take for granted and forget about first. But if you remember the simple things, they can have a huge impact in effective communication and make the difference between something that works and something that falls apart!