Sunday, April 03, 2005

Storyboard Summit Report

Banff Centre Dining Room Exterior Photo
The Banff Centre - Professional Development Centre.

This past Easter long weekend, I participated in the Boarding: Stories & Snow Summit at the remarkable, artist-friendly Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta. An environment, that in agreement with the website statement, "acts as a catalyst for creative thought, lifelong learning, and the development of new work."

Not only did I have the good fortune to be among friends and associates, amazing industry talent, receptive workshop attendees, and supportive facilitation staff, but it was all held in the beauty of the majestic Canadian Rockies, an environment that breathes energy into the soul, creatively and spiritually. Even living in Alberta, it has been a few years since I've been to Banff so it was a welcome journey and one that I was very eager to begin.

Banff Cascade Mountain Photo
View of Cascade Mountain from downtown Banff.

Though a lot of the snow had melted in Alberta weeks ago, we had another couple of heavy snowfalls since then which could have made for some nasty driving weather. Thankfully, the weather was quite good for highway driving and walking around the town of Banff. Light snow fell on one or two days mixed with a bit of wind, but you could stroll around without having to wear a ton of layers, which is nice when going into shops.

Map to Banff from Edmonton Graphic
Nearly 4.5 hours of driving from Edmonton to Banff (426 kilometers / 265 miles). But well worth the journey.

I woke up early Thursday morning, and accompanied by music from my iPod, a can of Red Bull, some Power Bars, and a warm cup of Hazelnut-flavored coffee, left for Calgary around 3:00 a.m. I arrived in Calgary about 6:15 and we departed for Banff at 7:00. I decided to leave the TJ (or Wrangler as it's known in the U.S.) in Calgary and car pool with my cousin in his Volkswagen Golf, which gets a little better milage than the Jeep. Unfortunately on the way out of Calgary, Jay caught the eye of law enforcement officer keeping the city streets safe on the long weekend. After pulling over, the officer graciously gave Jay an autographed piece of paper with some kind of dollar figure on it. Despite this incident, the rest of the drive was uneventful. Arriving in Banff, we noticed the hoards of Skiers and Snowboarders waiting at the hotel shuttle stops, no doubt anxious to get out on the slopes. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Banff Centre campus, checked in, received our Artist IDs and parking pass, and headed over to the first workshop at the Max Bell Building.

Banff Centre Max Bell Building Exterior Photo
The Max Bell Building where we found the meeting rooms for the Summit.

First up on that Friday morning was Peter Hansen from NAIT's (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) Digital and Interactive Media Design department and facilitator of the Summit, who gave a rundown of the Summit timeline and then proceeded to discuss storyboard uses, the formats, and their creation. Using an outtake story sequence from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner as an example, he challenged the attendees to guess which film it came from. We were then asked to participate in a group exercise and question whether or not we preferred the outtake sequence or the filmed version. We were also asked to identify what was similar in the two versions and also which version we preferred. The overall diverse group, which consisted of storyboard artists, animators, web designers, film and video directors, illustrators, and video game designers, all seemed to participate with great enthusiasm. Even, if like myself, they already had knowledge of storyboarding.

After a break where we discovered that there's always food around the Banff Centre, Character Artist Chris Tougas took over the workshop. Chris started off by talking about conceptualizing characters for books, animated films, and television shows. He described his methods, the difficulty in working with studios, the percentage of concepts actually taken past development stages, and how to put together a pitch. Tougas had us partake in an exercise where we were chose a few words from his list and illustrated some stick figures with that emotion or feeling. He stressed how important it was to keep the figures asymmetrical and to add motion, while keeping them loose and gestural. After much scribbling, Peter picked up the sketches and Chris placed some of them on the overhead projector for us to guess which emotion the characters were conveying. After much laughter, Chris went back to his presentation. He talked about how studios want properties that are 'toyetic' and have characters that can be made into toy lines, helping the studios with their profits. He referred to conceptualizing and storyboarding as 'acting with a pencil,' a very accurate description in my opinion.

Banff Centre Dining Room Interior Photo
The Banff Centre Dining Room Interior.

