What Are Animation Storyboards?

If you’re interested in animation you’ve probably come across storyboarding, but what is it, exactly? It goes without saying that animation takes a long time. Because of the long process, it helps to plan ahead, especially if you’re working with a big group of people rather than by yourself. You may have a solid idea of exactly what your story and film will look like in your head, but how do you communicate that idea to other people? That’s where storyboard artists come in.

A Storyboard’s Role in the Animation Process

A storyboard is pretty much what it sounds like, a board for your story. Serving as a visual representation of still pictures of what your film will end up being, a storyboard is each key moment of a film drawn out and presented in order, similar to a picture book. It has key movements and events all laid out visually, as well as the camera angles and any camera movements. The term storyboard comes from when you have these shots all drawn out studios would often pin them up on a cork board, literally making a storyboard.

Storyboards themselves don’t have dialogue bubbles, so they’re not like a comic book version of the film. They leave the dialogue and any details off and just focus on what the visual will be. They’ll sometimes include big arrows to show if something is zooming in or panning left or right but they put the dialogue or any key information down below, or have someone talk through the storyboards while presenting them.

Here’s a great comparison of the storyboard for the opening sequence of the Lion King against the final animation of the same sequence. It shows a great example of the storyboards all match the subject and camera angles of the final animation they had created. This not only allows people to more clearly get an understanding of the story and what’s going to happen, but it helps the animators tremendously.

A Beacon for the Animator

If you’re animating a story than you know what you want to happen, but when it gets handed off to someone else, that’s when it becomes clear that two people can have wildly different interpretations of the same scene. The storyboard helps guide the animator on what has been established in your preproduction work. Because of the storyboard they know what camera angles to use, camera movements, and how the action should play out.

Storyboarding isn’t simply limited to animation. Live-action films storyboard things as much as animation does — when the live-action sequence is shot, it serves to help everyone from the cameramen, actors and the assistants get on the same page about what needs to be done.

For example, storyboarding was the dominant method for Mad Max: Fury Road. Rather than writing a screenplay, screenwriter George Miller did the entire film as one big long storyboard. Fury Road is such a visual film that doing it storyboard-style rather than a screenplay helped bring the amazing vision that was conceptualized to life. (Fun fact: Due to the heavy storyboarding influence Miller originally envisioned it as a dialogue-free movie.)

A Help — or a Hindrance

When you’re working personally storyboarding can both be a help or a hindrance. For a solo project, it can slow you down and limit what you can do once you start animating. Take note also, since you have a good idea what you’re imagining, you may not feel the need to lay it all out ahead of time — there’s something to be said for just winging it.

On the other side of the coin, there are animators who find it very useful to lay out what they have to do through storyboarding even when they are working on their own. It can help focus you and lend a more clear outline of what’s ahead for the project. It can definitely help if you need to figure out how long a certain aspect of your film will take to animate.

Whether you storyboard or not is up to you — but it’s worth giving it a try at least once.