Thursday, 29 January 2015

STORYBOARDS part I- a conversation with story artist DEAN ROBERTS

As in all films the storyboarding process begins quite early, most times without the luxury of fully completed designs to help you along the way to finishing your sequence. So it is common to have the frustrating task to work through your initial versions of scenes designing sets, props and at times characters, until the approved ones are delivered to you.
Yet the first passes of the storyboard are also the most exciting and fun, when you're free to explore many avenues and possibilities which to take the story and characters.

The first job I undertook when leaping on to the Yellowbird project was to work through the changes I wanted to apply to the story and characters, and the best way to achieve this was through the storyboard.
I commenced working on very rough thumbnails, working through the many ideas I had for each scene, yet one man alone cannot storyboard a whole film in a few months, so I pulled together a small team who could achieve this in the budget and schedule we had at our disposal.
We had only 6 or 7 months to complete the whole film in storyboards, aiming to have the animatic done a few months after that.

The first story artist I approached is probably the fastest pencil I know: Dean Roberts, story artist on Corpse Bride, Gnomeo and Juliette, Tale of Desperaux, The Golden Compass, to mention a few.

I met Dean while working on Frankenweenie and, aside from the speed in which he delivered scene after scene of beautiful yet simply drawn shots, I was amazed by the quality of the ideas behind the drawings. I always felt that a storyboard artists best asset is not really his or her drawing skill but the strength of the ideas, the ability to solve story issues, untangle complex problems in the narrative of a film's story, its characters, and to visualize these in the best shot and edit options.

Here Dean gives us a little insight in his work process and the task of storyboarding Yellowbird's most challenging scenes.


CDV- You storyboarded some of the most dramatic and also cute scenes the film? How do you begin to work a sequence as tense as the shipwreck, and jump to one as light and fun as the classroom? What are you're starting points, and where do you look for inspiration? 

DR- With the classroom scene I had the voice artists performance as inspiration. Its always easier to work with the final performance as I can draw my storyboard panels to reflect the voice artists' delivery. As the scene was about Delph being teacher I positioned the birds to look like they were in a classroom set up even though they were in the branches of the tree.
The shipwreck scene was all about drama and atmosphere.I had lots of reference of old rusting derelict tankers to help with scale and detail. I established that the two search parties went off in separate directions. The ship was on its end which made it interesting to stage . I wanted to show that the various locations the birds searched were at dangerous angles which meant avoiding shots with the usual horizontals. Doors were shown on their side , railings ran upward and the birds had to fly vertically up and down as they navigated the ship. I also wanted to show the scale of the ship compared to the tiny birds lost in its corridors. its great to get 'scale on the big screen' I also drew these boards with more tone than usual to create the scary atmosphere that would hide the oil covered sea birds showing them mostly in silhouette.

Below are the panels of the start of the shipwreck sequence.

CDV- as a storyboard artist you have to have a pretty varied and eclectic CV, yet you're drawing style is specifically your own, you seem to come to your own shorthand for characters regarldess of the visual style of the film; do you focus more on a films' cinematic style and how do you come to recognize this, and apply it to your storyboards?

DR- I worked as a traditional animator for many years and learned all the posing and staging rules that make 2d drawing clear. I learned from many great animation artists and you pick things up as you work. Eventually all the little things you learn become your own style. I also have my own strong values of storytelling and staging which I try to apply to my sequences. Good reference always helps. I like to have model sheets of the main characters at hand . yellowbird had pretty much all the main characters designed when I joined the production so it was easy to slip into the style of the film. Knowing the locations makes designing your sequence easier . It can also highlight staging problems too.

CDV- I always prefer to make an initial editing pass on my storyboards even though I know a lot of storyboards rely on an editor to cut their storyboards for them; how much importance do you give to cutting your own work, and how do you find the 'rthythm' within a scene?

DR- I've been storyboarding for so long now I tend to self edit as I draw . A lot of board artists thumbnail first but I tend to dive in with final boards. This may seem foolhardy but I find I draw better when I commit . If I thumbnail first my finished panels tend to become stilted versions of the thumbnails. This doesn't mean I never thumbnail . I still need to work things out on complicated sequences such as 'shipwreck.'
I work on toon boom's storyboard Pro which is a superb program for drawing panels and seeing sequences play as you work on them . It has a timeline across the bottom of the panel which allows me to quickly see my sequence running more or less as an edited scene . This way I pretty much know that my seq works as I intend it when I turnover to edit . Of course story edit decisions are made which can mean things get chopped but that's part of the process. You tend become thick skinned as a storyboard artist.The panels are there to function the film not to stand out as little illustrations.
CDV- Your involvement in the film was early on, as one of the first storyboard artists. How do you view the final cut of the film now that it is complete, compared to your original storyboarded scenes?

DR- I was very pleased that my sequences were pretty much intact in the final film . It helped to have a good relationship with Christian, the director. We could talk about the scenes and work out how we wanted each beat play . I got closer to where the scenes needed to be a lot quicker this way. It was still then down to me to get drawing!

CDV- What was your favourite experience on Yellowbird?Favourite scene/moment? 

DR- I think my favourite moment was in the shipwreck when Karl was arguing Delph on the loose girder. I had the voice track and got to do a bit of broad acting . Karl was very funny to draw. 

CDV- And is there something specific you'd like to add to the post about your work? 

DR- I am proud of my work on Yellowbird and several of the sequences I worked will be part of my portfolio in the future . The story and characters allowed me to produce some of my best work I've done over the past few years.

In the coming posts, as well as continuing to delve into the design and characters of the film, I will now discuss some of the pivotal scenes in the film through the storyboard, then lay-out and finally animation.

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