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3D DIRECT • November 28, 2000

The Reel Deal

Picturing the Story

by Pat Johnson

When your story has been translated into a script for what you know will be your stellar demo reel, you have reached the point at which you must plan how you'll tell the story in pictures. Following tried-and-true traditions of animation, you should begin exploring your story through storyboards, animatics, and layouts. 3D students typically fall into two camps at this point. One group views this as an exciting chance to consider the best visual components for telling the story. The other group groans and complains about having to postpone the fun stuff—defined as getting down to the important business of working in 3D.

No matter which camp you're in, take heart. As the world of 3D evolves, so to do the tools and techniques for tackling the planning process. The next series of career articles will cover storyboarding and layout techniques for entertainment, gaming, and multi-media that take full advantage of 3D tools early in the planning cycle. These processes are as vital as ever to the production process, but they can now be approached with greater flexibility and used to explore wider parameters.

Storyboarding

Traditional animation required extensive use of detailed, hand-rendered, sequential drawings and color storyboards to spell out all visual aspects of the production. The storyboard still exists, consisting of sequential drawings arranged horizontally to illustrate the story points. And rendering the initial boards by hand is still the best method. However, by storyboarding specific, critical story points and then employing 3D to explore each scene fully, many animation studios are finding that they no longer need the detailed storyboards employed in traditional animation.

This does not mean that the planning cycle begins in 3D. Take the advice of the professionals out there who say drawing storyboards by hand is a vital step everyone must take. Trying to build the basic components of your story in 3D and then working backward to render out still frames as storyboards defeats the purpose of the storyboarding process. Though many beginning animators fight tooth and nail to avoid drawing anything by hand, the fact is that working backward complicates the process and imposes limits by restricting the artists to their emerging skill levels, causing them to incorporate animation, lighting, and rendering concerns inappropriate to early planning stages. Professional studios do not typically attack these concerns until much later in the production cycle. The good news is that by incorporating the following guidelines, storyboards can quickly become an exciting part of 3D layout.

Choosing camera placement, camera moves, action, and composition of characters within each scene helps you explore how the story will be told from a visual standpoint. Layout boards traditionally were also hand rendered; and in some studios, layout is still done on paper or explored through a program such as Adobe After Effects using scanned storyboard frames. Rikki Cleland-Hura, supervising layout artist at Pixar Studios, has offered insight on how new approaches to layout contributes to the planning process. She explains, "As 3D feature films become more and more complex, it is increasingly difficult to explore the possibilities of the 3D environment using 2D methods. Since I began working at Pixar, my colleage Euen Johnson and I have begun to explore the use of 3D tools to expand the purpose of the layout process."

At Pixar, the process Cleland-Hura and Johnson have pioneered is becoming an integral part of the Pixar planning process. Operating within a dressed virtual 3D set and using non-animated character models, the Pixar team enjoys the luxury of doing a digital location search to find the best placement and movement of camera and characters within the 3D environment. Cleland-Hura explains that this is much the same approach developed by traditional film crews on actual locations. Using these same techniques and the familiar traditions of film, 3D can take full advantage of visual decisions that are aligning 3D much more closely with live-action film.

Cleland-Hura also points out that the physical aspects of a location, in which buildings and boulders are immovable and gravity affects everything, can prohibit or limit decisions about camera placement and composition. The world of 3D, on the other hand, has no gravity or permanently immovable objects, so it offers more flexible options. However, she cautions that this poses an even greater challenge for 3D artists. In the world of 3D, it is necessary to exercise restraint and avoid wild and unrealistic choices while looking at all of the options of a virtual world. She explains, "Never make choices that take the viewer away from the visually familiar and possible. Extreme action may be possible in 3D, but these choices fail to carry the story forward because unrealistic visuals confuse and baffle the audience. On the other hand, well-crafted visual choices that take full advantage of both the virtual world of 3D and the rich traditions of filmmaking give 3D artists the most exciting opportunities of both worlds. Even while exercising careful judgement, 3D layout gives studio editors the luxury of having a greater range of options to choose from."

Cleland-Hura approaches her craft by doing a location scout of each scene and exploring what she terms coverage on scenes that contain more action or drama. Location scouting is an exploration of the virtual set to establish camera placement and composition that takes best advantage of the environment. Coverage on scenes that have more action, explores the action from many camera angles using a range of choices of camera moves and composition of characters. Both of these processes result in tape of these sequence frames as well as rendering still frames. These are then submitted for evaluation by the production team.

A valuable source of information regarding all the stages of animation production is the newly available DVD box set of Toy Story & Toy Story 2 - The Ultimate Toy Box. However, Cleland-Hura warns that in one example of layout, showing Woody and Buzz in conversation, the characters are animated. True 3D layout uses characters that are roughly blocked, but are not animated. Other than this small discrepancy, The Ultimate Toy Box, will offer invaluable information and visual examples.

