Darin McGowan, a storyboard artist for shows such as The Wild Thornberrys, The Loud House, and Futurama, offers insights into the storyboard artist's life.
- I'm Darin McGowan, a storyboard artist. I've been storyboarding for 16 years. Storyboarding is basically taking whatever a writer has put together and mapping it out, visualizing the story, the jokes, the acting. I'm in TV storyboarding, which is different than feature boards. There's a lot of things that we can talk about with TV boards, but basically the most simple definition is taking what's written and mapping it out.
That includes, like I said, acting, revealing a good gag, setting up the story, finding emotional beats. In television it's difficult because there aren't often very many emotional beats, but if you find one it makes the jokes even better. If you go highs and lows, you want to have a couple of lows, and that's if you're writing from a premise. If you've got a script, it's already figured out. On a scripted show like Futurama, you basically get a script and it's already done.
You thumbnail out the script, like when I get a script I go through it when I read it and make a few notes. If there's a shot idea I have, I doodle it in the margins, but it's basically done. When you get a script from those guys, the story is finished. You're not adding anything. As a matter of fact, I don't think they want you to, which is kind of a bummer, so when you're working on a premise show-- - What's a premise show? - A premise is like if a writer comes up with an idea and maps out a story, like a paragraph and that's how he did on Fish Hooks at Disney and I was there for just a second but it was like, here's the story we want to tell, here's where it starts, here's a couple of beats, some ideas for you, and then here's how it ends. So it's like improv, or like playing the saxophone, you know where you want to go and you know where you want to end and then everything in between is just like figuring out where those beats are going to be, what the jokes are going to be.
The best thing about boarding a premise show is that you get to watch what you came up with when it's on TV. So Futurama, this stuff that's written, fine, if you're lucky you can sneak in a joke here and there in the background or something else, but the best part about premise driven shows, is that's you. If you hit a home run, like I was watching a show with a friend of ours who was like five and we were watching one of mine and he said, "Did you write this?" He's a smart kid. I said, "Yeah, how'd you know?" and he goes, because it sounds like you.
So you're writing dialog and everything. You're actually coming up with jokes, and you're storyboarding the jokes and stuff too but there's nothing better than writing a good gag, coming up with some funny dialog, and then having great actors say your lines, and then having it on TV. Then you can sit back and enjoy it. Anything else, the script and stuff is fine, and it's fun, but there's nothing like, you really feel rewarded when you get to see your stuff written on TV. There is ground in-between. I'm on a show at Nickelodeon right now called The Loud House and this is, I swear to God, the thing about storyboarding and animation all together, I think if you're lucky you find a great place where you fit and what I'm doing now on The Loud House is, it's scripted so we get scripts, they're gag shorts, they're gag cartoons, 16 pages, sometimes 18 pages. So they're done.
But the writers are so cool, they're so cool that they let you play with it. So I've been able to, and Chris Savino who's the creator of the show told me on my first day, he said, "Look, if you just do the script, you're there. "It's 100% there. If you want to add anything to it, it's even better." So the way that he approaches his own show is like let's improve it, let's come up with some stuff, let's plus it as much as we can. Some people can, and some people can't. That's why you pitch your thumbnails to see if things are working or not.
That is a great in-between, because a lot of places will record the voices first and then you're kind of locked in. Disney does this too, I know Phineas and Ferb, Fish Hooks, those things were up to the storyboard artist to come up with the stuff and this was the same thing on Loud House, the storyboard is what's the most important. Then the scripts are changed based on what we came up with during the process, and sometimes those are rewritten too after the boarding is done. So it all comes together at the end and the voice actors record what you came up with.
I love to work anywhere, I love to work. But where I'm at right now, in storyboarding and animation, every once in awhile you'll find a spot where you're just like this is great, there's no problems, you're not working for nervous people, you're not working for weirdos, there's no competition. When you're working at a place where you fit and everything's right, it's perfect. I'm from the midwest, St. Louis, and there's not a lot you can do.
I wanted to draw cartoons, that's what I did. It's kind of a long story, but I went to a regular state college. I actually wrote a letter to Chuck Jones when I was in high school, and his daughter wrote me a letter back and said, "Go to CalArts." CalArts, CalArts, CalArts. Everyone says go to CalArts. Well guess what? They turned me down, and you know why? Because I didn't have any experience drawing. I drew cartoons and they wanted animators. This is a problem for people that just aren't animators. I'll tell you, when I first found out what an animator did, because like when you're in grade school and you go to the library, you look at the art of, what was the Frank and Ollie book? Illusion of Life.
