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“Call of Duty: Ghosts” Cinematic Storyboards – Part 4

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This sequence was the load movie for the final mission of the video game- the big showdown, the final push of the forces of good versus the forces of evil.  D-Day.  Armageddon.  All in.  The plan?  Knock out the satellite defenses in orbit which will allow the tank forces to breach the command control center and commit an all-out assault on the enemy position.


On the left are my original boards, and on the right are the screenshots from the final movie.  They diverge a bit in the middle- there was a lot of concern from the producers about the production schedule and while we had to make sure this movie carried a lot of visual impact, we had to be realistic about the time it would take to produce it, and so we streamlined some of the visuals in order to ensure the delivery date.  Still, I was really proud of my boards on this one.

These frames feature a lot of cool motion blur effects- something I wanted to incorporate to really sell the realistic action of the speed and force of the tanks crashing into the rocky ground and rocketing toward their target.  I’m a big fan of the Starcraft and Command and Conquer games, and I drew a lot of influence from the load movies that accompanied those mission levels.

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Another cool thing I did on these board in particular is that I used Google Sketchup to find and view free 3D models of space shuttles and tanks and airplanes.  This is a really useful strategy when you need to get a really dynamic angle on a vehicle or building, because even though there’s lots of photos to reference online, many of them are not from the proper viewing perspective and therefore they have a flattened sense of spacial distortion.  So I used this technique to find drawing angles of what it might look like if a tank came hurtling out of the sky and landed on top of you.  Good times.

So that’s it for the “Call of Duty: Ghosts” posts.  I worked on a few other sequences but I wanna start talking about other stuff, so next year we’ll look at more boards and I’ll continue to share some tips and techniques I find helpful.  Have a great new year!

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Time for a little Storyboarding Q&A!

Recently, I received some questions from a young up-and-comer in the industry, asking for some specifics on how I got started and looking for tips on getting noticed by clients.  Instead of just replying directly, I’ve decided to share the responses in a fresh new post here, so that others may benefit from my blabbermouthing and self-aggrandizing.

The Q’s in bold, with the A’s following:

1. How did you get so good? Having the ability to draw is one thing, but learning the art of Sequential storytelling is a skill not easily learned. I know you had a huge advantage with your parents and all but jees’.

Not to discount the wonderful influence of my parents, but almost everything I’ve learned about storyboarding was through real work experience, via freelancing, not on account of any of my parents’ connections.  My parents work in animation, whereas I’m a commercial storyboard artist, which requires a far more versatile skill set, if I may be so bold as to say so.

Consider that an animation storyboard artist that works for a month on say, the Simpsons, draws only what is within the Simpsons universe, which was created by designers and layout artists before him.  Day in, day out, drawing the Simpsons, and that’s it.  A commercial artist, in the same amount of time, may work on as many as 10 or more commercials, and must start from scratch each time; each commercial advertising a completely different product, which new sets, characters, and actions.  New clients, new directors, new producers, new writers.  One day you’re drawing car chases, the next it’s toy dolls, the next its cereal, the next it’s lottery tickets.  Sometimes you don’t even get a script.  Sometimes you don’t even get a desk.

You will get, however, a ticking clock.  Typical turnaround on a :30 commercial is 8 hours.  8 hours to final completion, meaning you have to have about 21 frames of good black and white artwork ready in 6 hours, leaving two hours in reserve for final tweaks and revisions.  And it has to be done on time- doesn’t matter if you’re sick, tired, or broken.  Perhaps you can see how this kind of work can produce a lot of anxiety- and let me ask you this- how well do you draw when you’re anxious?

Even the best artists will break under this immense pressure- happens every day.  Under these extreme conditions, wheat is separated from chaff and only the best remain.  Rough edges are worn smooth and streamlined, and in no time, you’re drawing really well, really quickly, and making money in an exciting industry.

I’m good because I survived- the work molded me this way, to be extremely versatile and fast.

