Saturday, February 15, 2014

What Makes A Good Story Portfolio/Story Artist?

In the comments for my last post, J. Kelley asked in the comments if I could write about what makes a good story portfolio. I thought that was a good suggestion for a blog post, because people e-mail and ask me that from time to time.

As I wrote down some thoughts, the post got longer and longer (sorry about that) and suffered from a bit of "scope creep". It went from being about portfolios to encompassing a wider perspective about what (in my opinion) makes a good story artist. People also ask me about that topic from time to time, so maybe some of you are curious. I apologize if it's too much. I feel like the qualities I think are important might sound abstract and vague, so I felt like I should explain them as thoroughly as possible.

First, some disclaimers:

I am not representing the Disney company in any way in this post. If you want to get their official information about being a story artist and applying for a job as a story artist, they have a website here that is the best way to read about applying for a job and contacting the Disney company if you have any questions. What I am posting here about portfolio advice and the job of a story artist is entirely my opinion.

I also want to point out that I've never worked at Pixar, or DreamWorks, or Blue Sky or anywhere else. Please be aware that those studios have (I assume) completely different standards and expectations when it comes to story applicants. Also, the definition of the job "Story Artist" means something different at every studio.

Furthermore, it is worth setting context for this post by pointing out that most of my colleagues at work would say that I am way too hard on portfolios. I am the first to admit that I look for a lot in a portfolio and that is because--in my experience--for better or worse, there is not a lot of time for "on-the-job training" at Disney. Story is different from some departments in that there isn't a lot of ramping up or training within the department and there is very little in the way of group assignments. Story artists are given a chunk of the movie to board on their own and they need to be able to do that in a short amount of time without much help, guidance or supervision. In story, everyone needs to be able to deliver a sequence quickly that works at a certain basic professional level. It can be hard to tell who will be able to do that from a portfolio, but I look for certain things as clues to the abilities of the applicant. What follows are some key ingredients I look for in submissions (as well as things that I think make a good story artist):


This is extremely important. I can't over-emphasize how important clarity is, and yet I don't think people grasp how fundamental it is to the job successfully. Storyboarding is all about making sure that every story point is clear (without the crutch of dialogue or having the artist explain what's happening), and if you can't do that, nothing else matters. Once the viewer is confused, whatever comes after is lost on them. Period. Also, I don't think people realize how incredibly hard it is to be clear about what you're trying to say. It takes a tremendous amount of work and thought. I think most people don't put nearly as much effort as they should into this discipline.

The whole point of looking at a story portfolio is to see how that person handles the telling of a story. If I get confused at some point about what is happening in your boards and I can't tell what's going on, nothing that comes after that will register with me. I need to follow every step of the story to understand how the cause-and-effect of your story is unfolding. I need to know if the applicant understands how action and reaction work to progress a story. You may have great sketches at the end of your sequence that show your character crying and being upset, but if I don't understand why they feel that way, I don't know if you can tell a story. I only know that you can do nice drawings of a character crying.

So if you want to be a story artist, you need to put a lot of effort into learning to draw things clearly (this is difficult) and learning how to present ideas in a way that makes them crystal clear and idiot-proof to everyone who looks at them (this is also difficult). There is always the old advice to show your work to as many people as possible and see if they can understand it. That can be a great tool. If you do this, remember that you have to let people look at your work without the benefit of you standing there and explaining it to them. Because that's how we will be looking at your portfolio….you won't be here to explain what you were thinking. It has to be clear to us from the images alone.

The other way to get perspective on your work and see if it's clear is to simply take a break and come back to it. I frequently look at my work in the morning and see problems that I couldn't see the night before. Distance will allow you to have a fresh perspective on things.

One crutch that people try to use to make their ideas more clear is that they start adding dialogue to clarify what's happening. That's not a good way to fix clarity problems. In storyboarding, it is always our goal to try to tell the story with the visuals alone so that the audience would understand what is happening even if they watched the movie with the sound turned off. This is because visuals are more powerful than dialogue and can convey the story much more powerfully than lines of speech can. We know people (and characters) can lie to us, so we don't always trust dialogue. We trust what we see with our own eyes. So visuals always have more power. Because of that, we look for story artists that can tell a great story without any dialogue. That said, a little bit of dialogue is okay. Sometimes you need it to help tell the story in the best way. Just don't rely on it to cover over confusing parts.

