Efficient Storytelling From An Expert
With nineteen years in the industry, Sherm Cohen is a cartoonist, writer, and storyboard artist. He’s also Toon Boom Storyboard Pro Certified. His track record and impressive career speak of his talent and love for the art of animation.
Following his education at The Joe Kubert School of Cartooning, Sherm got his start in animation at Nickelodeon on The Ren and Stimpy Show as a character layout artist, followed by a three-year stint on Hey Arnold as storyboard artist and director. In early 1998, Sherm Cohen was invited by SpongeBob creator Steve Hillenburg to be part of the original SpongeBob SquarePants crew as a writer, storyboard artist, and director. "I'm most proud of the work I've done on SpongeBob SquarePants—it's certainly the project that affected more people than anything else. When I see people decorating their offices with SpongeBob drawings, or when I see kids walking around singing the F.U.N. song...it just makes you feel me very happy to know that I've made other people's lives happy through my cartooning. I've also enjoyed teaching storyboarding through my online tutorials. When I hear from someone that my tutorials have made a difference, that makes all the work worthwhile," shared Sherm.
After SpongeBob's fourth season, Sherm created his first book, Cartooning: Character Design, published by Walter Foster Publications. Since 2006, Sherm has been working as a storyboard artist, supervisor and director at Walt Disney Studios on shows including Phineas and Ferb, Kick Buttowski and Fish Hooks. He was nominated for an Emmy® for directing Kick Buttowski’s first season. Sherm's latest project involves creating and teaching the Storyboard Secrets Online/DVD Course.
"I started using Storyboard Pro while I was doing storyboards on Phineas and Ferb. I kind of eased into it by just working on one section of the storyboard in Storyboard Pro, while still drawing the rest of the storyboard with pencil on paper. Gradually, I felt comfortable enough to draw the entire storyboard with Storyboard Pro, and by now I can't imagine working on storyboards without it," explained Sherm.
"When I moved to work on Kick Buttowski, using Storyboard Pro became a lot more important. At this point I was working as a storyboard supervisor and director, which means I have to be working on many different storyboards at any given time. Working in Storyboard Pro makes it easier than ever before to create revisions, add new scenes, reframe shots, and rearrange panels as needed," he added.
As part of his creative process, Sherm still draws his thumbnails on regular copy paper to let his ideas flow and know where he is going with the story. Sometimes, he will write the dialog first, because he can type faster than he draws. Then, he starts drawing in Storyboard Pro, roughing in with a big fat brush in light blue and cleaning up on a new layer. Sherm will use Photoshop only to resize, transform, or blur an image. "I like to keep the file size as low as possible for imported images, so I shrink them in Photoshop before importing them. Also, the Toon Boom perspective tool only works on non-textured vector art, so I need to use Photoshop to transform images. On the rare occasion that I need to add a blur effect (for soft focus) I will use Photoshop for that effect as well," he commented. Sherm keeps a well-organized library of assets, including backgrounds in Storyboard Pro to conveniently reuse them as needed.
"In Storyboard Pro, using a light table and the onion skinning make the drawing experience very intuitive. It really frees me up to know that I can draw big sloppy roughs, and then do my cleanups on another layer. I also really love the animation disc feature—it's nice to be able to rotate the workspace the same way that I would turn this paper around for getting the best stroke," stated Sherm.
Many times during the revision process, the framing needs to be changed. "The easiest way I've found is to use the camera tool. Simply resizing the camera frame allows me to create the framing I want over as many panels or scenes that I want," he added.
There are several other Storyboard Pro features Sherm takes advantage of: "Using the Select tool to resize drawing elements has also saved me hours of time that I spent going back and forth to the photocopy machine. The Library tool makes it easy to reuse a character, prop, or background...especially something as tedious as a school desk! I use a couple of custom brushes, including a brush with a semitransparent grey tone which enables me to add shading right on top of the artwork. The "draw behind" feature is also one I use all the time. With a white brush, I use this feature to paint a white backing on characters, so they stand out from the background layer and make them opaque. Many artists will cut and erase sections of the backgrounds to accommodate the characters, but for me, using the paintbrush to opaque the figures lets me move them around without disturbing the background," he explained.
"I feel like I draw with more boldness and confidence than before. Having the undo feature lets me draw a bit more spontaneously because I can always just undo the line if I don’t like it. It also lets me focus more on posing and acting because I don’t need to worry about size and placement so much. I can always resize and move individual elements after I draw them," shared Sherm.
Fish Hooks is a storyboard-driven show with 10 to 12 artists on board. Storyboard artists get a complete episode from beginning to end and write up the story, including all jokes and dialogue, based on an outline. "This is creatively rewarding," admitted Sherm. For an eleven-minute episode, it takes five weeks to complete the storyboards. About one week is allocated to create the thumbnails, another week for rough drawings and getting input from the directors and on the third week, pitching to the crew and executives. The last two weeks are spent on clean up before the revision process starts. As the Storyboard supervisor, Sherm makes one more pass on all storyboards, making sure all compositions and expressions work, and listening to the audio tracks. Then, the storyboards are exported in two formats: the first in CSV for the production staff to type up the script and have the voices recorded in the sound studio. The final audio tracks are then sent to the editor. The second format is in TGA for the editor who can easily keep track of the scene and panel numbers. They can match the audio with the storyboard files to generate an animatic. "We always add to the storyboards. In the editing room, the director can draw directly on the boards using a Cintiq to make improvements," stated Sherm.
At this point, the revised animated storyboard goes back to Sherm. The revision team cleans up the added poses and they use the Panel tracking feature to export only the panels that were revised and send them to the editor to generate a new animatic. This process is repeated and refined approximately three times.
Once finalized, the storyboards in PDF format and animatics are sent to Mercury Filmworks in Ottawa, Canada. "They do great work. This is the only time in my career that the animation comes back better than I’d hoped it would," confided Sherm.
Compared to his previous work methods, Sherm experienced significant productivity gains using Storyboard Pro. "I don’t have piles of paper all over my desk, and I don’t need to keep walking down the hall to the photocopy machine if I need to resize a scene or reuse a background. Another huge time saver is the way Storyboard Pro automatically numbers all the scenes and panels...for a 700-panel board that used to be a long and tedious task. It used to be hard to add extra panels after the first pass...you had to cut up the pages and renumber by hand. Another important time-saver is the way I can type in the dialogue and action...or even use cut and paste when I was working from a script. I’ve found that all that writing puts as much stress on my hand as the drawing does, so if I can type that stuff, it goes a LOT faster and it’s much easier on my wrist! Finally, the Library is an easy way to store and reuse backgrounds, props, and visual references," explained Sherm.
"In Photoshop, you need to jump through lots of hoops to get it to do what Storyboard Pro does naturally," he added.
"I love using Storyboard Pro because it is clearly designed as a storyboarding tool from the ground up. All the tools I need are there when I need them, and the Timeline and Onion Skin features let the artist work in a fully global way - from the beginning of the storyboard to the end, and from the top layers to the bottom," concluded Sherm.