We were then treated to a scrumptious lunch in the spacious Banff Centre Dining Room, which has a breathtaking view of some of the Rockies. Imagine a large wood-finished dining room (not overly ornate) with many large round tables (which furthers the creative group feeling,) expansive windows looking out onto snow covered mountain peaks, with elk or caribou that come grazing by, and you've got a pretty idea of how a simple lunch break can turn into a truly memorable experience.

Banff Centre Dining Room Sunset View Photo
Sunset view from The Banff Centre Dining Room.

After lunch we were introduced to Woody Woodman, a Director / Animator who recently completed Tugger: The Jeep Who Wanted To Fly. Being a Jeep owner and enthusiast, I was riveted by Woody's presentation and though it's produced by a smaller studio, it has all the heart of a much larger-budgeted film. And this we picked up without seeing any actual 3D footage! We did get to witness Woody's 2D storyboard reel pitch, timed to music with Woody himself providing all the great narration. Woody had such a clear, evocative voice that he easily conveyed every major story point.

Still Image from Tugger: The Jeep Who Wanted to Fly
Tugger: The Jeep Who Wanted To Fly.

Woody continued his presentation by elaborating on Chris Tougas' comments on character development, driving home the importance of story, concept, theme, iconic characters, and being able to read them quickly. He cited Walt Disney's Pinocchio and Dumbo as examples of stories that make it clear what the character's motivation is. For Woody's group exercise, we received a set of story panels (one picture on a page) and were told to mix them up on the floor and then create a story from the jumble of images. As there were 5 or 6 groups, the resulting stories, when told in front of the rest of us, were similar yet different enough to evoke energetic laughter. By doing this exercise, we discovered how changing one or two story points can affect the outcome of the story. One of the many 'wow' moments of the Summit. Woody's presentation led us up to another break where more food and drink were waiting for us and we had a chance to meet other participants.

Back in Max Bell Room 252 once again, Kris Pearn of Sony Pictures Imageworks enlightened us on his career in the animation industry and followed up on the creation of characters and the art of the pitch. An important point Kris mentioned was that it is necessary to 'pick your battles,' knowing when to give in to Directors, Producers, or Supervisors, and when to fight for what you believe to be the right way or idea. Kris was again an energetic speaker who had us all listening intently to his knowledge. Kris' group exercise was to have us do rapid storyboarding, where we were given a few story points revolving around an ice cream vendor, make up and draw the story on storyboard sheets and present them to the crowd. As was evidenced before, the results met with applause and laughter. Tougas, Woodman, and Pearn then allowed the group to come up and view some of their portfolios and ask further questions. Much of the group indulged in the opportunity.

Banff Centre Lougheed Building Photo Composition
The Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Building which houses the Creative Electronic Environment.

The group then received a tour of the Creative Electronic Environment located in the Lougheed Building. A technology hub of the Banff Centre, which offers film and video editing suites, television studios, audio production booths, a 3D visualization room, and video conference facility.

At 5:30, after an enlightening introductory day (I missed Thursday's orientation meeting) it was time for dinner. Another delicious meal and dessert was followed by Kris Pearn's presentation in the Max Bell Auditorium, where he also fielded questions from the crowd. Winding down the day, a large portion of the group headed over to the 'on campus' Props Pub and discussed the finer points of creativity over a few 'special beverages.'

Banff Rundle Mountain Photo
View of Rundle Mountain from The Banff Centre.

Saturday was an optional skiing and snowboarding day for anybody that signed up to participate. The weather at the Centre was quite windy, so I can only imagine what it was like on the ski hill. Though my cousin and I declined to go, I understand that those who went experienced the wonderful world of learning to do something for the first or second time. My understanding was that it involved lots of falling on the posterior of the human anatomy.

Banff Downtown Photo
Downtown Banff. Though there was a lot less snow when we were there.

Jason and I decided to walk around the shops in Banff and try to locate hiking stick emblems for my father and uncle. This activity proved difficult and seemed to confirm that most people come to Banff to camp, ski, snowboard, or attend conferences. Hiking seems to be more prevalent in Jasper National Park where many shops carry the emblems. Walking down the main street, I recognized Ronnie del Carmen, (who would be the guest speaker at the evening banquet and conducting a workshop on Sunday,) Peter's wife Ruby (giving them the guided tour,) and the Woodmans. We made sure to tell them to hit the Fudge shop, which offers a plethora of hand-made chocolate sweets and is a 'must-stop' when visiting Banff. But looking at all of their bags, they had already visited the tantalizing store. Of course we made our stop there to pick up sweets for our families at home and headed back to the Banff Centre to enjoy another mouth-watering lunch with part of the Storyboarding group and special guests.