You check out the books, you learn about animation, you want to be an animator. I found out what that was eventually, and I'm like the hell with that. I mean no offense, I'm sure animators love what they do. We do a little bit of it in TV, layout boards and stuff, it's animation. My thing is I never really wanted to bring things to life. I didn't have this romantic idea of like the beautiful things of breathing life into things. I didn't care, I wanted to tell a story, I wanted to tell jokes, and you know what? When I first found out what storyboarding was, I'm like that's for me because you're basically starting everything.
It's written, you've got the idea, but you're starting it all, and what you're coming up with is what everyone down the line is going to have to do, based on what you came up with. No matter how beautiful it is on screen, it was your dumb idea. You could doodle the stupidest little things and you've seen these Disney boards that are beautiful, but they're so simple in what they are, and they become beautiful things. It always starts with this little thing, the storyboard. When I found out what storyboarding was I'm like, that's great. So anyway CalArts turned me down, so what can I say.
It took me a few years extra to get into animation because I didn't know how. When you're in the midwest, you don't have any connections. I didn't know anybody. Guess what happened? I went to school, I went to a regular state college so I have a degree in sculpture and drawing but that's not what I want to do. I was out of school, I was 25, I was desperate. In St Louis you can do two things: you can teach art, you can be an art teacher, or you can draw people at Six Flags. That was all.
I ended up cold calling a couple of places, one was the Riverfront Times in St Louis which is like the LA Weekly, the RFT. They were the coolest. I walked in with my dumb portfolio, this is back when everything was on paper. I had this portfolio, they were going through it, they said, "Do you want to do some illustrations?" I did two covers and a handful of spot illustrations and stuff and that went on for like two years and it was great! It was the littlest bit of stuff I could do, and I painted, I had art shows.
I cold called an ad agency. It turned out they had an intern who had left and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. I had already graduated from school and I was like 25. So I said I'll take it, and I worked a lot of things out but I ended up interning as an art director intern at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in St Louis. I made some great friends there, but the most important thing, I swear to God, I was introduced to a guy who was directing an animated commercial they were doing, and he worked at Klasky Csupo.
This was a long time ago. He gave me a storyboard test, he wasn't on the show Duckman, whatever, it was fine. But I took the test and looking back on it I did a great job, that was a good test. I sent it in, they didn't have any positions. This is where living in Los Angeles is like you have to live here and you have to know people. It's true. So I knew somebody and this was the coolest, because he was really nice to me, Jeff McGrath. I owe everything to Jeff.
He asked me if you've ever thought about relocating, I said yeah but I don't want to leave town unless I have something set up. I just don't want to move to Los Angeles, I'm nervous. So I quit. I gave up and I started working in the insurance industry and it was horrible. When you're an artist and you really want to draw, it was so hard to work behind a desk. I was really sad and really angry.
My girlfriend at the time told me, she said, and we had been going out for a long time, she said, "Why don't you call that dude in Los Angeles?" And I thought, what do I have to lose? I might as well give it a shot, I'm desperate here. So I got the number for Klasky Csupo and I think it was out of Animation Magazine or something because I sure as hell didn't have their number any longer. Called them up, asked for, I remembered his name Jeff McGrath, I called and asked for Jeff, he answered his phone, and I said, this is three years later, I said, "You're not going to remember me..." He said, "Is this the kid from St Louis?" and I said, "Yeah!" and so we got to talking and it turns out three years later he was the creative director/supervisor/producer on The Wild Thornberrys.
He gave me a couple of tests, I had to pass a couple of them, but he brought me out to LA. If you know what you want, you can't give up. You used to thumbnail it out, in the old days when you used to start, and the old days were only a few years ago, but you would get your script and you could just get out some paper and start roughing out your story. How you want to set things up, how you want to establish things, some acting poses, little things like that. Then you would pitch these thumbnails to your boss/director/supervisor, and then you'd just clean it up based on, you'd get some notes and then start cleaning it up.
This was back on paper, which I think was a lot more fun. Computers have made things a lot easier, but the problem is when you could thumbnail things out so fast, like in the old days you could thumbnail things out so quickly, they called them thumbnails because they were this big. Now we work in Storyboard Pro mostly, some people still do Photoshop, other things. But you're working on a field this big now on your Cintiq monitor so you can still rough things out, but I've discovered that working on a bigger field, also computers make you want to do more, like I can't help myself.
