7 of Pixar's Best Storyboard Examples and the Stories Behind Them

Published
Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub
Content Writer

Storyboarding in filmmaking is the process of creating a visual representation of a movie.

These images, sketches, illustrations or computer generations in sequence can often look like a comic book. Good storyboards pave the way for captivating cinematography so that a great story can unfold on screen. This post will look at some of the best storyboard examples from the master storytellers at Pixar.

Pixar and Disney movie storyboards

Storyboards are said to have evolved from concept sketches for short cartoons. The Walt Disney studio developed storyboards and created the first complete set for the 1933 short, Three Little Pigs. Other animation studios followed, and later live-action films used storyboards to plan out cinematography.

Today, storyboards no longer need be sketches done by hand and pinned onto an actual board. Virtual boards and software, such as Studiobinder or Boords, help create and arrange images in sequence for storyboarding. From short films to animated feature films, the storyboard artists at Pixar (now part of the Walt Disney empire) have elevated the process to an art unto itself. Here are 7 of Pixar's best storyboard examples and the stories behind them.

WALL-E

WALL-E is the story of a waste allocation robot, who becomes smitten with the vegetation evaluator robot, EVE, and embarks on an adventure of a lifetime. Ronnie del Carmen was nominated for an Annie Award for storyboarding in an animated feature production for his work. Not only is WALL-E one of Pixar's loneliest characters but he also performs mostly in pantomime through hand signals, facial expressions and body language.

WALL-E storyboards from the first act of the film (The Art of WALL-E by Tim Hauser)

The storyboards for WALL-E, therefore, required a lot of detail for positions, poses, and acting to be drawn out. Pixar had a small and dedicated team to make sure that the audience understood the character's communication at crucial points in the story.

WALL-E was created from about 125,000 storyboard drawings; a typical Pixar production averages 50,000 to 75,000 storyboards. For WALL-E, Pixar had already switched from traditional boards to a story reel, which is a frame-by-frame arrangement in sequence on a computer. This allows for an easier one-by-one review.

Like any animated production, story artist, Derek Thompson, recalls that the film changed a few times. The second and third act, in particular, went through multiple iterations. Most of the first act was set in place early and remained largely unchanged. Because of this, we can still recognize the finished shots in the early storyboards.

Up

Pixar's 2009 film, Up, has an instrumental opening sequence of nearly ten minutes, a montage set to the musical piece, "Married Life". Today, it's one of the animation studio's most famous scenes. It helps to establish the film's concept of a house floating with balloons and plays out Carl and Ellie's entire relationship with all their highs and lows. The audience learns of their dream of Paradise Falls and watches them grow old together til "death do us part".

The filmmakers intended the sequence to come across as memory and relied on visual techniques and music alone with no dialogue. After the introduction's sad ending, the audience sympathizes with Carl and understands both the adventure and balloon references.

There is enough material for an entire feature film in the opening sequence, and director Pete Docter decided to leave in all the heavy stuff as well, including the couple being unable to have children. This is to pluck at our heartstrings and give us reason to care about the story and its main characters. It changes the dynamic once Russell enters the scene. Pixar received lots of praise for the opening of the movie, with critics raving about it.

Pixar's Up opening sequence "Married Life" side-by-side comparison.

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo is Pixar's fifth feature film, released in 2003. It tells the story of widowed clownfish, Marlin, trying to find his lost son, Nemo, with help from the blue tang fish, Dory.

The story's idea stems from director Andrew Stanton's childhood and the fish tank at his dentist's office. As a child, Andrew assumed the fish wanted to go home to the ocean. The fish tank and the dentist's office made it into the storyline of Finding Nemo. Comparing the storyboards for the dentist scene with the final film reveals how Pixar works with composition and angles.

The dentist scene was one of Stanton's inspirations for the movie

Though the photorealism of human characters had improved since Monsters, Inc., Pixar chose to portray the humans (during their minimal presence in the film) as more cartoonish than the fish.

