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"You guys always nail it first time around and I'm always amazed that I get exactly what I had in my mind. The presentations go like clockwork because the boards are always a clean read, and there's nothing distracting in them to get in the way."
Joe Pompeo, EVP Group Creative Director, Saatchi & Saatchi NY.
The education of a storyboard artist
We've had a lot of people ask 'How do I become a good storyboard artist?'
I also hear 'is it easy?' a lot.
First I'll answer the second question, since I'm contrary that way.
Drawing storyboards is a piece of cake, once you've learned all the gazillion things you need to learn to do it well.
The more you learn, the easier it gets.
Since you learn by your mistakes, you'll be upsetting a lot of people who don't want to pay for your education.
You'll learn on the job of course, but try to know as much as possible beforehand as well.
Which brings me to the first question, how do you get that education?
All I can say is what I did, and while I wouldn't consider it the last word, I hope it is helpful.
I won't go into drawing software here since I consider all this other groundwork far more important.
First, I was obsessed with learning to draw from a young age. Well actually first I was focused on rendering. Creating images, usually by copying, which had a high degree of polish.
Stuff your mum would look at and be dead impressed with.
But that soon became boring. I wondered how people managed before cameras, and I wanted to be able to make things up.
But that was impossible. When I tried it was just horrible.
So I had to learn to draw from the inside out. Learn the hard, but ultimately more satisfying way.
I say ultimately because I had to let go of all attempts at making pretty pictures, or doing anything that anyone else would even be slightly impressed with.
That is perhaps both the most important, and most often neglected step, in my opinion.
It wasn't nice.
Because first I had to learn what I didn't know, which was a lot.
So about a million discarded drawings, and some years later I could draw people well enough, in any position and from any angle.
Not with the all out genius of John Watkiss, who paints masterpieces entirely from his head and confounds all with his brilliance, but pretty decently none the less.
I was fortunate, straight out of college, to enjoy some tutelage under John's watchful eye for a while as well.
I can't recommend getting those skills down enough.
I suppose you could rely on scrap, or use a program like poser to 'rough out' your figures, but I can't imagine it would be nearly as quick as just bashing it out with a pencil because you'd really learned your stuff.
Unless you always work for people with long deadlines who only need a few images, in which case you'd be fine.
Since a kid I always preferred to keep my drawings lively. I never wanted to see them tighten up to the point that they became stiff and lifeless.
I've always loved old Warner Bros. cartoons for their exaggerated liveliness.
And for my money, if you want to see larger than life action packed visual storytelling just bursting with energy, done as well as it's ever been done, then the late great John Buscema's your man.
All too often though, comic book inkers killed his figures and sapped the life from them. Technically accurate, but dead.
A good artist can breathe life into a cardboard box, and a bad one can turn a beautifully sketched dynamic human leap into a a frozen corpse. They can be literally deadly accurate. It's horrible to see vibrant drawings destroyed that way.
Lively drawings need a little wiggle room.
I'd been working in advertising for a few years when I encountered my first commercial director. He gave me his thumbnails for a Mercedes Benz commercial to render out, and I learned something new that day.
While his renderings of everything in the frames wouldn't impress a five year old, there was something about the drawings I really liked.
You could imagine the finished shots because everything fitted really well. There was no struggling to get things in the frame.
It looked right, and it looked cinematic.
He wasn't in the least concerned with making people look human.
That was not the point. All he cared about was making things fit right. No matter how nastily those things were drawn.
I made it my mission to do the same (hopefully without the nastiness).
Later I moved my focus from ad agency work to working almost exclusively with commercial directors for the next 6 or 7 years. By then I'd realized that the different looking views you get from different camera lenses had to be drawn into the boards to satisfy the needs of directors.
Using different lenses to achieve different effects, or just to get around logistical problems, became my new fascination.
That and storytelling. They led to a new obsession.
Maintaining continuity and making sure everything flowed along nicely. Keeping screen direction consistent, people facing the right way, all that sort of thing. You can get really nerdy learning all that stuff, especially when lots of people are talking to each other in a scene.
And I couldn't help myself from making goofy little lego movies with my camcorder, which are also on this website (click goofy lego movies in the left sidebar).
Remember, it's best not to think of yourself as just a 'wrist'.
People are going to need different skills. Sometimes you're a mere technician, told exactly what to draw and where, other times you're going to need to bring more to the table, so be ready.
The earlier period of near fanatical study I'd done learning to draw from imagination, combined with studying all that later stuff, meant I could now draw whole scenes really fast, almost as fast as they unraveled in my brain.
That wasn't my intention, but if it's a free bonus, I'll take it!
I've had directors just throw an agency script or three at me, say something like 'I'm off out for the day, find a way to make me look good, see you later in the afternoon', and take off.
Sometimes I've worked alongside the director and done the board as described to me one frame at a time, but mostly it's been just go for it and make a few tweaks later.
I was asked to teach at a couple of places in Los Angeles, so for a short time I did (work always got in the way though, so I quit after a couple of courses). It was fun to see a couple of dozen solutions from the students to the same problem. But before I started I had to really sit down and rationalize what for the most part seemed to come naturally, or I wouldn't have had anything to say. I'm glad I did it.
For a while I started writing whole bunches of ads to direct for myself. I only directed a few, the results of which you can see if you click 'spec spots' in the left sidebar.
I wanted to see if I could do it, toying with the idea of commercial directing, but instead we decided to move to Santa Fe and continue storyboarding from there.
But all that other stuff fed back into storyboarding as ad agency art directors began appreciating my new found directing skills, and so I returned from production boards to ad agency boards with a lot more to offer.
