Interview with Artist Mark Swan

markswanYou’ve probably seen Mark Swan’s name a dozen times, but didn’t know it. As an animator for over 30 years, he’s worked for Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. and MGM, among others. Some of his credits include An American TailLand Before Time I, II, III, IVSpace JamA Goofy MovieAll Dogs Go To HeavenRock-A-DoodleThumbelinaA Troll In Central ParkCats Don’t Dance, The Princess and the Pea, and for t.v., Thundarr the BarbarianThe Incredible Hulkand The Smurfs. His work has taken him from L.A. to Dublin to Budapest and Barcelona. And the most amazing part of all of this is that he’s my big brother. I grew up watching his artwork on Saturday morning cartoons looking for the secret pictures he’d drawn for me to find. I’m thrilled to interview him about his career and his upcoming Kickstarter campaign for a comic book series all his own. 

You’ve worked in animation for a long time. As such, you are quite familiar with storyboarding. Can you talk about the role storyboarding plays in creating an animated movie?

For people unfamiliar with storyboards I’ll often define it as making the comic book version of the movie. You’re drawing out the story shot by shot. It’s a lot like being the director because the storyboard artist reads the scripts and starts breaking things down into different shots and you’re making decisions like, should this be a long shot, medium shot or a close up, a pan shot, a dolly shot. You’re concerned about the composition, the acting and the transitions from shot to shot. You have various story points that you have to keep in mind, and in storyboarding, the artists think up much of the visual humor, and visual interest. page 5

When you get a script, how do you go about creating the pictures to go along with it? 

As I read a script, I get images in my mind and I’ll make a little thumbnail sketch or write a little note in the margins. I’d probably read through it a few different times and then start sketching things out. After getting the first sketches done then you have to review and edit things. In the old days we used to pin up sketches on a cork board so you could move things around, add new drawings or pull some down. You are looking for the flow of the story, the entertainment value and checking to see if you hit all the important story points for that scene.

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Illustration Notes: To Include Or Not To Include…

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Illustration notes—the bane of a writer’s existence. There are so many conflicting opinions about illustration notes, it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, an illustration note is a quick description of what the author envisions at a certain point in the story. The notes are intended to stand in place of an illustration that might be needed in order for the reader to understand what the author intended.

An illustration note is not a play-by-play of how the author sees the characters, settings, and scenery of the story.

Here’s an example using Where the Wild Things Are:

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“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind …” [Art: Max is wearing a white wolf suit with buttons down the front and is nailing a line of tied-up clothes to his bedroom wall.]

That is a bad—scold it and send it to time out—illustration note. In fact, you DO NOT need an illustration note for that line at all. It’s perfectly fine just the way it is.

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Storyboarding for Picture Book Writers

IMG_1528A picture book text can paint a picture or it can set the stage for a corresponding visual story. Sort of the difference between

… and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day…” (Where the Wild Things Are)

and

In the great green room there was a telephone …” (Goodnight Moon).

The first one paints a mood that the art alone can’t tell. The second one creates an image that accompanies the text. Both are good for the story they are telling, both create a visual without taking over for the artist.

The trick, as a text-only picture book creator, is to realize that you are a visual artist. Your text needs to create moods and images word by word, sentence by sentence, and it has to do it page by page and beginning to end.

One way to set yourself up for success in this area is to storyboard. Storyboarding your text will give you visual feedback on how your text works on each page. If you have a text-heavy page, you’ve either stepped into the artist’s area, or you have too many words, or your story may not be best suited as a picture book. You also need to be aware of your page turns.

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