Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Lessons from Pixar (2) - storyboarding

Seeing once again Pixar's wonderful film The Incredibles on the big screen, as I watched the credits go up at the end I found myself having precisely the same thoughts as when I first saw it back in 2004. Screen after screen of names, a vast army of animators, each of whom can only have been working on a very small piece of the film: perhaps a few shots, lasting a matter of seconds. And yet all the pieces had worked together to make a story which is thrilling, funny and moving. Again I found myself wondering: how on earth do they do it? When the effects they're aiming to achieve depend so much on precise decisions about shot composition, movement and above all timing, how do they make sure each animator's miniscule contribution will work together with all the others?

By contrast, in my work life, I was at that time coming to the end of a project involving the assembly of a huge amount of web content, the creation of which had similarly been atomised into a vast number of minute tasks. It wasn't looking good. As we tried to put together the tiny fragments, some of which were just a single sentence of text, we found that some of them repeated the contents of others, some of them no longer fitted where they were meant to go because the author had "improved" them in the writing, and some of them, we only now realised, could never have fitted in their designated slot. There had been a master plan, of course, in the form of a vast spreadsheet, but it was so complex that few people understood it, and it was so large that it was impossible to print out the entire thing and have the text at a size which was actually readable. And now that we were starting to see the plan realised, we were starting to see all kinds of flaws, in terms of what it would mean for the experience of users - in this case, students. After some frantic editing, we managed to fix the worst of the problems before it all went live, so as to ensure that the content actually made sense when it was read together and that student experience would be okay. But it was never going to be great. The experience won't be like watching The Incredibles.

So again I find myself thinking, how do Pixar do it? Are there lessons we can learn?

As is well known, what they do is what every animation company does: they turn the script into storyboards - a sequence of graphic images to show, in rough, what the audience is going to see. But what I think is NOT well known is just how much detail animators go into with their storyboards. Here for example is the storyboard sequence for the Army men scene from Toy Story - which also shows how Pixar demonstrate it and test it out with their staff, a presenter pointing to each storyboard as they talk through the script and explain the key story points.

But they don't stop there. When they've a worked-out hand-drawn storyboard sequence, they animate it using video-editing software and set it against a temporary sound track, with the lines spoken by members of staff. This enables them to check even more closely how the scene will work, and to refine the pace and timing - as well as the shot composition and script - to tell the story with the proper emotional impact. They can also judge how the scene works in the context of the entire film, and some scenes never proceed beyond this stage. Here for example is one scene which was deleted from Ratatouille: the heist scene, in which the rats act as a team to steal food from the restaurant's rubbish bins, and Remy, who is supposed to be keeping lookout, becomes distracted by the vision of the splendid cuisine being prepared in the kitchen.

To sum it up, Pixar use their storyboards to make an entire film in rough, before they ever switch on their computers.

Contrast that with the type of student-experience planning which is described as "storyboarding" in online learning. The term was borrowed by the producers of multimedia applications in the 1990s, for their detailed records of the text, pictures, AV and interactions which would appear on screen together (see the linked examples at the bottom of this page from Michael Verhaart's teaching wiki ); but these "storyboards" were primarily used as assembly instructions for those building the applications, and insofar as they were used for testing, it was for testing usability, as a kind of low fidelity prototype, not for testing higher-order user experience.  Today, in online learning, as used by the University of Leicester for example, the term "storyboarding" seems to mean little more than putting the components of learning design into temporal sequence - an important piece of planning, to be sure, but quite remote from learner experience; you couldn’t talk through one of these storyboard sequences, like a Pixar presentation, and expect the audience to experience anything like what is supposed to be experienced by the learners.

Of course, the experience of studying an online course is very different from the experience of watching an animated film, which makes it intrinsically less suitable to storyboarding. For one thing, watching a film is strictly linear, whereas in a course a learner will switch their attention from place to place and even in a linear sequence will move backwards and forwards. For another, a film lasts matter of minutes or hours, rather than the tens or hundreds of hours entailed in studying a course, so it would be impractical to reproduce the experience in anything like real time. A third difference is that a film is (usually) intended for the general public, so its developers themselves are part of the intended audience, whereas following a course (usually) requires previous knowledge and understanding (to say nothing of interest in the subject!) so developers are typically not able to work through a storyboard and experience anything like an intended student.

Nevertheless, I think we should continue to strive to find ways to prototype not just the product, not just the usability, but the learner experience - and to prototype it in as close and as detailed a way as possible. Otherwise, our design efforts will focus on what is easy to plan and test, the delivery of information, without properly thinking about what learners will do with it, let alone how they will learn from it. Can we produce courses which are as great and compelling as the great Pixar films? Yes, I think we can, but to do so we need to design and craft the learner experience  at just as fine a level of detail, and not simply generate content.


Harley Jessup, a production designer at Pixar quoted by Ian Sansom,  provides some interesting details of the number of paper storyboards created for various Pixar films, for example: The Incredibles 21,081; Monsters Inc. 46,024; Ratatouille, 72,000.

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