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An Animator's Guide to Designing Storyboard Characters

ben marvazi 2020

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Storyboarding is what I call an "idea landscape" - one that can help unleash creativity, improve communication, and identify practical solutions to complex problems.

Bill Capodagli, Author

Storyboards are arguably the most important step in the animation production pipeline

They’re the stepping stone to every other step in the animation process (just like real stepping stones) and need to be able to convey the direction of your vision with bite-sized pieces of information.

In this blog post, we’re going to cover the basics and not-so-basics of storyboarding your characters, and how to make your storyboards and your storyboards’ characters look and feel as good as they can possibly be.

History Of Designing Storyboard Characters

Mickey Mouse in black and white whistling and steering a ship

Gif by Old Hollywood Films via Giphy

An animation storyboard is an organized collection of static images showcasing the flow of the eventual animated video. But this we know.

We also know that the practice of storyboarding has improved significantly over the years thanks to the consistent turning wheel of innovation.

Naturally, the first storyboards were hand-drawn on paper and were placed in order on a bulletin board for everyone to see the sequence.

The Walt Disney animated short Three Little Pigs by Webb Smith is credited as being the first animated piece to have been conceptualized based on the aforementioned storyboarding technique, placing pieces of hand-drawn animations in order on a bulletin board.

The idea was almost certainly inspired by classic black-and-white graphic novels that then further inspired animated classics such as Steamboat Willie.

Since then, the art of storyboarding in general has evolved in such a way that motion and graphic designers, animators, and directors make use of storyboarding to up their production quality.

And with the aid of technology, storyboards can include so much more detail and color than ever before.

A Quick Guide To Building A Professional Storyboard

Time laps of how storyboard characters are developed in an animation room

GIF by Alex Boya via Giphy

We can safely assume that you’re well aware of how a storyboard works and at least have some idea of how to do one properly.

Regardless, it can never hurt to get a little refresher on the basics

There are many other far more in-detail guides out there, but this will just be a quick reminder before we move on to focusing on your storyboard characters.

Remember, every tip on basic storyboarding can be applied to your actual storyboard characters as well.

Figure Out Your Camera Work

Some of the absolute basics of effective animation revolve around good camera work - or at least your "figurative camera" in the animation space. This can, of course, include film aspect ratios as well.

There are a number of different camera shot types, camera angles, and camera movements, all of which need to be considered for each shot and need to be portrayed properly within your storyboard.

Shots such as Close Ups (CU), angles such as Point of View (POV), and your movements such as Panning and Zooming, are all incredibly important to securing an effective animation, and all find their place within the initial storyboarding process.

Break Down The Brief And Script

Of course, you need to have an in-depth understanding of the script and brief you’ve been given. It’s impossible to make any sort of important headway with your animation without this knowledge.

You need to know the budget and timing constraints for the project, as well as any and all specifics such as whether or not the piece will be in color or black and white, what reference material to use, etc.

While some of these aren’t necessarily important for the storyboarding process itself, you need to know these things going before you actually start working on your storyboard.

Label Your Shots Correctly

Using the information you’ve gathered about the piece, you need to be making sure you’re making the right decisions for your shots, laid out frame by frame in the storyboard.

You can make this process simpler and quicker by thumbnailing, where you create light sketches illustrating the various sequences and animated directions in as simple a visual style as possible. 

Effectively thumbnailing before you move on to storyboarding allows you to determine which scenes are necessary for the storyboard. They allow you to quickly step back and analyze the entire animation in small panels before you move on to the hard work of storyboarding. 

Be Unique And Detailed, Yet Consistent

Every animator is unique. Every artist is unique. Even so, some necessary evils in the realm of storyboarding will be similar, or the same, for every animator.

Using arrows for example for camera movements and special effects, and their directional qualities is something every animator just does.

One’s uniqueness can shine through in the manner in which one chooses to use these arrows. Utilize color to differentiate between important features in a frame. Use captions to great effect as best you can. Be unique, where you can, in every step of the animation process.

And while you’re at it, be consistent. No one says you need to follow the crowd, but you need to at the very least, follow your own conventions.

How To Make Your Storyboard Characters Unique

disney storyboard animation storyboard vs the actual animated scene of a girl swinging an object

Gif by Walt Disney Animation Studios via Giphy

The golden rule of storyboarding is that each panel should tell a story.

