The Art of Storyboarding
An Interview with Illustrator Mimi Chao
Mimi Chao is a storyteller and illustrator with magical ideas that resonate with the deepest parts of our human experience. She uses Concepts to create storyboarding layouts when working on books or illustrating for clients, and we’re privileged to have her tell about her process in our interview.
Tell us about you — what you do, what your passions are… What is your work as a professional creator and what influences your creativity?
I am an illustrator and story-maker based in downtown Los Angeles. I’m passionate about storytelling and creating work that makes someone feel better or think deeper, but in a simple or light-hearted way. I am fascinated by many forms of design, technology, philosophy and nature, and a lot of that inspiration is reflected in what I do.
My main focus these days is developing my studio, Mimochai. We create story-driven products that encourage wonder and adventure. We recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce our first storybook, Let’s Go Explore, which I’m really excited about! Our supporters helped raise nearly 400% of our goal, allowing us to explore animation and interactivity with the story. In addition, I do freelance creative work for clients ranging from story and character development to custom illustrations.
What brought you to your illustration path and why did you decide to pursue it?
I had an unconventional route to my current career path. People are surprised to hear I used to be a lawyer. I have always loved drawing, and I grew up immersed in the worlds of Calvin and Hobbes, Roald Dahl, Narnia, Studio Ghibli, etc. However, I was discouraged by my parents from pursuing art seriously and didn’t know anyone that had a creative career, so I had a limited outlook as to what was possible. I really think it makes such a big difference to have role models you can aspire to, especially as a child.
My career began in law, going straight from an economics undergrad to law school before joining a big corporate law firm for four years. It was actually my ‘dream firm,’ and I still value and continue to benefit from the work ethic I developed there. But having finally reached what people saw as success, I found I was deeply unfulfilled.
After a lot of consideration, I decided to take a risk and try to find work I felt passionate about. My first “leap” was to go from law to a design agency as a project lead.
It was an intense work environment. I quickly learned a lot about coding and graphic design, and really saw the creative possibilities in our digital age. I still didn’t imagine that I could be a freelance illustrator at this time, but I started to draw again at night as a form of therapeutic release. I also began posting my drawings on Instagram — this was in 2013 when it wasn’t as saturated and ad-driven yet. Though my posts were very basic doodles, I received genuinely positive reactions from people who connected with their sentiments. And, to my surprise, I started receiving commission requests!
About three years ago I decided to take my second leap of faith. Using my savings, I gave myself six months to focus on building my illustration skills and see how far I could go in freelancing. Six months turned into a year and from there it just kept going, and before I knew it I was realizing a dream I didn’t even really dare to admit to myself I had. Now, I love being able to build visual worlds and to share stories with others. I am grateful every day.
What is storyboarding, exactly? How do you use it and how does it fit into your creative process? How does it help you to achieve your goals?
What it is. Storyboarding is basically using rough illustrations to visualize the sequence of a storyline or user experience. It can be for a book, a video, a game, etc. I love drawing and creativity, but I also really enjoy planning and organizing. To me, storyboarding combines all of that.
A Game Plan. When creating any sort of story-driven work, storyboarding is very important to my process. It’s like laying out the game plan before diving into the drills. It helps me think through the messages and emotions I want to convey, and how to best represent them in a picture. It is meant to be loose and rough, so you don’t get caught up in the details while still working out the big picture.
Works for Many Formats. The actual visuals and elements of a storyboard will vary depending on your project. A traditional 32-page picture book is a great example for basic storyboarding because it’s a condensed, straight-line structure that still tells an entire story. A feature film can have thousands of storyboard panels, while a storyboard for an app interaction may include more interface instruction.
Helps You Stay Focused. Getting the storyboard to a good place is critical in making sure I don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when I dive into creating the visuals. I always keep it nearby as I start coloring and flushing out the script, allowing myself flexibility to edit but keeping my mind on the overall vision. It’s also very important when I’m working with a collaborator or client, to make sure we’re on the same page. I really believe story is the most critical aspect; even the most beautiful visuals ring empty if the storytelling is weak, while simple line drawings can evoke a lot of emotion if told in the right sequence with the right message.
