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Principles of Process

Telling the Story

The story reveals the motivations, feelings, and actions of the characters in the scenes you will animate. Before any final art creation happens, you must understand the fantasy world you are about to reveal visually. Many CGI artists have also become fantastic storytellers in their own right and understand the fundamental importance of the story to the visual creation process.

It is important to note that story and previsualization development are usually concurrent activities—both feeding and supporting the creative process of the other.

The Back-Story

The back-story is a history of what came before the scene you are creating. It is used to develop the rules and logic of the world you're revealing to the audience. It establishes the environment and physical nature of the world and its inhabitants, revealing their relationships and interactions. The audience might never see a lot of the back-story, but it exists in everything they see on the screen. Sometimes we call the back-story, the inspirational art, storyboards, and preproduction art: the Bible. It's the book that contains the entire world we are trying to create.


Storyboards are a series of drawings that show the lighting, action, movement, sound, and effects intended for a specific scene. These boards become the basis for creation of the scene and guide you in your work.

In addition to telling the story, storyboards also give the CGI artist direction on animation, special effects, camera movement, actor placement, and so forth. In Figure 3.3 you can see some examples of a storyboard created for a video game based on the adventures of the Boy-King Tut. The style is graphic and simple and gets the story across.

Figure 3.3 Storyboards should be simple graphic images that tell the story while communicating the atmosphere and emotion of a scene.


When you create storyboards, it might help to think of them as comic books, revealing the action, atmosphere, and drama of the story in the simplest way possible. Using the graphic imagery of comic books as inspiration will go a long way toward refining your storyboard abilities.

In Figure 3.4 you can see a comparison of some storyboards and their final CG images done for a video to promote an animated TV series. This is a more formal storyboard and is typical of the boards created for such a project. The animation director of the project, David Molina, created these boards to guide the work of five different artists, including me. The imagery from the final video is a very close match for the storyboard. Without these boards, the project would not have been completed successfully.

The power of storytelling is in the words used to evoke imagery in the mind of the reader. Storyboards are a bridge between the writer and the visual artist. The end goal is to give visual form to the feeling the writer is trying to create with words. Choosing the right words to reveal the soul of a story is at the core of a writer's creative process. Choosing the right imagery to bring those words to life is the core task of an Art Director. This is the development of visual language.

Figure 3.4 Telling the story is a critical part of the process. Don't begin any CG animation production until you have a solid story and complete storyboard to guide you as you create your images in MAX.

Animatic/Leica Reel

An important part of the previsualization process is to create an Animatic, also known as a Leica Reel, for the individual shots and scenes of a production. The animatic is created by first scanning in the images of the storyboard. Then, a composition tool such as Adobe Premiere is used to put the scanned images in order, timing each image to approximate the timing desired for the production shot. By adding temporary sound and dialog tracks to the images the directors and producers can see an entire production in rough form, allowing them to make inexpensive adjustments to point of view, scene length, and so on.

The coolest thing about an animatic is that it lives through the entire production process, constantly being updated with preproduction and production imagery and sound as it becomes available. For example, an animatic seen in the middle of a production might have storyboard stills mixed in with rough wireframe animation and finished rendered shots. This creates an indispensable tool for development and enables the directors and producers to see the progress of an entire production from beginning to end.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020