Disney Visual Storytelling

Last week I sat down with a marvelous group of dedicated Disney staffers to discuss the particulars regarding the storyboarding process. Of course, we were speaking of the Disney process and its evolution over the last eighty or so years. The questions included, how has storyboarding changed since the days of Walt and how has technology impacted the development process? While we’ve seen many changes in recent years, it’s clear to this story veteran the changes have mainly been superficial. That’s because the story development process has remained consistent since the early days of Walt Disney’s Hyperion studio.

Any dedicated animation fan would immediately recognize the familiar storyboard in the drawing below. This critical component of the development process has changed little since the early thirties and continues in use today even though the physical board has been replaced by the computer screen. Young animation story artists work on a Cintiq. A digital sketchpad that cartoon veterans could hardly have imagined back in the old days. Our tools included a sketchpad and a handful of China Markers or grease pencils. Back then, our sketches littered the floors of the story rooms while today’s drawings can be erased with a simple, Command Z. Yet, with all the technological changes we’ve seen, the story development process remains unchanged. We are charged with crafting a compelling narrative while developing fascinating characters. Whether I’m staring at a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen, the task remains essentially the same.

I honestly don’t recall a time in my filmmaking career when I wasn’t storyboarding. After all, it was necessary to have this graphic guide when creating my own movies as a kid. While a script is key to the filmmaking process, I can’t imagine doing any movie without a storyboard. Even renown filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick was well aware that the movie script often fails miserably in conveying ideas effectively. Even so, I never saw myself as a film storyteller until I found myself a member of “The Jungle Book” story team back in 1966. It was indeed a daunting task. Especially when one considers having to pitch ideas to the Master storyteller himself. In fact, I may have the distinction of being the only story artist to pitched both to Walt Disney and Pixar’s John Lasseter. Although they were master storytellers from different generations, both had a keen sense of story and were adept at spotting weaknesses in the narrative. Both Walt and John understood the importance of character and why it was essential that the audience resonate with those characters. Sadly, not every filmmaker is blessed with a sharp sense of story. Having done this job for over fifty years, I have little difficulty spotting an effective storyteller from those who don’t have a clue.

Those attending the meeting had questions regarding the archival process. Was every iteration of the storyboard sequence photographed for archival purposes? Back in the day, the storyboards were taken downstairs to the Photostat department where copies where made. This was long before the Xerox photocopier became a part of our lives. The Disney stats were reproduced in multiple sizes and distributed to various departments. This process continued into the eighties when the production pipeline eventually began to change. Today, much of the story work is done digitally and pitches are often made electronically. While I applaud the flexibility and ease of todays digital tools, I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something in today’s high tech development process. Storytelling is hardly an exact science. One cheeky British colleague best described our quirky, colorful job as, alchemy. Crafting a compelling story is often complicated, messy and chaotic. It’s a series of loose ends, stumbles and do-overs that eventually lead you to your “perfect” narrative. That’s why I love storytelling so much. It’s always a total mess before you finally get it right. It was a delight spending a Thursday afternoon with Disney’s ARL team members. It was fun sharing my experiences and telling the stories that are such an important part of the Disney creative process.

The Disney storytelling process has been around for a long, long time. I suspect it’s not going anywhere soon.

The Disney storytelling process has been around for a long, long time. I suspect it’s not going anywhere soon.