Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Vance Gerry's "Notes On Story Sketching"

Another page out of Vance's internal Disney Story Manual. This time, it's a list of 6 principles about storyboarding, simplicity and clarity.


All great straightforward advice that sounds absolutely simple but is hard to master in execution.

For point number 4, where Vance says "Originality often leads to obscurity", I want to add a bit for clarification because I think that might be confusing to some. What I interpret that to mean is "don't re-invent the wheel just to be different" when it comes to drawing story sketches. For example, if you have a character picking up a heavy box, you might draw it and say, "that looks like the cliched pose of a guy picking up a heavy box. Let me come up with a new pose for that action that nobody has ever seen before."

Although I always encourage people not to rely on clichéd poses and to come up with poses that fit the personality of the character and aren't stock re-hashes of what we've seen before, there are times when you just need to go for readability and re-inventing the wheel just leads to confusion.

To give another example, you might have a scene that takes place in a library. You don't want to draw a background of bookshelves because that's the boring, obvious cliché of a library. So you research libraries and find an amazing one in Sweden where the shelves are all glass and the books are all kept sideways. Great! That's so much more interesting than the typical dull library background! So you draw all your layouts that way.

Then, when people are watching the scene, they can't focus on the conversation of the main characters because the background is so interesting that it overwhelms the scene. Or they can't tell what they're looking at because it's so foreign looking and doesn't relate to any type of building they've ever seen before. So they're so busy trying to figure out where the characters are that they miss the important and emotional scene that's happening between the characters.

Anyway, hope that clarifies. Let me know if you found any of the rest of it confusing.

Also, as a bonus, here's the handout Vance is talking about at the end, if you haven't seen it. I've posted it from time to time, but a refresher is always good.

This was drawn by Carson Van Osten when he worked on Disney Comics, and it's a great primer on avoiding common staging and compositional problems.








Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Directing the Viewer's Eye

In one of my recent posts about Vance Gerry handouts, I mentioned the challenge that every board artist faces about how to direct the eye of the viewer. Often, a story sketch will be on screen for a second of screen time (or less) and it is vitally important that the viewer grasps the meaning of what you are trying to say in an instant. So a big part of doing this is knowing how to get the viewer's eye go where you want them to look and not focus on the unimportant parts of the sketch.

(In this post, I will be referring to the "layout department". For anyone unfamiliar with what that means, they're the department that takes to storyboards and turns them into actual film frames by designing the "sets"'  figuring out what the backgrounds of each shot will be and how the characters will move through each scene.)


In the earlier days of storyboarding, often the story artists would just draw the important part of the action and didn't always put much thought into how to direct the viewer's eye. There wan't a lot of extra information to distract from the primary idea, so directing the eye wasn't much of a consideration.










Much as I love those drawings and all the personality in them, times have changed. These days, story artists are expected to utilize every tool at their disposal to help tell the story in the best possible way. This usually means more layout, more camera moves and more character poses. With all of that extra pencil mileage and those extra elements to juggle, it becomes more important to know how to control the viewer's eye.

Obviously, these ideas I'm about to discuss are suited to painting, illustrating and designing as well. They have been used for centuries by all kinds of artists. So hopefully everyone will get something out of this discussion.

Here are some examples to show you a few things I've found helpful over the years to help direct the viewer's eye where I want it to go. They're all incredibly simple.

For our first example, I did a quick, crummy drawing of a guy taking a picture of a bird in a forest. I did this sketch with two objects of interest (the guy and the bird), which, by the way, is a big "no no" when you're doing story sketch. One of the cardinal rules of story sketch is that you should only have one idea presented at a time. Each new idea needs a new sketch. Otherwise, the audience is confused and doesn't know where to look.

Also, if I was going to sell the idea that this guy is taking a picture, it would require a closer shot of him and his camera phone, or just the phone, or something. This is too wide and far away to see such a subtle action clearly.

But the point is, I did a drawing with two focal points (and a lot of pencil mileage) to show you how to control the viewer's eye. So here we go...

Here's the original. Yikes! That's a lot of pencil mileage. How can I get the viewer to look where I want them to look?

Here, I added detail to the bird (in the first drawing) and the guy (in the second drawing). Adding detail to an area of a drawing can help draw the viewer's eye to that area of the picture.



The same thing with adding a texture. Your eye is drawn to the texture first because it's a contrast to the rest of the frame, which is all lines of the same weight and empty areas of white. SO simply adding texture can help create an area of interest.



Always remember that the eye will always be drawn to the area of greatest contrast first. The maximum amount of contrast possible in any drawing or painting is absolute black against absolute white. If there's an area with black against white in a picture, the eye will always go there first. If there isn't an area of black against white, the eye will go to the greatest area of contrast, whatever that may be.