I end up drawing my thumbnails a lot cleaner, I'm adding more poses, it just seems like there's a lot more. You're not just thumbnailing out your episodes now, you're roughing out your board. If you work for a nice place, in your schedule you might have more weeks to rough it out. Before, we used to have a week or so to do a thumbnail and then pitch. But now you're getting a couple of weeks more to rough it out and then you clean it up. Basically on computers, you're basically taking the entire thing you just did, which is already there in a file, all of the panels roughed out, and then you start cleaning it up.
Different layers, background layers, characters on different layers. Computers beat using the copy machine like we used to. If you wanted to redo another drawing, sometimes you'd line up at the copy machine. We had X-Acto knives with different poses that we would pop out and tape. It was the old days. Storyboarding is the same process. Drawing on paper was more forgiving I feel, because you could rough stuff out and you were able to draw F-model and it still had a charm to it.
If you draw F-model now on a computer, it looks terrible. Computers have allowed you now to basically we all just take model sheets which are in the computer on a server now, you click and drag those in and use those. We used to use the models before pinned up for reference. Now you just slip them right under there, put a layer on top, you draw the characters, then you manipulate that character. You have to know though, and this has happened a lot in a couple of prime time shows, if you do that too much, it becomes puppet-y, where the characters just start doing...
Prime time isn't really a lot more than like this often. We had one show where the characters were actually built in Toon Boom somehow. I don't remember how this worked, but the turn arounds were actually built. If you clicked and dragged the character, it wasn't just the model sheet, you didn't even have to trace it, it was done. It was drawn for you. That was a problem we had because everything became really stiff. You're not drawing. I've said a lot about animators before but you want to put some life into your storyboards.
You don't want everyone to be... I'm guilty of it too because when you're on a deadline, sometimes you have to just click and drag. My dreams came true when I got a job in animation. It wouldn't have mattered, my first job as a storyboard artist, which was perfect. I would have loved anything I got. The best thing about being in animation is, I'll just say it, is getting laid off. Can I say that? The best thing that can ever happen to you in animation all together, or entertainment, is when you lose your job.
I didn't know that you get laid off. When I first started, I didn't know, and this is for you kids out there, know when you start working in animation, you're going to lose your job. You're lucky if it lasts more than six months. If you get on at a studio or a network, and you're going two years, three years, you're lucky. I've been jumping around every six months, you end up getting another job. A lot of times studios will only pick up one season or half a season and let's see how it does before they pick up any more episodes.
I didn't know that. Klasky Csupo was great and I was there for three and a half years and we all got laid off. The problem with that was that none of us knew anybody except for ourselves. So we were all screwed. There was a couple of other things but anyway. I ended up not working for six months, maybe seven months. I didn't know what to do. So I'm on unemployment just chilling out and it was tough.
But I started writing my own shows, just out of my spare time. I've always been writing comic strips, but then once you get a taste of animation and once you work in it for awhile you figure it out, you've watched TV all your life so you know how to tell a story, how to create a character. So I started writing and creating my own things, wound up pitching it to Warner Brothers and sold my first show ever. Now this is the best, because storyboarding is great, I still love it.
But when you're a kid and you get to actually see something you came up with, not that somebody else wrote and you boarded it, but when you come up with your own character, your own story, your own situations, and you get executives on your side, and then you get your stuff made, it's unbelievable. It's really great. - What was that project you sold, that first project you sold? - It was Gorilla Girl. For Warner Brothers, this would have been 2003-2004. Gorilla Girl was great, and we got Greg Eliel, Daran Norris, and Billy West to do the voices, talk about heaven.
I got Billy West to do his Larry Fine impression for one of the characters. Daran Norris did this amazing Harvey Korman. Who does Harvey Korman? I asked him to, he did it. It was awesome. Anyway, Gorilla Girl was tops, but what was funny about that is I didn't know, boy that went so smooth, we made it in a month. It was a pilot, it was done in flash, it was done really quick, so it's rough around the edges but the characters were so strong.
This is what's important about storyboarding too is putting a personality in character, and I've been learning for 16 years, learning all about things, but when you're storyboarding something and somebody's written something and it's funny, put something into it. The acting, the personality is where it comes from. The voice actors can take your poses and act that out and they'll add something to it, and the animators will add. Like I said before, it starts with you. Pitching and creating my own stuff was a miracle because the other thing too is if you jump from storyboarding to anything else, even as pitching and not selling anything, you're meeting new people.
You're developing really great relationships with people I've known for ten years or more who end up also jumping studios, so when people leave Disney let's say and they go to Nickelodeon, and I know two people who have done that, they call you. People call you and they say, "When are you "going to pitch to me? We want some ideas." I love being at Nickelodeon right now because now they're on a hunt for preschool and you know it, and they tell you, "Come up with some stuff." They actually asked me to come up with some things for them, which is awesome! So then you start to really get a little reputation as a guy who can come up with funny things, funny situations, premises, and characters.