And to bring the point home:  Truly great sequential storytelling is a byproduct of being an extremely versatile and fast artist.  You have to be able to see the story from all possible angles and be able to draw them, any and all of them, quickly, accurately, and with a sense of focus to the design.  From the millions of variations, you distill them down to only what is necessary, and right, to tell the story.  That’s it.

2. When did you know you were ready to take on real professional work? I mean that is a BIG and SCARY move, quitting your job and going the freelance route.

I touch on this in my Bio, but I left out a little bit as well.  So to fill in, I quit my computer repair job (I was repairing Macs out of high school and making very little money), and took the money I saved and enrolled in a master painting and drawing course at the now-defunct Associates In Art school.  I was, at 21, one of the younger students there, and had proved myself very talented and advanced for my age.  “Have you ever worked in the industry?” my teacher asked one day.  “No,” I replied.  “Well, you should,” he said.

That was good enough for me.  I made a portfolio (not a great one, but a decent one) and ran around town dropping it off at every studio I could.  Never hear back from anyone- except that “I could come in and pick up my portfolio now.”  Undaunted, I made a rinky-dink website, and started advertising on craigslist, as a freelance artist for hire, pretty much willing to draw anything for a check.  Logos, storyboards, t-shirts, and some other really god-awful stuff.  Really small, semi-professional gigs, most of which paid about $100-200.  But these were honest, humble beginnings, and I’m really grateful that I capitalized on being a craigslist artist instead of holding out for interning for a studio position and advancing from there.  Instead of being an employee, I was a small business owner, fully accountable for my own success or failure.  And it taught me to “hustle”- no job was permanent- so every day is game day.  Win or go home.  I wouldn’t have learned these invaluable lessons in a studio environment.

But, craigslist is craigslist, and I knew I could do better.  In 2007, I began submitting to illustration agencies- 29 of them, in fact, in a single evening.  Cast a wide net, you know?  Just to make it an even 30, I submitted to one final website, and went to bed.  The next morning, not a single agency bit, except for the last one, Frameworks, the storyboarding agency which now represents me.

I remember my first conversation with them. “Well Max, your work isn’t very good, but there’s some potential, and you work digitally- that’s something a lot of clients are looking for.  We’ll see if we can send something your way.”  That’s how it started.

3. Any tips on preparing my portfolio? or getting started? what do clients look for?

Absolutely the best thing I can recommend is you make a website or online portfolio (NOT deviantART) and make it inviting.  Don’t overload it to the point if breaking- clients will click away from a website that loads slowly.  Show a bit of range.  Keep things simple- you want to make it clear that you can deliver on time and not get too caught up.   Include a list of clients/references.  Write a small Bio and list your contact info.  Then keep everything updated.

As far as a physical portfolio, goes, well… I never had any luck with mine!  As mentioned above, I dropped it off at multiple studios and I’m pretty sure nobody ever even opened it.  Its sad really.  I watched as the receptionist tossed my portfolio onto a huge pile of others.  It’s not a great strategy, in these digital times, to put much stock in a physical portfolio.

Clients look for… recommendations, primarily.  If a client doesn’t know a good storyboard artist, they’ll call someone who might, be it a producer, director, or agent, looking for a recommendation.  You may know what you are doing, but no one is going to take your word for it.  So always do a good job, and your reputation begins to work for you.  Once a client finds a good artist they like, they’ll stick with that artist for a long time.  That said, most commercial storyboard artists are NOT that great, so if you have skill, you can squeeze them out.

Getting started, just be prepared to work for a cheaper rate than other more entrenched professionals- the only reason a client would take a risk on a newbie storyboard artist is if the price is right.  It’s really hard getting started, but once your career gains momentum, leads start coming in from all over.  And for me, getting representation was a huge factor in really “going pro.”  But it’s a catch 22 situation- you have to already be successful to gain that advantage.

In short, work hard and be patient!

Hope this helps.



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There’s a new player in town… introducing Shotbox

UPDATE 3/25/2015 – Sorry to pass along some news: has shut down, and so this post is basically moot.  Shotbox used an online subscription model, and had promising but limited applicabilities as far as producing presentation-style storyboards.  For their part, on their website at least, they say they don’t have the time or money to maintain the product. 

