Friday, March 28, 2008

The Storyboard is "Done"

I drew the final storyboard yesterday.

This doesn't mean the storyboard is finalized. It feels off-kilter; too many shots to communicate some things, and too few for others. I plan to spread out all the drawings, then look through the flow.

But this is a milestone. Many animations don't even get this far. And I feel good, like I've accomplished something. As I should.

So, next I need to analyze. Criticism gets a bad rap in creative circles--deservedly--but criticism can be constructive. Sometimes you need to take something apart so you can rebuild it into something better.

And flow is a complicated aspect of storytelling, but that's for another post. For now, yay! I finished the storyboard! Time to celebrate.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Unless you're making an experimental animation (experimation?), your film will be divided into scenes.  These are the paragraphs of the film world.  While each shot conveys a few emotional beats to the viewer, just like a sentence in a written story, the shots must be strung together into a scene that tells one hunk of your story.

And the vague terms I'm using--a few, a hunk--are unfortunately apt.  There's no concrete rule that establishes the number of emotional beats in a shot, or the number of shots in a scene.  Or what to convey in a given shot.

Which means you have to figure it out on your own.  What exactly do you want to convey in each scene?

In animation, you have pretty much complete control over the contents of your scenes.  If you have a team, you can count on later contributions from team members to "plus" your ideas, adding a reaction or a piece of information to the shot that you didn't think of.  So you can afford to forge ahead with relatively straightforward scenes.  When you're working on your own, well, you'll probably have ideas later, but not as many as a team would.  It's better to work out as much as you can up front.

If there are no rules, you can put anything into a scene, right?  Well, yes and no.  If you're making an experimental film, then yes, anything goes.  Otherwise, you want your viewers to understand what's going on, right?

This is where dramatic theory comes into play.

There are many theories of how stories "work."  My favorite (so far) is the Theory of Unanswered Questions.  Basically, the story starts out by introducing a bunch of unanswered questions:  Who is the protagonist?  Why is she searching for the Ark of the Covenant?  Will he find his son?  Who murdered Anton?  Will Maria ever find a sane boyfriend?

As the story progresses, some questions are answered, but more are raised.  When the story hits its climax, the number of unanswered questions is at an all-time high.  Will Macbeth get away with Banquo's murder?  Will Macbeth's wife go mad?  Will Macduff get revenge?  Will the witches' prophecy be fulfilled?

After the climax, the story answers more and more questions, while introducing fewer and fewer new ones.  By the time the story is over, almost all of the questions have been answered.  Of course, many stories aren't quite as neat as this; some end with many unanswered questions.  Some answer small questions but not big ones.  The climax may come at almost any point in the story, making it hard to understand what the questions even are.

So, back to our little animations.  I propose that each scene should ask or answer a major question.  (I'd go so far as to say that each shot should ask or answer at least some question.)  This tells you two things:
  1. Is this scene worth being in the story at all?  What does it add--that is, what important story question does it introduce, or which story question does it resolve?
  2. How to structure the scene.  The question being asked or answered will partly dictate the scene.  If your scene is introducing an antagonist--which is effectively asking the question, "Will this new character stop the protagonist?"--then you know that not only do you have to show the antagonist, you have to show how the antagonist might block the protagonist.
Let's take an example:  The opening scenes of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.  It begins with a narrator describing a fairy tale in which a haughty prince is turned into a beast, until he finds true love (with a time limit).  This introduces several questions:  Is the Beast the protagonist?  What's he really like?  Will he find true love in time?  Will the witch come back?  And so forth.  These are asking the big plot questions.

We then cut to the second scene, in which Belle sings and walks through her country village.  Is this scene answering any questions?  No, far too early for that.  So, what questions are being asked?  It's all questions about Belle, so this scene does an excellent job of showing us what Belle is like, and her major problems.  She's surrounded by simple country folk going about mundane business which bores her, she always her nose in a book, and the entire village is painted in various dull shades (note that Belle is the only character wearing blue, a trick to visually pull her out of the busy crowd at a glance).  Will she find someone to interest her?  Will she get "un-stuck" from this boring life?  Will she always spend her life reading?

In my animation, I'm currently staring down a scene in which the girl, Angela, finally begins to thaw out Rick, the dour adult.  The previous scene involved them walking to a swimming hole, Angela being excited at the beautiful day, and Rick being dour.  In this scene, Angela swims enthusiastically in the pond, and encourages Rick to really feel the water and the sun.  To loosen up a bit.  He scowls, but closes his eyes, and we see his expression soften.

This is actually the climax of the story.  Will Angela's behavior change Rick?  We answer that question:  Yes, at least temporarily, he changes.  So, I have to structure my scene to maximize the impact of answering that question.  I'll pause between Angela's question and Rick closing his eyes.  It's worth building some dramatic tension right there.  Then I'll need to animate his softening expression very slowly, deliberately, and carefully.  That's a key moment for the viewer, so I need his emotional state to be crystal clear.  I can worry less about other aspects of the animation.

Hope this helps.