Mad Skillz: Ben on how to create an animation storyboard

Ben is one of my favourite bloggers. He’s also probably my favourite e-friend. I’ve never met him in the real world but his blog is grand and his comments elsewhere are open, honest and full of goodness. Ben drew the little logo on the top right of my page. I’m eternally grateful to him for that.

Ben lives in Sydney with the vowels E, e, and i. His blog is full of the goodness of Proverbs, Peanuts, a weekly quiz and reflections on life in Sydney. As well as the occasional piece of art, cultural review and insight into Ben’s struggles. It’s like a Snuggie (the wearable blanket not the nappy).

Did you know that Ben is an animator? Cool huh. From what I can gather he works on children’s cartoons. But I might be wrong. There was a time when his inimitable Monday Quiz was accompanied by a weekly cartoon. Like this one.

The key to good animation – or in fact good crafting of any production – is storyboarding. And that is where Ben has chosen to share his expertise as part of “Mad Skillz Week”… I emailed some people last week asking them to contribute (and I thought I’d posted this invitation the other day – but I couldn’t find it when I went looking).

I work in animation, mostly doing storyboards for kids TV cartoons. A storyboard is like a rough laying out of an episode, using a script and soundtrack as the guide. It shows visually how the story will go, and will set up all the required shots. From there it gets into all the laborious gruntwork of actually animating all this– something that I aspire to never have to do myself. Here’s a few things that I’ve learnt the hard way over the years.

  1. Learn how to tell a story. Learning to draw is pretty important too, but there are plenty of good drawers who can’t tell a story visually. And there are rubbish drawers who can tell awesome stories.
  2. Watch movies. Not necessarily animated ones, just movies full stop. This is really the way that you work out how people string together a bunch of different shots and scenes to make a narrative.
  3. Don’t watch new movies. They’re bog. It’s all about flash and dazzle, and a million cuts and camera angles, which mostly just leave the viewer confused, seasick and a little traumatised. These techniques are great ways of disguising the fact that your story telling is rubbish and plot is threadbare. As they say in the industry, you cant polish a turd (editor’s note – Ben had removed the “u” because he’s gentlemanly – but I didn’t want it to look like I was censoring him).
  4. Watch old movies. They’re awesome. What they had to work with was limited, so they really had to think. There was no, ‘oh, we’ll just make that CGI’. Also they were often working with black and white, so they had to work hard on each shot, to make sure what needed to be ‘read’ in the shot could be done so immediately (for example, if you want something dark to be seen, put it in front of white, don’t bury it in a busy background). Hitchcock is a great place to start.
  5. Have as few shots as possible. It’s not clever to move the ‘camera’ around all the time, making tricky, edgy compositions. The priority is that the viewer knows what the heck is going on. Work out an establishing, wide shot to show the environment and where the characters are in relation to each other. From there, just cut in for close-ups and mid-shots. This requires more planning, but means much less work for everybody else down the line, including the viewer.

Follow these 5 tips, and you will soar to realms you dared not ponder in your wildest dreams.

There you have it. Thanks Ben. Anyone else interested in taking part in Mad Skillz Week should send me an email (nm dot campbell at gmail dot come).

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