What went wrong?  Well, I’d just be speculating and can’t speak for them.  As I discuss in my original post, Shotbox was very promising and I was curious to see how it developed.  As it was, I found it useful as it was simple, intuitive, and had some neat features, like generating basic animatic movies and shared workflows.  But the only feature it had that I really cared about was the ability to easily swap boards and have them resequence automatically, and it lacked very important features that I would have needed to use it professionally: The ability to customize headers and fonts and other basic design details.  The online-only functionality was not convenient, it really seemed unnecessary other than to maintain subscribers and prevent piracy, I suppose, and in the end was a big deterrent for me.  I would have easily paid $25 – 50 for a standalone version, even without the requested features I listed above.  I would have even recommended it and I think that it could have eventually panned out for them.  Now they are gone, and we are left with the other bloated, restrictive, and expensive alternative, Toon Boom Storyboard Pro v.whatever.

Storyboarding is a weird field- there’s not a one-size fits all approach, and each artist and project is very different from the next- If you are interested in making a killer app for storyboarding, and I encourage you to try, PLEASE LISTEN:

  • Make it affordable, like under $80 for something full-featured, and not tethered to online sharing services or subscriptions.
  • Drawing tools need not be included!  You aren’t going to make a better drawing app than Photoshop or whatever else is already out there.  Just give it the ability to import image files of various formats and sizes.
  • You just need to be able to CUSTOMIZE (many options for numbering, text, fonts, titles, headers, logos, layouts, colors, sizes, etc) storyboard presentations and save those formats for future use.
  • The ability to quickly swap, delete, and add frames into a sequence and have it automatically renumbered and laid-out is KEY.  LIKE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.
  • For the love of god, make it MAC COMPATIBLE 🙂

Alright, well, that’s my spiel.  Geez, 10 years in the biz, and still not a decent, basic, storyboarding app.  Somebody, make this happen, and take my money too!!  Anyway, below, please find the original post.

Just a couple of weeks ago on this here bloggy thing I was griping about Toon Boom Storyboard Pro’s latest “update” and how it basically isn’t that impressive to me.  The drawing tools were still rather primitive and the export options just as unattractive as before.  All for the low, low price of $999. No thanks.  Let me be absolutely blunt:  TBSP is a poor drawing program grafted on a poor sequencing and layout application, from a strange and terrible futuristic “Soylent Green” type universe where strawberry jam costs $150.  I can’t wait for these guys to get toppled by some nimble upstart… you can guess where this is going 😉

Enter Shotbox, which I discovered recently via Twitter (Follow me: @max_forward).  Shotbox is a very easy to use storyboard sequencing and layout program that I encourage you to try out.  In the little time I’ve spent using it, it’s made a very big impression on me as a killer storyboarding app.  It’s currently in beta testing.

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To be clear, Shotbox does not include any drawing tools, or the ability to manipulate the images (i.e. zoom, crop, add arrows) once inside the app.  You have to draw and export your individual frames using a different program, like Photoshop.  I don’t mind that at all; in fact, I appreciate that the creators of Shotbox are instead focused on the challenges of storyboard layout, export, collaboration, revision, and distribution.

BTW- I don’t intend for this post to be an official review of Shotbox- I just want to highlight some points of interest and a few things to watch out for.  I may get some things wrong or they may be changed or worse by the time this is posted.  I encourage you to evaluate it for yourself.

To get the basics stated quickly:  Shotbox allows you to create a storyboard sequence and quickly and easily add images, descriptive text, notes, timing information, etc etc, basically everything you would want to see in a storyboard.  And of course, it allows to dynamically rearrange and renumber the sequence on the fly, meaning that revisions are painless.  So, it definitely does the basics and it does them very well, from what I can tell.


A quick peek at the interface

A quick peek at the interface

The PDF export options are beautiful, simple.  They are, in some ways, rather limited (for example, you cannot currently include a header logo, which is a problem for me), but the options they provide are well-designed and useful.  Final exports can be downloaded and edited in Adobe Illustrator (I haven’t tried this yet).

