Learn to storyboard or sharpen your boarding skills! New Lessons posted on Mondays. Sometimes more often.
Students frequently ask, “How clean should my story drawings be?” The answer to that is, “Depends on what the director wants.” I've seen directors accept one artist rough drawings while requiring another to clean up their work.
I think the decision comes down to clarity and details. The rough boards that get through are clear and have enough details in them that the director can see what was going on and could envision the scene. The boards that got rejected were less clear and didn't have enough detail in them to give a sense of what was going.
I hope it pretty obvious what clarity is (can you tell in one glance what is going on?) so I'll focus this lesson on the details.
Here's a TV pilot I did with a couple of friends at Warner Brothers. A lot of gags in there.
This lesson isn't about making comedies, just making your story funnier. Even the most dramatic story can use a good laugh.
I've come up with 7 guidelines for comedy in your stories:
#1 Are you laughing?
If it doesn't make you laugh it's probably not funny. You know what's funny. Make yourself laugh. Don't try too hard though. Then it just becomes forced.
The 2015 Minions movie started out funny but then got boring quick. As long as they were short comedy vignettes it was funny, but making a whole movie with them as the main character was forced. It didn't work. But then again, it is the second highest grossing animated film!
When you have two contrasting ideas or characters you can milk a lot of humor out of them.
Did you see Napoleon Dynamite? It was funny. Well some people didn't think so, but I did. It was full of interesting characters that contrasted each other. Napoleon vs Kip. Napoleon vs uncle Rico. Napoleon vs everybody! He was such a funny character I didn't care what the story was I just wanted to watch him.
Did you see Gentlemen Broncos? Not as funny. Why? It was full of interesting characters -- but they were all the same weird character. In my opinion there was no contrast between the characters. They were all weird.
“Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.” - Steve Martin
If you have a character who abhors filth then you can amp up the funny by getting them dirty and making them interact with filth.
You've seen cooking shows,here's a new twist:
When you turned the cooking show convention on it's side.
In EPIC we needed something to break up the boringness of the Queen. Here's my solution:
Contrast dignity with the gutter. Look for contrast in every scene.
# 3 Surprise people
Surprise and delight your audience and they will laugh. You don't always need a knee slapping hilarious joke. Something clever that makes people chuckle is sufficient.
This bit contrasts quiet with loud for an unexpected response.
Another way to surprise people when you are given some unfunny dialog to board is to juxtapose it with a contrasting or unexpected visual you will get a laugh. I call it surprise but it could also be put this way: The audience makes an assumption, then gag proves it wrong.
# 4 Character
Comedy needs to come from Character.
When I was working on Ice Age I, the idea for the dodo sequence was 'a bunch of survivalist dodo's'. That was a pretty funny idea I thought, but the original sequence just didn't work. The idea was the main characters accidentally set off some booby traps the dodo's made and our heroes had to escape.
It was supposed to be funny because the dodo's were stupid and the traps didn't work. Well, It wasn't funny. I spent some time thinking about it and came up with this: Dodo's are stupid. They wouldn't make booby traps. Also the scene had no drive or purpose to it. I suggested that the heroes find some food for the baby and the dodo's steal it. Now our hero's had something to do.
The dodo's had three melons to survive on. This began to be funny. To the audience it was obvious that it wouldn't work. I made a football game out of it and from there it took off. In the end Sid wins but in his victory dance he breaks the melon on the ground ruining his hard earned victory and showing the audience he isn't any smarter than the dodos.
Let your characters act according to who they are. The comedy is derived directly from character in Idiot and Jerk.
My friend Xeth Fienberg and I drew a whole series of Idiot and Jerk cartoons based on the name.
# 5 Timing & build up
You have to give your gag time to breathe. If you've ever listened to the Jack Benny radio show you would know he was a tightwad. Most of his comedy came from his character not wanting to spend money. On one episode he was held up at gun point. Take a listen:
Start small then build to a hilarity crescendo. Don't throw the funniest thing out there first. A running gag often gets more laughs that a 'one off'.
Top yourself. Each joke needs to be funnier than the last one. Your final joke is the topper. Watch how this heckler does this very thing.
