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Bringing Down the Hairy Elephant: The Ancient Art of Storyboards

In this blog entry we emphasize the importance of storyboarding in all forms of media projects, from narrative film, animation and video games. With a brief retrospective, of course.

 The Hairy Elephant

You know what it is. You've heard the advice. Some would say it has existed since the beginning of film narrative. Some would say it existed much earlier, when man first painted images on cave walls before a great mammoth hunt. The images told the story of how they took down the beast long before they ran out across the plains, screaming, naked, junk flapping, with spears hoisted toward the sky. Problems could be solved in advance and steps taken to avoid calamity. Steps like don't stand in front of the hairy elephant, or maybe we should cover our shame before someone gets hurt. This is one way early man learned to keep their mammoth hunts on time and within budget.

Early man was smart. Maybe smarter than modern man? Who is to know? They didn't keep records. We have only their storyboards as clues to how they lived. If only there was a method to study the past and the world around us...but I digress.

Always storyboard. Always. Make time for previsualization, or “previs” as we in the field of brevity say. Be prepared. Know your battlefield. A clean team is a mean team. Hygiene is its own reward. Storyboards are the map in which we rely on for successful navigation over the tempestuous waters of media production. That last one is good. I suggest you tattoo it in old English across your forearms, lest you forget.

Storyboards are quick and cheap, and their value far exceeds their expense. They are definitely cheaper than changing direction halfway through a project due to an unforeseen, yet foreseeable issue. They not only can, but will, save your team days, weeks, months of work down the line. Yet impatience and the need to see something on screen STAT is often the siren song that leads us to the razor sharp, jagged rocks of a badly planned project. Do not be fooled. Resist! Oh demons of impatience, leave thy child! The power of previs compels you!

I am guilty of this myself. I am only a man. Shame on me, nevertheless. Shame on me. I have traded precious previs for expedience and paid the price. It is a raw deal, I tell you. It is a deal with the Devil himself. I have erred but see the light. Blind but now I see. Consider this blog entry my Amazing Grace.

Template Scenario

If this entry is my Amazing Grace, then we shall consider the studio I now captain, my Amistad. I am sailing toward the Great Isle of Redemption as I write this. We never, ever, under any circumstance skip the previs stage. Of course all projects are different and some require or allow more detail in previs than others, so there isn't a perfect one-size-fits-all process, but there are guidelines. We need to be creative and pragmatic at the same time. To help illustrate a good template scenario, let us invent an imaginary project. In this project we are given the liberty of defining our ideal previs situation, with plenty of time in the schedule. Picture the following scene. It is set in the parking lot of an elementary school where a soccer match is scheduled to begin. Two suburban moms are fighting over the last SUV sized parking space. It is a brutal fight to the death.

  1. Brainstorm ideas for the fight scene. List potential weapons they can use such as a car seat, baby bottles, happy meals, a Thighmaster, etc. List insults they can yell at each other such as “your child did NOT make the honor roll you lying skaz!” or “Your Pilates instructor is a terrorist you Hobag!” etc.

  2. Come up with a shot list that includes the elements from your brainstorm session. You will obviously have to come up with a narrative using the list, but you're creative, so I'm not too worried about it. Make sure you book-end it with a compelling intro and finale. Include time estimates for each shot.

  3. Create storyboards using the shot list as your reference. From these storyboards you will be able to define camera position, camera movement, action, content and dialogue. Being able to simply draw these scenes ahead of time you can experiment with the camera angle, such as placing the camera behind the windshield of the SUV or shoot from the ground with the baby bottle in the foreground, out of focus. 

  4. Cut your storyboards up into individual screens and create an animatic using your favorite editing suite. With this animatic you will be able to demonstrate how scene transitions will look (screen wipes, whip pans, etc.) You can also include scratch dialogue tracks which help synch up your shot times with the audio. If you have music, even placeholder music, you can work out your edit timing far in advance. This can save you silly amounts of time. Animatics are fun to play with and you can figure out a lot by trying out new things. This animatic will be the template in which you can replace each static, sketched scene with final rendered animation. Of course there will be adjustments and changes along the way but they are minor in comparison to cutting a scene that took hours or days to set up and render.

  1. Use the animatic to create an asset list of all elements that need to go into the scene, including setting, people and characters. This list will help you schedule your project, since you can predict what needs to be created from scratch, what you can reuse, purchase, or if you need to contract an extra artist to create the asset. You will also get a good idea of how to light the scene and what kind of effects will be needed. All this information is crucial when planning and scheduling your project.