Look at other artists you like--especially ones that tell stories in their work--and examine what they've done to achieve clarity. Look at films you love and ask yourself how they achieve clarity, and if there are confusing parts, what makes them confusing? How could they be clearer?

A couple of hints I can give you to help with improving the clarity of your work: number one, only present one idea at a time. Only one idea can be communicated per story sketch. Often, people will try to present two (or three) ideas at the same time. This always leads to confusion. Change one idea per sketch to help the viewer follow along and get each new piece of information in a clear, digestible manner to minimize confusion and misinterpretation.

When story sketches are cut together in story reel form, each sketch is typically onscreen for a couple of seconds. In action sequences, each sketch may be onscreen for less than a second. So it's important to present one idea at a time (as well as draw clearly) so the audience can grasp what is happening in each sketch.

Here is an example:

In the first sketch, a man in a kitchen drops dishes as he carries them.

In the second sketch, a cook tastes soup in a kitchen.

In the third sketch, both ideas are presented at once.

I made these examples for use in a talk on storyboarding, and during the talk I show each sketch for about two seconds (with a frame of black in between). It may not be as clear here in blog form, where you can stare at the image for as long as you want, but hopefully you can still see my point. Two ideas presented at the same time create confusion because the viewer may register one but not the other. Also, everything in a film is about action and reaction. If action and reaction are happening at the same time (or two actions, or two reactions), it creates a confusing narrative. The order of events is unclear.

The other tip I would say to help with clarity is to draw as simply as possible (while retaining enough detail to convey the acting, emotions and required subtlety of the scene, of course). Avoid unnecessary or extraneous detail. Everything in a story sketch should contribute to the story point of the sketch. Anything that's there for the sole purpose of making the drawing prettier may add confusion. And we look for people who are able to draw their ideas up quickly and efficiently. Story artists have to work fast. Adding a lot of extra detail and/or color to a drawing always makes me suspicious that the artist didn't understand what the point of the sketch was, or might have trouble working quickly and roughly when deadlines are tight.

What would you add to these sketches to make them more clear? Adding anything to them would only hamper their clarity and unity of message.

Deciding what to leave in and what to remove from a sketch is an art in and of itself. Obviously, if the point of a sketch is that a woman is admiring a very expensive dress in a store window, I might take the time to draw the dress in a way that makes it look fancy and ornate, because that helps sell the story point I'm trying to make. But if the story I'm trying to tell is that a woman is pretending to admire a dress in a store window so that she can spy on her husband across the street, I'm not going to put time and effort into making the dresses look ornate. That would be distracting and confusing from what's really happening in the scene. So a big part of being a great story artist is knowing what to include in a sketch…and what to leave out.

I have always been a big fan of Quentin Blake's work because I feel that he has a great sense of how many lines it takes to say what he's trying to say. He doesn't embellish with unnecessary frills and flourishes.

I have met a few people who find his work too simplistic and plain for their tastes. The thing I admire about his work (other than the obvious energy and life it has) is that I think it takes a lot of experience and sophistication to know just how much you can leave out and still communicate. Animation is best when it is clear, direct and forceful without unnecessary nuance and baggage.

If you look at Bill Peet's Disney storyboards, his early work shows a level of detail and rendering that is completely absent in his later work.

If you go here, you can see Michael Sporn's post with some of Bill's work from Dumbo, which was released in 1941. I've seen more than is shown there, and it all has a high level of rendering that characterizes Bill's early work.

By the 1960's Bill's work is much more efficient and streamlined. Obviously, storyboarding is about getting the idea up and trying it out quickly. So working faster and getting it up sooner is a big help. Also, decades of having to redo and redo your sketches as the story changes and improves will convince you to draw simply, if nothing else does. It's not worth putting a ton of work into each sketch if it might get replaced by a better idea tomorrow.

 Even when he does render things, it's about selling the environment and still feels much more dashed off than his careful Dumbo work.

One last important point: a drawing doesn't have to be clean to be clear. A rough drawing that communicates is much, much better than a cleaned up drawing that is confusing.

So those are some thoughts on trying to explain what I mean by clarity. The bottom line is that your drawings and ideas must communicate clearly to viewers and you must be able to tell a story without confusing or losing the viewer.

Character and Personality

Storyboarding has changed and evolved over the years. Storyboard artists are now expected to put more information into their boards than ever before. In particular, story artists are expected to deliver boards that contain specific expressions and poses for every character in every scene. At Disney, nobody is expected to draw the characters exactly on model (we don't even have designs yet when we start boarding anyway), but the poses, expressions and acting for each character is expected to be clear and readable, as well as the right kind of acting for the character in that particular moment. We are trying to develop the characters and explore their personalities. So we need to be as specific as we can be about who they are, how they act and how they think.