Also included is an optional video timeline, which is easy to use, where you can add an audio track (I haven’t tried this option) and export an animatic (I have tried this, and it works well).

Something Shotbox does that I’ve not seen elsewhere, is the ability to label (via color coding) the shots themselves, for whatever utility that might provide.  I can see potential in that, as a method of distinguishing Alternate Shots from the main sequence.

Also new to me in this app is the ability to save multiple draft versions and revisit earlier edits.  Personally, I never make mistakes, so I won’t need this function, but I could see it being of use to others… 🙂  In all seriousness, this is pretty cool.

Here’s the real game-changer: Shotbox is, as far as I can tell, a fully online application, meaning you access it via your web browser and the files are uploaded to their cloud servers.  This allows for ease-of-edit from multiple collaborators and streamlined method of distribution in multiple formats.  Directors and Producers can leave notes for the artist on individual frames, or make the edits themselves, in case the artist is doing some serious drinking and not to be disturbed.  I’ve not thoroughly tested these features, though.  And of course, not having an off-line version could be viewed as a downside in some scenarios.  But overall, these “cloud collaborative” features are a major plus and definitely the future of storyboarding.

Aside from adding the ability to insert logo headers on the pdf exports (an absolute requirement in commercial storyboarding, lacking in the beta version of Shotbox), which I’ve already written to them to suggest, a feature I’d love see included in the final build is a “Pitch Mode” option for export.  Let me explain what that might entail:  Right now, their export options, while beautifully designed (I like the font choices and overall balance to the page layouts), include with each frame information that is not helpful when pitching a board to a client.  And when I say client, I mean my client’s client, and by that I mean my director is pitching it to his client, an ad agency executive, who is not necessarily savvy when it comes to interpreting storyboards.  Anything beyond the frame number and frame description is potentially confusing to a client- and so Shotbox’s frame labeling (a small colored square) and frame timing information (a rather cryptic-looking format: 1s23f, 0s12f, 3s0f, etc) are potentially hazardous.  The pitch is a very tense period of decision on the part of the executive and they look for any excuse to reject a proposal- and as such, superfluous information must be edited out of the pitch.  So I would love to see a “Pitch Mode” option for export, that allows only the basic information that needs to communicate the story:  No labeling or timing info.

But as a platform for quickly producing high quality Shoot Boards (client-approved boards that are used by production staff) and Animatics, Shotbox has no equal.

I’ve taken a moment (it really didn’t take long) to throw together a board I put together using Shotbox.  I recycled frames from an earlier project not shown yet on this blog- Mary Poppins, the Musical!  Check it out!

Mary Poppins - Powered by Shotbox

Mary Poppins – Powered by Shotbox

As of this writing, the beta only allows 3 test project per user, but I expect that to change once they introduce a pricing model.  It’s not far from market-ready, from what I can see.  They’ve been active on Twitter, so I encourage you to follow them at @shotbox for future updates.



Commentary Storyboarding Tips and Tricks Uncategorized

Free Professional Commercial Storyboard Template

I’m feeling generous! It’s a great day to give back to the community. Wait, what day is it? Anyway, the time has come for me to provide something of utility to the young storyboard artists out there. I have for you, for FREE DOWNLOAD (it’s on the internet, after all), my personal, made from scratch, professional commercial storyboarding template! Yes!

According to the file’s “created on” date, I crafted this template in 2009, when I began doing national commercials, and all my clients needed boards done in 16×9 format, for HD broadcast. Up until that point I was doing them in standard NTSC 4×3 aspect ratio.

So, here’s a preview, and here’s the official link to the image, which you can save to your hard drive!


I’ll point out some details here. First off, this is not a definitive industry standard template (no such animal exists). It’s just the template I use for almost every project, and by nature of experience, I can testify it has worked out very well for me. But I by no means suggest that it is perfect for every storyboard. It is also not intended to be a “final” presentation storyboard- I use it to create my storyboards, and then after I’ve drawn them, the clients often give me their own template to transfer my frames into. So maybe think of this as a storyboarding workspace. It’s a bare bones grid of rectangles, in 16×9 ratio. Just add water. I mean, drawings.

