Improving the Storyboarding Workflow with Digital Tools
Indie animation firms depend on their ability to be nimble and innovate, but still exceed the professional expectations of their clients. Andy Collen and his wife, Amy, founders Happy Trails Animation, a full-service, award-winning studio that creates animated short films, knew they needed to invest in tools that would help them compete with big studios and improve their workflow.
“These days, small animation studios like ours need to be more nimble, versatile and cost-effective than large studios to compete,” Collen said. Our biggest challenge was building a team of versatile, multi-talented freelance creative artists.” Depending on the project, these teams vary in size from three to 15 collaborators.
“Our team’s comfort level with the use of digital tools, including digital storyboarding, has allowed us to do the creative ‘heavy lifting’ for clients faster and at a lower cost than larger studios,” he said.
Instead of starting a project with paper storyboards that must be scanned and loaded manually into animation software, Collen and his team now build their storyboards using Flash and Photoshop on the Wacom Cintiq. It’s a process that has made the storyboarding process much faster, and far more flexible, than it was in the past.
“What the pen tablet does is change the world for us,” said Collen, who uses the Wacom Cintiq 22 HD as his tool of choice. “Our studio can be competitive, because the pen tablet platform lets us go directly from storyboards ‘To infinity and beyond!’”
Leveraging the Efficiencies of Digital Tools
A typical project for Collen begins with a series of roughed-out storyboards created in Photoshop on the Cintiq. All the elements of the various characters are built into the layers the animator will need later. Digital storyboarding makes it faster and easier to go straight into full animation production using Flash or AfterEffects.
Image: Digital storyboards for a Cleco Power PSA on electric safety for elementary school presentations.
Collen relies on the power of remote collaboration: He uses the Cintiq during remote presentations via Skype to respond immediately to artist or client input on storyboards. The Cintiq has also served him as a remote teaching tool to demonstrate key concepts to collaborators as far away as Italy.
Collen is a hands-on collaborator, often making quick tweaks and changes to storyboards or animations himself instead of referring small changes back to another animator.
“Once a project gets into production, changes that once took as much as three hours can be handled in a matter of minutes with our pen tablet tools,” said Collen.
Finally, he noted that developing ancillary products for a client is also faster and more efficient with digital storyboards.
After developing a PSA about electric safety for Cleco Power, for example, Happy Trails was asked to update the print collateral for the company’s safety program. Instead of having to start from scratch to redraw the characters for a different medium, Collen pulled elements from the storyboards and the animation to update a brochure and create a coloring book for kids that the company uses at school presentations.
“First, the digital storyboard helps you save time with the animation production because you’ve already developed the character elements and the background theme,” said Collen. “And in addition, you end up with all that artwork that you can then go ahead and use for a pamphlet or, in this case, a kids’ coloring book.”
This kids’ coloring book was a snap to create from the digital elements already approved for the Cleco Power PSA.
Collen became a Cintiq convert in 2004 when he was working on an award-winning short called “Winter en Hiver.” The pressure-sensitive Cintiq and its built-in display allowed him to handle the elaborate line drawings (in the style of Edward Gorey) in a completely intuitive way.
“You really do need that pressure sensitivity the Wacom products give you,” said Collen. “And the pen tablet also allows you to play with brushes and settings and set them up differently as needed for each project.”
Andy Collen’s Quick Tips for Storyboarding on the Cintiq
• Start with a rough, light pen with one of the smallest line brushes with the opacity turned down to about 40% to 50%.
• Rough out all the individual ideas and channels really quickly, working out all the gestures, spending just seconds on each one.
• On a separate layer, use another brush at full opacity to do a nice, clean illustration of each piece.
• After locking the clean sketch layer, lay down solid mid-tone colors and lighting effects, each on separate layers.
• Set two highlight colors with a small feather edge, and set shadow colors with a larger feather edge. “This is where the Cintiq is so handy,” Collen noted. “You can set those feather-edge settings up on either the ExpressKeys or the pen buttons. So changing the settings is just one click away.”
Collen says independent animation studios like his can’t afford to pass up the advantages of digital storyboarding if they want to stay competitive in today’s bottom-line-focused business environment.
“The animation industry is a tough one. It’s one you enter from passion,” said Collen. “We’ve found the Cintiq is the perfect tool designed to harness that passion. It’s like an awesome surfboard. You just need to learn how to ride it.”
Andy Collen is producer, director and owner of award-winning Happy Trails Animation based in Portland, Oregon. Happy Trails Animation produces motion graphics for broadcast, multimedia and film, flash animation and flash programming, 3-D animation and visual effects, original character design and illustration, storyboards for live action and animation, digital painting and backgrounds, and storyboard animatics.