Alex Chiu works as a storyboard artist at Marvel Animation with a BFA and a passion for animation. In this part of interview she shares some tips for aspiring story artists.
Are there any books, courses, or learning resources that you’d specifically recommend for aspiring story artists?
I took Rad Sechrist’s online storyboarding class twice, and a CGMA storyboarding class once during school. All were great experiences!
I highly recommend Rad’s class for beginners. He’s a great teacher, super concise, and oh my gosh, seeing him flip through his storyboard samples was such a mind-blowing experience!
For some additional learning resources check out Scott Eaton’s Bodies in Motion site. It’s full of a variety of poses and the in-betweens for each pose—like a figure drawing class that’s there forever and that you don’t have to go to in real life… which doesn’t mean don’t go to figure drawing because that’s HUGELY important!
And of course, study film.
What’s fun about boarding to me is that the reference is all out there. Look at films you like. Observe the framing and why & when they cut to the next shot.
Environment sketch by Alex Chiu
How much focus do you place on life drawing or realism in your practice? Do you see more artistic improvement while working from imagination or from life?
It’s a balance!
But definitely, you have to know how to draw. Once you have the fundamentals down then you can choose where to simplify, etc.
At the same time don’t let that deter you from flexing that creative muscle, because as a board artist you first and primary objective is to work as a problem solver.
What skills does someone need to become a professional story artist? Is it necessary to learn animation too?
In terms of drawing ability draftsmanship is key. But the ability to draw fast and clear and a huge variety of poses and expressions is very important.
Actually, you pretty much have to be able to draw anything quickly and clearly because you never know what kind of script/elements in a script will be thrown at you.
It’s not necessary to learn animation, per se, but these days board artists are practically keyframe animators. I think it’s important to watch a lot of animation to help you better envision movement arcs for your scenes.
Story panels by Alex Chiu
What makes a great storyboard portfolio? What should an aspiring storyboard artist put in their portfolio to best showcase their work?
In my opinion: clear and fun storytelling, and then drawing ability.
Your drawing ability serves as a clarification vehicle for your storytelling skills. Does the expression that you’re aiming for read? Does the gesture convey what you want? Does it look like an upshot and is your shot choice is clear?
All of these things are important supplementary tools to a clear and fun story! How can you draw your audience into the story with tiny little frames?
I think typically you want to showcase a bit of variety. Action, comedy, and drama.
If you can hit all 3 of those beats in, let’s say, 1 large sequence and 1 or 2 additional shorter ones then that’s pretty good. But don’t forget to keep it short and sweet.
Recruiters look through hundreds of samples everyday so you can’t drag them on for 100 pages of a PDF!
Finally what advice would you give to your younger self or to other aspiring story artists?
Don’t be afraid to try things. Seriously.
People forgive you for mistakes when you’re young, and people also understand that when you’re younger you’re still figuring out what you want to do. It’s okay if you don’t!
The whole thing is a process and you can only learn if you make a mistake and learn from that mistake.
I didn’t even know what storyboarding was until my junior year of college? Which isn’t a bad timeline, but prior to that I was trying a bunch of things.
I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer, a politician [laughs in the distance], a children’s book illustrator, a visual development artist[louder laugh in the distance]… until I realized that I was awful at making finished drawings, hahaha! But also that storyboarding was my favorite aspect of the animation pipeline.
And ask genuine questions, and questions that you can’t answer yourself. Not stuff like ‘what brush do you use’ but why not go a step further? There’s a reason people choose the mediums that they like.
If you ask someone what tools they use, and if you ask why, you’ll get a better answer.
But at the end of the day… be yourself.
As a personal anecdote: in high school a bit and in college, I was afraid to like anime. I thought I had to exclusively like Disney and that enjoying series like Naruto and One Piece was a bad thing. It took me a while to accept and understand that there are a lot of people that like both, and that’s totally fine!