I’ve long proposed a concept for small-scale cinematic storytelling – one that could become a valuable studio pre-production tool, but might also grow into a medium in its own right, liberating small, writer-led teams to create vivid dramas, whether as first drafts or as final works of popular art. The concept is full-length, animated storyboarding.
For more than a century, the initial element in cinema has been the screenplay, generally around 120 pages for a ninety minute film. While offering detailed dialogue and some scene description, scripts remain sketchy about many other aspects. Moreover, screenplays (and their writers) are treated with little respect – as the most disposable or replaceable components of an expensive process.
In coming years the screenplay, as such, may become obsolete, both to sell an idea for filming and as a working production tool. Instead, a small team consisting of the writer, a computer-animator, a photographic specialist, a musical specialist and some voice actors might team up before hitting the studios with a pitch. Using animatics and integration technologies that already exist, such a team might create a complete 90 minute cinematic story wherein animated characters act and speak upon sets that are computer-merged from still-photos or video pans.
While (generally) too crude to display to the public as-such, these animated storyboards would nevertheless be much closer to realization than a mere 120 page bundle of paper sheets. For example, they would include simple musical background, sound effects, etc. These full-length drafts might be screened before live or online audiences, swiftly testing alternative plot-twists and endings. They would decisively bridge the gap between writer and finished product. (I have ideas how it could be implemented, in unexpected ways.)
Here’s one nifty aspect: producers would take to such storyboarding, and view it as a producer’s tool. Directors would see it as a useful director’s tool. But the main beneficiaries would be writers – originators of the core elements, ideas, dialogue, characters and dramatic tension — as they would rise 5 levels of execution closer to final product before relinquishing control.
If producers say “this looks promising, but we’ll want to make changes,” the creative team can say “We’ll be back on Monday with three new versions we can test before focus groups.” All of which can happen before any contracts are signed… leaving the creators in a strong position.
Now, crude or partial versions of this notion have been around. Amazon Storyteller let you upload a story/script and produce a customizable storyboard. And there’s ToonBoom and Crazy Talk Animator, as well as several others listed below. But none of them has been truly liberating.
A true animated Storyboard (AS) would flow smoothly, have music, and use real actors’ voices behind stick-figure (or rendered avatar) characters. The animation itself would not have to be lavish, just good enough to vividly portray the story and action. In fact, much of the movement can be computer interpolated between artist sketches, almost seamless to the eye.
Think of an animated script… with some scenes rendered more vividly to show off possible special effects. This could then be shopped around to directors & studios, saying “let’s make a deal based on this, and not arm-waved descriptions.”
One sub-variety – even more economical than the version described here — is the narrated storyboard, as illustrated by the famous Chris Marker film “La Jetee” (later remade as “Twelve Monkeys”) and more recently as “The Life of a Dog” by John Harden. (Both of them are in French, interestingly. A fertile technique, it has been under-utilized by indie film-makers and could easily be transformed into the full-voiceover version I propose here.)
Another cool aspect — the animated storyboard is a product in itself! Time and again it has been shown that people can accept and identify with very crude and even cartoonish representations, so long as the drama, pace, music, dialogue and voices are first rate. Even talking and moving stick figures (or a little better) can draw empathy and tears from an audience. Such full, feature-length renderings of a story might draw a following online, if the sequence of words-action-emotions and music are well done. And if that online following is all the story gets, at first? Well, fine, there are monetization methods… and there would soon be awards.
Moreover, if an AS feature gains a cult following online, that might lead to interest from producers, later on, giving the story a second chance.
Ideally, we’re envisioning a product that enables a writer and a few specialists, plus several voice actors, to interact under the leadership of a “director” knowledgeable in the program itself. A team of half a dozen could make a 90 minute feature, crude, but with incredible swiftness and agility, sometimes achieving drama better than many products coming out of studios today.
Now some news. While bits and pieces of this concept have been around for years, I can report on one company whose package appears to bring many of them together, at a level where small teams might actually accomplish something of value. The ToonBoom package is intended for professional storyboard artists. It’s more about making studio artists more productive (which is where the money is), but spec writers and their partners might soon use this – or similar – products to create an art form as influential as (but far better than) anything shown on any YouTube channel.
And hear and feel.
* David Brin is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author. His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence. A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His 16 novels, including NY Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages. Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. David appears frequently on shows such as Nova and The Universe and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. His non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. (Website: http://www.davidbrin.com/ )
Animation software examples:
Crazy Talk Animator Demo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_WLdBCns-s
Anime Studio Pro: http://store.smithmicro.com/productDetails.aspx?pid=19282
Amazon Storyteller (no longer functioning): http://studios.amazon.com/storyteller
Studiobinder Templates: https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/top-10-storyboard-software-of-2016-free-storyboard-templates/
TyranoBuilder: Visual Novel Studio http://tyranobuilder.com/
Nevigo Game Design: https://www.nevigo.com/en/articydraft/overview/