Some people don't really see the point of this. Sometimes people say that--if a story was really working--you could simply block in stick figures and still have a good version of the story reels.

I understand where this type of statement comes from. Sometimes directors want extremely subtle nuances in storyboard acting and they can expect so many poses that it no longer seems like story boarding…it's more like animating. That's frustrating and causes board artists to question why we're putting so much work and polish into the boards when the audience will never see them.

But at the other end of the extreme, I would say that stick figures wouldn't suffice to tell any story, no matter how "good" the story was. Stick figures don't really convey personality and don't do well at conveying expressions and acting. And it's very important to get a sense of who the characters are, what they're feeling and thinking, and why they're doing what they're doing. It's hard to get into a stick figure's "head". And those things are important. After all, what the characters are thinking and feeling are the things that drive the story forward and make the viewer care about the events that are happening on screen.

In other words, to say that stick figures are sufficient to storyboard a movie is to suggest that the characters are of minimal importance within a story. That a story is merely events that happen, and who or what is affected by these events is not of consequence. But in my opinion that's fundamentally wrong…it's impossible to separate the characters from the story. Story and character are the same thing. The events of the story happen because the characters make them happen by their decisions and the actions they take. And they make their decisions and take actions based on the events that unfold as the story progresses.

So I would say that stick figures are not sufficient for storyboards because they wouldn't give you insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling, which is of vital importance to making the audience care and feel emotion. At the same time, I agree with people who say that you don't need to get super specific and belabor subtle expression changes in story boards. When you focus too much on details in storyboarding, you tend to lose sight of the shape of the overall story. And feature storyboarding is all about finding the shape of the overall story. Animation is the place for nuancing subtle expression changes….once the story and characters are figured out.

So with all that in mind, when I look at story portfolios I look for people who can draw characters in a way that expresses personality and character. I look for people who draw poses and expressions that are appropriate for each character and give me some sense of who they are. I don't like it when people draw the same "stock"poses for everything….when every character has the same walk pose, or if every character has the same cliched pose to convey that they're "thinking", or if every character has the exact same expression when they get angry…that's a sign to me that the artist doesn't really think deeply about character. They're just using the same poses for everything and not pushing themselves to find distinct expressions and poses that are unique to that character and to what is happening to them in the moment.

By way of example, "anger", in particular, is an expression that people tend to draw a stock version of on every character. But every character has a different level of anger that they can reach….someone like Cruella deVil has a much deeper level of anger than say, Rapunzel does. And they're going to express their anger in vastly different ways. And how often is a character really "angry"? That's a broad term that doesn't imply specifics. Rather than drawing a character that's "angry", ask yourself: what is the specific thing they're reacting to, and what is the response this character would have? Are they irritated in this moment? Or livid…or infuriated….or ready to cry in frustration…or in a murderous rage…or whatever. Know exactly what your character is thinking, and push yourself to find the best pose and acting that fits the specifics of their inner feelings. And don't use the same acting twice, even for the same character! Always find a fresh take for the acting of each moment, a new angle on the character that makes them feel alive and real (to both the audience, and you, as you try to learn who they are and get inside their heads). Which sort of leads to a bit of a sidebar…the subject of portfolios that contain:

TV Boards

It is very hard for me to look at boards from an animated television show and judge whether the applicant can be a successful board artist at Disney. I know that probably seems unfair and unreasonable. But the problem is that--when you're working on a TV show--the character designs are dictated by the show, the character's personalities are defined by the show, and the script pages have contributed a lot to the content of the storyboards.

Now, I boarded for TV myself and I know it's not easy. I'm not saying it's easy at all. It's extremely tough and demanding work. But when I look at boards from a TV show, I don't know how much the board artist contributed in terms of developing the characters. They may be copying poses right off a model sheet. The little character touches that make the boards shine might have been put there by the board artist…or they might have come from the script pages. It's really hard for me to get a sense of how the board artist thinks and what their taste and sense of entertainment are, because in TV so much of that is set by people other than the board artist.