The animation and lighting of water and water splashes were a challenge to produce, so the animation studio relied on particle simulation. However, the storyboards show just how important the characters' facial expressions are to convey emotion. Marlin appears with an almost human face, expressing a lot with his eyes.

Marlin's expressions appear human-like, which is evident in the storyboards

Toy Story

Toy Story was Pixar's first full feature film, released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1995. It became so successful that the franchise now includes three sequels. Toy Story's premise is a world where toys come to life. Cowboy doll, Woody, feels threatened by space ranger, Buzz Lightyear, but in the end, they must work together to be reunited with their owner, Andy.

During development, Pixar walked a fine line with Woody's character, who in some versions of the script comes across as edgy, tyrannical, mean and unlikeable. In the film, he's more benevolent and a popular leader, though in the second act, he loses the sympathy of his fellow toys and has to regain their trust by selflessly saving Buzz during the finale.

The storyboards depict a hand-drawn, comic book version of the movie. The finale, in particular, shows how similar the revised storyboard drawings and the scenes of the film turned out.

Side-by-side comparison of the storyboards and the movie Toy Story

The Incredibles

The Incredibles was released in 2004 as Pixar's sixth feature film and the first with an entirely human cast of characters. It centres around the Parrs, a family of retired superheroes who have to go back into action to take out a new villain.

The world of The Incredibles is styled as an alternate universe to the 60s. For this reason, the film's colour script, created by Lou Romano, is particularly interesting. A colour script features a sequence of pastel drawings or coloured storyboards to highlight each scene's colour as part of the film's visual language.

Colour script images from The Incredibles

Romano infused the film with a touch of the 1960s. The size and shape of objects and people play a role throughout the film, but Lou Romano's approach was to tell the entire story through basic coloured shapes, which inspired the character designers. The film's end credit sequence is a homage to Romano's colour scripts.

The Incredibles end credits

Inside Out

Released in 2015, Inside Out was Pixar's 15th feature film and was directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen. Among its many awards, the movie won acclaim for its storyboarding in an animated feature.

Large parts of the story take part in Riley's mind, where her emotions Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness are at the helm. The film brilliantly contrasts inner and outer issues and conflict.

A central scene is Riley's first day at her new school as she forms a new traumatic memory when she cries in front of her class. Inside her mind, Joy and Sadness embark on an involuntary journey into the far corners of Riley's mind. The storyboard sketches show how important the individual characters are to the story and how we can follow along, even without complex backgrounds or information about the mind's inner workings. As is customary for Pixar, it's all about the emotions.

Storyboards of what happens (inside and outside of her mind) during Riley's first day of school

Lilo & Stitch

Lilo & Stitch is a 2002 animated film by Walt Disney Pictures, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Head storyboard artist, Chris Sanders, pitched the idea based on a children's book character he'd developed called Stitch.

Paired up with six-year-old Lilo, Stitch learns the Hawaiian concept of family and develops a bond. The great success of the film created a whole franchise.

The drawing style of Chris Sanders largely influenced the character design for Lilo & Stitch and went against Disney's traditional style. A further deviation is the return to watercolour backgrounds.

The scene composition centres on characters in the film. What is remarkable about Lilo & Stitch's storyboards is that the non-verbal communication and the bond between the two main characters is already evident in the sketches, just as much as in the final film.

The Lilo & Stitch storyboards show the connection between the two characters

Looking for some more storyboard inspiration? Check out some of our favourite storyboards.

Examples of famous storyboard artists

Filmmaking at major animation studios, such as Pixar and Disney, requires many different individual tasks, which all come with their own title and job description. Animators work on graphics, visual effects and animation and help develop storyboards. Storyboard artists give the film direction by creating visuals for at least each major scene of the story. These storyboards can be detailed to include poses, facial expressions, gags, dialogue, and backgrounds.

