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Tim Hodge on storyboarding for TV animation

Panel From Booty Call by Tim Hodge.

If you’ve been following the animation business for a long time, chances are you’ll have seen the work of Tim Hodge; a veteran animator and storyboard artist who has worked the lines behind-the-scenes of your favorite animated feature films, from the 1980s to today. Having contributed storyboards to fan-favorites like Mulan and Brother Bear, Tim now operates as a freelancer as well as a teacher of storyboarding and drawing.

Tim’s latest contribution to the industry: an online course targeted at storyboarders on animated TV shows. The course focuses on Storyboard Pro and provides insights to learn on how the software helps artists bring brilliant animation to the small screen. It offers a comprehensive look at the process of storyboarding from the moment you receive the script. In our interview below, Tim was kind enough to break down the process, from analyzing dialogue from a storyboarder’s perspective, to drawing thumbnails and optimizing camera views for animation.

You can learn more about Tim’s Storyboarding for TV Animation class, where you’ll find his industry experience packed into every episode. Need a taste? Read our interview with Tim below, where we discuss a segment of the course and enjoy other tips and techniques from his process.

Tim Hodge storyboarded this short story as part of his lesson series, Storyboarding for TV Animation.

For those readers not yet familiar, please introduce yourself and your background!

I got started in animation back in the 80s working in TV commercials. I was at a small studio where I storyboarded, animated, in-betweened, as well as painting cels and occasionally operating the camera. From there, I moved to Disney Feature Animation at Disney/MGM Studios in Orlando (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). While there I in-betweened on the Roger Rabbit short, Trail Mix-up, then The Lion King and animated on Pocahontas, then moved into story on Mulan, John Henry and Brother Bear. About that time I decided to leave Disney and join up with the little studio called Big Idea that produced the series VeggieTales, where I directed several episodes. Around 2008 I decided to go freelance, and worked for many studios including shows for Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers. I am currently a freelance storyboard artist.

How has Storyboard Pro helped you throughout your career?

I first started using Storyboard Pro 4 about 12 years ago. Originally, I used it simply to organize my panels and provide a nice PDF presentation for my clients. But then I saw the tutorials by Sherm Cohen, and the way he explained the UI made it so simple. Using Storyboard Pro has really streamlined my process, and made storyboarding much quicker, and more impactful for my clients. Now that it seems that most studios use Storyboard Pro, it’s a benefit to be able to upload my files directly, and know that they are compatible with production.

What can artists expect to learn in your course?

My course is geared for artists who want to get into storyboarding but are not sure where to start. I explain the basics of film language, and how to tell a story visually. It sounds simplistic, but putting 2 or 3 images in a row to tell a story is the heart of everything we do. I have taught storyboarding at both Academy of Art University (online) and Lipscomb University, so this course distills down everything I’ve laid out in my curriculum over the years.

Rough and clean storyboard panels from Tim Hodge's short, Booty Call.
Rough and clean storyboard panels from Tim Hodge’s short, Booty Call.

Where can we find your course and how can our readers access it?

My course is available through CreatureArtTeacher, Aaron Blaise’s tutorial website. Students can either get individual courses, or subscribe to the entire platform and have access to everything. My storyboarding course is here.

We can see examples of techniques taught on the course here in Booty Call, your animatic. What’s the inspiration behind the character and his story?

I approached this story from many angles. Firstly, I wanted to make it simple: A character with a goal who meets an obstacle. Simple enough, right? The idea of a pirate was a natural go-to because it’s a bit of a stereotype. Pirates want treasure. No explanation, no backstory needed. The audience gets that quickly, so I can get right into the story, which is…. what goes wrong.  I like the idea of using characters as obstacles, so having the monkey as a foible just made it fun.  

Secondly, I wanted a story with no dialog. This was for two reasons: The lessons are about visual storytelling – telling a story with pictures. A storyboard artist should enhance the dialog, not rely upon it. The other reason was simple: budget. Actors cost money. Not that I didn’t want to pay an actor, but I wanted students to see they could create their own story without the need for finding a cast as well. Just concentrate on drawing.

And finally, I wanted to incorporate as many basic storyboarding principles as I could. I paid particular attention to screen direction, and used as many camera angles as I possibly could without going too crazy. POV shots, Over the Shoulder shots, pans, dollies, zooms, frame within the frame, etc. they’re all in there.