This decision to move to Santa Fe and stick with storyboarding was in part because I'd married a splendid colorist and landscape painter, Meridee.
While an accomplished comp artist in her own right (having worked in New York and Los Angeles), she preferred just coloring, which was quite a handy arrangement.
So I could focus on drawing and leave the coloring in her extremely capable hands.
And she does a very fine job of it.
She loves color, and all the things you can express with it.
She's studied painters who use color to great emotional effect.
The painting helps the comps, and vice-versa.
So I just hand over the drawings and say 'Make me look good'.
She never fails.
Click HERE to see some of her paintings.
Since arriving in Santa Fe I have also become a sculptor between stints with the pencil (click HERE for a look at that), but that's a whole other story!
Learning to paint never hurt a storyboard artist.
If a storyboard artist is a good listener that will help a whole lot too: you've got to know where the art director is coming from.
And if you enjoy people, and are fairly gregarious and a good communicator, all the better. You'll make both your jobs easier.
So to sum up: have an obsessive personality about your work, learn to draw without relying on scrap, marry a great colorist, pretend you're a director of photography and a director, try writing some stuff, be flexible, easy to get on with, and enjoy the area you work in. Be it television shows, commercials, film, video games, webisodes, whatever.
You can learn from all kinds of places. I've adapted and illustrated short stories for a comic book, and illustrated abridged classics such as King Arthur and The Thirty Nine Steps, for a publisher.
So I've worked with authors, editors, art directors, directors, producers, creative coordinators, art buyers, other storyboard artists, and family.
It all helps.
All those related interests let you be adaptable. You can either follow thumbnails, work from a script, or turn a synopsis into a workable storyboard. Whatever the art director wants.
So start with your drawing skills sharpened as much as possible, and pick up as much experience in the other areas that interest you as you can along the way.
When you're drawing a storyboard, you've got a lot of work to do, and if you're thinking too hard about your drawing, everything else will suffer.
Your drawing skills must be up to speed so you can focus on the story, getting good flow, camera placements, picking long, normal or wide angle lenses, the 'acting', pacing the drama (straight on 'boring' shots are as necessary as wide angle forced perspective shots in their place, it's all a matter of context).
Some of the funniest commercials or movie scenes have been simple lock offs.
In certain situations when the action is funny enough, there's often no need to force the issue with dynamic camera positions. It may well become distracting.
It's good to know the difference.
Get hold of collections of memorable or funny commercials, movies, or whatever you enjoy, and learn from them.
Don't over promise, and most important of all, never miss a deadline.
And finally, do it because you like it. It has to be interesting enough to keep your attention for an awful long time.
There's no way I would have learned all this stuff if I hadn't been really interested in it.
Having worked alongside all sorts of artists I've come to appreciate that some rely more heavily on constructing figures, scenes etc from knowledge gained through dint of study, and some rely more on just pulling images from their imagination, some even claiming never to have opened an anatomy book in their life, while being able to draw convincing figures without reference, which would presumably come from them being very keen observers while at the same time being much more gifted in their visual memories. (Or perhaps they just don't remember studying, it was so long ago?)
I'm sure some lucky few are born able to literally put down what's in their head, everything being in the right place without them really knowing how or why. Like those mathematical genius types who can multiply in their heads almost without thinking, to 40 decimal places by accessing some other odd part of their brain.
Sort of like 'using the force'.
Or instinct vs knowledge.
Anyway, drawing from the imagination can certainly be developed.
And developing knowledge helps sharpen the imagination in my experience.
With continued experience you need to construct less, and can go with the flow a lot more as the construction part has become more subconsciously 'hard wired', reverting to a more deliberate constructional approach only when figuring out tricker shots which might involve a lot of perspective or extreme lenses for instance.
But I think there's an element of both (figuring out and throwing down what pops into your head) happening simultaneously most often, with one taking a more dominant position depending on both the immediate need, and also the natural inclination of the artist to feel more comfortable with one over the other. This is I think decided by the degree of both talent and experience of the artist.
Imagine a technical drawing (construction) superimposed over a scene in your imagination. If one fades, the other can add clarity and keep you on track, bringing it back into focus as you transfer it to paper with your pencil.
If you had a flawless memory for everything you'd ever seen, you'd probably never have to figure anything out.
And if you have an excellent knowledge of perspective, the figure, etc, you might never just 'close your eyes and see what you are looking for'. But with that much knowledge, it would probably happen anyway.
Both exist in varying degrees as a result of natural ability and inclination, study, keen observation and experience.
And while different people might rely more heavily on one over the other, to some extent both are usually working simultaneously, and not always to the same degree.
Since I'm now repeating myself I'll call it quits.
It's hard work, but it's rewarding and fun.
Finding work and establishing relationships with clients is another thing you'll have to master, but I'm afraid I can't help you there!
Oh, here's a bunch of books and stuff I've found invaluable you might like:
How to draw comics the Marvel way - John Buscema and Stan Lee
Grammar of the film language - Daniel Arijon
Any of the Bridgeman guides to drawing from life - George Bridgeman
The practice and science of drawing - Harold Speed
Essential Wolverine vol.1 - features John Buscema
Creative perspective for artists and illustrators Ernest Watson
The art of animal drawing - Ken Hultgren
Anatomy lessons from the great masters - Robert Beverley Hale
Savage sword of Conan issues drawn by Buscema and inked by Alfredo Alcala (find out which ones at the John Buscema checklist)
The human figure in motion - Muybridge
Animals in motion - Muybridge
Matters of light and depth - Ross Lowell
Anything you can find featuring drawings of Michelangelo, Rubens, Alex Raymond, Heinrich Kley, and John Watkiss, just for starters.
Here are a few of our initial boards, followed by the completed commercials...
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