The Soul of a Story

In my last year of school, my classmates and I were responsible for animating our own short films. Everyone approached their films differently— some were focused on visual effects, some were entirely hand-drawn, and some were stop motion. But everyone had to start the same way: with a storyboard.

At the beginning of the year, we all shared our storyboards to get feedback from our classmates. Almost everyone scanned in their drawings and carefully talked through their presentations. Everyone, except Bryan.

When Bryan shared his storyboards, they weren’t fancy— they were drawings scrawled on index cards, photographed on his phone minutes before class. I didn’t expect much at first, but caught myself laughing at several points in his presentation. Despite how rough his boards were, the ideas were there! His characters were appealing, his comedic timing was spot-on, and I couldn’t wait to see his finished film.

Fast forward eight months later: the night we premiered our films to an audience. When Bryan’s film played, I found myself laughing— along with many others this time— at the exact same points in the story. Though the film looked and sounded more polished, the soul of the story stayed the same.

Great stories leave people with memories. When the show’s over, people walk away with a feeling, and are reminded of that feeling when they think of the story again. It’s hard to know how someone will feel after they’ve experienced your story, but it isn’t impossible. What makes the experience memorable— whether it’s a gag or a powerful story beat— can be identified at the earliest stages of production.

People who work on software products understand the importance of a minimum viable product. Assuming it’s functional— if your MVP doesn’t address a real need, it won’t be any more useful when your product has a logo, catchy name, and a polished interface. I think this applies to animation as well: assuming your drawings read clearly— if a beat in your storyboard doesn’t land well, it won’t be any more powerful when it’s animated, lit, and rendered.

Identifying the soul is hard to do, but feels like the best way to evaluate if a film is worth pursuing. Because animated movies take so long to make, figuring this out early means saving time, saving money, and pinpointing a set of core ideas to build around before going all-in. If a line in a script or a scribble on a storyboard elicits strong reactions, maybe it’s worth exploring why it does. When those lines and scribbles inform the rest of the production, the finished film will leave viewers with a memory that keeps them coming back.

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