An even bigger problem is that I can't tell what the applicant's drawing style is. Because TV boards have to be done in the style of the show, I don't know if the artist can draw in a way that will work at Disney. That's not to say that there's a strict house style that you're forced to draw in at Disney…far from it. Story artists are totally free to draw in their own personal style. But at the same time, when we look at a screening of the storyboards cut together, we want it to feel like one whole story with all the characters as consistent as possible throughout…not a bunch of unrelated mini-movies cut together. If the drawing style of the boards switches radically between each sequence, it can be jarring. So some sort of communal style is helpful. Too many disparate styles is distracting and takes our focus away from the main point of story reels: to figure out if there's a movie in there, and how to move forward and make it better.

Also, a big part of story reels is to convey the tone of the finished film. So a drawing style that gives a reasonable approximation of what the look and tone of the final film will be is helpful. It just gives everybody a better sense of what the finished product will look and feel like, which is a big component of our job. Speaking of which...


I think that it's very important for Story Artists to have a drawing style that is appealing (that is, pleasing to look at). Again, this is one of my more controversial opinions. Not all of my co-workers agree that appeal is an important requirement for story artists. After all, as I pointed out, nobody outside of the studio will ever see the storyboards. They're just a tool, a blueprint of the movie. Who cares if the story sketches are appealing?

Years ago I would've agreed with that sentiment. But over the years I've noticed what a difference that appeal can make in story sketch. After all, the way story sketch is viewed is that we edit all the black and white story sketches together and record our own voices as temporary dialogue to represent the whole film. So we end up watching 90 minutes of story sketches without the benefit of (real) actors, color, or the movement and life that animation will (eventually) bring to the film. It can be tedious. And if you add unappealing drawings to look at on top of that….it can affect the way you feel about the story and you may end up finding problems where--if the sketches were just a bit more appealing--you wouldn't see the same problems.

That probably sounds crazy. I understand that. If the story is solid and working….who cares if the sketches are appealing or not? Well, part of it is just human nature. People like looking at things that are easier to look at. And when story sketches are easier to look at, it just makes the experience of watching them more palatable and enjoyable. It draws you in and encourages you to keep watching and follow the story and characters. And you can focus on the story and what works and what doesn't, instead of being distracted by clunky drawings that are unpleasant to look at.

It's just like software. You can write a great, useful program that works well but has an ugly interface. And people will use it….but they will have a better experience using the program if it has an attractive interface. That's just the way humans are wired. And you can rail against it and complain about how unfair it is…or you can put work into making your drawings more appealing.

And again, appealing drawings have the advantage of giving viewers a better sense of what the finished product will look and feel like, which is important. The closer story sketch can replicate what the finished product will look like (within reason, of course), the more everyone will get a sense of what's working and what isn't. When people discuss the film and talk about how to make it better, they all have one clear impression of what the film is going to be. They aren't all having to make judgements about how the story reels will be changed as they're translated into the finished film. This helps everyone talk about the film and get quickly on the same page about what works and what doesn't. There aren't huge gaps in the understanding of what everyone is looking at.

So I look for applicants with a certain amount of appeal in their drawing. It doesn't have to be Mary Blair, but if you like to draw like Robert Crumb (and there's nothing wrong with that) I might feel like you're not the best fit for the job.

Staging, Blocking and Storytelling

I've dedicated a lot of space to talking about characters and acting and posing and how they relate to story sketch. The other big component of story sketch, of course, is that the story artist has to have a knowledge of film making. A story artist has to know how cutting and editing works, and have a good understanding of how to use staging (where the camera is placed to best tell the story) and how to use blocking (how the characters move through the scene) to tell the story in the most powerful way possible.

I've written many posts on cutting, staging and blocking if you want to get my thoughts on those things (simply type "cutting", "staging" or "blocking" into the search bar at the top of the site to find them). There are some good books that talk about these things as well. And, of course, there's no better education than looking at movies and asking yourself why the director placed the camera where he placed it and why the actors are doing what they're doing within the scene. Does it work? Does it not work? Could it be better?

I really look for Story applicants that aren't afraid to move the camera and pick interesting angles--not just for the sake of interesting angles--but to tell the story in the best way and make the viewer feel what the story artist wants them to feel and to enhance the telling of the story.

This is another new wrinkle that has become the job of story artists in recent times. For many years, story artists at Disney would concern themselves more with presenting ideas in a clear way than with picking specific camera angles. As camera work has gotten more sophisticated, and production schedules more compressed, it's become more important (and expected) for story artists to make decisions about layout and where the camera ought to be placed. The layout department will still interpret the work as they see fit and they will change and improve the staging to better tell the story, but if the story artist has made choices about the best place to put the camera, it gives the director a better tool to discuss when he or she issues the scene to layout. And again, it'll give everyone a better idea of how the scene is working when they look at the film in story sketch form.