The protagonist of Booty Call. Storyboard panel provided by Tim Hodge.
The protagonist of Booty Call. Storyboard panel provided by Tim Hodge.

How does Storyboard Pro help in your process of creating animated shorts like Booty Call?

Storyboard Pro is a complete package. Not only can I create my drawings, but with the built-in timeline feature I can edit them into a very complete animatic. I like being able to complete a finished product without exporting my panels into editing software. I don’t think I could’ve done this animatic any other way. 

You say the camera is the unseen character in every scene, can you elaborate on that theory for us?

At its very essence, the camera is a window. The audience gets to peek through that window and watch a story play out. And if every film was shot like a security camera or dashcam, that is what we’d get. YouTube and TikTok proves that is an effective style, right? But then once you introduce cutting and camera moves, the camera is leading the audience, directing them  to look at specific things, zooming into minutiae, or pulling back to take in a vast expanse.

You know in the ancient Greek plays, they had a chorus, a group of actors that narrated the story, and filling in gaps? Well, the camera is a silent chorus, taking each audience member by the hand and leading them around, sometimes on a rollercoaster, and sometimes sitting still to take in a moment.  That’s starting to sound lofty and pretentious, but in short, where you put the camera is just as important as where you put the characters. It’s all part of telling the story.

Storyboard artists are responsible for a project's visual storytelling. Storyboard panel provided by Tim Hodge.
Storyboard artists are responsible for a project’s visual storytelling. Storyboard panel provided by Tim Hodge.

You mentioned the camera moves of director Alfred Hitchcock. Can you share more about how you apply ideas from cinema when storyboarding?

I just watched Rear Window and North By Northwest again recently. Hitch was an absolute master at putting the camera where it needed to be for the greatest visual impact. We all know the bold stuff, like his classic Vertigo shot, and the Psycho shower scene, but the subtle work in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart is watching Grace Kelly getting cornered in the killer’s apartment, making us feel as tense and helpless as Stewart. Just incredible. In that moment, it’s mostly about what he doesn’t show us, keeping things hidden and making our imaginations go a little crazy. What you don’t show can be more effective than what you do show. It makes for great comedy as well as drama.

Your course takes a fascinating look at storyboarding scripts and screenplays. Can you take us through the process from reading a new script through to drawing and animating in Storyboard?

Sure! When I get a script, naturally, I read it through first. Even if I’m only doing a portion of it. I want to get a feel for not jus the plot, but also the tone. Is it comedy or drama? Does the comedy rely on visual gags, or mostly dialog? Then I start my thumbnails. Since I’m pretty old-school, I like to start with a pencil. I print the script, and start drawing in the margins. Then I make little postage stamp size frames and draw my first impressions for screen compositions.

I don’t draw every shot, sometimes I just write notes next to the dialog, like “slow zoom,” “OTS” or “ECU,” or if I want the camera on the listener rather than the character speaking. I also pick certain moments whee I need something strong and specific visually in order to create visual impact during a climactic moment, or an important character reveal, for example.

These thumbnails are just my first impression, and often a chance to get my first mistakes out of the way. Thumbnailing helps me work out the 180, and screen direction, too. 

Next, I take it all into Storyboard Pro. I draw at least one panel for each shot as quickly as I can. Some of these are super rough and often I’m the only one who can decipher them. But getting through to the end early helps me pace myself, and will occasionally help me come up with better ideas. I may get to the end of a sequence, and realize I can set something up better in the beginning.

Re-drawing is much less painful if you’re only throwing out rough panels. Yes, occasionally, I get excited about a show and start drawing too cleanly too early, or even start timing out gags too early. Then I get bogged down and find I’m falling behind. I try to complete a script page per day (in TV animation). So if I only get a half page done one day, I know I have to make it up by the end of the week.

You use Storyboard Pro alongside other software, like Photoshop. What is it like using Storyboard Pro alongside other software tools?

Yes, I use both. Depending on what the project needs, or if the studio prefers one software over the other, I can draw my panels in Photoshop, and import them into Storyboard Pro to create a PDF for the client, and/or put them in the timeline and create an animatic. Of course, revising panels at that point gets tricky. 

Obviously, Photoshop is an extremely powerful software, and has more bells and whistles than a storyboard artist could ever possibly use. A storyboard artist can easily get sidetracked and start creating full illustrations rather than clear storyboard panels. Simpler is better. Whether you’re using Storyboard Pro or Photoshop, or a sharpie on paper, just create clear drawings that communicate the story.