Hi Cailiin! Thanks for such a great question! :D
In the most general sense, a storyboard artist’s job is to translate a script into images. You’ve probably seen boards for movies before: they show all the important beats of the story and help the crew visualize where to put the camera as well as how to handle complex shots. In that sense, storyboards are a planning tool.
In animation, boards are pretty darn important because you don’t have a set or actors or even a real camera, so boards are the place where you figure out your staging and how your characters act out their lines. Since animation is necessarily a collaborative effort, boards are reeeeally really helpful to make sure all animators are working from the same plan.
Before I go any further, I should point out: the animators who work from these boards are often in places like Korea and Japan. Like every other industry, animation was outsourced during the nineties.The pre-production work (primarily design and storyboards) stayed in the US, and the hard work of actually making that stuff move was exported to foreign countries. As a result, storyboards for animation have become fantastically complicated, because they have to detail every single movement — you don’t want to leave some poor animator in Korea scratching his head about how the US studio wants a character to get from point A to point B. The goal is to leave nothing up to chance.
This is the real work of storyboards for animation. How that work manifests depends on the production you’re working on; my experience is in primetime comedy (Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers) but there’s also action adventure, feature, kids’, and miscellaneous others. (Incidentally, I know there are some artists from each of those genres here on Tumblr, so maybe they’ll chime in with their experiences. :D) The bulk of the work in primetime comedy goes into acting, which makes sense because these shows are so writing-driven. There’s a lot of work put into posing out (breaking down) facial expressions and actions for each line. I don’t have any FG or BB boards handy, but here are some homework boards I did for a class at Concept Design Academy (a Seinfeld episode translated into storyboards … with Avatar characters, lol):
It’s worth noting that these boards wouldn’t fly on FG because a) they’re not clean enough (too sketchy, and I was too hurried to matte in white behind the character lines :F) and not on model (FG boards are more on model than any other show I’ve ever worked on, which isn’t surprising given that 90% of the time the characters are in 3/4s perspective) and b) they aren’t posed out enough (and the expressions are too subtle). But this at least should give you an idea how much each action is broken down. (This is maybe … two or three lines? Last week I did fifty pages of boards — so 100 panels — for about a page and a half of dialogue.) Here’s another example of posing out something very simple:
(Note on that first panel: the shows I’ve worked on say nodding is verboten. It’s hard to animate well. But if I was doing a nod now, I’d break that further down into up and down poses.)
Besides drawing, there’s also a lot of nitty gritty stuff that’s part of the job. The little arrows and camera notes are all there to help make your intent absolutely excruciatingly clear to the animator (who may not speak English). They’re also important because it’s sometimes hard to pick up on subtle movements from frame to frame. For instance, in FG, we do a lot of small head tilts that are very hard to detect if you’re looking at a printout. Fortunately, you have a special area for the nitty gritty:
Action notes! Action notes are a written description of what’s going on in the panel, usually in the simplest, most direct words you can use. Action notes can be a) bits of the script b) camera movements (for instance: “cam adj with movement” for when you want the camera to follow a character as they walk) c) literal notes about each action like above or d) cycling instructions (for instance, you might say “cycle this panel with next” if you’re showing a character’s shoulders/head moving up and down for laughter). Dial is pretty straightforward — whatever’s being said for that panel. And Slg (slugging) is something I just don’t touch. It is a mystery etc etc. The last important job duty of a storyboard artist is that of continuity checker:
You can see that Katara and Sokka are in the same poses from panel 7 to panel 1. (Sokka has actually turned his head slightly; if I was doing this today, I’d add one more pose before panel 1 — notated as a start pose — where he’s still looking up.) This is called a hook up, and it’s a big big thing to keep track of, especially in more actiony-type scenes where you’re cutting on action. It may not seem like a big deal, just remembering to pick up where you left off (so to speak), but hook ups can become a headache when you’re dealing with inevitable rewrites. My job as a revisionist is a lot of figuring out how to stitch scenes back together when bits and pieces have been cut/moved/rewritten.
Anyway, I think that’s enough rambling for one day. I hope that sheds a little light into what storyboarding for animation is like!