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April 3, 2009

the myth of storyboards

by sven at 7:00 am

from the SMA splash page

Speaking for myself: making animated films has been agony.

I love the end product. I love the little hit of "progress!" every time I snap another frame. And I love working with my hands to create little worlds.

But when I discover my sequence of shots doesn't work, it's misery. When I realize that good storytelling demands I excise a shot, I feel a day ripped from my life for nothing. And then of course, there's when a film turns into Viet Nam: the quagmire you're too committed to to bail out of, even though there's no end in sight.

I don't think I'm alone. I expect my filmmaker friends (stopmo and otherwise) know exactly what I'm talking about.

There's a problem here that I'm still learning how to solve… But I think I've found the principle that will ultimately save me: WORK FROM ROUGH TO POLISHED.


Based on my own experience and what I've seen at SMA, I believe that almost all stopmoes are cursed with the temptation to dive into fabrication.

We are utterly smitten with the physicality of puppet worlds. We're almost powerless against that lust. What is it that we do? We create actual tangible bodies and then breath our own life into them -- trading the time of our life for time spent in theirs at a frightening exchange rate. We create miniature worlds that we then get to exist in vicariously -- though for us it's far more than six days before we can rest! We can feel as if these people and places are already real -- they're just begging to be born, tugging at our minds…

But I urge myself (and my stopmo brethren) to resist this temptation to start building. We must be storytellers first… Not gods of tiny worlds.


I've found stopmoes surprisingly resistant to the idea of storyboarding. I think it goes back to our great temptation… We want to get straight to fabricating. But also: Storyboarding seems like additional work… And it requires drawing skills… And if you can already see the film perfectly in your head, why bother?

Well, just trust me on this: the pain of storyboarding is far less than that of throwing out shots or getting stuck in a years-long quagmire. (No film is ever as as short as you think!)

I think people tend to imagine that storyboards have to be like the ones we see in "making of" featurettes: beautifully rendered, like storybook pages spread out across a wall. No! Stick figures will do… And there's a whole range of storyboard-like development tools to work with:

Always start with the fastest, roughest methods… Refine your vision through progressive iterations. Catching a problem now will save you immeasurable grief later on!


So, stopmoes who go through the trouble of storyboarding their film get to feel virtuous. They fought temptation, did the right thing, and now can get on with fabricating puppets and sets. …Right?


The great myth of storyboards is that they're the master blueprint for your film… All you have to do is shoot the shots you've drawn, and your project will rise like architecture.

But the reality is that despite all this planning, films are created in the editing room. A film is like an iceberg of deleted scenes… What you see on screen is just the tip of what got shot -- 80% of the project never gets seen.

Here are ways the storyboard is going to be just dead wrong…

(A) You fail to get shots that you need. A reaction shot. A close-up. An establishing shot. The shot sequence looked good on paper, but when it plays on screen, it becomes obvious that something is missing.

(B) You shoot unnecessary shots. You realize that pacing works better if you excise the reaction shot. Or if you cut a line of dialogue. Or if you delete the scene altogether and move on to more important stuff… Ouch.

(C) The shot flow doesn't work. Often this has to do with camera angles… The jump from a far shot to a close-up is jarring. The exciting angle from above or below doesn't mesh with the rest of the scene. Characters move in one direction in shot A, and then there needs to be a shot B that somehow continues the motion… Etc.

The more complicated the visuals you're working with, the more likely it is that a storyboard is going to be wrong. If you have any of the following situations, storyboarding alone probably won't be good enough:

Now, in the world of stopmo, a lot of animators avoid lipsync… The acting space in our sets tends to be pretty shallow… The size of the camera relative to the set often prohibits extreme camera angles and camera movements… Even so -- beware! The storyboard helps preview your film, but still has big limitations.


My advice: When you get an idea for a film, DON'T start with fabricating puppets and sets! And even if you do have your puppets already made, DON'T start filming shots at 24fps! Both approaches are likely to waste days if not years of your life on dead-ends.