Here, in each example, I put black against white in one area and then added grey to the rest of the frame to reduce the amount of contrast in the rest of the drawing. You can see how your eye goes to the area of the most contrast. The big grey areas are minimized and you take them in secondarily.



Remember that it doesn't have to be black against white to get the maximum contrast. Anything in the frame that contrasts everything else in the frame will do. Get creative and look for different ways to use this effect to your advantage. 


Anything that's different from everything else in the frame will attract the viewer's eye.


If there's a spot of color in a black and white drawing, the color becomes the place of the most contrast and does the job of grabbing the eye quickly.


This is a good point to pause and remember, though, that storyboarding isn't just about being clear and getting the audience to look where we want them to look. You're also trying to tell a story in an effective way, and also provide a blueprint that can be turned into a film. So just because you create a shot like the one above, and it works as a story sketch, it doesn't mean that it works as a film frame. Once the film is finished, the whole frame will be in full color and the trick I used above will be useless. If it's important that the audience focus on the man in brown, I'll have to insert a close up of him first…or start close on him and pull back to this wide shot…or something else that does the job of telling the audience to focus on him. No layout person or lighting person can take the wide shot above and put that much focus on the man in the crowd without creating some sort of weird, stilted effect. So keep that in mind as you balance the problems of where to place contest and the audience's attention with actual film language that makes sense and tells the story in the best way.


Speaking of storyboarding with an eye towards creating a useful film blueprint, let's diverge for a moment to talk about tone and how useful it is in minimizing contrast to get the viewer's eye. As I touched on before, in the older days of storyboarding, artists would often just add tone and contrast in a way to center the eye on what was important. Very little thought was given to how the actual scene was eventually going to be laid out and lit. The storyboards were just a tool for figuring out the story and characters.

So if you had a scene like this, you might just throw in some grey tone to make it easier to see what's going on. The layout team would take your boards and figure out how to lay out the scene and light it after it was approved to move into layout.


These days, with compressed production schedules, we tend to expect our story artists to put more thought into exactly how the scene might be lit. That's because the people that have to turn the storyboards into an actual film (the layout artists, animators, lighters, etc.) have, in many cases, very little time to do their jobs. As amazing as these people are at solving problems, if you give them a storyboard that makes no sense from a layout or lighting perspective (or acting wise, for that matter), they're going to have to do a lot of extra work to rework your boards and figure out how to get what the directors wants while retaining what works about the boards. So we try not to create big headaches for the people that will be using the boards as a blueprint for the film, and we try to do things that make sense wherever possible. 

So to create light in this room where our character sits reading a book,  I would figure out what the best solution is within the bounds of the story. Is a fire in the fireplace right?



Is a reading lamp?



Could I use bright moonlight from outside? I doubt this one would ever fly (who would sit inside a room and read by the moonlight coming in the window?), but it all depends on the situation.



So consider the lighting when you're boarding a scene, and what will be possible and impossible. Are you solving problems for other people while you board, or just creating headaches? Lighting is such a big part of how you create a mood for a scene that it must be considered at the storyboard stage. For example, if two people are walking along a deserted road at night, you have to think about how to set the appropriate mood. Is it a scary scene? If so, then maybe it's a moonless night and they have only a small flashlight between them…and the flashlight's batteries are running low.

But if you wanted the same scene to be a romantic scene, you'd want to create different lighting altogether. Maybe there's a full moon that casts light everywhere. Maybe there are fireflies. Maybe the two of them are carrying a lantern, or a torch…whatever creates the best lighting to sell the mood you're trying to create and is appropriate for the time period and the characters. And by putting some thought into it at the storyboard stage, we can help everyone else down the line as they build the film.

Depending on the mood you're trying to achieve, a harsh contrasty light might be best (for example, in a scary or dynamic action scene) or a soft, gauzy light might be better (for a romantic or lighter type of moment). All these things should be considered by the storyboard artist as they think about a scene. Our job is to tell the story in the best way and lighting and mood are a valuable tool at our disposal. Even if you make a choice that ends up being rejected as the wrong choice for the scene, you've helped everyone have a better understanding of exactly what the right choice is in that particular case.


So, why are some other simple, easy ways to direct the viewer's eye?

Perspective is always an easy way. If you have strong lines created by the vanishing point of your drawing, use that to point to what we're supposed to be focusing on.



I'm not a stickler for straight lines in my perspective (as you can tell). I just draw whatever looks right (of course, I don't do anything that's so much of a cheat that it'll be useless to the layout department). I don't draw super straight lines and make sure everything converges exactly…a lot of times when people are precise with their perspective it looks distracting and stiff anyway (at least to me). So know how one, two and three-point perspective works but don't be a literal slave to it. A good composition is always more important than exact precise perspective (layout people might disagree with me though).

