Story-boarding is the art of making sure issues of timing, cameras and composition are sorted out. These are important decisions to make to ensure the readability of your animation. Remember, a story is no good if nobody can make sense of it.
Placing a character into a scene is an art, but the bigger challenge is making sure to maintain continuity and visual drama.
It would be easy to jump right into discussing all the different types of shots that can be used, but there is one major area that tends to get overlooked first.
Setting a composition.
Ask a film student about what makes a good composition and the two most popular answers refer to the Rule of Thirds and the notion that centralized compositions are “bad”.
The Rule of Thirds is a great concept and should not be ignored but it is just one aspect of what makes a good composition.
The real purpose of creating a composition to the achieve some kind of storytelling goal and to keep the viewer interested while you’re telling it. A good composition will make your viewer see what you want them to see when you want them to see it. Good compositions use space in the best possible way to enhance drama and emotion.
A good starting point is to refer to the Principles of Design which are as true for film and animation as they are to anything that should be aesthetically pleasing.
These are Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Emphasis and Unity. Placed into an animation context they represent positive/negative space, movement and a focal point. At this point movement doesn’t refer to the actual motion of the animated scene, but rather, the various points of interest that help lead the viewer’s gaze to the part of the shot that is most interesting.
The extra challenge of managing composition in the moving image comes in with the need to keep the viewer following all of the movement from one frame to the next, from one shot to the next. These are how the rules of continuity came about. Filmmakers realized over time that it was easy for viewers to get lost from one angle to the next unless they were (subliminally or overtly) directed to look at the right place at the right time and knew where everything was in relation to the camera at all times.
Keeping an object centralized does not create a “bad” composition but it does create a very strong focal point that can be tough to break out of. Also, staying in that position can make for some tedious storytelling. On the other hand, centralized compositions have always worked well at the end of stories where characters get to walk off into the sunset. It leaves the viewer looking on, as if they were lingering after an important event.
Another way to resolve a central composition is to bring the character out of the shot, towards the camera. This conveys much more urgency and usually allows for a quick cut to black so that the following shot can show where the character went after he flew through the camera.
Animators don’t use Z-depth nearly as much as they could and it’s a little sad. Paying attention to foreground, mid-ground and background can make very dynamic compositions and really pack in a lot of information without having to try too hard.
Another byproduct of setting a composition is the kind of mood it creates. Keeping your camera pulled in close to the action can create an intimate feeling and tends to make viewers feel like they are a part of the story. Pulling out can make the subject seem alien and aloof. Animators have to use a variety of these types of compositions to keep people involved without becoming confused as to where they are in the film’s universe.
Effectively composed camera angles and sequences can greatly reduce the number of shots needed to tell a story, which means less animation and better quality overall. The goal of every animator is (or should be) to get the best possible result in the most efficient way. Taking pre-production seriously is the most important part of making sure that happens.