Here is the holy grail I'm seeking: a way to preview a 10 minute film -- in motion and start-to-finish -- that can be created in 48 hours.

Part of the solution is pop-throughs. Block your characters. Select your puppets' gestures -- their animation "extremes." Then work pose-to-pose… But don't shoot more than 4fps. You might not even need that, if a character holds poses for a while. Do brainstorming for the pop-through using a hand-held digital still camera, going back and filling in the inbetweens once you've got the keys figured out.

Another part of the solution is to do rough-hewn sets stage-style: either having characters going through their motions in a black-box set, or with cardboard "flats" indicating where 3D set elements and props will go later.

The final part of the solution is to use 3D stick figures.

For a while now, I've been working on the idea of creating a Generic Puppet Actor Ensemble… Six to ten puppets of various sexes, ages, and body-builds -- wearing black rather than special costumes -- which I can draw upon whenever I want to test a scene.

Recently, however, I discovered an even quicker and dirtier approach. Occasionally master animator Anthony Scott updates the splash page of This week I noticed that the new intro uses a puppet that's nothing more than a wire armature with a spherical head. Wow! It's the 3D equivalent of a stick figure!

I'm still digesting this revelation… The fabricator in me still wants my rough-hewn yet visually appealing Ensemble… Yet logically, I know the stick-figures are much, much more economical time-wise.


We've all seen enough Hollywood films to know that hiring the prettiest /handsomest / most expensive actor can't save a crap script.

I'm desperately trying to take that lesson to heart… Just because I can make a beautiful puppet, or a phenomenal miniature set, that doesn't mean I've got a story that's going to work.

Doesn't it make sense to figure out whether or not your story / editing choices work before you put years of your life into the project? Why wait until the very end to find out if the film is going to gel?

Granted, for some the vision in mind is too powerful to deny. It must be exorcised one way or the other. But for most of us -- I'm certain that we are filled with dozens of potential stories. We needn't worry that we've only got one story to tell!

In the world of stagecraft, before a script ever goes into production, it's going to get "workshopped." You have volunteer actors read your script aloud -- with only the smallest amount of blocking -- not wearing costumes or trying to deliver a performance. One or two rehearsals at most… And then an audience (often not paying admission) gives the author feedback.

Then, when a script has been polished and is truly ready for production, paid actors are going to give it a read-through… Then later a walk-through with basic blocking… Then the acting is developed and refined through rehearsals… It's quite likely that the actors only get to work with costumes and sets in dress rehearsals during the last few nights before the show goes live.

I believe this is how stopmoes should be thinking, too. Don't create expensive costumes and sets before you've at least done a walk-through for the story…! Don't expect your puppet actor to show up on opening night without ever having had the chance to rehearse their lines and blocking…!

It could be argued that stagecraft is the wrong metaphor for stopmo -- that we should be looking to live action films for inspiration… Well, have you watched the special features on any effects films lately? Whereas only CG sequences used to be given the animatic treatment (e.g. X-Men), now it's becoming common practice to do the entire film as a CG animatic (e.g. Hancock, Jumper) -- even before the actors get hired. Previewing is economical.

Mega-budget films might still be the wrong example… Think then about low-budget filmmaking. There are examples of directors who've made a low-budget student film, and then gone back and done a big-budget remake (e.g. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead was remade as Evil Dead II)…

Even if you're making a live action film, I'd recommend getting your friends together for a 48-hour guerilla filmmaking adventure, shooting hand-held video, everything on one take. It's fast, it's cheap, it's easy -- and you get to discover what's horribly wrong with your storyboard before big money and months of work are on the line.

I'm urging my stopmo friends to try this… But more than anyone else, I'm trying to hammer it into my own head…

Make the stick-figure storyboard. Shoot it with 3D stick-figures. And only THEN think about fabricating beautiful puppets and sets.

Storyboards help -- but they're liars. Don't trust them with the next few months or years of your life.

posted by sven | April 3, 2009 7:00 AM | categories: stopmo