When you develop shows, they don't really necessarily go anywhere, they're fun to do though. Gorilla Girl tested better with boys than girls and because it was a girl show, it was a girl character we were told, we want boys to watch this show too. So we called it a boy show in a girls body. The little girl in the show who thought she was a gorilla, she was like a baby Tarzan.
We wrote her as a boy, and it tested so well with boys, the executives didn't know what to do. I'm telling tales out of school, they said, "Now we have to fix it. Let's put more girls "in the show to balance out the girl character." We were like, "Okay fine" so we made a second pilot, and it didn't do well at all because the character was drowned out by all these other characters. That's fine. I paint, but you know what's funny? As I get older, when I was in my 20's and I worked my desk job, I couldn't wait to go home and paint and draw and whatever.
It was so frustrating because that's all I wanted to do was draw. So I would paint, and I had some success but it wasn't enough. Now it's different, because now it's all I do is draw, and this is going 50 hours a week sometimes, maybe more than that. The last thing I want to do is go home and draw. Kids, you're going to hit a point in your life where you're just trying to go home and watch Game of Thrones, that's all.
But it also becomes an obsession. I just designed characters for a friend's show and that takes up your weekend. Or Nickelodeon, when people are looking for shows sometimes you go back into your old stuff and take a look and see if there's anything that fits. I've got 50 shows alone I've never even shown anyone. I can't stop creating things, so as far as other creative pursuits, not really.
It's all intertwined, even though I'll paint and stuff. You know where my paintings go? Under the stairs when I'm done. My wife's not a fan so we don't hang them, and I don't want to be the guy who hangs his own stuff in his house, right? So they go under the stairs and they're never seen again. Every 10 years I do a show, which we just had one at M Street Coffee in Silverlake. But yeah, I don't do a whole lot more.
You know what's funny, when I first started 16 years ago, I learned from looking at the storyboards of the old timers, who weren't necessarily that old, but to look at how they approached things, how they told stories, how they drew, that was really important to me and I learned a lot from just watching how other people did things.
What's interesting now is as an old timer myself, I'm learning a lot from watching the kids. Don't tell them I said this, but I'm watching them as they board, these kids are 23, 25 years old and it's interesting to see how they work. Part of my problem too is I just came out of working in prime time for 8 years or so, and we did everything very strict and there was a lot of layout, we did layout boards, which is kind of a whole other thing.
When you go on a gag show like The Loud House, and you see how these kids are drawing however they want to, it reminds me of when I was a kid when I first started, drawing however you wanted to, and it's something we can afford to do on Loud House because the clean up guys in the layout department are great. I guess I'm still learning just from watching other people, whether they're in their fifties or in their twenties. Two things: layoffs, it's a way of life.
Save up your money and look forward to your next layoff, because it's the best. If you can take even a month off, you don't want to go more than two, but take a month or two off and relax man, because you're going to kill yourself storyboarding. It takes up a lot of time, but it's completely worth it. So when you can take some time off, do it, and write. Write and create. Take your time, especially when you're young, take your time and enjoy what you do.
Storyboard as much as you can. Take a month off and chill out. Write some stuff, create some things, design some things, and it just grows. You can just grow as a storyboard artist, you can do other things as long as you're talented and funny. I'll tell you what influenced me was absolutely Charlie Brown specials, and Muppets. The best thing about both, when you grow up in the 70's, those things were everywhere.
I learned how to draw Snoopy from my lunchbox. When I first started really drawing, The Muppets were really important and it was really interesting how I learned how to draw. You draw Snoopy, it's just this. Kermit the frog is all over. So you have to learn how to draw things in three dimensions. It took me forever to figure it out, but I remember drawing Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, all the characters and trying to figure out how to draw them from different angles and stuff like that.
I don't know if that was really humor, they're a huge influence, I think they influenced everything. I think The Muppets influenced everything. Charlie Brown completely influenced The Loud House, what I'm working on now. It's great because on my first day talking with Chris Savino, because Chris didn't know me and so we were comparing notes and stuff and I said what I love about The Loud House is it feels like a comic strip, and even more important, it feels like a comic strip, it feels like an animated special of a comic strip.
When I was a kid and the first Garfield special was on TV it was like wow it's a whole new thing. What's cool about Loud House is it's supposed to look like a comic strip but just to see them move feels special to me. I don't know why.