What tools (analog and digital) do you use for your storyboarding and illustration? How do these tools fit into your workflow and help you to create your final work?
1. Good ol’ paper and pencil for thumbnailing. In general, I start on paper with the roughest basic thumbnails because that’s where I can think most intuitively. They’re pretty much scribbles that only I understand. PS - I love Palomino Blackwing and Prismacolor Col-Erase Blue pencils for sketching.
2. Procreate for sketch iterations. When I’m feeling good about my thumbnails, I’ll move onto digital tools because they’re best for iterating and refining. Procreate is great for drawing and thinking through my thumbnails in more detail. However, because each image is one file, it’s hard for me to get a sense of the big picture.
3. Concepts for storyboarding. I like to use Concepts to place the sketches in a neat storyboard because of its infinite canvas interface. I like to create a simple linework panel based off my rough Procreate sketches, and Concepts’ vector system makes it easy to move panels around, edit shapes and align elements.
4. Photoshop for final art. Once the storyboard is in a good place, I’ll then move it into Adobe Photoshop for coloring the final illustrations and InDesign for creating the print files.
Would you be willing to walk us through your storyboarding process?
Sure, here’s how I’d go about working through a typical picture book as an example.
1. Writing. Assuming I’m writing the text, my general process is to first come up with an idea and write out a basic script. I’ll focus on just the words and message and run it by a few people to get their thoughts. My goal here is to make sure the heart of the content is solid.
2. Thumbnailing. Once I have the basic script in a good place, I’ll start storyboarding out the sequence. As mentioned above, I like to start with really rough thumbnails to start visualizing some of the ideas I have in my head.
3. Show, Don’t Tell. In this stage I think about how to express the feeling and sentiment I want to convey. A series of illustrations has different design questions compared to one painting. I make a lot of decisions such as how to reveal key story elements and how to incorporate a sense of dynamism in the panel developments.
It’s also important to think through what is conveyed through words versus visuals. Sometimes you realize you need some more clarification or more panels. But even better, you realize there are things you didn’t need to say because the pictures show them. A lot of humor and poignancy in picture books comes from the illustration showing something different from the text. Hiding some easter eggs and surprise details is fun, too!
4. Thinking Through the User Experience. As hinted at above, a lot of illustration is about design. A great thing about storyboarding is getting an immediate sense of the page turns of a book, which play a big role in the experience of the story.
How can you surprise your reader, showing them something they did not expect or revealing something in the picture that the words do not say? How can you provide that sense of wonder on a flat piece of paper, drawing someone into a character’s mind and then zooming out into a wide perspective landscape?
I think it’s a similar thought process if you’re working on storyboarding for an app, game, video — what are the cuts and angles, and how does it reveal the story in a way that is enjoyable for the viewer given the framework and purpose of your platform?
5. Sketch + Iterate (and Review, if Collaborating!). Sometimes panels come out exactly how I want it from the very first sketch. Others take iteration after iteration, trying different angles, building up, simplifying. Sometimes you need to take some time away from it and come back with fresh eyes. It’s important to keep an eye on the big picture and the overall flow while accounting for significant details and plot points.
When working with a client or collaborator, I’ll put the storyboard spreads into a Keynote PDF so they can flip through it and really get a sense of the pace and rhythm. I have always had good feedback with this approach.
6. Now… On to Actual Picture Making! That’s a lot to get through before refining the actual drawings, but I think it’s important to lay a strong foundation as best you can upfront.
Mimi is the founder and creative director of Mimochai, a story + illustration studio based in DTLA. She enjoys creating meaningful characters and products, and helping clients do the same. In her spare time, she likes exploring cities, being in nature and having a beer.
Except as otherwise noted, all photos and images in this article are courtesy of Mimi Chao.
Interview by Erica Christensen — Director of Community at TopHatch