Photo of Jason Blower and Chad Kerychuk at the Banff Centre
Jason Blower and me, Chad Kerychuk.

After lunch, Jay and I headed back into town and decided to go watch Robots at the Lux Cinema Centre. It held a few laughs, looked nice, but cannot compare to Pixar's films. Wandering around the shops again, we finally managed to locate some hiking stick emblems - at the last store we stopped in (where I was able to practice my Japanese greetings and thanks) - and then back to the Centre to get ready for the Banquet Dinner with Ronnie as the Keynote speaker.

Banff Centre Storyboard Summit Guest Panel Photo
Chris Tougas, Jorden Oliwa, and Ronnie Del Carmen.

While we enjoyed a delicious dinner provided by The Banff Centre, Ronnie del Carmen took to the podium in the Dining Room and began his presentation. If you haven't had a chance to listen to Ronnie speak before, he is not only engaging, but passionate, informative, and overall, immensely entertaining, letting his humorous side show and with it, capturing the audience's attention. A few days before the Summit, Rick Cortes, a friend from The Drawing Board who lives in the Los Angeles area, commented to me that when Ronnie came down to practice his presentation on them, it was nothing less than 'inspiring.' Truer words were never spoken. The Banff Centre Banquet Dinner audience were captivated by Ronnie's Keynote speech in which he talked about creating stories, collaborating with artists and studio executives, and along with his work at other animation companies, his role as Story Supervisor at Pixar Animation Studios.

Ronnie also treated us to a small short story reel he developed in which a young boy goes out in the rain to play, and rescues his little friend, an ant, from drowning in a puddle. In a technological feat of amazement, Ronnie actually used the keyboard on the PowerBook to step through the drawings in the QuickTime Story Reel, timing the transitions with music, which was playing independently in iTunes. The potential for loss of synchronization was high, but Ronnie made it look easy. The story itself was simple, and as was the case with me, I'm sure many in the audience could relate to it. Ronnie completed his Keynote speech and we were treated to a Question and Answer Panel with all of the guest speakers. It was informative and entertaining, allowing the audience to ask questions they may not have a chance to ask otherwise, and easily one of the many highlights of the Summit. The group all received individual scenic photos from The Banff Centre in appreciation for their participation.

Banff Centre Storyboard Summit Guest Speakers Photo
Woody Woodman (Ravenwood Entertainment), Kris Pearn (Sony Pictures Imageworks), Ronnie del Carmen (Pixar Animation Studios), Chris Tougas (Character Designer / Story Artist), and Jorden Oliwa (Storyboard Artist / Animator).

The creative talk didn't stop there though, another gathering at Props Pub commenced, where we all engaged in further conversation, followed by a visit to a dance club called 'Aurora' in downtown Banff. Dancing ensued, mixed with further inebriation for some, and the night carried on into the early morning hours. Arriving back at Lloyd Hall, where my accommodations were, I watched a bit of James Bond in For Your Eyes Only and hit the sack.

Banff Centre Dining Room Exterior Photo
The Banff Centre Dining Room Exterior.

Sunday began with a hearty breakfast in the Dining Room followed by the group gathering in Max Bell Room 252 again for Ronnie's workshop. Using his great sense of humor, he gave further insight into story development and we almost immediately got into our first group exercise for the day. We were asked to get together with some of the group around us and discuss how we were given our name. After the group huddles, we were then asked to nominate people to tell their stories.

It was immediately clear after only a few stories, that something so simple, as a story as to how each of us were named, could prove compelling and far more complex than most of us thought possible. It also became evident that certain 'themes' were developing in the telling of stories. For instance, several people were named after their father, or their father's father, carrying down a name through lineage, almost making it a generational requirement. We learned that stories need to resonate with the audience and the characters need to develop relationships that we can identify with.