Character design defines a character ensemble's look in an animated film so that a consistent model exists. Story artists help develop the story with contributions to storyboards or script.

The artists who work on animations are rarely as famous as their creations. In addition to the artists previously mentioned above, here are a few more.

Sherm Cohen

Paul Sherman "Sherm" Cohen (born January 19, 1965) is a US storyboard artist, director and writer. He's known for The Ren and Stimpy Show, which was his start in animation at Nickelodeon. From there he moved on to Hey Arnold! as a storyboard artist and director. He contributed to Nickelodeon Magazine and was part of the original SpongeBob SquarePants crew as a storyboard artist, writer, director, and later as storyboard supervisor. He worked on both SpongeBob movies and returned to the show in 2015 after working at Disney. Sherm SquarePants, Spongebob's paternal uncle, is named after Sherm Cohen. Storyboard Secrets is a storyboarding tutorial that Sherm Cohen created.

Grizandnorm

Featured animation artists Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay and Normand Lemay are a married couple that make up Grizandnorm. Born in Indonesia, Griz has loved Disney animations since she was a little girl. She came to the Walt Disney Animation Studio from DreamWorks in 2015 and specializes in costume and character design. She has contributed to Frozen 2, Wreck-It Ralph 2, Moana, Inner Workings, Penguins of Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Croods and Kung Fu Panda.

French-Canadian, Norm, came to the Walt Disney Animation Studio as a story artist in 2009. He's contributed to Frozen and Frozen 2, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, and Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Louie del Carmen

Louie del Carmen (born August 19, 1967, in the Philippines) is an American storyboard artist, director, and animation illustrator. In the 90s, he worked on Nickelodeon shows, such as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Rugrats, Invader Zim and Rocket Power. In 2007, he began working for animation studio, DreamWorks, and made contributions to Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon and The Croods. He has also published comic books and graphic novels and currently works for Sony Pictures Animation. His two brothers, Ronnie and Rick, also work in animation at Pixar and Fox Animation.

Aurélie Charbonnier

Aurélie Charbonnier is a storyboard artist and animator. She is known for her work on Le bon numéro, Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom, and The Amazing World of Gumball. Fans of the show know her for performing and later also voicing the character of Sussie. Charbonnier is the girlfriend of Ben Bocquelet, the creator of The Amazing World of Gumball. She has storyboarded episodes for seasons 1 to 6 of the show.

Where to find storyboard examples and great story concept art

There are many images and thumbnails of story art and storyboards floating around, but which platforms are best for story artists to discover great story art and showcase their portfolios? Below you'll find a quick overview!

Deviantart

Storyboard artists have a category on DeviantArt with portfolios, collections of storyboards, poses, concept art and design, animatics and panels.

Flickr

The Flickr community focuses on photography, but as little as two or three photos in sequence can already tell a great story. It's a great resource to get into visual storytelling, with storyboard groups and tags.

Amazon

If you prefer tangible, hardcover books of animation, filmmaking and story art, animation studios such as Pixar and Disney publish beautiful and comprehensive collections of movie artwork, such as The Art of Pixar and books for individual films. These include behind-the-scenes peaks, colour scripts, character designs, concept art, and storyboards.

Living Lines Library

The Living Lines Library describes itself as a collection of animated lines. It features pencil tests and production art, including concepts, backgrounds, model sheets and storyboards, as well as looks behind the scenes for animation enthusiasts.

ArtStation

ArtStation is a place to share and showcase art portfolios. As well as from featuring your own work, you can also seek inspiration by filtering by artworks or artists.

Instagram and Story Reels

The visual art of storyboarding, which combines drawing, illustration, and storytelling, lends itself perfectly to Instagram as a platform, allowing creators to tell stories through pictures, captions, and story reels. There are many noteworthy storyboard artists and illustrators on Instagram to follow, including Charles Ratterary (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Amelia Lorenz from Disney, Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How To Train Your Dragon).

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