Also, you can draw everything in a composition to point where you want it to point in order to get the viewer to look at what's important. Things like plants, trees, roads, signs, etc. are all endlessly malleable to tweak so that they point at the center of interest.



Line weight can make a big difference in creating a hierarchy of what's important to look at and what's merely background. Look at this drawing of a man in a gallery:


All the equally weighted lines are creating confusion. Everything is equally important. But if I redraw the background, unimportant paintings to a smaller line weight...


It eliminates all the graphic confusion and you can focus on what's important.

This is another useful storyboard trick that has to be considered when you're asking yourself what will be helpful to layout. In a case like this, I would find out what the lighting situation in the gallery would be. I would definitely add lighting to this story sketch to accentuate to two important parts of the sketch (the man and that one painting). But I provide it here as an example of how to use line weight to minimize confusion and enhance readability.

(Personally, I doubt we'd ever design a gallery like that anyway. That's a pretty jumbled mess of paintings!)

Speaking of paintings….the last way I can think of that I use to direct the eye is the old frame-within-a-frame trick. If you create a frame within your composition, you can put the most important element (or elements) in the frame and the eye will be attracted to that spot as a center of interest within the composition.


Again, get creative with this one. Yes, you can use doors or windows, but the possibilities are endless. Any type of "smaller stage" within the bigger frame will work.


I hope that helps and it all makes sense. Sorry for the janky drawings, I did them in a hurry. All of these techniques fall into the category of being so simple that they seem a bit useless, but if you look at the work of great illustrators and painters they've been using these tricks effectively for a long time. And, as I always say, the simple things are the things that people take for granted and forget about first. But if you remember the simple things, they can have a huge impact in effective communication and make the difference between something that works and something that falls apart!

Monday, June 02, 2014

"Presentation of Storyboards" by Joe Ranft

Another gem from the Vance Gerry Disney storyboard book is this section on how to pitch storyboards, written by the great Joe Ranft.

I apologize for the number stamp over the text. This used to be considered confidential material and everyone's book was stamped. I actually never received a copy of the book…someone let me copy their book at some point.

I don't think this material is considered secret anymore.

So this handout is full of helpful pointers for back when story artists used to do sketches on paper, pin them to a board, and pitch them to a group. Story isn't really done that way anymore at Disney. Everyone at Disney works in a digital format and pitches their boards onto a big screen with a projector. Nowadays, you don't have to face your audience….you get to sit behind them while you pitch. It takes a lot of the "facing a firing squad" feeling out of pitching, I can tell you that.

Check out these tips, along with Joe's great illustrations:






Almost all of Joe's advice is still very relevant to pitching in the digital age. The main point of pitching boards is to give a sense of what the sequence will feel like when it's turned into a film, and that means not slowing down to over-explain anything or get off-track from communicating the story and characters to the audience.

Here's a video I found online (I think it's from one of the "Toy Story" DVDs) of Joe talking about storyboarding and pitching a sequence.



Hope you enjoyed the handout. If you have any questions (or can't make out the text), let me know.

And to end things, here's a photo of Vance Gerry himself, pitching the old school way to an audience that includes Woolie Reitherman, Larry Clemmons, and Milt Kahl.



Monday, May 19, 2014

More From Vance Gerry

 Some more handouts from Disney Story artist Vance Gerry about basic storyboard drawing composition and clarity. In the first example on the page below (titled "Perplexing Annoyances"), Vance illustrates why you should leave a little "air" or white space around your characters instead of continuing the background lines into the lines of the characters. 

In the second example, Vance points out how awkward it looks when you cut off the hands and feet. Part of what Vance is pointing out is how bad it looks when you cut off a character by placing a joint at the edge of the composition. If you place a character's wrist, ankle, knee or elbow right at the edge of the frame it always looks clunky and wrong. Always change the composition so the character is bisected at a place other than the joint (like halfway up the lower leg between the ankle and the knee, instead of right at the ankle).

At the bottom of the page, Vance shows how creating tangents can lead to confusion and hurt clarity.


Here, Vance shows how turning things and seeing them in three dimensional space leads to clarity (and a more interesting drawing).



More examples of how depth can make a drawing more clear, more dynamic and more interesting. The last part at the bottom is very interesting to me, and, like the last post, provides a bit of an intriguing peek into Vance's unique way of thinking that makes me wish he would have written a book on drawing (or at least left us some more notes like these).


Again, I will try to interpret what I think Vance is saying,  but I may not be completely accurate: depending on how you draw figures and objects, you can either encourage the eye to move through it quickly or encourage the viewer to take their time and linger over the drawing. I think Vance is saying that--in general--you want to use simplified anatomy and direct lines for readability and to get the audience to grasp the point of a story sketch quickly and directly. Usually the goal in story sketch is for the audience to grasp the meaning of the sketch in a quick glance. Many times, when story sketches are cut together to make a story reel, they are on the screen for a second (or even less time than that). So you need to eliminate any confusion that might arise in the viewer. The audience won't have time to hunt for the point of the sketch and decipher what they're seeing.