Group Exercise Number Two from Ronnie had us huddled again, discussing a time when we were lost. Nearly every incredibly entertaining and amusing story was followed by uproarious laughter and applause. One participant by the name of Dan had such an astounding story, acted out with great enhthusiasm, it was as if he had participated in a real-life version of the Pitfall videogame. Again Ronnie had demonstrated to us how easy it can be to develop a story and how interesting the storyteller can be. He commented how most of us probably saw the shots and cuts (as if we were watching a film) in our head as the stories were being told and I'm pretty sure, most of us nodded in agreement. Ronnie remarked that along with the stories, the personality of the storytellers shone through, enhancing and broadening the tale's effect on the audience. He also recommended that attending a workshop on how to direct actors would be beneficial since it would give insight into how they approach and understand a character and their role in the story. Ronnie ended off his presentation by stating that Banff is indeed a 'vortex of creativity' and I certainly couldn't agree more.

Chad Kerychuk, Ronnie del Carmen, and Ken Bautista at the Banff Centre Photo
Me, Ronnie Del Carmen, and Ken Bautista.

Another tasty lunch and we began the afternoon workshops with Jorden Oliwa, a Storyboard Artist, Animator, and Illustrator. While Jorden's specialty is using Macromedia Flash to create animation for television series, he has worked on animatics, product pitches, music videos, and fittingly, snowboard design. Because of his experience, Jorden was able to provide a broad spectrum of knowledge in conceptual design and animation and how to use the technology to implement the ideas. We were treated to examples of his work including a compilation of his work on the series Mucha Lucha and an animated music video that reminded many of us of the previous night out at the Aurora club. Having spoke with Jordan at the Pub the previous night, I can attest that he not only diverse in his skills and interests, but also very approachable about them.

The afternoon winded down with two surveys and a summary exercise from Peter and Chris Tougas. We were divided into groups and played a Pictionary -style game. Taking turns rolling dice, we picked cards that featured a story element to draw, and had our own team guess what it was. The first team to get 12 right guesses then gave the correctly-guessed story elements to the next team to construct a story from, presenting them in front of the groups. Overall, a good exercise to encompass some of the stuff we learned over the weekend.

There was a fair number of people still around, so we had some individual discussions and continued to exchange contact information, generally stating as to what a great time we had. Monday was an optional skiing and snowboarding day but since a few of the group had left the previous day due to commitments, and much of the group would be leaving that Sunday, my cousin and I decided to venture back to Calgary as well after dinner. We had a nice dinner with Peter (being his usual animated self) and his family, as well as Terry Willox, Ken Bautista, and Amy Inkster. Peter's daughter received a gift from Ronnie consisting of two Paper Biscuit books, a story that Ronnie created featuring a young woman named Nina. She beamed like kid and in a candy store and had the rest of us quite envious. We had fun chatting about her favorite comics which included the great Calvin and Hobbes and even discussed one of her own character creations.

Banff Centre Dining Room Group Photo
Counter-Clockwise from left: Peter Hansen (NAIT), daughter Donna Leny, and Peter's wife Ruby, Jason Blower, Amy Inkster, Ken Bautista, and Terry Willox in the Banff Centre Dining Room.

Jay and I had a scenic drive out of Banff, seeing the Rockies fade into foothills and then into cityscape. Arriving in Calgary at 9:30 p.m., I took off for Edmonton and approached home around midnight. Settling in that late night / early morning, I was filled with a sense of creative fulfillment that wouldn't have been possible if not for all the fantastic organizers and participants that put this thing together.

Special thanks go out to: The Banff Centre and the Banff New Media Institute Accelerator Program including Lindsey Aufricht, Sherry Moir, and the rest of their helpful collaborators, Peter Hansen (who is a truly funny and down-to-Earth guy) and NAIT, Ken Bautista (who I'm privileged to call a like-minded friend and who also helped get me to the Summit in the first place) and his company, Hotrocket, the many sponsors, and especially, Ronnie del Carmen, Kris Pearn, Woody Woodman, Chris Tougas, and Jorden Oliwa for giving up their Easter weekend with some of their family to come to Banff and inspire the attendees. They've left a profound impact on their audience.

If you haven't been there already, head over to Ronnie's blog, Tirade, for more photos and rundown of the Summit.

And if I forgot to mention anyone, please accept my apologies. I met so many great people, it's hard to remember everybody's name or how to spell it!

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