This sweet little film has timing and build up too.
The build up in this Daffy Duck cartoon is AWESOME. First he hits a tree, then he does it again and again and again and keeps on doing it. We cut away to Porky Pig and the gag continues with just audio. That would have been a good end but we cut back to Daffy to see him hit the last tree on the ground. He begins to chop it down -- only to reveal he's chopping all of the trees in his way down. We have to watch his next exploit now! He swings, he makes it -- he hits a rock. Excellent pay off to a "building gag".
# 6 Is it appropriate for the scene?
You might come up with the most hilarious gag in the world while you are sitting in church. Should you get up and tell it? No.
Let me illustrate:
When I was working on Iron Giant I was given the task to come up with ideas on how Kent discovers the Giant. I thought I'd be clever and turn the scene on it's ear (remember # 3? surprise people!) I drew up this whole scene where he comes out of the Tipsy Lobster for the evening and drives off a little drunk. The Giant sees his car driving down the road and picks it up to eat it. Kent sees the Giant, the Giant sees Kent. Startled Giant drops the car with Kent in it and runs off. Next scene – Kent is in jail talking to the General on the phone. He tells him he saw the giant. The General tells him he was drunk and hit a tree.
Clever huh? Kent really sees the Giant but no one believes him. Well everyone in the room laughed but my idea got shot down. Why? Because you can't have a main character in a kids movie getting drunk. That was not the story Brad Bird was telling. So, check your gags for appropriateness. Does it fit the scene? Does it help propel the story? If not, kill it. Come up with something else.
#7 Funny Drawings!
If it's a funny sequence, do funny drawings. Here's a few examples from Bill Peet:
Chuck Jones from "Bully for Bugs"
Ren and Stimpy had some of the best facial expressions thanks to Bob Camp. I'm not sure who the artist is in this example from Ripping Friends but definitely influenced by Bob.
Ken Anderson's Sir Hiss from "Robinhood"
Certianly Sir Hiss was inspiration for this octopus scene in 'Finding Dory' by Trevor Jiminez.
All of these drawings are masterpieces of clarity, contrast and appeal.
You also need to stage it for comedy. Comedy typically works best in flat staging because flat staging doesn't compete with the jokes. Every Frame a Painting describes it beautifully in this video.
A wimpy person is a night time security officer for a bank. Two robbers are breaking in on a full moon night. The security officer is a werewolf. What kind of werewolf does the securuty officer become. What kind of characters are the robbers? Do they have a dog? Does the security officer stay werewolf all the time? Can you put a unique twist on the werewolf convention?
Two things you need to know about boarding action:
- You're going to have to draw lots of panels
- Learn what to move and what t0 keep still
The sequence above was done by Vadim Bazhanov for RIO. I really like his simple yet clear style.
Dean Wellins did this sequence from Zootopia. It's practically animated!
Your main goal is to show the action clearly. Cool action does not necessarily mean flashy camera work and cool angles. Those things can help but you've got to have the drawing chops to pull it off. More importantly is finding the right key pose or combination of poses that describes the action the clearest.
The punch in the first instance is staged poorly. The second punch is only one drawing but works so much better. Often times the aftermath of an action tells more than the lead up.
An Approach to Action
Think about the story you have to board and then start drawing shots. Doesn't matter if they are in order or not, just EXPLORE! Find the best angle!,
Sometimes you have more than one right angle. Trial and error! You can rearrange the shots later.
Typically action is shot with deep space staging but if you punctuate it with flat staging you can give the scene some visual contrast.
To keep your action boards clear, keep your action happening in the same part of the frame. Once you have the viewers attention on a certain spot of the board keep it there.
Vashi Nedomansky said this of Mad Max:
One of the many reasons MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is so successful as an action film is the editing style. By using "Eye Trace" and "Crosshair Framing" techniques during the shooting, the editor could keep the important visual information vital in one spot...the Center of the Frame. Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn't need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look. It's like watching an old hand-drawn flip book whiz by. It's always in the same spot!
