Anthony Zierhut

Storyboard artist and animatic artist for feature films



Why storyboarding works – part 2

Peter Rubin, veteran storyboard and previs artist, has a beautifully written article – Why Storyboards Still Work – that tells it like it is in regard to hand-drawn storyboards “vs.” digital previs. This is an especially key paragraph:

So which should the director/producer choose if there’s only money for one? (A hypothetical question — it will always be cheaper to storyboard, at least until the day that video iPods come down to the price of paper. But let’s pretend.) All else being equal, animatics or storyboards? That depends, and not on technology. It depends on the personal preferences of the director, the schedule, and the gifts of the available artists. 2D or 3D, in motion or static, a previsualized sequence will only be as good as the person executing it. I would argue that if you can afford previs, you can’t afford not to storyboard as well.

Beautiful. The gifts of the available artists. That’s it. A lot of this silliness about 3d vs. 2d ignores the basic fact that the quality of the work is more dependent upon the quality of the artist, not the tools the artist uses.

And he has this one last word of caution:

All of this would be merely academic, and darn funny, if the livelihoods of some outstanding film professionals (and, some would argue, the quality of the final work) were not already being adversely affected by opinions like this. Storyboards are still widely in use — but some productions are now starting to deny it, so that they won’t seem behind the times (this recently happened to one of my ex-ILM colleagues). That should make us, artists and directors of all dimensions, just a little bit alarmed.

It should always be about how to make the film the best it can be, regardless of what tools are used. This is a great article. He touched on some of the points I’ve pointed out, but I think he articulated it better than I did.

Why storyboarding works

Storyboarding and previs are like brother and sister. Each are tools at the disposal of the director, to help illustrate his or her vision, to clarify camera work, work out the beats of a story, figure out action or comedic moments and how best to cover them. The greatness of storyboarding is its speed and simplicity, it freedom from batteries, hard drives, operating systems. A skilled board artist can depict anything that can be filmed with only a piece of paper and a little time. Previs, on the other hand, is a powerful computerized tool that can accurately show a director how a scene will play in 3d space and over time, like watching a movie. Each has its strong points, and together magic can happen.

That being said, I just got finished reading a rather silly article entitled Why Storyboarding Doesn’t Work. I say silly because the author attempts, rather crudely, to explain why storyboarding is “an outmoded shot-planning tool”. Never mind that his only apparent qualification to make that assessment is the fact that he’s selling some expensive DVDs on how to plan shots without storyboarding. His example storyboard panel, attempting to illustrate how inadequate storyboards are, looks like no professional storyboard I’ve ever seen. He takes great pains on that page to indicate that “all images copyright Per Holmes” – right under the image, so I can only guess he drew it himself. All this would be funny, except for the fact that this article might be read by a visual effects supervisor or film director new to the job, or hungry for cost-cutting, who erroneously decides to forego hiring a storyboard artist. The artist would be out of a potential job, and the production would potentially be out real money paying for expensive previs when simple, relatively inexpensive storyboards would start the ball rolling. Here’s a good example of some of the goofiness in this article:

The next problem with storyboarding, especially in live action, is that it literally causes the shot-count to explode. In order to shoot a storyboard, it has to be converted into actual camera-locations, meaning that if we’re shooting 20 storyboard frames, we’’ll have 20 actual camera locations.

What? You’ve got to be joking. Each storyboard panel is a “story beat” in a sequence. In other words it could take one, twenty or one hundred panels to describe a single shot. It completely depends on the action described in the shot. Here’s an example from my samples page. The first panel is the master shot, the next is a close-up. After that the next nine panels describe a single shot – tracking (in 3d space, mind you) towards a kid as he loads a giant snowball into a giant slingshot, then the shot travels “into” his reflective glasses, then, continuing forward through the reflection over the snowball as it hurtles towards its intended target. The last two panels – together – describe the snow explosion shot. Wow, I just used thirteen drawings to describe four shots – not thirteen shots. How does this square with the article? It doesn’t. Why? Because my example is from the reality of motion picture film production, his example is from… well, your guess is as good as mine.

The truth is storyboarding not only works, it has worked to feed, clothe and house me and my family for all of my childrens’ lives and nearly half of mine. Previs, as far as I’m concerned, is just another tool on the storyboard artist’s workbench. We have pencils, markers, Photoshop and now 3d previs to help us pre-visualize the movie for the director. The drawing aspect of storyboarding is, for me, ironically, only a convenient means to an end. Some of us draw better than others, but the most important skill of all is clarity; and if 3d previs helps clarify the director’s vision before the day of the shoot, then it will be enlisted in the regiment of tools at our disposal.

The tragedy is that this author could have written this article for storyboard artists not against them. What do I mean? His DVDs could have been a wonderful resource to help board artists make the transition to 3d, but instead he decided upon a less positive approach, in effect attacking storyboarding as a previsualization technique. Too bad. The attempt to pit one tool or technique against another is, in my opinion, foolishness and sadly shortsighted. And that’s an opinion from somebody who gets paid to do both storyboarding and previs.

Signal light

I scribbled this at lunch about an hour ago. Working again on a Saturday – crunch time.

I was doing some visual research yesterday on city stuff and accidentally came upon some interesting information about the inventor of the traffic light system that’s used throughout the world. I am constantly amazed about the things we take for granted. Sitting at a red traffic light, watching the cross traffic, well, cross, it’s interesting to think – somebody had to invent that traffic signal. I suppose we all kind of think, yeah, some giant corporation somewhere came up with it, etc., etc. But in reality that’s rarely the case. Usually these things are invented by one person and it goes corporate after that, not the other way around. In the case of the traffic signal, it was invented by an American named Garrett Augustus Morgan – a man who’s remarkable not only for the fact that he also invented the gas mask, but that his parents were former slaves in the Confederate South. A brilliant and creative man who became wealthy by his wits, and whose ideas affect virtually all of us several times a day, nearly 130 years after his birth.

