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Thumbnails VS Storyboards: What’s the difference?


Thumbnails Versus Final Storyboards

So, you’ve identified all the story points, subtext, and elements needed to draw a scene — the next step in the storyboarding process is to create thumbnails.

Thumbnail definition

Thumbnails are fast, rough sketches to see how well your shot choices and compositions work before you begin adding detail.

Thumbnails are normally tiny drawings — one or two inches a piece, tops — with many of them filling up a single sheet of paper (or a digital equivalent).

You can use these drawings to quickly lay out an entire scene, and show your director for initial approval.

There’s no need to polish your drawings in the thumbnail stage — fancy drawing only distract from what's important, which is the story point and the shot flow.

In the thumbnail stage, all you need are quick, simple drawings that convey the camera angles, composition, and staging.

No amount of shading or rendering will sell a shot or make up for story flaws — any good client or director will see right through it.

Why Use Thumbnails?

If you don’t thumbnail, then you’re just settling for the first idea that comes to mind.

That works occasionally, but most of the time, you’ll want to go deeper — up-front planning will save you a lot of pain in the end.

Thumbnailing is about discovering the emotional beats of a story through shots and staging — you’re making choices that affect emotions and trying to discover the most efficient means of getting there.

This is a process in which you might end up drawing, crossing out, and redrawing ideas many, many times, so each one should only take a minute or so to draw.

For an assignment scheduled to take one week, you might spend days just thumbnailing.

Once the best ideas are clear, creating your finished storyboards will be a much smoother and quicker process.

Here are a few elements important to get across in your thumbnails:  

  • Clear compositions 
  • Unique camera angles and a variety of shot choices
  • Interesting staging
  • Resolution of screen directions
  • Communication of story points

An Alternate Take

If you're struggling with the size of thumbnails, consider:

Yes, thumbnails are generally small.

The name almost demands it, right? Sometimes, they’ll even get drawn right on the script, off in the margins.

Images this small can’t be fussed over and, as mentioned, that’s basically the point — you want simple images, focused purely on the storytelling during this stage.

But if it’s hard on your eyes, hands, or both, you could try drawing BIG instead.

Whether you’re working small or at a larger scale, you should always use the same principles:

  • You should always focus on blocking in shapes without details
  • You should always focus on developing clean compositions and clear storytelling

But nothing’s stopping you from taking up more real estate, whether you’re working on paper or on a tablet.

Take up the entire page or screen with a single shot, if you’d like — throw those lines from your elbow or shoulder.

Just make sure to size the images down, after you’re done — no director wants to receive piles of thumbnails thicker than the script.

Starting Your Rough

If you’re stuck starting your rough, a good way to get going is to draw a vanishing point.

Then, draw some radiating lines from the vanishing point into the image area.

Compositions will have certain psychological impacts even at this level — some seem dynamic, others more serene, others may feel erratic and still others may feel formal.

Use this to your advantage as you start designing your shot.

Your roughs should be quick, simple, and unlabored, but this is not to be confused with doing rushed, sloppy, careless roughs — the distinctions between a simple rough and a sloppy rough are very clear.

Often, beginners will rush through their roughs, working way too loosely and extremely sloppily, expecting that their finished drawings will fix the problems.

This is the opposite of what you should be doing.

If you take the time to nail your roughs and make them as clear as you can, you’ll build a much stronger foundation.

Double Check Your Work

Once you've roughed out a full scene in thumbnails, look over them a few times to be sure you have all the important information conveyed clearly and that you’re getting the maximum punch out of the scene.

Make sure your entire scene flows well.

If you’d never read the script, and were viewing these shots for the first time, would you have a good sense of the story and the feel of the finished movie?

If you see issues, take time to fix them.

At this point, you can look over the shots with the director — you might get notes back but, otherwise, after you’ve developed a successful set of thumbnails, it’s time to move on to finished storyboards.

Finished Storyboards

You've now figured out all the major story problems, so this should be an easier step — all you need to focus on are drawing and execution.

Even though this is the opportunity to make the drawings as beautiful as possible, don’t lose sight of clarity and simplicity — a finished storyboard should always be easy to understand, first and foremost.

The purpose of a storyboard is to describe a story point and an emotional beat from a story, not to be a finished work of art.

Each storyboard type requires a different finish, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Give the figures solid poses with clear silhouettes 
  • You can add simple tones — two or three gray tones is plenty
  • Limit the use of color — save yourself time by only using color when necessary
  • Limit the use of arrows — adding more panels with more character poses instead will help the action flow.
  • Use clean, “on‐model” drawings for traditional television storyboards
  • Add light perspective grids under the drawings to give each panel maximum clarity

The more experience you get with visual storytelling, you will see that the drawing and polish of a storyboard is actually secondary to the communication of the idea or action inside the shot.  This is why the pre-planning and roughs stage is so important. 

Now, go make some awesome storyboards!

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