One Artist’s Process: Brainstorming and Thumbnails

Here’s the second post in the little series I’m doing with Aidan Casserly. He’s creating a storyboard from scratch for his portfolio and documenting it on his blog.

I’m reposting it here along with my ‘two cents’ that will turn out to be a full blown Mini Critique of his work by the end of it.

Basically ripping him to shreds for all to see. (I kid! I kid!)

You can read the introduction post here.  I now give you his second installment. Take it away, Aidan.

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Part 1: Brainstorming and Thumbnails

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This is, without doubt, the best part of the entire process. I love it. I reeeeally love this part.

Now that we have our ‘story seed’, we go about brainstorming. I grab a stack of paper (just junk paper, since this is a rough and messy stage). This is the part where, no matter what, you NEVER limit yourself. Ever.

Be as stupid as possible.

Any idea, no matter how irrelevant or pointless, gets jotted down. Anything. Even if it has remotely no tangible connection to the story at hand, everything matters. There’s a reason.

The minute you start thinking too much is the minute you’re screwed, because limiting yourself for any reason at this point means you’re going to have a boring, predictable result. I know you want to make the bestest story possible, but don’t go thinking that there’s only one solution to make this story a masterpiece.

Don’t think too much. Just do it.

Remember what Douglas Adams taught us: “DON’T PANIC”.

Okay, there is something I’d like to point out; I tend to be more wild and carefree with personal stories than I am with client work or studio tests. My clients tend to have a more solid idea of what they want, usually scripted, but never so concrete that I can not add any ideas of my own.

But the crazed brainstorming is still there, and is in fact essential; I can think of a couple of times when I needed to storyboard something ‘nice’ but couldn’t stop thinking about screwy ideas. The solution: jot them down anyway. It’s important to push an idea as far as possible, because you can always backtrack to the point where it works.

Seriously, I can’t stress this enough, do what that rotten dormouse said, and FREE YOUR HEAD.

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Another thing I’ll point out is that my intent with this story is mainly humor and action, but even if you’re doing ‘serious’ storyboarding (action, advertising, spaghetti westerns, etc) I would still go ahead and jot down every random thought.

Just because you’re not making funny-stuff doesn’t mean that you can’t explore bizarre thoughts…hey, it might just work!

[And even if you’re doing a studio test for a funny show/movie that doesn’t completely match your own sense of humor (but in the end you still want to match the content of the work you’re applying for), still jot those thoughts for now. You can always backtrack later.]

So we start scribbling down thoughts in a stream-of-conscious way (for client work, when scripts are given to me I will mark down ‘beats’ with strokes/slashes to point out timing marks, then thumbnail in the sidelines), putting down whatever comes to mind.

A good deal of this stuff will never be used, but do it anyway. You’ll come up with a lot.

In these rough pages I juggled ideas, namely whether I wanted Scapula to break IN to the prison or break OUT. As you can see in one of the pages I toyed with ideas for both, and eventually decided that breaking IN had more opportunities for fun storytelling, while breaking OUT was mostly Scap running around and being chased by guards.

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When a story starts to form I begin thumbnailing. There’s still nothing very solid yet, so there will be a lot of crossing this out and adding that in (see for yourself). A cohesive flow will start to form and from there I have, more or less, the ‘spine’ of the story, which means I have something of a path I can follow now (even if there will be a lot of changes made).

If you can see your story starting to form from these thumbnails, that’s great. If nothing is happening, that’s also great, because you get to go back and brainstorm some more.

SPONTANEITY and IMPROVISATION are key here. Get loose. Explore.

Chug some caffeine and have fun…I really, really, really love this part of the process.

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Cool beans.

Thanks Aidan.

I’m not going to critique his story or thumbnails at this point because he has already sent me the first pass of his storyboard. So I prefer to dig into that.

But Aidan has many valid points about the brainstorming process here. I also want to remind you that this is for his own project with his own characters. There is lots of noodling and experimenting to be had when it’s an original story like this.

As he said, the process can be a little different if it’s studio or client work.

I don’t write notes on the script. I don’t let my mind go to crazy, wild places if I know it’s a waste of time for a particular show.

I just read the script a few times, let it sink in for a while, procrastinate as long as possible, then start to thumbnail straight away from beginning to end in a raging panic.

Yes, I’m kidding.


And the process can be different if you’re not Aidan. Or me.

I’m a huge believer in the thumbnailing process. Yet I know many board artists that dig in and loosely rough their drawing out on the large panels right off the bat. You will have to find what works for you. There is no right or wrong way to plan out a storyboard.

(But thumbnailing really is the right one *coughcough*.)

So what did we learn this week?

  • That letting your mind go wild in the brainstorming stage is a good thing.
  • That thumbnailing is a smart thing.
  • That “bestest” is not a real word.
  • And that I had to Google “Douglas Adams” because I’m an uncultured slob.

Stay tuned for next installment where we see the first of his storyboards and I really let Aidan have it. Mwah, ha ha!


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14 thoughts on “One Artist’s Process: Brainstorming and Thumbnails

  1. Aidan Casserly

    Karen makes good points here about my process, and I will clarify that this method works best for personal projects. Not every studio, even ones that specialize in humor, allow as much room to stretch.

    I have tested at a couple of studios for prime-time cartoons (I wont say which studio it was) which had a very strict set of rules regarding not only staying on script, but on model and matching their specifications for shots and posing. I was sent a huge production ‘bible’ laying out what it is they wanted. Deviations from this method were not only discouraged but could result in a total failure for future contact. This is neither a good nor bad thing, it’s just how this particular studio (and a lot of others, I assume) do things and it works for them. This is the real world, kids.

    My crazy method would not be much use in the above situation, but there are other places where this sort of approach could be advantageous. There are studios that encourage freedom from there storyboard artists. Once again, the number one place it works is personal projects, and please don’t underestimate what you can do alone on your own films (I refer you all once again to my absolute favorite independent film, Sita Sings the Blues).

    Hopefully, if and when Karen and I collaborate again we can try to demonstrate how to approach a studio test with rigid guidelines, but for here and now it’s about making you, the artist, comfortable with telling stories.

  2. Chris K

    Wow instant gratification! (I thought i’d have to wait for this post~)
    Some very fine points covered here. I think its good to know the differences approaching an established studio project and a free-form personal one. I think the creative muscles you exercise without limitations are important to build up before learning how to work within more limited confines. Learn how to fly before you learn how to steer~

    I started using thumbnails only after finding the templates on here (thanks K!) and have found them invaluable in getting out ideas without feeling too attached to them.

    “Be as stupid as possible..”
    I may just have found a new maxim for my humor storyboarding….perhaps in life too (makes for better stories~) 😛

    ps: Douglas Adams = genius !

  3. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Aidan – Thanks for the extra input.
    (And ha ha…you can’t spell!) 😉

    @ Chris – We aim to please here on the Storyboard Blog. 🙂

    Great points. And I’m glad you come over to the dark side of using thumbnails. “…without feeling too attached to them”…exactly!

    And we may have to put “Be as stupid as possible” on a t-shirt.
    Whaddya say Aidan? Split it 50-50?


  4. Friar


    When I saw those doodles, I instantly identified with them. That’s SO MUCH like what I love to to.

    Seems like I’m brainstorming film ideas, without even realizing it.

    Maybe I’m in the wrong line of work. 😉

  5. Pingback: One Artist’s Process: The Board and The Critique | Karen J Lloyd's Storyboard Blog

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