The Future Of Storyboarding: Blender For Pre-Production

Looking for a quicker way to storyboard? Or a new creative niche? Or simply want to mix things up? 

Hopefully, this User Story can help. 

Alexandre Heboyan is an animation director based in France. He works on large international projects — and smaller scale, more personal films. As well as directing and animating, he’s a senior storyboard artist.

Here, we explore Alexandre’s use of Blender, especially his enthusiasm for Grease Pencil, hybrid 2D/3D storyboarding, tips and favourite tutorials, and his thoughts on VR as part of the production pipeline. 

Inspired by Alexandre’s Blender experience? Download Blender here. As always, it’s free to use for any purpose.  

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan demonstrates his hybrid Grease Pencil/3D workflow for storyboarding.
A still from the animatic for Alex’s forthcoming film, Maryam & Varto. “In the past, an animatic would take me weeks. With Blender, it took a couple of days.”

Meet Alexandre Heboyan

Alex studied 2D animation at the celebrated GOBELINS school of visual arts in Paris, an institution that supplies world-class talent to major studios like Disney, Pixar, and Universal. 

In a career that’s taken him from France to Hollywood and back, Alex has absorbed diverse approaches to storytelling. There’s the blockbuster style from his time as an animator for DreamWorks, working on Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs Aliens. And, returning to Paris, a more whimsical vision in Mune: Guardian Of The Moon, which Alex co-directed, and stars iconic French actors like Omar Sy. Mune: Guardian Of The Moon synthesized Alexandre’s creative influences: 3D from his time at DreamWorks, and 2D from his education at GOBELINS.

A still from Mune: Guardian of the Moon, directed by Alexandre Heboyan.
A still from Alex’s movie, Mune: Guardian Of The Moon (2014).

Maryam & Varto         

Alexandre has a couple of projects in development. But he’s also working on an independent animated feature, Maryam & Varto — which promises to be beautiful and thrilling. You can see an animatic here.

Before we explore why Alexandre loves Blender, and how he’s using it for Maryam & Varto, it’s worth explaining why he found this project so compelling. 

Maryam & Varto is an independent film co-written and directed by Alexandre and Gorune Aprikian. It takes place during the Armenian people’s darkest hour: their oppression by the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Alexandre and Gorune have Armenian roots, and the story is based on this shared past. Alex: “A hundred years ago, there was a huge diaspora of Armenians all over the world, including my grandparents, who came to France. And that’s why I’m here today.”  

Against these huge, tragic events, Maryam & Varto tells the intimate story of two Armenian children fleeing the Ottomans… and encountering an unlikely ally. “The story of two Armenian kids being rescued by a Turkish teenager is based on reality,” says Alex. “Events like this really did occur.”  

While Maryam & Varto aims to raise awareness around a heartbreaking period, it will do so in an accessible way. “It’s a deep and intense subject,” Alex says, “But we chose to avoid a super harsh tone. There have been a few films done on this topic, and they’ve been very dark. Here, we’re going for pure story: two kids and a teenager running away, and becoming friends. It’s serious, of course, but we’re mainly going for an adventure that engages the audience.” 

Films like Maryam & Varto tend to have a limited budget, but thanks to Blender Alex’s creative horizons have expanded. Literally. “Maryam & Vato takes place in this vast Anatolian landscape, which is all about space and endless horizons. Having 3D as part of my workflow really helps to convey this.”  

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan keeps his whole storyboarding workflow in Blender, from drawing to animating to editing.
Keeping everything in Blender: Alex edits clips, creates assets, and draws… all without leaving the software.

Blender’s Hybrid 2D/3D Workflow 

Alex has always been attracted to multidisciplinary ways of working. “I love to mix techniques. And that’s what Blender is so good at. Blender reflects my artistic interests. From the perspective of what I do, it offers this perfect mix of 2D and 3D.” 

For storyboarding, Alex often combines Grease Pencil with low poly assets. He’s so passionate about this workflow that he’s considering it as the basis for his whole production. “Maryam & Varto was supposed to be a 2D film, but I’m pushing to make it in Blender, using 2D animation against a 3D environment.” 

A combination of Grease Pencil and polygons for layout work.
Using a combination of polygons and Grease Pencil to do layout work.

Alex has been working with Blender intensively for a year and a half, including a year for production purposes. Acquiring these new skills has been relatively easy. “There are so many great artists and tutorials on YouTube you can learn from,” Alex says. “Every time you have a question, you get ten videos explaining the answer. As I learned, I found myself wondering: ‘How come nobody has ever thought of this workflow before?’ You’d expect some big software company would have come up with this, but no. These days, I can’t think of another way to work.”     

He continues: “I really am in love with this hybrid workflow. It’s especially amazing for someone like me, who has to nail his ideas as fast as possible.” 

Blender helps Alex circumvent a problem he’s seen repeatedly within the more traditional pipeline. “After a year of having this 2D vision in my head,” he says, “I often find that the design has to be rethought when it comes to 3D. But with Blender, you’re able to draw in Grease Pencil and also work in 3D, which means you get a very solid creative vision early on. It’s already an accurate representation of a 3D world.”

“And I love that Grease Pencil is so flexible. You can tweak, duplicate, and remodel your lines very easily using the sculpt tools. Options you wouldn’t have in raster-based painting software.” 

For example: eye movement. 

Alex explains: “With Grease Pencil, it’s so easy to grab the pupils and move them. You don’t need to erase or redraw anything. I’m just faster in Blender. Even if I’m only using the 2D workspace, no 3D cameras or models.”

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan explores a handheld camera effect with noise in Blender.
Alex works on a handheld camera effect using noise.