Job interview…

All of us in the commercial art field have to deal with the business of being hired. As a storyboard artist or previs artist it’s usually the director or production designer or vfx supervisor who does the hiring. In my experience word-of-mouth recommendations are the avenue through which 90% of the work comes, with resume/sample/web site making up for the rest. In any case, the last step before getting the job is the interview – usually in which you show your portfolio and reel. I just read a nice article with some good pointers on how to conduct yourself on an interview here. It’s helpful information to know.

Stephen Wiltshire – autistic genius

I happened upon this blog post yesterday, about a young man in Britain who can barely speak, but who has the uncanny ability to draw anything just after a moment’s glance. In the photo he can be seen drawing a large, nearly photographically accurate panorama of Rome after a short helicopter ride over the city. To see samples of his work, Mr. Wiltshire’s official web site is here.

To say that I’m amazed is an understatement. His oil paintings remind me somehow of pinhole photography – almost like a truer representation of what the human eye sees than what’s processed through the artifice of a camera and lens. Check out the “Los Angeles Traffic” sample on this page to see what I mean. But my favorite thing he does is his pencil drawings. There’s a wonderful human energy to the archetectural subjects he chooses, and I think it comes from the fact that he freehands all those lines. It slows the eye, makes you stop and look. The fact that he does this all from memory is just a wonder. It’s both humbling and inspiring, and makes me glad to be on a planet with so many different kinds of people with so many different interests and abilities.

Sketchup — for free

Sketchup is a 3d modeling program that is very “drawing oriented” and has been adopted by several storyboard artist friends of mine as a way to segue into the world of 3d. I’ve never used it, but have been aware of it for years. Most 3d programs like Maya or LightWave make use of “primitives”, ie: cubes or spheres, from which you can create complex objects by extruding faces or dividing and shaping the primitive. Sketchup actually allows you to “draw” shapes in a 3d window and “pull” other shapes out of it. Some video tutorials of what I’m talking about can be seen here. It seems like a great program especially for creating archetectural objects like buildings and rooms.

This program used to cost about four or five hundred bucks. Now it’s free. No kidding. You can check it out and download it here. I guess Google bought it and is making a version of it free to download for PC.

I’ve had several friends use it to generate background images for storyboards, and the results are impressive. And, as I’ve said, it may be a good stepping stone from the world of drawing into the world of 3d, if one were inclined to go that way.

Sketches From Japan

I love this book. Sketches from Japan by Francis D.K. Ching is a reproduction of a sketchbook that Mr. Ching made during a month’s stay in Japan. Every day he would go out and sketch the buildings and things he saw around him in the area of O-okayama, where he was teaching and staying, southwest of Tokyo. The drawings are all made with a Mont Blanc fountain pen and are some of the most beautiful free-hand perspective drawings I’ve ever seen. He made the drawings as a pure exercise in the enjoyment of drawing, never intending, necessarily, to have them seen or published. What I like is the delicate, yet supremely confident line he uses. There is a polite authority, a quiet, understated power to his sketches that I find really compelling. I also love the simple open white space in this book. I’ve made sketchbooks in which I’ve seemingly tried to fill up every inch of blank paper before going on to the next page resulting in a manic quality that, looking back on it, I’m not too fond of. But Sketches from Japan is the exact opposite: there’s a wonderful serenity to the openness, as if the artist is saying, “Look at this… Now look at this…” Every time I pick this book up and leaf through the pages I want to grab a pen or pencil and go out and draw. And since the original journal was not intended as anything other than a personal exploration in the use of a pen for it’s own sake, there’s an unpretentious freshness to it that is almost impossible to find in books about drawing. mentions me

Helen South, the Guide to the Drawing / Sketching area of was kind enough to mention my SketchBlog last week in this post concerning drawing blogs and journals. She writes a wonderfully informative column that is a great resource for all things concerning drawing and sketching. Lots of great tips, book and product reviews – definitely something to bookmark for frequent return visits.

Journal as art

I just picked this book up the other day, Drawing From Life: The Journal As Art by Jennifer New. I’m always inspired by the idea of keeping a sketchbook, as I have, religiously, since 1979, but this book has taken that inspiration to a new level. It shows many different kinds of people keeping many different kinds of journals: Artists, filmmakers, writers, scientists – all connected by their passion for keeping a visual document of their own creative or observational processes between the bindings of a book (or not, in the case of cartoonist Lynda Barry who “journals” on loose-leaf yellow legal pads, but journals nevertheless). It’s fantastic to see pages scanned directly out of these extremely personal books, to see the authority and command they have and the absolutely singular way each chooses to express himself or herself. It’s the kind of authority a person gets when he knows no one else is watching or judging the outcome. I couldn’t help but draw a mental connection to blogging when I looked at these various journals but the comparison quickly falls apart because 1. blogs are typewritten and usually formatted in a coherent manner, thanks to various html editing software, whereas these pages were all handwritten, most not even conforming to margins or the quaint notions of “up” and “down”; and 2. blogs are, by definition, meant for public consumption, whereas journals are the exact opposite: meant for the person creating it or a close confidant only. All that aside, judging the book visually alone, it’s a feast for the eyes and will inspire anyone – even people who don’t draw, because there are many examples of collaged and photographed and just plain interestingly hand-written entries – to go out and buy a blank journal and fill it up.

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