I look for Story Artists that are able to get a sense of entertainment into their work. At the end of the day, every moment in a film should be entertaining. That doesn't mean every moment has to be funny. Dramatic moments should be compelling. Action sequences should be exciting. Sad moments should feel genuine and real and not cloying and manipulative. So I always look for people who know how to present each idea in a way that's interesting and draws me into the story and characters. It doesn't matter how great the idea of a scene is if it's not executed in an entertaining way. I've been doing boards for a long time, and on every movie scenes get boarded and re-boarded and re-boarded. There are always certain scenes that just aren't working until the right person re boards them with their own personal "take"…and suddenly the scene works for the first time. It's all about taste and knowing what each scene needs to work just right. I can't articulate it any better than that…more than anything, it's about having good taste and good instincts.

So I look for portfolios that have a good sense of entertainment. Whether the portfolio contains storyboards of a dramatic scene, an action scene, or a comedy scene, I look to see if they've been handled in a compelling and interesting way.

As far as life drawings and animal sketches go, I don't personally look at those things when I'm viewing a portfolio. I really go right to the boards….being able to draw great animals doesn't really tell me if you know how to storyboard. But that may be important to other people, and I think many studios still set a requirement that portfolios have to have these things, however….so check the requirements of whatever studio you're submitting to.

Another valuable resource to look at is any of the recent "Art Of" books from any Disney film. They should give a good idea of what we look for in storyboards.

I hope this has been helpful to anyone who's ever wondered what qualities make a good story portfolio (in my opinion, anyway) and what qualities a good story artist needs to have. Let me know if you have any questions or want any further clarification.


Madeleine F. said...

First, thanks for the post. I really appreciate the hard work that goes into writing and organizing all your posts, including this one.

Second, though I fell in love with animation at a young age and was considering story art as a career, I have somehow ended up making comics instead (and that only as a hobby). What does this have to do with your post?
Well, for a long time, I have known that comics and storyboards are two very different animals. In comics, I often see people who I can tell are thinking in a storyboard-like fashion, and it doesn't work very well. I've thought a lot about it, but your post really clarified to me WHY it doesn't work well. In the section where you talk about drawing one idea at a time, I looked at the third picture--the one with the two actions both "on-screen"--and I said, "OH! That one is a comic!"
That really clear example helped me realize what it is about storyboards and comics that is so different:

STORYBOARDS should only do one action at a time (sometimes even breaking apart actions).

COMICS should almost always have MORE THAN ONE action in each panel, but it should add up to a whole idea.

I think this is because there is no "timer" on a panel of a comic, whereas in storyboards (as you said) each drawing may only be on screen for a few seconds.

Anyway, thanks again. That was really cool to see and realize.

Michael Yates said...

Great post! Really appreciate all the information you share.

Joon Kim said...

Thank you very much for this.

Dirk van Dulmen said...

Thank you for sharing Mark.

Nikhita P. said...

Hi Mark,
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, insights and advice. I really appreciate it. This is a lot to take in, but it feels good to know what's in the list to achieve.

I also wanted to know, does it make sense to put maybe comics or situational drawings from one's sketchbook? They're also sequential art, and have similar aspects of storytelling as storyboarding - they convey a scene.

Thanks again. :)

Nicholas Felice said...

Thank you. This post has been very insightful.

Richard said...

Great Post! There's so many varying things to cover when describing the attributes of a story artist and you've eloquently done that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Megan said...

Another solid page to add to many, many bookmarked entries! I always learn from reading your blog.

Marisa said...

This is my favorite blog ever.

J. Kelley said...

Mark you're seriously the best and I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you one day. Thanks for all of your hard work.

-Jake Kelley

Simon Thelning said...

This was very timely (it's internship application season) and extremely helpful. Thanks a lot!

adreamer49 said...

Wonderful insight. This is some extremely valuable information. Thanks for taking the time to share some of your experience.

Thomas Campi said...

Interesting and illuminating insight.
Can I ask you one question? Do you think that a good comic artist could be a good story artist?

mark kennedy said...

Hey everyone! Thanks for leaving comments. I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks, J. Kelley, for asking the question in the first place.

Nikhita--definitely. Any kind of visual storytelling is helpful to see.

Thomas--absolutely. The two areas are very similar.

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