Storyboarding fundamentals in 3D animation production

3D animation storyboard

Professional animation studios have a solid workflow in place called the animation production pipeline in which all necessary tasks to produce a 3D animation is listed and checked step by step. The animation pipeline is usually divided into 3 main stages: pre-production, production and post-production.

Pre-production consists of these main steps: idea generation, story creation, script writing, storyboarding, animatic and design. Among these, storyboarding is a pivotal step in which the script is translated into visuals for further development. In fact, it is the first visual representation of the script. This step should never be skipped in an animation studio.

In this article, we are going to take a look at the fundamentals of 3D animation storyboarding and Dream Farm’s approach to the subject.

 

What is a storyboard?

After you come up with a great idea, shape a story and turn it into a script, it’s time for storyboarding. A storyboard is essentially a series of drawings based on the script, which will be used as a visual guide throughout the rest of the production pipeline.

Basically, a standard storyboard contains three main information categories:

  • The sequence of scenes to tell the story
  • Whatever the viewer will hear or see on the screen
  • The technical information provided for each scene

Early ideas of camera staging, transitions, possible visual effects to enhance each shot, audio notes and some key character poses or scene events are among the elements included in a storyboard. It is an essential tool for the whole team to get a sense of how the final animation is going to look and feel.

Bigger productions such as feature films or animation Studios with numerous artists onboard will need to have a fully developed final storyboard to step into the production stage. A fully realized storyboard will tie together all of the next production steps.

 

History of Storyboarding

It is said that storyboarding as we know it today, was developed at the Walt Disney studio during the early 1930s; evolved from “story sketches” created in the 1920s to illustrate concepts for short cartoons. The first complete storyboards were reportedly created for the 1933 Disney short called “Three Little Pigs”.

Animator Webb Smith was apparently credited by Disney for coming up with the idea. He used to draw scenes on separate sheets of paper and pin them up on a bulletin board to tell a story in sequence; which in fact shaped the very first version of storyboarding. Within a few years the idea spread to other studios as well. By 1938, all American animation studios followed suit and used storyboards in their productions.

However, storyboarding is by no means exclusive to the animation industries; even large-budget silent films were storyboarded at the time. Special effects pioneer Georges Méliès is known to have been among the first filmmakers to use storyboards and pre-production art.

Gone with the Wind (1939) was one of the first live-action films to be completely storyboarded. During the early 1940s, storyboarding became popular in live-action film production and grew into a standard medium for pre-visualization. Today, it is an indispensable part of the pre-production process for both live-action and animation production.

 

Skipping the script; is it a good idea?

All in all, there are two main approaches towards storyboarding in 3D animation industry:

  • Writing a full script and then storyboarding it, or
  • Doing the storyboards straight from the idea or story

Back in the old days of animation, directors would come up with a basic story and start to storyboard their ideas and turn them into actions without writing a script first. However that approach is not recommended today; especially for 3D animation.

The size of productions and the vast possibilities that 3D animation has opened up, leaves a huge gap for interpretations that will end up in wasting the project’s resources eventually.

On the other hand, smaller productions with limited resources or smaller teams might find it easier to skip the script writing stage and go on directly with storyboarding.

Determining the best approach towards storyboarding is something to be done based on each project’s specific needs. But generally speaking, for 3D Animation Studios who have bigger productions, bigger teams and work with multiple clients, the first approach definitely fits better.

 

3 main stages of storyboarding

The storyboarding procedure involves three main steps:

  • Planning
  • Production
  • Revision

During the storyboard planning stage, the specifics of storyboarding is weighed against the resources at hand and a schedule and deadline is set for it. After that, storyboard artists get into actually creating the storyboards according to the conducted planning.

Revision means you have to version your storyboards in a meaningful manner. If the changes are minor, the same version can be adjusted as a subsequent draft. But if the storyboard needs major modification, the necessary changes will be made and the document will be updates as a new version.

All previous versions and their subsequent drafts should also be kept as references, in case there is a need to compare two or more drafts together to see which works better. These refinements are normal and to be expected in various projects.

 

What does a 3D animation storyboard look like?

