Train Heist Process

The Assignment
The Train Heist is originally an exercise that they do during the Pixar story internship. I should clarify that I never interned at Pixar myself, but like many story artists I have great admiration for their process and have always been interested in the assignments they use to train story artists.

For this assignment, the interns get a set of 25 dry story beats. ("A western locomotive steams down the wide open plains", "Inside one of the cars is a safe guarded by two men working for the bank", etc.) The beats may sound simple but it can be a real challenge to translate them into a clear, fast-paced action scene.

The objective of the assignment is to storyboard a clear and exciting sequence by keeping the audience oriented and maintaining screen-direction. Apart from that you are encouraged to create robbers with specific characters, as opposed to generic western outlaws.

In the past I would always begin working on a sequence by exploring and thumbnailing on paper. It can be very nice to see your sketches for a sequence on the same page. Although I still like to sketch moments from my sequences on paper, I have moved more and more away from thumbnailing my scenes. Instead of doing a series of small sketches of my shots on large sheets, I draw my roughs direct in photoshop, at the same size as my actual storyboard.

Sometimes these explorations are so rough that nobody but me can make out what they are meant to mean. Initially I just use these rough boards to try out different things. This process allows me to quickly try out different approaches to a shot and gives me an idea as to how my shots will cut to each other.

Although these roughs can be messy and unreadable, they usually start getting clearer as I move forward. When I'm working on a film, I can usually use them to pitch my ideas and it has even happened that these rough storyboards turned out to be clear enough to use in the reel. Because of this, these rough panels have become a great way for me to streamline my process. They allow me to work a lot faster!

Train Heist Rough Pass
Below are the rough panels I did for this sequence. I think they are clear enough for you to understand what is going on, but please remember that these were not meant to be seen by anyone. I'm just sharing these here to give you some insight into my thought-process. In general these are pretty close to the final sequence but some things have changed. I don't want my roughs to constrict me and if I get a better idea I'll use it in favor for what was in the roughs.

You might also notice some differences in the height and appearance of the main characters. These are not accidental, some of the panels are from an earlier pass where the robbers had a different design.

Click on the first image to view the whole sequence in the lightbox picture viewer. You can move through it by clicking the panels, or by using the arrow keys on your keyboard.