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Composition Rules for Storyboards


Creating strong compositions is a fundamental skill for a storyboard artist. It doesn’t matter which tools we use– whether we’re working with drawings, 3D images, photos, or even toothpicks. Whatever we use to create a storyboard image requires an eye for what will make an interesting composition and design within the storyboard panel. 

We’ll go over some building blocks for strong storyboard compositions with you, here, now. 

Let’s go!

Every Storyboard Starts with a Frame

Always start out with a compositional boundary or picture frame. This helps determine the elements that go within the composition and how they are arranged within the box for maximum visual appeal. By manipulating the elements in the composition, you can direct the audience’s eye to what you’ve decided is important. This will place viewers’ attention on the focus, or story point, and help communicate the emotional beat.

Most visual stories follow a horizontal-rectangular composition. This is called the “aspect ratio” of the frame. The current trend is a horizontal widescreen format similar to your flat screen TV or mobile phone turned horizontally.   

Focal Point

Every storyboard needs a focal point or center of interest. This focal point can be anywhere within the picture frame, but it’s important to choose beforehand where your focal point will be. Creating storyboards is about describing story beats, and manipulating viewers to look where you need them to look. In order to make your story point clear to the audience, your focal point needs to be clearly designed within the picture frame.

Each element of the composition should also emphasize the center of interest.

You might deliberately angle tree branches pointing in the direction of your focal point, or design the angles of tables and chairs so that they point to and accent your center of interest. 

Within any storyboard image, you can only have one main focal point at any given time. It’s very, very easy to clutter compositions with too much information and lose the clean, clear sense of focus you’re looking for. This is often a case of trying to describe too much information all at one time.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have supporting elements to help balance your composition. A storyboard image might have two areas of focus– a primary focal point and a secondary focal point. A storyboard could even have three centers of interest– primary, secondary, and tertiary focal points.

Even if there are multiple centers of interest, there is always an order of importance. You must decide where the primary focal point is and keep that element as the most important in the frame. The secondary and tertiary focal points should always support the primary focal point.

Shapes

Every choice made for a storyboard image is important, including shape selection.

As humans, we're conditioned to have specific visual stimuli evoke certain emotions in us. With knowledge of this, these visual stimuli can be manipulated by a storyboard artist to invoke feelings within an audience. Circles, ovals, and curves, for example, generally evoke feelings of friendliness, fun, and happiness.

Meanwhile, squares, rectangles, and right angles generally evoke feelings of formality and order. Triangles generally create feelings of aggression and dynamism.

Use the design of the shapes in your compositions to create the feeling you want for your audience. These visual elements add great richness and depth to the story. Create interesting shapes. Create a variety of shapes, big and small. Design the shapes in your composition to enhance the focal point. Good use of shapes should force you to take advantage of the negative space as well.

Lines

Lines in your composition will likewise generate different emotional reactions within an audience depending on how you use them. 

Generally, the more horizontal and vertical lines there are in your composition, the more static your image will be. Meanwhile, the more diagonal lines you have, the more dynamic your composition will generally be. Use your understanding of this to best advantage when trying to communicate an action scene, or a subtle drama, etc.

Remember:

  • Horizontal lines give off a feeling of calm– static. Vertical lines also feel calm, but feel somewhat more active than horizontals
  • Diagonal lines feel more active than either verticals or horizontals
  • Lines that divide space evenly will seem to be boring– move lines so that spaces are unequal to create visual interest
  • Parallels give us a sense of stateliness and order, while symmetry gives us a sense of chaos and disorder

So often, young storyboard artists create static, symmetrical images by default. It’s important to force yourself to create a pleasing, asymmetrical image first and then adjust the composition according to your story requirements. If your story calls for a noble king to enter into the frame, you might want to use horizontal and vertical lines to represent his nobility or power. However, if the story is about a disorganized business executive, you might want to work the lines within your composition so they’re asymmetrical, so as to create a feeling of uneasiness and disarray.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a guide to help you avoid symmetry in your composition. Draw lines that divide the frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The intersections of these lines make good places to position visual elements. You can align objects with the lines themselves.

