As a designer, I have always thought that there was something broken about my process. That somehow, throughout all the years I’ve learned to move a mouse, I have been designing “wrong.” While I can point to many aspects of my process that could use a bit of retooling, the most egregious example in my mind has been my complete and utter disregard for the venerable storyboard.
In a perfect world, whenever I’m given a long form animated infographic assignment, I would have a few days to storyboard the concept, coordinate with my art director, get some constructive back and forth with my producers, then have a week or two to execute the concept. I’d be able to take my time, live in the details, make sure every pixel and every sound hits where we envisioned it. The end result would be an exact reproduction of the visual concept forged from our collective creative minds, every beat anticipated, executed, and expected. Data and design, perfectly choreographed. Perfection.
Of course, I just ate chicken nuggets and ramen for dinner instead of the dry-aged filet I had storyboarded in my head, so I obviously don’t live in a perfect world. No, what usually happens is a whirlwind of emails, IMs, phones lifted then slammed into cradles, half eaten sandwiches and gulps of caffeine, all leading to a script that’s plopped on my desk with a note that simply reads “5 days.” On the outside, I’m calm and collected, taking the script from the producer while nodding my head, silently reassuring them that we’ll get it done. On the inside I’m thinking OHMYGODHOLYCRAP NO WAY THEY WANT THIS IN FIVE DAYS THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE DONT THEY KNOW WHAT RENDER TIMES ARE I SHOULDVE CALLED IN SICK TODAY I QUIT. This inner struggle continues for a good five to 10 minutes. Then, I take a deep breath, and get to work.
Depending on who you are, five days to plan, design, and execute a 90-second animation can either seem like a lifetime, or a blink of an eye. Unfortunately, I find myself in the latter group. However, having done my fair share of these animations in a broadcast environment, whose very nature demands these short turnaround times, I’ve learned to adapt.
I was never very strong at storyboarding. I always likened it to showing my work in algebra, or doing proofs in geometry. Sure, it’s great to see the logical progression of one’s thinking to arrive at a particular conclusion, to prove that there’s some sort of legitimacy to the outcome. But most times, the teacher just wanted to make sure you weren’t cheating, or putting down random numbers with an inordinate amount of luck. No, Mrs. Gorence, I wasn’t copying off of Evan Chalupski’s paper. I actually figured out x=4 in my head. It was a 3 step equation!
But here’s the thing. There’s a reason why some students think multiple choice tests are easier (they aren’t). Sometimes, students put down those random numbers and end up with an A. Sometimes, embracing that randomness and dumb luck works out, and that’s no more true than in how I design. (Just to be clear, I do not condone cheating, or copying. Stay in school).
While I believe storyboarding can play an important role in establishing the overall structure of a piece, and I truly admire those who can do it successfully, the work I’m most satisfied with usually comes when I break out of the mold I’ve laid out for myself. I’ll usually read through a script 20 or 30 times straight, picturing how the animation will play out. Each additional pass fills in more blanks, chisels down more ideas, colors in more lines. Eventually, I’ll have the whole animation playing inside my head.
Why do I keep this all in my noggin instead of drawing it out? For starters, I’m an incredibly horrendous drawer. Terrible. Seriously, the only doodles I’ve ever drawn that could even remotely be mistaken for some form of art came with the assistance of a Spirograph (For those born after 1990: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirograph) But the main reason I initially keep it in my head is because, for me, I feel like it’s more fluid. Every time I recollect an idea, it’s slightly different than when I thought it up. Usually it’s better. If there’s an idea I’m really confident about, or one that I believe is finally developed, I’ll pick up a pencil and draw out a storyboard frame, or at least, I’ll try to.
Unfortunately, I’m rarely able to accurately project what’s in my head onto the screen. It always falls short. Whether I mess up the basic shapes, motion trails, texturing or lighting, it never looks as good as I had envisioned it. This is why sometimes while I’m executing, I have to go in a different direction and create on the fly. The animation usually starts to create itself from there and I just go with the flow. It becomes about embracing the mistakes, the randomness, and the chaos and learning to recognize which mistakes are worth pursuing and which are, well, mistakes. Having a good art director really helps here. Or a girlfriend who’s not afraid to speak her mind.
Of course, there are some caveats. We all know storyboards are meant to be approved. They are a blueprint for clients, a promise, a good faith estimate that you know what you’re doing and that you have a plan. There’s a certain amount of trust that’s required for this method and it’s not always available. But, if you’re as lucky as I am to have a team that trusts each other (or doesn’t have enough time before a piece airs to fight you), it’s one of the more rewarding ways to work.
Jonathan Reyes is a NYC-based motion graphic designer and animator. When not working his 9to5 at Bloomberg Television, he is often seen eating a hamburger with a glass of Bulleit on the rocks. Follow him on Twitter.