Saturday, March 15, 2008

Developing Your Cartoon

One thing that really controls the quality in cartoons is the way the story is presented. Nothing is worse than single viewpoint talking heads. The use of cinematic techniques makes a huge difference in your cartoons. The script is the starting point, but the visuals, the shots, the visual relationships, and the look of the cartoon all flow from the story board, the layouts and eventually the animatic. Not only do you develop the rhythm and pacing through these steps but you also can dramatically impact your workload in production by your choices.

In making an animated cartoon, it is usually a good starting point to develop a story board. But exactly how do you go about doing that?

Here are some basic suggestions on how you might get started creating a storyboard:

Story Boarding is a visualization process. Some creators start with the story boards and some start with a textual script. There is no hard and fast one correct approach. But there are lessons that experience teaches us.

The longer you avoid getting too detailed the more likely you are to explore alternatives and the more choices you will create. Experience teaches us that although our first impressions and decisions may be good, they often aren't the best ones. We want to explore many different options while we are in a creative expansion phase like visualization. Expansion is a term for letting things grow and develop and creatively we want to allow our thinking in visualization to be unencumbered. Later on after we have exhausted our expansion of ideas we have plenty of time to "edit" down the options and make decisions. I call that step contraction. So detail is the enemy of expansion, mostly because of the fact that it takes extra time and effort invested in the work and we as humans hate to waste our invested time and therefore we are less likely to want to abandon large investments.

So story board drawings need to be both quick and rough and easy to reposition and replace. Personally we use a very important pre-story boarding step which is also a pre-layout step, and a pre-scene planning step and a pre-animation step. We make lots of thumbnail drawings. Thumbnails are relatively small quick sketches that are a form of visual brainstorming and idea capture. The goal is to, with no real investment, explore possibilities and expand our creative options. What are all the different ways to visualize a shot? a scene? an action? We want to explore as large a range of possibilities as we reasonably can so that we make better choices.

Begin by putting together a rough outline of the story. Just a series of plot points or bullets that describe the main action or flow you want. Create a rough scene breakdown list based on your story outline. This is a way of deciding what the different locations will be for the story and their order of exposition. A story can consist of a single scene or a series of multiple scenes. Once you have a scene breakdown, you can start to develop a shot list for each scene. Each unique camera set-up (point of view) is a different shot. A scene can be composed with just a single shot or a series of shots. After you have a scene breakdown and a scene shot list you can start drawing up the main story telling keys of each shot. Each story telling key is a single drawing on a single sheet of paper. Many people use 4"x5" blank cards for their shot key panels. You then can tack the shot keys up in scene order on the wall to visualize the flow of the story. ( The practice of tacking up the story panels on a fiber wall board is the origin of the name “story board”. ) Each story board panel is a story telling key which means it is needed to follow the exposition of the story. The more keys the more panels. Complex shots have camera diagrammatic notes and framing notes added to help communicate the camera movements.

Now that you have the story broken down into scenes and the scenes broken down into shots and the shots broken down into story telling keys, you can scan each drawing into your computer and import them into your software of choice and create an “animatic” where you can add a scratch sound track and "slug" out the timing. Slugging is a term used to describe the process of padding out each scene, shot, and key into the appropriate number of frames it will occupy. It's a slug of frames representing screen time. Adjusting the slugs is one way to control the timing and pacing of the story. The shot selections, the story telling keys, the cutting and transitions for a scene are another. As you view the story in sequence you will discover problems. These are dead spots, or confusing spots or just places where the story moves too fast or too slow. I usually recommend that you start out thinking in terms of each panel being about 3 seconds of screen time just to get a rough pace. (72 frames at 24 FPS) Some panels will be on screen longer times and some shorter times.

Here are some basic suggestions on shot selection: (one way not the only way) Shots are points of view. The order of shots in a scene can and should vary according to what the scene is about. Shots are one your tools for guiding and focusing the audience's attention. Your shots are your main method of exposition. As a general guideline you want to start broadly and then narrow things down to the more important details. The basic shots are "long", "medium", and "close". They are modified by the following additional descriptor "extreme" as well as by combining them for blended shots (examples: Extreme Long Shot, Extreme Close-Up, and Medium-Close-Up). Simple shots are stationary while more complex shots involve moving the camera. Traveling shots are complex shots. (Examples: trucking or dolly shots, crane shots and combinations of these like "dolly pull-back crane shot".) If you can imagine the camera's view point you can create the shot.

