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Digital Storyboarding - Part One

Prolific storyboard artist Mike Milo teaches us about translating the tricks of the trade from his traditional background into the digital world.

Storyboarding is a very difficult part of filmmaking.

It’s essentially the blueprint of the film. I would argue thatMike Milo without a good storyboard you cannot make a good film.  That being said, storyboard artists have to be a jack-of-all-trades and adept at many facets of draftsmanship.

Let’s take a look at the skills required to be a storyboard artist:

  •      draw the human body from multitudes of angles and expressions
  •      design characters on the fly, which most likely are used in the final film or episode as-is
  •      draw backgrounds in perfect perspective and quite often design them
  •      design and draw props from every angle
  •      draw believable acting
  •      use pacing and timing to convey a joke or dramatic moment
  •      create in many different styles from photoreal characters to The Simpsons, to The Fairly Odd Parents, to Batman to Sponge Bob
  •       solid knowledge of how to convey camera moves
  •       write the story and dialog, which quite often supersedes the script

That’s a lot of knowledge to possess- and yet - that's the bare minimum for a storyboard artist. It's one reason why artists like myself have embraced digital storyboarding.


Fig 1 - A character layout drawing I did from the show Tazmania- circa- 1991

Without a doubt, digital drawing has made me a much braver and a much better artist. My hand is much steadier than it was and when I pick up a real pencil my hand is bolder and my drawings are more solid. Why exactly? I'm not sure.

I think the ability to undo my own mistakes and repeatedly try new things has freed me in many ways. I painted my first ‘painting’ with Sketchbook Pro. And that led me to try some traditional ones using real paint- something I don’t know if I would have tried if I hadn’t done it digitally first.

In one small install of Sketchbook Pro you get all this: pencil, pen, Copic markers, paint brushes, a ruler, a copy machine, a resizable French curve and ellipse. On top of that, it has the ability to do things that were pretty much impossible before such as four way symmetry and drawing a perfect line on any axis.

All in one tiny package that fits under your arm or on your desk.


Fig 2 - From my days as a character layout artist at Disney on the show “Around the World With Timon and Pumbaa-circa- 1995


 When I originally started in the animation business it was as a character layout artist (Figs-1, 2), which was the next step after the storyboard. Back then the storyboard was a much simpler visualization of the script. You just laid out the shots and didn’t worry much about the acting. Quite often we’d have paragraphs of dialog under one panel with the character’s finger pointing up in a moment of realization.

Our job was to take a storyboard, (which was really just to show placement of the characters), and act it out as well as put it on model and in many cases animate the key poses. Boards were MUCH simpler back in the day. Take for example this page from Hanna Barbera’s The Flintstones. (Fig-3) It’s great layout and posing but much simpler than today's storyboards because the job back then did not encompass detailed posing. That was the next step: "Layout".

All that changed in the later’ 90s when the studios realized they could cut out the character layout and make the storyboard artists do it to save a bundle of cash. Today some storyboards are so detailed that they are done with each character as a separate panel, so they can be timed differently in the animatic. (Family Guy and American Dad have been done this way- same for The Simpsons). 

The reason is the animatic, which as some of you know is a process where the storyboard is timed to the soundtrack in a video to show pacing and acting in a film. They’ve been used since way back in Walt Disney’s day and were originally called Leica reels, so named because of the German cameras they were filmed with.


Fig 3 - A scan from an original Flintstones storyboard from Hanna Barbera. Incidentally, you can see the whole storyboard here.

Before digital storyboarding, you had to use paper, pencil, whiteout and eraser to draw storyboards. You drew, and redrew, erased and erased some more to get the storyboard just the way you wanted and breathe just the right amount of attitude into that character’s eyes.

All the while the paper would slowly deteriorate until you could still see the redrawn eye’s silhouette regardless of how many times you erased it. So, you’d pull out the whiteout and paint a patch over that section. Unfortunately, you couldn’t draw as well over that hump of plastic once it dried and quite often you’d end up just redoing the whole drawing.


When I was a director on Pinky and the Brain we had many, many revisions- trying to be as epic as possible with each and every shot. After all - it had Stephen Spielberg’s name on it. After looking at a storyboard producers and directors quite often would add panels or whole sequences between two panels on a three-panel piece of paper.

You had to have a pair of scissors in your arsenal as well as rolls and rolls of tape, to create your Frankenstein monster of a copy from an original board. Quite often we’d try to patch the extra drawing in by using an X-Acto blade and taping the new drawing over the old one to cut both out.

It worked but it produced very thick boards due to the many places you essentially had two sheets of paper in one.  Some boards would be thicker than a phone book!   This made them a huge mess and very difficult to Xerox, but all the executives needed a copy, as well as all the writers, the network, the legal team and every member of the crew.

There were about 40 copies made of a single board for each pass. Make that three passes and we’re talking 120 copied boards. Times that by 65 episodes(which was a typical pickup for a show like Tiny Toons or Batman the Animated series) and you have an idea of how much Xeroxing was done on an animated series back then. The way storyboards used to be done made it costly and laborious, as well as being extremely unfriendly to the environment.

All that is gone today with the advent of email, pdfs and networked computers - and digital storyboarding. 

 Stay tuned for part two- the dive into digital.

*All images and logos in this article are property and copyright of their respective owners.

Reader Comments (10)

Great article Mike! Very insightful and I cannot wait for the next part!

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Cowan

Mike, loved this, I remember the good old days of storyboarding but for J. Walter Thompson and a couple of other ad agencies back in the 80's and 90's. We didn't need as many copies as the cartoon biz but the difficulty of drawing on blobs of white out is a still recurrent nightmare for me. LOL Looking forward to part 2. Thank You for sharing a HUGE & IMPORTANT part of the industry.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzi54241

Great article; concise and informative. You certainly have come a long way in your field.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Holy cow that was an enjoyable read. Thank you, Mike, for that informative article and all the work you've done on such amazing shows and films. I absolutely loved Pinky and the Brain. :D

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I was able to view different methods at both Fox and Disney but that was 10 years ago. Things changed! Thanks for the update. Truly fascinating.

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah MN

Thanks everyone! There's two more articles after this so stay tuned! :-)

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Milo

Great article not only inspiring but also impressive. Thank you Mike.

April 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJustAnuthaKnuklHed

Hey, thanks!

April 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Milo

Mike! Let us know when the other articles are up. It's required reading for my students here at SCAD!

April 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Jantze

I had the opportunity to work with sketch book pro on the production of Arthur last year. I loved the soft ware and I just wish they would add a time line . Sketch book pro would become the ultimate story boarding tool.

June 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

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