The document itself is 3450 x 3600 pixels. That’s a fairly large image resolution but the frames themselves are only about 708 x 394, give or take. I’m aware that’s not HD resolution, and I’ll address that. If you’re looking for HD, scroll down to the bottom, where I have other templates available.

Lets talk a bit about why this template works well for me. As should be clear by now, I’m primarily a commercial storyboard artist, which means the stories I tell are about :30 long. The industry standard (if there is such a thing) number-of-frames-per-day for a commercial storyboard artist is about 18-21 frames, and that’s about right from what I’ve experienced.

So why use a 4×6 grid of 24 frames when 21 is the usual maximum? You see, a storyboard artist must provide more frames than the bare minimum, and sooner than the allotted time frame, because until the final versions are rendered and presented to client, one cannot know if the task is complete. For this reason, I always plan to overshoot the standard 21 frames per day standard, to be done sooner than the 8 hour typical allotment. Its like a “baker’s dozen” strategy- it’s not enough to only do what is asked, you must also provide alternate options, or at least be prepared for that possibility. Its very typical that when you present the final boards to client, they will, after seeing the work, realized that some things are missing, and that more work is to be done. If you had not accounted for this extra time, you’ll bust your deadline, and that’s the worst thing in the universe.

Blah blah blah. The point is, in the real world, you usually need about 21-24 frames in the final board, from which the director may edit to about 21 frames, and that’s why I made the template like this. 24 frames, all laid out nicely on one page, which is another advantage, and I’ll talk about that now.

In my experience, in order to truly see the story “flow” you need to be able to see all the frames at once. Or, at least in large batches. It’s easier for you as the artist to plot the continuity between frames and see what is needed to tell the story visually. And it’s easier for the client to evaluate for the same reason. I’m not just pulling this out of my butt. Take a look (below) at The Diz pouring over some boards with his target audience. He likes them all arranged in large batches so he can “read” them like a novel. It’s natural.


Also- its easier to draw! Because you keep the previous frames in your working memory as you draw the successive ones. You can easily reference an earlier images you’ve drawn, and of course that helps make sure your drawings are consistent.

That’s in contrast to what I’ve seen some of my commercial storyboarding colleagues do: the “one at a time” approach. They fire up photoshop and make individual files for each of the frames right off the bat, in isolation to one another. As a result, the boards are drawn without ease of consideration of what came previous and what comes next. They end up looking like “key frames,” which are not storyboards, but rather individual standalone storytelling moments used primarily for pitch purposes. It’s easy to confuse the two. Another weakness of this approach is that it unconsciously pushes the artist to treat the image as overly significant, and as a side effect, the image resolutions are made much too high, with far too much detail, which takes too long, it’s just no good. And the file sizes end up being huge, which is another problem, because often you have to be able to email these images to clients, or upload them to servers, and that takes up more time as well. Technology advances quickly, and these issues may fade with time, but for now, they are relevant. It’s happened often enough that I’ve emailed clients their storyboards only to find out at the 11th hour that my files never made it through because the attachment exceeded the maximum allowed by their email client.

So it’s advantageous that the frames on my template are about 700×400 pixels. It’s in the “Goldilocks” zone; not to big, not too small, just right. I’ve used this template on hundreds of projects and it’s really stood the test of time, so I recommend it highly.

And as by means of demonstration, here’s an example of how the template looks after a day of work:DailyHabit2b










And, over the years, I’ve had to make other storyboarding templates, see below. I barely use them, but you may peruse and download them if you feel they could be of use. Enjoy!

4x3_3_classic 4x3_3_simple 4x3_8_og 4x3_24_grid 16x9_3_classic 16x9_6by6

























Those who are interested can also download the collection as a .zip file, HERE, and it includes the HD resolution version of my 4×6 template.  Go for it!

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