Symmetry tends to split up composition and make it seem overly stiff and formal. Unless this is your intent, avoid putting areas of interest along the halfway line.

In most cases, you should put the most interesting elements of your compositions into the area where the picture divides into thirds. 

Foreground, Middleground, Background

When composing shots, always try to incorporate a foreground, a middle-ground, and a background. The more you can emphasize these three layers, the more depth your composition will have. In the beginning, our natural tendency when drawing is to flatten things out and create images on one plane. Force yourself to break that tendency. Even in a close‐up shot, you might be able to add a foreground or background object.

There are a couple of easy ways to help emphasize foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds in your images:

Overlapping Forms

If we position one person or object partially in front of another, it creates the sense that the overlapping person or object is in front of the other.

Changes in Size 

People and objects that grow appear to come closer, while people and objects that shrink appear to move further away.

You can combine these two principles to create an even greater illusion of depth:

If a hand overlaps a body, the hand will appear closer to viewers than the body, but if a hand that's been scaled up in size overlaps a body that's been scaled down, the hand will appear much, much closer to viewers than the body. Likewise, if Person 1 overlaps Person 2, Person 1 will appear closer to viewers than Person 2, but if you play with the size to make Person 1 significantly larger than Person 2 (keep in mind your perspective and placement along the horizon line), Person 2 will suddenly seem to be way off in the distance.

ou could also use different gray tones to further differentiate between foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds. (Stick with three grays– light, medium, and dark– in addition to black and white.)

Tangents and breathing room for characters

In regards to storyboarding and art in general, a tangent is when two lines or forms intersect or nudge close enough to each other to create a distraction. This can happen in a number of ways, including having characters’ heads or feet touching the frame, the horizon lining up with the edges of other objects, and vertical lines– such as doorways and windows– lining up with other objects.

Since storyboards are usually read very quickly and sometimes sparsely rendered, we need to work hard to avoid tangents. It’s not always going to be possible, but some tangents are so overpowering, they really draw focus away from the story point, and thus confuse the viewer.

So, how do we avoid tangents?

Instead of having lines meet the edge of a character, use a thin, halo-like gap around the character to separate them from the background. Another way is to make sure you have enough room to draw– resize your image a little bit if you need to. And if you have to cut a figure off at the edge of the frame, try to do so in a spot that isn’t right at a joint (avoid ankles, knees, etc.).

Another tool for avoiding tangents is to overlap images. Sometimes, we’ll awkwardly fit our images in without overlapping. This makes it much more likely that the images in our scene are competing for room, butting up against each other, and creating even more tangents. Overlapping will help avoid tangents and, as a bonus, help us create depth. When composing a scene, it helps to not think of individual shapes, but rather groups of shapes making up the bulk of your foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds.

Simple is better

As a general rule of thumb, simple is better when it comes to storyboarding. Your end goal should always be to produce and present a clean, clear image, and every line you add is a step closer to an overworked image.

Storyboards aren’t meant to be fancy-- they’re meant to guide a handful of folks through the next stages of production, and not one among them will care about painstakingly drawn one-millimeter-by-three-millimeter bricks, with grit on them, in perfect perspective. That level of complexity is actually going to be harder for them to look at and judge against their needs, and harder for you to come to grips with scrapping if shots need to be reworked (and shots will need to be reworked).

The fact is, there’s no amount of style that can cover up shots that just don’t work.

Even if you’ve conveyed every story point perfectly, you’ll probably still have to board some shots again– and again, and maybe even again– because script changes happen, the director’s vision will always override all others, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so it’s best to get used to the concept of “disposable art” sooner rather than later.

Fewer lines thrown means more boards and less mess. 

Here’s a thing to try as an exercise if you’re unsure how much detail is too much detail: Grab a script and pick out a shot– any shot. Storyboard that shot twice– once super simplified, and once as detailed as you feel like going.

Aside from the level of detail, everything about the shot should be the same. Don’t change anything about your solutions to the story point.

Lay them out side by side. Be honest with yourself– does all the detail in the second one really help it read?

It could be the super simplified one is too far in the other direction, but you could probably add just a little bit more and finish the job.

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