Storyboarding and the Origami Dinosaur Battle that Almost Was

Making a picture book on location — Part 1

I often imagine traditional illustrators at work. Desks littered with sketchpads and pigment markers and little jars of India ink, their latest work taped to the light box, crumpled paper in a halo around the wastebasket. Spreads begin as thumbnails, thumbnails become sketches, sketches are traced and redrawn. It’s iterative, solitary.

What we do is nothing like that.

The art in our books is photographed. The What the Dinosaurs Did series features real subjects, real props, and real locations. Movement and action rely (almost) entirely on practical, in-camera effects.

That was challenging enough when the stories we were telling took place in our home. For our latest entry, What the Dinosaurs Did at School, we took our act on the road.

Storyboarding For the Seat of Our Pants

Our process began the way most visual storytelling processes do, with storyboards. Storyboards serve two purposes:

  1. To communicate our vision to our editor.
  2. To help plan individual shots, including necessary props, location attributes, and production complexity. (Along with a more on a detailed shot list.)

Confession: Susan and I haven’t always given our storyboards the attention they deserve, as you’ll see in our example below. Plans change too quickly. Something always comes up that torpedoes some aspect of our original vision, or we find a new angle or gag we can’t resist. (Susan is basically a savant of last-minute creativity—you learn to roll with it.)

That seat-of-the-pants approach has, on occasion, come back to haunt us.

In What the Dinosaurs Did At School, the dinosaurs discover the library and make a racket (much to the chagrin of the student narrator). Here’s the storyboard:

Behold, our scribbles.

We scouted a beautiful elementary school library and started gathering props. A few days before the shoot, we decided to make a few changes to the original concept. Why stop with paper swords? Why not create a whole PAPER BATTLE? We’ll just need to build a book castle, fold a few dozen origami dinosaur soldiers, build a catapult…

Rex looks on as Susan constructs the turrets.
Poor Boris ended up being cut from the book. Next time, comrade. Next time.

It was a ton of work, but we finished the shoot feeling energized by what we’d accomplished. We got home, loaded the images onto the computer, leaned in to admire our work—

—and hated nearly everything about it.

The original library art. That carpet!

Sure, the scene was filled with fun details that, on their own, made for great gags. As a whole it was too noisy, too unfocused, too beige. The rows of books distracted from the action while our origami soldiers faded into the carpet. The castle drawbridge was lost at the back of the field.

It was a terrible feeling. We’d spent nearly a week of preparation and a full day of shooting and we wanted to crumple it all up and throw it in the trash. Worst of all? We had no alternate location and no time for reshoots. It was going in the book.

Libraries Are Magical

Fast forward a few weeks. We’d wrapped production on the rest of the art and felt great about how the book was coming together, but that shot continued to get us down.

Then, in a stroke of serendipity, I wandered into the downtown branch of the Kansas City Public Library. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The children’s section was beautiful. The walls, the furniture—even the carpet—they were all painted in our palette. Huge windows flooded the place with natural light. It was perfect.

The staff was incredible. They gave us free reign of the floor for whatever we wanted to do. We showed up with our dinosaurs and our gear two days later and got to work.

Photos by Clare Hollander, Librarian Extraordinaire

While we were shooting, a little girl came in to return a copy of What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night. The librarians informed her that the authors were shooting the sequel about ten feet to her right. Her face lit up, so they pulled up a chair for her to watch. Live studio audience FTW!

Here’s the final art:

Hooray for color that isn’t beige!

And here it is side by side with the original storyboard. It’s almost like we did it on purpose…

We’ll Never Learn

As our confidence as photographers and picture book makers has grown, storyboarding has become a more valuable part of our process. We have a better grasp of what we can plan for and what needs to stay flexible when we arrive on location, so we can use storyboards to hone our ideas, plan for more dynamic compositions, and ensure better variety in our camera angles.

Does this mean we’ll stop making rash last-minute decisions on location?

Find What the Dinosaurs Did At School anywhere books are sold.

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