Storyboards can be as simple as basic sketches to a fully developed depiction of an idea created by a team of storyboard artists, using the latest software and digital arts tools. The bigger or complicated the production, the greater the need for a well-developed storyboard.

For some animations color palettes might be used for storyboarding, whereas in others an outline would suffice. Diving deep into detailed coloring at this stage instead of using greyscale coloring is something to be decided by the production team.

But generally, you shouldn’t really expect to see much details in a storyboard. Details will be part of the design stage, better to be dealt with when the right time comes.

Visuals can’t always tell the whole story on their own. That’s why storyboards are created with panels, titles and captions conveying major camera moves, certain actions, shots, dialogues and staging.

Every animation studio or artist has its own structuring method for their storyboard panels. There’s no right structure for storyboarding but most animation projects in Dream Farm Animation Studios are done in a 6-panel single page template, just like the one you can see below; three on top of three, with the right ratio. Scene number, shot number and three boxes for dialogues, actions and staging are inserted for each panel.

3D animation storyboard

Writing captions under the drawings, using arrows to show camera movements and coloring the main objects or characters to differentiate them from the background will usually help better display the scene in a storyboard.

 

Labeling the storyboard panels

Correct labeling of the shots is important; it keeps the project material organized and easy to find/track by creating a unique ID for each panel. Most storyboard softwares will automatically allow you to manage panel numbers quiet easily.

Here’s an example of labeling to better explain the point:

Scene# 11: Shot 1A

Scene# 11: Shot 1B

Scene# 11: Shot 2

Scene# 11: Shot 3

Scene# 12: Shot 1A

Scene# 12: Shot 1B

 

Why use a storyboard?

Sometimes storyboards are another way of coming up with and writing a story in the first place. Animators who skip the script writing phase of the animation pipeline use the storyboard as the script. They believe it to be the fastest and most effective way to work through a story for them. Although this approach is not recommended by Dream Farm Studios.

The primary goal of storyboarding is to visually convey the story/script in an effective way and as close as possible to what the final 3D animation is intended to look like; so that by seeing it, one can understand what’s going on in the story immediately.

A storyboard is also a diagnosis tool which will help you find weak points in the story and probe into improvement opportunities and explore alternative ways of showing an idea. Major or minor holes in the story or script will easily come to surface early on with storyboarding.

Making changes are also much easier in storyboards compared to a finished render. It is important for a 3D animation studio to work out proper actions in the storyboarding stage rather than in production. Confirmed storyboards will act as a reference for all further developments.

From the planning point of view, a storyboard is a step-by-step guide to the production process which helps manage timing in production. It helps all the involved team members to see what exactly is going to happen and what exactly has to be done. The planning of the whole production can be refined much more accurately with a finished storyboard at hand.

Storyboarding saves time and since time is money, it saves on your budget too. Since the camera movements, angles and other characteristics of the final product are determined beforehand, the director of the 3D animation along with the whole production crew will know exactly what is expected from them.

Storyboarding is a fun step in the 3D animation pipeline for animators and artists and they usually like it. The process of visual thinking and planning allows people to brainstorm together, test their ideas and finally arrange them in proper order. This fosters more creative ideas and creates positive vibes in the group.

It’s the easiest way to share the idea with other people visually. Presenting a well-designed storyboard based on a well-written script to a client or potential customer shows that you know what you are doing. The storyboard will also function as a confirmation if your client like what they see.

 

Conclusion

The art of storyboarding is a powerful tool to bridge the gap between the script (or story) and the final 3D animation product. It is an important part of the pre-production stage of 3D animation pipeline that can facilitate production, get everyone on the same page, avoid flaws and keep things on track, if used properly.

Storyboard is an effective and concise document for knowledge sharing about what is required in the production phase of the 3D animation pipeline in an animation studio. Choices can be made about the storyboard format and level of detail, but all storyboards should contain 3 main information types: The sequence of scenes, whatever the viewer will hear or see on the screen and the technical information provided for each scene.

Storyboarding for a 3D animated video at Dream Farm Studios is usually done through three simple steps: planning, production and revision. Confirmed storyboards will act as a reference for all further developments, starting by the animatic.

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Michael Olasanya

This is a nice piece… Thanks for sharing.