By Michelle Barnett
05/04/2022
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Our storyboarding process

Storyboarding is the earliest, most basic version of an animation, movie or visual graphic. 

When I make a storyboard, I’m planning out what the visual flow of a story is going to be, scene by scene. Essentially it looks like a comic strip, with notes added under each panel describing any key movements in that scene, and also tracking where we are in the script, if there is one.

BEAT charity animation storyboard

Beneath each frame is the narration that will be playing (in black) and scene directions for the animator (in red).

Storyboarding is an invaluable middle stage that puts everyone on the same page. Instead of going straight from my imagination to the final animation, it lets both artist and client see the plan, and catch the vision of what we are creating. It’s also a great progress marker, to help everyone involved understand how far through the final animation I am, and how long it’s likely to take.

It’s also more cost efficient for our clients, because they are fast and rough. Most early storyboards are barely more than biro doodles or a series of post-it notes. It gives us the chance to spot problems ahead of time, and add or remove scenes without the bigger cost implications that come with doing so later in the process, when we’re working with more complicated images.

Where do we start?

Often the script comes first, but not always. There’s often a bit of interplay where the two can influence each other; a change of phrase can affect how what we depict in that scene, or an image can say something more clearly than the text.

Photo of an artist's notebook, roughing out a storyboard in thumbnails

My notebook, with the early ideas of a storyboard. These simple ‘thumbnails’ get ideas down fast so I can build the structure of the animation quickly.

If the script is more or less ready to go, I’ll go through it with a pencil writing down ideas and any images that the script already offers me. For example, if I’m making an advert talking about the benefits of hiring a personal trainer, I’m already looking for athletics and sports analogies within the wording of the text.

Even at this stage, there’s some information I need before starting;

  • Visual style. This should have been decided by now, as part of the moodboard process. If the brand has a shape-based, geometric look, there may be ways to play with those do shapes or some interesting visual effects. Likewise, if it’s very realistic, that affects the kinds of moves that objects will make.
  • Where will this video be seen? Depending on where your video is going to be displayed, the aspect ratio of the screen will be different. 16:9 ratio is usual for films, and anything going on an online platform like Youtube or Vimeo. TVs may also have a 4:3 format. However for an Instagram story, the ratio is 9:16 to account for the vertical format of a smartphone, where most are viewed. This means the images will work in a totally different way, with the tall and narrow or short and wide frames being used to create different effects.
  • Video quality. For a good quality 16:9 video 1920×1080 (1080p) is perfectly acceptable, but if you want 4k resolution the dimensions are 3840×2160 (2160p). I wouldn’t go lower than 720p for any professional video because the quality starts to suffer on larger screens.
Minimum Income Standards animation storyboard brand

This layout for Minimum Income Standards animation shows their colour palette. We extended it to add some more options and created a diverse range of characters for their animation in those colours. Finally they are arranged in their scene, ready to start moving!

Designing the storyboard

This part is harder to explain because when I sit down to create a storyboard, I’m thinking about multiple aspects of the video at once. While trying out ideas, I’m always considering…

  • Focus points. Every script, talk or video has key points in its message or narrative that we really want to hit home with the audience. The job of my visuals is to underline those. After identifying them, I can think about the most effective ways to highlight those points
  • Are there any weak points in the script? Sometimes a script contains some fairly dry and lengthy information, or something we can depict more efficiently with the visuals (saying ‘John is very sad’ takes five times as long as just showing you John’s sad face).
    I’ll propose a script edit if I can, but other times there’s no getting around it. At those times, we could throw in some fancy animation to jazz things up, but that would actually be distracting and unhelpful rather than communicating. So these are areas I’m probably going to add ‘filler’ – something fairly generic that’s just enough to keep the audience focussed through this slower section, and get us to the next point.
  • Mood & Tone. A video may have several changes of tone as it moves through its points, and the kinds of movement, colour, and what we show needs to support those tonal changes. An uplifting tone can be created by visuals that flow well together and lots of on-screen movement, whereas a scene involving a warning or PSA might benefit from a sense of drama, created by dark colours and dramatic motion
  • Transitions. How will we get from one scene to the next?  Smash and Jump cuts can be punchy and dramatic, but risk being disjointed if they’re all you use. Wipes are softer and work well for animations, especially ‘how to’ and instructional videos, but look silly and forced with filmed footage. Invisible cuts (scenes that use an object from the first scene to transition to the second) give a sense of flow and direction, but are less impactful if not broken up in some other way.
  • Visual interest. An animator is also a director and editor, so I’m often thinking in terms of shot composition, similarly to making a movie. If all the shots are the same, things can get boring, so we I to have a mix and contrast the with each other e.g. a wide shot followed by a closeup.
  • Pacing. This means how fast a scene feels, and is linked to tone and visual interest. Sometimes you want to linger on just one thing, giving your audience time to really drink it in. Other times you want to keep it snappy. In our visually eye-catching digital world, getting and keeping interest is often the name of the game, so we want to avoid things dragging (this often involves some editing of the script!)
  • Movement. An animation where nothing is moving is just a Powerpoint. Usually if I’ve counted to three and no new movement has happened, I know I need to add some. It can be subtle – a zoom or a slight pan is often all that’s needed (watch any Akira Kurosawa film, he was great at this. During long conversation scenes he’d always have something in the background – weather, or items moved by the wind so that the scene never felt stale)
  • Sounds. Will we need music or sound effects (footsteps, doors opening, birds typing noises, etc)? There’s a couple of places I might source these from, some free, and others with a small charge. In other cases we may need to do our own recording. Remember to think about copyright!
  • Budget and time constraints. Whatever the price point, our client needs a completed video of good quality that communicates clearly. If the time-budget is higher, I know I can add some more complicated movements and visuals if I want to, or take the time to learn a new technique that will add to the story they want to tell.
    If the time-budget is smaller I’m going to be looking for visual shorthands and workarounds that I know I can enact quickly, while still not sacrificing that key communication. Simple can be beautiful, and we always keep the working files, so I can go back and add more detail if we finish ahead of schedule!

You don’t need to worry about any of this, but all these considerations will be going on in my head as I’m reading the script and putting the storyboard together. There’s often a lot of stops and starts, throwing out scenes, and moving them around. However, after a lot of scribbling and rubbing things out and redrawing them differently, a solid storyboard will emerge.

CARM animation storyboard

The green instructions here clearly describe the movements that will be needed: a zoom out, a sideways pan, and a scaled object.

Present your storyboard

Sometimes this initial drawn storyboard will be clear enough to show to a client. Setting their expectations can be important, so they understand this is a very early version where they can give their own ideas and input. The storyboard stage is the best time to experiment with ideas and fix problems, so the client’s opinion is most valuable at this point.

On other occasions I’ll draw up a smarter version for the client to sign off on. It’s out last pit stop before the final animation happens, as it gives the clearest view of what will be happening. This storyboard can also be shown as an animatic – where frames are shown alongside the voiceover to get an idea of timings. Short animations don’t always need this step, but for something bigger or with more complexity, it can be worth asking for.

This final storyboard is usually in our clients visual style, and I’ll use the opportunity to start building the moving parts we’ll need for the animation itself. We use the Adobe Creative Suite, which means that all the design and illustration programs we use play well together. The elements from a storyboard I make in Illustrator can easily be moved across in After Effects, where the animating happens!

Minimum Income Standards animation storyboard

This early storyboard for MIS is very simple – the characters are just circles with faces! – but it lays out the story of the animation we are planning to make.

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