The following checklists, offered by Cleland-Hura, will help you keep the necessary points in focus during the storyboarding process. To illustrate this process, animation MFA candidate Maia Sanders has prepared the following visuals. As you move forward in your own production employing the techniques illustrated by Sanders and The Ultimate Toy Box should help you master these vital production skills. Next month, we will continue our research on the use of 3D layout by showing you the 3D layout completed by Maia Sanders as she proceeds with her thesis project.

Formal elements of the planning process:

  • Composition
  • Contrast
  • Placement of characters and action within the scene (foreground, middle, and background)
  • Timing and blocking
  • Perspective
  • Scale
  • Entrances and exits
  • Lens
  • Focus
  • Depth of field
  • Camera position and angle
  • Camera motion
  • Screen direction (conventions set up for moving left, right, up, down to illustrate repeated themes)
  • Eye fix (Where the eye is looking at the screen from shot to shot. Be consistent and use contrast from scene to scene only when appropriate.)

Checklist, storyboarding for layout:

  • Always keep in mind the emotional goals of the story.
  • Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.
  • Keep focused on who is in charge of the scene or situation.
  • Frame each scene for maximum performance.
  • Focus on where you want the audience to look.
  • Keep in mind the audience's point of view. How and what do you want the audience to feel?
  • Clearly portray action and the point of the story in the scene.
  • Show the action transitions and motion in the scene so you have this information to work from when using the layout.
  • Illustrate the personality of the character through what is shown in the storyboard frame.
  • Pay attention to shot flow
  • Use dynamic angles in camera and character movements to show drama.
  • De-emphasize backgrounds and concentrate on the primary goals of the scene. Don't dwell on detail except when integral to the action being taken by characters or if the audience should focus on something important.

Lessons for layout:

  1. Study films to learn about different cinematic styles and use appropriate clips from movies as reference for your animation..
  2. Avoid zooms except in comic relief and action films because they look contrived. Use constrain and make choices that are familiar from live action, as viewers can get thrown out of the story by wild or zany camera moves.
  3. Film the characters consistently to help underscore personality.
  4. Vary shots to include close up, medium as well as wide shots to take advantage of the full range of emotions expressed by each type of shot.
  5. Think of the environment and camera as characters in the scene.

Storyboard critique:

The following images break down shots 1 to 19 on the first storyboard. Observations were made, and these changes were incorporated into the second set of boards.

Frames 1 to 4

  • The opening sequence has no establishing shot to orient the audience to the environment. In this case the background is important.
  • The introduction of the character is weak.
  • The character's personality is not expressed.

Points to consider

1. Always keep in mind the emotional goals of the story.

2. Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.

6. Keep in mind the audience point of view. How and what do you want the audience to feel?

9. Illustrate the personality of the character through what is shown in the storyboard frame.

12. De-emphasize backgrounds and concentrate on the primary goals of the scene. Don't dwell on detail except when integral to the action being taken by characters or if the audience should focus on something important.

Frames 5 to 9

  • Introducing similar characters in a consistent manner, allows the audience to establish a familiarity with the character's motives as they are portrayed visually.
  • Use a follow shot to allow the audience to focus on and become familiar with the timidity of the character.

Points to consider

2. Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.

5. Focus on where to you want the audience to look.

6. Keep in mind the audience's point of view. How and what do you want the audience to feel?

7. Clearly portray action in the scene while clearly illustrating the story point.

Frame 10

  • Predator enters and stops the flow abruptly.
  • Make this action more dramatic to create a stronger emotional impact.
  • Establish the entry of the predator from the upper right frame as a convention to be repeated.

Points to consider

1. Always keep in mind the emotional goals of the story.

2. Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.

3. Keep focused on who is in charge of scene or situation.

4. Frame each scene for maximum performance

11. Use dynamic angles in camera and character moves to show drama.

Frames 15 to 18

  • Shot flow is wrong, the movement of the bird reverses from frame to frame.
  • Move the prey, from left to right, following the convention established in the first sequence.

Points to consider

1. Always keep in mind the emotional goals of the story.

2. Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.

10. Pay attention to shot flow.

Frame 18

  • Predator once again enters from upper right frame.

Points to consider

1. Always keep in mind the emotional goals of the story.

2. Be sure that each shot carries the intent, not just the action, of the scene.

3. Keep focused on who is in charge of the scene or situation.

4. Frame each scene for maximum performance

5. Focus on where to you want the audience to look.

6. Keep in mind the audience's point of view. How and what do you want the audience to feel?

7. Clearly portray action and the point of the story in the scene.

9. Illustrate the personality of the character through what is shown in the storyboard frame.

10. Pay attention to shot flow.

11. Use dynamic angles in camera and character moves to show drama.

Pat Johnson, formerly of Pratt Institute, is a CG consultant and educational advisor.