Prolific storyboard artist Mike Milo teaches us about translating the tricks of the trade from his traditional background into the digital world.
Storyboarding is a very difficult part of filmmaking.
It’s essentially the blueprint of the film. I would argue that without a good storyboard you cannot make a good film. That being said, storyboard artists have to be a jack-of-all-trades and adept at many facets of draftsmanship.
Let’s take a look at the skills required to be a storyboard artist:
draw the human body from multitudes of angles and expressions
design characters on the fly, which most likely are used in the final film or episode as-is
draw backgrounds in perfect perspective and quite often design them
design and draw props from every angle
draw believable acting
use pacing and timing to convey a joke or dramatic moment
create in many different styles from photoreal characters to The Simpsons, to The Fairly Odd Parents, to Batman to Sponge Bob
solid knowledge of how to convey camera moves
write the story and dialog, which quite often supersedes the script
That’s a lot of knowledge to possess- and yet - that's the bare minimum for a storyboard artist. It's one reason why artists like myself have embraced digital storyboarding.
Without a doubt, digital drawing has made me a much braver and a much better artist. My hand is much steadier than it was and when I pick up a real pencil my hand is bolder and my drawings are more solid. Why exactly? I'm not sure.
I think the ability to undo my own mistakes and repeatedly try new things has freed me in many ways. I painted my first ‘painting’ with Sketchbook Pro. And that led me to try some traditional ones using real paint- something I don’t know if I would have tried if I hadn’t done it digitally first.
In one small install of Sketchbook Pro you get all this: pencil, pen, Copic markers, paint brushes, a ruler, a copy machine, a resizable French curve and ellipse. On top of that, it has the ability to do things that were pretty much impossible before such as four way symmetry and drawing a perfect line on any axis.
All in one tiny package that fits under your arm or on your desk.
When I originally started in the animation business it was as a character layout artist (Figs-1, 2), which was the next step after the storyboard. Back then the storyboard was a much simpler visualization of the script. You just laid out the shots and didn’t worry much about the acting. Quite often we’d have paragraphs of dialog under one panel with the character’s finger pointing up in a moment of realization.
Our job was to take a storyboard, (which was really just to show placement of the characters), and act it out as well as put it on model and in many cases animate the key poses. Boards were MUCH simpler back in the day. Take for example this page from Hanna Barbera’s The Flintstones. (Fig-3) It’s great layout and posing but much simpler than today's storyboards because the job back then did not encompass detailed posing. That was the next step: "Layout".
All that changed in the later’ 90s when the studios realized they could cut out the character layout and make the storyboard artists do it to save a bundle of cash. Today some storyboards are so detailed that they are done with each character as a separate panel, so they can be timed differently in the animatic. (Family Guy and American Dad have been done this way- same for The Simpsons).
The reason is the animatic, which as some of you know is a process where the storyboard is timed to the soundtrack in a video to show pacing and acting in a film. They’ve been used since way back in Walt Disney’s day and were originally called Leica reels, so named because of the German cameras they were filmed with.
Before digital storyboarding, you had to use paper, pencil, whiteout and eraser to draw storyboards. You drew, and redrew, erased and erased some more to get the storyboard just the way you wanted and breathe just the right amount of attitude into that character’s eyes.
All the while the paper would slowly deteriorate until you could still see the redrawn eye’s silhouette regardless of how many times you erased it. So, you’d pull out the whiteout and paint a patch over that section. Unfortunately, you couldn’t draw as well over that hump of plastic once it dried and quite often you’d end up just redoing the whole drawing.
When I was a director on Pinky and the Brain we had many, many revisions- trying to be as epic as possible with each and every shot. After all - it had Stephen Spielberg’s name on it. After looking at a storyboard producers and directors quite often would add panels or whole sequences between two panels on a three-panel piece of paper.
You had to have a pair of scissors in your arsenal as well as rolls and rolls of tape, to create your Frankenstein monster of a copy from an original board. Quite often we’d try to patch the extra drawing in by using an X-Acto blade and taping the new drawing over the old one to cut both out.
It worked but it produced very thick boards due to the many places you essentially had two sheets of paper in one. Some boards would be thicker than a phone book! This made them a huge mess and very difficult to Xerox, but all the executives needed a copy, as well as all the writers, the network, the legal team and every member of the crew.
There were about 40 copies made of a single board for each pass. Make that three passes and we’re talking 120 copied boards. Times that by 65 episodes(which was a typical pickup for a show like Tiny Toons or Batman the Animated series) and you have an idea of how much Xeroxing was done on an animated series back then. The way storyboards used to be done made it costly and laborious, as well as being extremely unfriendly to the environment.
All that is gone today with the advent of email, pdfs and networked computers - and digital storyboarding.
Stay tuned for part two- the dive into digital.
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