“Eliminate the superfluous”
One of my all time favorite comic artists and animators is Alex Toth.
If you aren’t familiar with the master, he did a large volume of work for Hanna Barbera in the 60’s all the way to the 80’s including Space Ghost and Super Friends.
His comic book work stretches back even further to the 40’s (I believe) with Zorro, and a number of other pulp heroes.
So why am I singling out this one particular (superb) artist? Well, in all the time I’ve studied his work, there has always been one, very clear statement that he makes about drawing:
“Eliminate the superfluous”
It’s a beautiful, simple statement, just like his work. A quick web search popped that up as his first rule and many of his subsequent rules follow the same line of simplification. You can find a list of them here:
Some people would argue that you need to be more detailed or have more world elements in a story to be a successful storyteller. That’s great if you want to work once a year, but real people need to get paid! Back in Toth’s day, they cranked out comic pages that weren’t as detailed as today’s art, but none the less powerful, imaginative or clear. Equally, his animation work was also executed for quantity and quality.
So how did he do it?
Looking at examples of his art, he has large simple shapes that do triple duty of defining edges, creating interesting shapes and leading the viewer.
Even his Design sheets were laid out like a full blown illustration! Igoo, from Hanna Barbera’s The Herculoids, is a perfect example of Toth’s genius. This is arguably as simple as you can make a character but the design still withstands the test of time. It’s simple, yet has a lot of positive things going for it, a strong silhouette, simple to draw quickly, clear signs of the actual physical composition of the character and very graphic.
So, taking what I’ve learned from Toth and applying it here to our lesson:
We are storytellers and designers. We have a very specific goal in mind to lead the viewers. And do you know what you need to get your point across and accomplish your goal?
Same with the art.
You may want to draw the heck out of a certain back ground object that looks cool, but ask yourself if it’s important to the story.
Treat your storyboards more like traffic signs that are meant to be read in the blink of an eye and less like the Sistine Chapel.
Just like the first pass at a script, take your character designs and boil them down to their essence. Make as few drawing lines as possible while making them recognizable. Work on a clear and unique silhouette of the character. Try to do a quick study of the character, filling a page with the same character over and over. Do a page of just facial expressions. Really break the character down and get used to them. Once you do that, you can really crank out some boards with a wide range of emotions and poses.
Do that, and you’ve “eliminated the superfluous” in your characters.
We usually have an establishing shot at the beginning that defines the setting. These shots are usually a bit more rendered out than the rest of the backgrounds on the page or scene. It helps to establish the world we are telling our story in and invite the viewer in. Having that establishing shot being a little more rendered, helps to keep the rest of the scene fairly simple.
Just like your character, boil your scene down to it’s essence, or most important aspects. What do we need to tell this story? Is that fancy vase in the back of the living room important? Does it help to establish the character’s wealth, is it an ancient family heirloom, does it get smashed on a burglar’s head? If the answer to all of these is no and it lacks any other important plot point, maybe you shouldn’t worry about rendering it like a master still life painter!
You should figure out what’s important to tell the story and include that. Look at that page of Zorro art by Toth, there are maybe 4 or 5 total background elements in the entire page, but you never feel lost as to where we are in the story.
As an exercise, try to create a space that is well grounded and as simple as possible. Pick a place and then create a list of elements that define that place, I’ll use a gym as an example.
In a gym you find:
- Yoga mats
- People working out
With this in mind, now get to work on dressing your scene. Do the bare minimum to define your space. See how little detail and clues you need to get that space across to the viewer.
Do that and you’ve “eliminated the superfluous” in your backgrounds.
So we’ve got characters and backgrounds simplified, what does that leave?
For me, I would argue lighting, or value.
It can be just as important or critical to a story for many reasons. You don’t need to triple light a scene or get a complete value range of 1-10! If anything, maybe you could get away with having three to four main values. Like 1, 4, 6,10 or 1, 5 and 10. Keep it simple. Use the light to separate fore, middle and backgrounds.
If you want to render something and make it look amazing, that’s great, but maybe save that for some other project, not storyboards. Speed really is important. It’s right under clarity.
Now go try some of those exercises I mentioned!
PS. Do you have any drawing simplification tips? Don’t just hoard it, share it with the rest of us and leave a comment below!