I often get emails from students asking how to become a Story Artist or Storyboarder and what the job exactly entails. They usually know something about animation, have watched some DVD extras, but still feel a little confused. It makes sense, they are figuring it out and I want to get into some their questions here.
Though, I also have started noticing how other professionals in the film industry just, straight up, often don't know what we do as a Story Team on animated projects. Which, lets be honest, we ALL get called animators, regardless. Everyone from the director, editor, to the rendering team. But we all don't do the animating. We do lots of jobs, that you all also do in what WE call: Live-Action films. We have Directors, Writers, Art Directors, Editors, Cinematographers (Layout Team and Lighting Team) and a whole pipe-line of people who create the entire world from nothing.
So first, let me get into what a STORY ARTIST and that STORY TEAM actually do. (At least in a Pixar experience):
Story Artists do everyones job before they do it. I'm not saying we do it better, just that we take the first stab at every scene in the movie. Meaning, we draw the first vision of a scene from the script or sometimes from a list of beats (events that happen in a scene.)
We consider the acting of the characters: what are they saying and how are they saying it? (ACTOR)
What do those characters look like (if it is early on)? (CHARACTER DESIGN)
Where are they in the scene? What props do they interact with? (ART DIRECTION)
Where is the camera shooting from? (CINEMATOGRAPHY).
How many shots do you need to get the story points across? And what is the pacing for when you pitch it? (EDITOR).
What is the lighting? Can you use shadow/light to push the story point? (LIGHTING).
Then adding in any ideas to make it better or funnier. (WRITER).
In animation, we build everything into existence, so anything that feels improved was actually pain-stakingly well crafted. Any nuance in acting was broken down to detail and seconds with study. So we build that framework up with drawings and work with Editors to pull it together with music, sound and temporary voice-work to make it a film before we ever build anything in CG. And its always changing in story until, usually a few months before the film comes out.
So, maybe that clears up the confusion.
As for the students: Still want to do this job one day? Haha! Its a lot, but its also fun.. if of course you like to draw and create stories. Here are a list of questions I received recently from a student and the compiled answers:
1. Do you need to be exceptionally good at drawing to be a storyboard artist?
Yes, drawing is a required skill for the job. Having an understanding of perspective is necessary to demonstrate the camera angle. Being able to communicate performance/acting of characters is also essential. That said- drawing is something you can keep practicing at and if persistent, can improve on. It takes persistence on a daily basis
2. What training does a career in storyboarding require?
All those different jobs I listed above means: You need a lot of different skills.
Drawing, Filmmaking (shots, composition, editing, lighting), some Acting or at least through drawing characters, Narrative Story-telling (writing, story structure).
So, the best way to learn these things varies. I went to art school first studying drawing, art and animation. Then I went to film school where I took more film courses and created more animated films of my own. Ending with a lot of degrees and about four short student films. Some people are just amazing at drawing and studied film on their own.
The education varies from artist to artist. Many went to schools like Calarts for character animation where they went through the process of creating their own student films and learned more after being hired on the job, or in the Pixar Story Internship.
3. Are you in a particular branch of storyboarding? What additional special training did it require?
Being a Storyboarder for Live-Action films typically requires drawing accurate drawings of particular shots asked for by the Director.
What we do is a more collaborative and creative-feedback driven process. We re-board, or re-do the film in drawings multiple times before we land on the film that actually gets built and animated in CG. We give input on the story and characters. So our job title is Story Artist.
4. Was it tough getting hired, or was it relatively easy?
It is a demanding job, with few positions. I came in through the Story Internship program, which operates more in a school/training like way. It is three months over the summer and there is nothing like it. It is an incredible experience to learn from working professionals and hone your skills. Others have been hired from their portfolios, usually gained through experience working at other studios or smaller freelance projects first. A portfolio is required, experience is preferable, but not necessarily required if the portfolio demonstrates ability.
5. Is there good job availability for those who choose storyboarding as a career?
We are frequently hiring and I know smaller companies that are always looking for skilled/talented people. Its a matter of building a portfolio to the level that is required for the job.
6. DO you work with many people when storyboarding?
When you are actually storyboarding a sequence, you get feedback initially from the Director and then pitch to the entire team, who also give feedback and ideas. Then you redo it and fix it according to what the Director has in mind. You also attend brainstorm meetings: coming up with ideas/gags or discussing ways to make the story or characters work better. It is a back and forth from big teamwork to solitary work in your office. I’d say people skills are definitely a must, and being able to take critique and feedback. Storyboarding is Re-boarding.
7. Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good or excellent?
I find being a Story Artist is a really creative, fulfilling job. Though if you want to move up, its bascially:
Story Artist - Story Supervisor - Director
So, there isn’t too much to move into, and few jobs available in those upward spots. Its possible, but not where everyone ends up. So maybe fair- good. Being a Story Artist definitely gives you skills to direct, as it prepares you for so many other aspects of that job, and could open opportunities to direct even at other studios. Most of Pixar's directors have come from the Story or Animation Department.
8. Research shows that the demand for storyboard artists will increase by 6% in the upcoming year. Do you believe this to be true? Why or why not?
Wow, it does? Somebody researched that? Well, there is a large demand for media content right now, so I imagine that is possible, particularly with the streaming services. People come and go for various reasons, so I find we are often looking for a few new Story Artists.
9. Does storyboarding provide an adequate means of revenue?
It is a good paying job. If you are freelancing, there is the aspect of negotiating pay-rate on an hourly scale and how long you expect to take finishing work. If you work at an established studio in Los Angeles, theres all that jazz with the Union. (You should ask LA folks about that.) At Pixar we have company benefits including Health Insurance.
10. Could you list a particular advantage of being a storyboard artist? A particular disadvantage?
I enjoy being in a creative position that allows me to be a filmmaker. To have creative ideas that are heard and sometimes used. Watching them filter into what becomes a finished film is very satisfying. That said, you come up with, literally, thousands of ideas and thoughts that never get used, and the films take 4-5 years from concept to screen. So you are in it for the long-haul satisfaction on feature films. TV has a faster turn-around, but also demands more late nights and over-time (from what I hear.) We also seem to work in feast or famine modes. We will have times of heavy demand and possible late nights, to then spurts of down-time waiting for changes to be addressed by the director and writer on the story. You also have to be okay with putting your heart into something one minute, and then having it cut and rearranged in the next. Its not for the faint of heart.
11. Do you have any specific advice for someone interested in being a storyboard artist (such as college courses to take, things to study)?
Draw. Draw everything and learn to do Gesture drawing and short-hand, quick perspective drawing.
Watch and study important films.
Read books about filmmaking and shot choices.
Come up with a story yourself and then try storyboarding it.
Get someone to critique your work who does the job and take the feedback with an open mind.
Try Improv and Acting classes.
Watch your favorite films again and try to pick out why you like them so much, or why a particular shot/moment moved you.
Read screenplays and familiarize yourself with the principles of Story Structure.
Watch a well-known important movie. Then freeze on each shot and sketch them on index cards. Then lay them out and study the progression of the scene.
Check out the blogs, websites, twitter.. etc of people who do the job. Look at their reels or storyboards to get an idea of the expectations. ( you can also see storyboards in some the Art Of books)
Learn Photoshop. Just do- digital drawing is not going away.
Drawn to Life - Walt Stanchfield
The Illusion of Life- Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
The Three C’s of Cinematography - Mascelli
Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story- John Yorke
Save the Cat- Blake Snyder
STORY- Robert McKee
12. Are there any problems faced by most storyboard artists?
Tackling the appeal of characters in drawing and perspective drawing is a constant. Its just something that the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Learning to choose shots and be economic with it. Meaning, thinking like a Director of Photography and Editor on a Live-Action set. You need to “shoot” the scene, but it all happens in your imagination. So you have to remind yourself to cut back to the same shots, be clear with how you tell the story that way.
Nuance in a drawing is extremely difficult, and some are masters of it. What can land a scene through an actor’s real-life performance, you have to emulate in a drawing. It takes practice, observation and sometimes learning a few drawing tricks.
13. Why did you choose storyboarding as your profession?
I loved all the arts. I’ve always loved drawing, dance, music, acting and storytelling. I feel that being a filmmaker in this capacity and in animation encompasses it all. To me, animation is the perfect fusion of all art forms and is still coming into its own with storytelling and possibilities. I want to tell stories, imagine and create characters. The Story Department is where all that happens. It feeds all other departments. It is a crazy, whack-a-doodle process that is not linear. We spend ages going back and forth, redoing things in a non-linear process to end up with a very linear narrative story. Its the creative process every day.
Also, I feel that it is not only entertainment, but true storytelling that can have a positive impact on individual lives.