  2. Go on to animate the best soccer mom fight your client or the world has ever seen.

 Cinematics Storyboards

Of course, the schedule does not always allow time for this entire process. In that case I give you permission to skip the animatic stage if you are in a pinch. The storyboards should hold enough information to keep you on the right track. If you do have the time though, I highly recommend going through the animatic stage. It is the best way to fully understand and predict what the end result will look like. The further you get into a project, the harder it is to change things without seriously upsetting the schedule.

Another plus of good previs is that it serves your client well. What serves your client well, serves you well. By going through the previs stage hand in hand with your client, they are able to insert their creative input and see the results quickly. This ensures no major changes happen down the line and helps facilitate a symbiotic relationship between you and your client, also known as a “Promance.” A Promance develops when you are open to your client's input and they, in turn, are respectful of what can and can't be done within the time frame and budget. Whenever possible, create the conditions hospitable to an effective Promance. You will be rewarded with more projects, more money and ultimately a new friend.

Retrospective

Us narrative animators aren't the only ones who benefit from good previs. It is a vital tool for game developers as well. It is surprising to me how little I have seen gameplay storyboards in all my years in the game industry. My first job in games was actually as a storyboard/concept artist. Uh oh, I feel a flashback coming on. The year is 1995...San Francisco...wavy lines, echoes....

I had just been hired on to the team at Blam as a storyboard/concept artist. I wrote about Blam in my last blog. We were a young spunky group of game developers working out of an old dilapidated Victorian on the corner of Union and Van Ness. One particular memory that stands out is from the first daily meeting I attended. This was my first impression of the game industry and I had never seen anything like it. Here were twenty five to thirty young people crammed into a living room strewn with Godzilla toys, game controllers, RC robots and comic books, all debating and opining about the creative direction of the game. It was the most diverse group of people I had ever seen in one place all working together. It was a novel experience for me.

What was especially interesting to me about this meeting, was that everyone seemed to be on the same page speaking the same language, which for me sounded like, “blah blah blah, persistent bits, blah blah, bamboo punk, blah blah, barrel attack,” you get the picture. I know a lot of that came from just having experience in games but this was more specific and related to this particular project. How did all these people know this game so intimately, especially considering I knew some of them had come on board just days before me? That seemed an awful short time to be that acquainted with it all. I thought there was no way I would be able to wrap my head around it quick enough to hit the ground running, which was required at a small developer like Blam. You had to pull your weight when your team was that small and you were so visible.

It hit me all at once. I was zoning out, staring at the wall, when I noticed it was covered in pictures. But not just any pictures. Storyboard pictures. Every inch of every wall was covered in gameplay storyboards. Every single mechanic of the game was represented - barrel jumping, staff attacks, door puzzles, bombs – all fleshed out in rough, yet detailed form. Of course there were plenty of character and environment concepts too, which is why I probably didn't see the boards right away. My eyes were drawn to the colorful art, like a child, not the black and white sketches of the storyboards. All it took was one full three hundred sixty degree turn and I was caught up. I found the Rosetta Stone.

I spent the next few months drawing storyboards, learning the ins and outs of game development and having a helluva good time. As a storyboard artist I worked closely with the designers, turning their ideas into images, which I then submitted to the programming staff. The programmers used the boards as a blueprint for game mechanics and as the project moved on, they implemented the important ones, set aside the iffy ones with potential, and scrapped the ones that were pure designer-wish-list. Not having them would have been a disaster. Worse than driving with your eyes closed. In story-boarding the picture tells much more than a thousand words. It eats a thousand words for breakfast and defecates a bazillion, give or take a trillion. Seriously.

For those of you who are reading this, thinking “What is this guy talking about? I don't need no stinking storyboards. Pbbbbth” I ask you to please stop and remember the wisdom of our noble ancestors and their sacred storyboards. Before you go running out into a field, lightly armed and naked with your junk exposed, draw it up first. The big hairy elephant is yours for the taking.

Epilogue

The same day I am writing this this I am drawing up a batch of boards for a client, worrying about the schedule. I am thinking about how much quicker I would get this done if I could just jump into the project at full speed. I realize a scene I am working on wont work the way I planned. I fix it in five minutes. I think about how many hours, how many days it might have cost me if I discovered it two weeks from now, when the project is in full swing.

[Paul Culp is the Studio Director of Supergenius, a game art and animation studio in Portland, Oregon. www.supergenius-studio.com.]

 

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