So in most story sketches, it's important and desirable to have simplified anatomy as well as simplified objects and backgrounds that help direct your eye and focus your attention on the important part of a drawing (see my last post on "scale"--that's all part of making everything in a drawing read quickly). This isn't as important for other types of illustration where the audience can take time to observe and absorb the piece and find layers of meaning. But in story sketch, simplicity and directness are key, and I think Vance is reminding story artists that sometimes accurate anatomy and creating a nice drawing are not as important as being simple and direct for readability's sake.


 In these last three drawings by Vance, he demonstrates how tone can be used for simplifying and prioritizing information, and how that can help readability and mood. The caption of this first drawing is "overwhelmed by information", and it's easy to see why. Every aspect of the line drawing is given the same amount of weight and importance.

 This next example is captioned "information partially dramatized". It's the same drawing, but now there is tone to "group" the shapes so the viewer can more readily see where the planes are, which makes it much easier to tell at a glance what is happening in the drawing and where the eye is supposed to focus. The other effect that happens when you begin to add tone is that the drawing starts to have a mood; the storyboard starts to feel like it's illustrating a dramatic moment where something important is happening. The more tone you add to a drawing, the more moody and dramatic it starts to feel.
 This last example is captioned "information subordinated to emotion", and you can see how much more dramatic the drawing is now that there's so much tone added to it. This feels like a very dramatic moment where something momentous or foreboding is about to happen. The scene is the same layout as the first two examples, but suggested with well-handled tones as opposed to all of the meticulously drawn lines that are used in the first example. For story sketch, this type of treatment is much better--it's more direct, and as Vance suggests, the sketch implies a powerful emotion that isn't present in the first one at all. The tones give the drawing a point of view that goes well beyond the simple suggestion of a man standing at the bottom of a staircase. Now, the drawing tells a story.

Of course, because adding tones adds a lot of weight and drama to a sketch, this type of treatment isn't appropriate for every sequence. If you're trying to do a light, funny sequence, the same concept applies...think of what will communicate the emotion you're going for, as opposed to a dry, boring sketch that suggests the layout clearly, but has no point of view or mood to help tell the story.


In the next post, I'll share some ideas for getting clarity and readability in ways other than using tone, for those times when you need to make a sketch read, but you don't want to use an abundance of tones because it might make a sketch too dark and moody.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Vance Gerry on "Scale"

Years ago, legendary Disney storyboard artist Vance Gerry wrote a short book intended to help teach beginning storyboard artists. Most of it concerns knowing the difference between things like beat boards and storyboards and the process of production. It also includes a few pages with tips about drawing for storyboards, and a few of those pages deal with the concept of (what he termed) "scale".

Reading these pages years ago was a bit of a revelation for me. I had never heard anyone talk about this topic before, and I still have never seen anything that has written about this or seen it mentioned in any form.

I will do my best to try and paraphrase what (I think) Vance meant by that and make it as clear as I can.

Basically, here's my interpretation: Vance was using the term "scale" to say that, when you design and draw objects, you should emphasize the most distinctive parts of the object to make them recognizable to the viewer and make them read clearly. He also used "scale" to mean that you should de-emphasize the uninteresting parts of an object to make the best drawing you can by not wasting space on uninteresting parts. And lastly, and most importantly, he talked about "scale" as a way to make things (and people) seem closer to the viewer, more intimate and more expressive.

Here is the entirety of his thoughts on the matter:




Vance used Robert Crumb as an example of an artist that uses "scale" well.


This one he captioned "R. Crumb...ugly but have great scale". Hopefully that won't offend any Crumb fans out there.



I have always found these pages--a rare glimpse into the way Vance's mind worked--fascinating.

Scale is not an absolute value, at all. Obviously, it is very subjective and depends on the subject matter. For example, big balloon-y cartoon tires work just fine if you're drawing a car in a Mickey Mouse short, but if you're storyboarding a movie like "101 Dalmatians", you can't draw Cruella's car with big balloon tires. It would undermine the menace of her character and look completely inappropriate for the art direction and tone of the movie. So you have to find a way to draw her car (and tires) in a way that's simplified and reads without being "out of tone" with the subject matter.

Many great artists and illustrators have developed their own sense of "scale" to emphasize certain parts of their figures and environments to get the results they desire. Take a look at some of your favorite artists and see how they have adapted this concept, and what results they have achieved by interpreting reality with a unique sense of "scale".

If anyone would like more clarification (or has some clarification to add to my interpretation), please let me know!

If you're interested in seeing more of Vance's work, visit Ed Gombert's "Vance Gerry Memorial Blog."