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Mark Simon’s pro storyboarding tips after 30 years in the biz

Tags: Storyboard Pro Storyboarding Customer Story Storytelling Tips and Tricks

Mark Simon is an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and president of Storyboards & Animatics, Inc. who is celebrating 30 years of storyboarding this month. His storied career (pardon the pun) has included being a story artist, producer and director for both live-action and animated projects, as well as authoring 10 popular industry texts and writing for major trade publications.

Having worked on nearly 5,000 productions, from Woody Woodpecker to The Walking Dead, and won over 200 international awards, Simon has earned a reputation as a masterful visual storyteller. Over his three-decade career, he has transitioned from paper to digital solutions. The tool he trusts to bring his talent to life? Toon Boom Storyboard Pro.

mark-simon-talking-dead
Source: Mark Simon

We sat down with Mark Simon to learn more about his visual storytelling career plus his tips, tricks and advice for young storyboard artists using Storyboard Pro.

Mark Simon’s animation and storyboarding background


Hi Mark. How did you get into animation and storyboarding?
MS: I got into animation by failing in the 80s and getting back into it later. When digital ink and paint appeared years after, I taught myself how to use it, built a portfolio and landed Disney as my first client when I animated Tinker Bell for the Disney Cruise Lines.

I was an art director in Hollywood for years, but missed drawing so I got Storyboards, Inc. to train me in storyboarding. I made the switch to full-time storyboarding when I was an art director at Nickelodeon in Orlando. Around that time, Steven Spielberg brought seaQuest to town — I pushed my way in until I was hired as their story artist and never looked back.

We heard that one of your first jobs was with Roger Corman, The Pope of Pop Cinema. What was he like to work with?
MS: My first job was as an art director and construction coordinator on Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity at Roger Corman’s Venice studio. I made $100 weekly and worked more than 100 hours a week; don’t do the math, it’s painful. I loved every minute of it and it launched my career.

mark-simon-walking-dead-storyboard
Source: Mark Simon

How have digital solutions like Storyboard Pro changed the pre-production pipeline?
MS: Storyboard Pro is like working in Photoshop, AfterEffects and Premiere all in one, but it’s set up for production. As we sketch, we’re creating an animatic in real time — no more jumping between multiple programs. It’s also easy to have the director and editor work in our master file. When we all work together in SBP, we eliminate the cluster-f*** of file conversions and tracking changes. It’s just all right there and is sooo easy!

I just send my director the project folder, he or she makes changes and notes while using the ultra-cool Track Changes Mode and then sends it back. I open it and can see the highlighted panels so I know which ones have notes. We don’t use timers anymore — the animatic acts as the timer. When we’re ready, we just set it to export Movies Per Shot/Scene and the editor can do the final edit. It’s never been easier or faster.

What essential skills or qualities should every storyboard artist have or aspire to?
MS: The skills needed vary a bit if you specialize in live-action or animation storyboarding. Live-action directors don’t want to see cartoony boards. Animation boards, at least for TV, have to be on-model and look like the characters.

Live-action boarders need to understand lenses as well as how to produce stunts and visual effects. Quick sketching is also imperative. The first things I look for in samples are:

  • Visual storytelling — can I tell at a glance what is happening?
  • Knowledge of sketching in perspective
  • Understanding of anatomy
  • Screen direction; if you cross the line of action, your boards won’t work

Another essential skill is the ability to work with others. When you storyboard, you need to illustrate the director’s view. If you can’t take notes and work well with others, you won’t be a good storyboard artist.

the-walking-dead-storyboard-pro
Source: Mark Simon

Do you have any tips to speed up storyboarding in Storyboard Pro?
MS: Yes, they are… 

1. Use Storyboard Pro

2. Default Layers
If I spend 40 seconds setting up my layers on every panel and draw 50 panels that day, defaulting layers saves me over half an hour. If I set up my layers and think through the entire process, I will save even more time when I do my cleanups because I won’t have to add and name more. If I set up my layers to help me make faster changes, such as characters and backgrounds on separate layers, it can take seconds rather than minutes or even full redraws. Just establish a great set of layers and groups and select Layer/Set Layer Layout As Default.

3. Renumbering
It’s so fast to renumber scenes and shots in Storyboard Pro. That used to take hours working on paper and almost as long when I worked in Photoshop. We always add shots and scenes and re-order them. With Storyboard Pro it’s a single click.

4. Make super-fast changes
In Storyboard Pro, when a director wants to change the framing it takes just a click. Need to resize a character and move them on the frame? Do it in seconds and export. I can make a quick change and it updates my entire PDF and movie file. No more redrawing an entire frame for small changes or going back and forth between multiple programs. Also, no more laying out a PDF over and over for production. Make a fix and export it.

mark-simon-twd-storyboard-pro
Source: Mark Simon

Many of our readers work in the animation industry, but visual storytelling is just as important in live-action filmmaking. How did you build out your live-action clientele?
MS: I built my live-action clientele by giving demonstrations. Yesterday, I gave a demo to a live-action director in Los Angeles from Atlanta. We had our meeting over Skype and I shared my screen with him. One of my artists was up for storyboarding his Universal movie, but I found out he was interviewing local artists as well.

I offered to show him how it was not possible for other live-action board artists to produce and deliver storyboards and real-time animatics as fast as we can unless they use Storyboard Pro. By the end of the call, I had secured the gig for my artist. Once directors see and experience the program’s fast, interactive way of storyboarding and making instant changes to match their exact vision, they never want to work any other way.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started as a storyboard artist?
MS: I’ve never looked at this that way. Some people might say something about wishing they had been told how to run a business, but I’ve been running businesses all my life. I would suggest that story artists learn all about film and TV and editing and directing and stunts and effects. It’s your job to communicate with all those crews with your storyboards.

I kept a running list of questions I had in production and wrote a book to answer them. The latest version of my book, Storyboards: Motion In Art, 3rd Edition, answers every question you could ever have about the art and business of storyboarding.

Storyboard Pro is where visual storytelling starts. Download a 21-day free trial!


Banner image source: Mark Simon

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