Follow the red dot:
You need variation on your boards to keep the illusion of movement going in your boards. Use 2 or 3 drawing cycles like the running guy below:
If you place your finger on the stick man above you will see that he mostly stays in the same part of the frame for the action.
Use opposing action arcs. Notice the opposing body positions, it makes the visuals more interesting.
Remember to keep your silhouettes clear. What's the guy on the right doing? Who knows? If your silhouette is clear, your drawing will most likely read.
Feast Your eyes on these beautiful sketches by Bill Peet
Great silhouette and action. You can feel these drawings move!!
Avoid repetition in your shot selection. Don't always go for the low angle foreground shot with something off in the distance. If you find that you are repeating a certain kind of shot, freeze frame some action scenes and learn some new shots.
You can also spice up your panels with effects:
A few more Ideas:
Just don't get caught up in effects and crap like that. GOOD, CLEAR DRAWINGS!!
Since we already referenced Mad Max, here's a great action scene from the 1982 2nd MM movie
In this scene we are learning character from the action. It's not just a bunch of cool shots, with cool action. Cool action without character will leave your audience unimpressed. Think of any transformers movie.
Here's what we learn about Mad Max from this scene:
- He's a good driver, dodged obstacles where the others couldn't
- He needs gas
- He's not a beast out for blood
- He's uses his brains over brute force
- He has some humanity as he feels the other dude's pain
- He's tough enough to survive this world
- Gas is precious
When you start boarding, just do it. I never do thumbnails. I think it's a waste of time. Draw it full size because if you make a good drawing it's done. You can use it! You don't have to draw it 'for real'.
Main character: Has a secret. Is tough but cries at the sight of babies. Show us one more thing about this character.
Secondary character: Desperately want's to find out the secret. Knows about the baby crying thing. Is afraid of heights.
Third character: Unrelated to the other two, gets caught in the cross fire. This one just want's to eat a sandwich.
Pick one of these set ups:
Two characters, one chasing the other parkour style across the tops of buildings. A third gets in the way. One of the runners is overweight.
One character falls out of a plane, a second jumps out to save the first. One has a wing suit. There are some hot air balloons in the way with a third character on board.
Check out the fun action bit below:
Film is a visual language. A good filmmaker gives the audience just the right amount of information to lead them to the next scene. You don’t want your audience to get ahead of you. If they do, you risk losing the audience.
After the birds were stolen in the movie RIO, they are kept in the smugglers lair. By the time Linda and Tulio find out where the birds are, the audience is ahead of them because they've seen them escape. Now the ride to the smugglers lair is devoid of suspense because we already know what they will find.
See the rest of the images here.
This move was a challenge to work on because most of our conventional storytelling camera angles had to be muted. Deep space was a no no. The camera choices were based upon keeping the feel of the comic strips and the old 2D shows. Try boarding an action scene with no deep space shots!
It's still a year out but it's going to be great.
Take a look at the simplicty of his drawings. They are so full of life! His poses have great silhouettes. Notice how he darkens Dumbo's legs that are in the background making his other legs pop out. This small touch really adds dimension in a black and white story drawing.
Have you ever finished a board but it didn't get the reaction you had hoped for? Maybe you mom said, "very nice dear." I'm sure your mom meant well but that kind of feedback isn't going to help.
Have several of your freinds take a look at you boards. Ask them to give you honest feedback on your story.·
What did they like?
What didn't they like?
What do they suggest?
What makes good stories? Good conflict. Conflict is the catalyst that gets the story going or the engine that drives it. If I were to tell you, “I ate an apple.” You probably wouldn’t care. What if I said, “I ate the last apple.”? Now we have conflict and you have a reason to care.
When deciding what movie to watch, you probably read a one line description of a movie to see what it’s about. This is called a ‘log line’. A good log line and title will sell the movie because it lays out the central conflict.
Here’s a few movies and books. Pay attention to the conflict each story has.
Man on a Ledge
War and Peace
The War Horse
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Beauty and the Beast
Having good stories in a portfolio is paramount. Next you'll want to attract attention to your story by quickly telling what it is about. You can do this with an image or words.