A New Workflow: Pre-Production Becomes Production 

On top of Maryam & Varto, Alex is working on an international animated project. Blender helps Alex visualize the film cost-effectively, giving a solid sense of the overall project. “I’m pushing a way of working where we do a first pass in Blender, using only low-poly characters and environments. Plus some basic rendering in EEVEE, and a bit of rigging. Basically, staging each scene in Blender to get a feel for it. Then capturing stills of these 3D images and using them as the basis for more refined 2D art. Which in turn fuels the more traditional 3D part of the production.”

In other words, an advanced form of pre-visualization. Alex: “The point is to make a start using Blender, get a rough approach in CG, before production kicks in.” 

Which simplifies the whole pipeline. “Your foundation is already there. During production, when the modellers come in, they’re using Blender’s assets as a basis for their work. The scale is already correct, and we already have low-poly assets. And now it’s just about making everything in high definition. Which is not easy, of course, but it is more straightforward; you don’t have to ask yourself, ‘Is this asset going to work with that asset?’ Or: ‘Will the layout team need a bigger environment?’ No, because that’s already been decided in Blender, so it’s fine.” 

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan shares part of his 2D/3d hybrid workflow in Blender.
A quick layout using Grease Pencil.

Hybrid Storyboarding: Your New Career? 

“When I talk about Grease Pencil with other directors, even with producers, they always love it. Directors are into Grease Pencil because they can previsualize their film, including expressive character drawings in a CG environment, with cameras. Producers love it because it saves time in production — many creative choices have already been nailed.” 

But there’s a challenge, and an opportunity. “It’s hard to find people who do hybrid storyboarding,” Alex says. “I assume that in ten years, you’ll have many artists working in this way. But at the moment, it’s still new. I know very few boarders using Grease Pencil.” 

For Alex, education alone doesn’t solve the issue. “Producers will sometimes say, ‘Just train your storyboarders to use this workflow.’ But I think it’s deeper than that. It’s a question of culture. You see, if you show a story artist Blender, they say, ‘That’s wonderful, that looks great, but that’s not how I think.’ Story artists mostly think in 2D.”

Still, Alex has noticed a new breed of boarder emerging. “You see a lot of younger people, just coming from school, people who have grown up in a world of 3D film. They use 3D more easily, and they’re already using Blender. In a few years, you’ll see more and more people like this.”

Currently, however, the only hybrid storyboarder on Alex’s team is… Alex. “I think this technique delivers the most value in action sequences, where space and camera movement are paramount. As opposed to comedy or drama, where the core of the scene is about timing and performance. There you can convey what’s needed with a traditional, flat storyboard.”

So if you’re looking to add action to your storyboarding — or start storyboarding in the first place — a hybrid approach may be the way to go. 

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan shares a storyboarding shot breakdown made in Blender.
Alex shares a shot breakdown.

Virtual Location Scouting

Talking of the future of production: for the last couple of years, Alex has been busy with a project made in Oculus’ Quill software. As part of this endeavour, he exports VR assets into Blender. Alex’s conclusion? “For me, personally, VR is too intense for storyboarding.”  

Where VR comes into its own is at the review stage, especially when judging a scene as a whole, and planning camera angles. “For instance, I get an environment done in 3D, low poly, by a designer. Then I take a look in VR. Immediately, I think, ‘Oh, it would be nice to have a camera here. Or over there.’ We’re going to use Blender now to do these reviews because it’s so easy. So I don’t even have to leave Blender!”     

The VR review idea can be applied to more than environments. “It’s helpful for props, even characters: I want to see them in VR because then they’re right in front of you. And I think that, more and more, that’s where this workflow is going: you see something in VR, you adjust an asset, or place a camera, and then you can go back to the traditional screen world, because — at the end of the day — we’re doing a feature on a 2D screen.” 

Sound interesting? As it happens, developing Blender’s Virtual Reality capabilities is one of 2021’s big goals. Read more in this post.

Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan shows how to use Grease Pencil objects and light sources to add drama to a storyboard.
Combining Grease Pencil objects with light sources for extra drama.

Alex’s Quick Tips

  • For lines in Grease Pencil, Alex keeps it simple. “A storyboarder’s work will always be replaced with a 3D image, so I stick to basics. The pencil tool is more than enough for what I need.” In fact, Alex considers the pencil tool so good, he’ll be using it in the final version of Maryam & Varto. Alex: “Those Grease Pencil lines will be on screen. The line and the render will all be Grease Pencil.” 
  • Alex likes the shadow effects created by Grease Pencil materials. “When you bring a light into the face of a character, you get this nice soft shadow. It looks amazing. It’s not flat anymore.”
  • He’s a big fan of the sculpting brush, and not just for refining lines. “I’m using this constantly. You can use it to create squash and stretch. In fact, you can pretty much re-pose a character this way.”
  • Because storyboarding relies on speed, Alex animates Grease Pencil objects in minimal ways. “For instance, if I’m animating a character walking, I’ll animate the Grease Pencil object along its axis, with ups and downs, as the basis for the walk cycle. Which means I have to draw less. You can get a lot of expressivity out of just animating this one drawing.”        
  • To get started with hybrid storyboarding, Alex recommends the Spitfire Storyboards channel on YouTube: “It’s the best. I learned so much.” 
Animation Director Alexandre Heboyan demonstrates his hybrid Grease Pencil/3D workflow for storyboarding.
Alex demonstrates his 2D/3D hybrid workflow.

For more Alexandre Heboyan, check out his Vimeo. As well as Alex’s animatic for Maryam & Varto, you can catch up on the rest of Alex’s storyboarding work, his demo reel for DreamWorks, and more.