The second rule of storyboarding is that there are no rules.

In all seriousness, you can only convey so much within your storyboard as it is just a static 2D representation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a heck of a lot that you can convey.

There are so many things you can do to make your storyboards and your storyboard characters unique, but you also need to factor in the amount of time it takes to be as unique as you might like to be.

Consider adding small details that pop into your head to your frames to help tell the story of your scene and consider utilizing different variations of camera angles and shots to emphasize different elements of the frames. 

Your storyboard characters need to convey the feel of your scene and so their posture, their facial expressions, and their overall influence within the frame need to be well thought out.

Your Storyboard Characters Also Need To Be Compelling

storyboard of a female character showing he outfit

Gif by Visual Smugglers via Giphy

Uniqueness is obviously incredibly important for your animation and needs to be showcased within the storyboard. But aside from that, they need to be able to captivate with the limited visuals provided in a storyboard.

If you can engross your clients with just a simple storyboard, imagine how much of an effect you’ll have on them when you start working on the actual animation.

Look, we’re not saying you need to win any drawing competitions here, and you certainly don’t need to sink hours upon hours into your sketches, but adding small details here and there so your characters don’t seem completely lifeless can really help.

A Few More Things To Consider For Your Storyboard Characters 

Sketched storyboard characters fighting on a flip storyboard

Gif by Plot Devices via Giphy

Here are a few extra details for you to consider when working on your storyboards and your storyboard characters.

Firstly, your storyboard is only a rough outline of your eventual animation. You don’t want to be including every little tiny detail in each sketch because it’s a waste of precious time.

This doesn’t mean that you should neglect small details, but you don’t need to be including everything you plan to include in the animation process in the initial storyboard.

It’s simply there for you to see the direction in which you need to go and for you to have a basic understanding of how your animation is going to look.

Secondly, you’re trying to create a compelling story over here. Your characters certainly need to reflect that, but so does your environment.

If your characters themselves are the only personalities you’ve included in your storyboard, you’re going to have a longer and more difficult time making your scenes stand out later on. 

Showing off your beautiful characters that have an amazing feel and sense of life in a sketched 2D environment only works if there’s a world around them to emphasize their uniqueness.

Using negative space is incredibly important, but using your environment to add a feel and sense of life to your initial storyboard can do incredible things for your animation as well.

And finally, make every frame count! And also count your frames.

Inspiration Stations For Your Storyboard Characters

There are plenty of online sources for inspiration at your disposal and it can be daunting at times trying to find the right one.

Here is a small list of unique places to derive some much-needed inspiration for your storyboard characters.


Dribble logo

Image via Make Use Of

Dribbble has an entire section of the site dedicated to inspiration for animation and also has thousands of storyboard designs to rifle through to get that much-needed inspiration.

It’s also an opportunity to show off your own storyboards and designs to a thriving community of creatives that are more than happy to provide feedback.

Storyboard That

Storyboard That showing some storyboard pointers of depth created with layers

Image via Storyboard That

Storyboard That is a wonderful website filled with inspiration for your storyboards. It mainly acts as a teaching tool, but can very easily be used to practice and get some simple inspiration for how your characters can exist in their little worlds.

It may look simplistic, but let not its looks deceive you. It can act as a brilliant tool to practice, and it also has a large number of lessons in teaching you how to better go about storyboarding.

Every Movie Ever

Robot from sketch to animated movie

Gif by Pathz_Artz via Pinterest

What better way to come up with inspiration than to practice, practice, and practice some more.

You can literally watch any movie you want - pick your favorite one, the one you know off by heart - and work on your own storyboards for each scene. It definitely doesn’t need to be perfect, but it can greatly help you both with coming up with ideas on the fly and getting basic sketches done quickly and efficiently.

Play around with different software as well. Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone can really do wonders in testing your abilities.

Good Storyboard Characters Give Animation Soul

The act of storyboarding has changed dramatically over the years but the art of storyboarding has not.

An effective storyboard isn’t just rough sketches and camera pans, but compelling characters and note-worthy environments as well.

Be clear, concise, and effective, and animating your storyboard characters will be a breeze.

For more info about the animation industry and being a freelance animator, as well as answers to any other questions you might have, be sure to follow our blogs, check out our free masterclass and our Animation Business Accelerator Program, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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