Note: single point of view scenes are usually boring and too many shots in a scene can be confusing, so plan your shots based on how they will advance the telling of your story. If it advances the story, it works, and if it doesn't advance the story or is overkill and it should be cut.

The way in which most storyboards are constructed, each panel is a story telling key. A camera shot is normally defined as a set-up to achieve a specific point of view. The further back and the broader the point of view, such as an extreme wide angle shot, the more generalized the information being presented. The closer in and tighter the shot, such as a extreme close up, the greater the amount of detail and emotion being presented. So fundamentally, each shot serves the purpose of advancing the telling of the story by presenting information and also enhances the presentation of the story by providing additional psychological perspectives. If the camera is high looking down on the shot that provides one psychological feeling while if the camera is really low looking up on the shot that provides a completely different psychological feeling. So the first step in telling a story, humorous or otherwise, is to write down the basic flow and action, the main content. Then you can go through that treatment and break it up into story telling shots based on what information you are trying to convey in each shot and how you want to present that information. The camera is an important part of storytelling so how you use it will definitely affect the quality of your presentation. Most beginning film students are encouraged to watch lots of great movies and encouraged to study the cinematography carefully to understand how and why the director chose each shot.

When I work on stories I rarely ever just write, or draw up a story idea and then just say " great now I can make this film ". I usually go through phases. At first I really like the idea, then usually after I run it past my associates, I find, or they find, places to change things. Then after some rework, I get frustrated with the story and have to put it away. I suppose that at any given time I have several stories that are sitting around in some phase of "I'm tired of working on that one right now." It's not that they aren't good or at least potentially good, but when I work on things for awhile, really intensely focused, I get too close to them and just need to distance myself and then come back for a second or third or fourth pass. I do the same thing when I'm animating a sequence, I never can just leave my work satisfied after only one pass.

Animatics can be considered as an extension of the writing and story boarding process. When we write a story or scene our first form is usually textual. We express the story verbally. Then we visualize the story in panels which are static cinematic shots in a story board. So in those steps we have evolved our story from text to pictures. The next logical step because this is an animated movie is to add the dimension of time. So the animatic is a timed out (slugged out) version of the story using the story board panels and usually having a "scratch" sound track. If you aren't familiar with what I mean by a scratch sound track, it is usually just a recording of dialogs with minimal music and effects often recorded by the story team and not actual actors. Its purpose is to help present the story and also to aid in determining the overall timing of shots and scenes etc.

Most animatics are as described above, but in feature films and commercials animatics are also often produced as running progress pieces throughout the production of the film. They start as timed out slide shows of story board panels and those scenes and shots slowly get replaced with pencil tests and finally more finished animations until a final rough cut evolves. So the animatic has been around in various forms since the 1940's probably started at Disney Studios like most production innovations in animation. It is a valuable part of the creative planning process in animation production. It is far smarter to see problems in pacing and flow in animated content before extensive labor is committed to finishing animation. Unlike live action, animation tries to minimize discarded footage on the cutting room floor.

Once a storyboard has been "approved" we start the process of recording dialog and gathering or creating the Foley sounds then we can begin trying to layout the animatic. We start with the drawings from the finalized boards and time out the sequences like a slide show with the scratch sound track layered on top. Then its just a matter of adjusting and messing about until we like the flow. From that point it just becomes a long tedious step by step process of replacement of pieces in the animatic with more finished work (pencil tests, revised tests, background sketches, finished backgrounds, finished animations, mixed sound track, etc) until we finally have a finished film. It really is like a construction project from concept through planning through step by step creation of each shot and scene until a final result is completed.

4 Comments:

Blogger Cocoa said...

do you have any cartoons out for the public?

4/08/2008 2:28 PM  
Blogger JK said...

Nothing recently, most of our studio work is specific to our clients for their internal business use. But I am working on a web comic that I hope will debut in a few months so check back.

4/08/2008 4:08 PM  
Blogger proud2bLATINA said...

interesting... you make it very easy to understand. you should post cartoons to youtube. i would watch that

11/26/2012 7:59 PM  
Blogger proud2bLATINA said...

interesting... you make it very easy to understand. you should post cartoons to youtube. i would watch that

11/26/2012 8:01 PM  

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