Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #043 with Althea Aseoche.
This series has always focussed solely on scriptwriters. However, over the last two years, like a lot of writers, I’ve found that most of my work has been for animation. A big part of this involves having an understanding of how the medium actually works. So for this interview, I decided to try something different and focus on another form of writing, one that is an essential part of the animation process. This piece has two audiences in mind; those who write for the screen and are interested in animation and those who aspire to become a story artist themselves.
Althea was born in Davao City, Philippines, grew up in Sydney, Australia and now lives and works as a story artist in London. She has credits on HUGE shows such as Disney’s 101 Dalmatian Street and The Adventures of Paddington, and has taken on various other roles including concept artist, visual development and character design. There’s far too much to mention, so check out her CV for a full picture. It was fascinating to discuss the role of a story artist with Althea, her education and background, and how writers and story artists can collaborate together to create animated TV shows.
You’re a story artist for animation. Can you explain what your role entails?
The title of story artist was something I only recently became aware of. It is similar to a storyboard artist but the role of the story artist acknowledges that you are also a visual writer and are more heavily involved in shaping/reworking the story.
Both roles involve storyboarding–that is translating the written word on a page into visuals, using the language of cinematography to tell a story over time. But as a story artist, we might only get an outline, a short paragraph otherwise may need to heavily rework a script. It is often associated with story departments in feature films but more recently, these roles have popped up more in TV series as well.
In my experience, the distinction between the two roles is a lot more blurred. I have often been credited as a storyboard artist but have had to work on parts of an episode that needed to be board driven. Often it is an action scene or a musical scene where the script doesn’t give me much to work with or the director specifically asks to change or beef it up. I would argue that my role is closer to a story artist in these cases despite being credited as a storyboard artist.
Ultimately, whatever I am credited on a show is what I call myself on my CV.
I do love being invited to contribute more to the story as a visual writer but I’m quite happy to do both roles.
When did you start drawing and why?
I picked up drawing as a hobby quite late, when I was 14. I was inspired by the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and started to draw my own sci-fi comic (before I really knew what comics were).
Growing up I didn’t have access to a lot of pop culture beyond TV, magazines and the radio.
You graduated from the College of Fine Arts UNSW. What was the experience like?
I remember it being really fun years (but only after many years of forgetting how gruelling art theory was).
The course I did covered the vast areas of digital media from sound, videography, lighting, 3D, photography, web, desktop publishing … etc. I do remember being frustrated that we didn’t specialise much earlier in the course. It was also during a time when the 2D animation industry was phasing out and 3D and Flash were the only things around.
Being anime-influenced, I really wanted to learn 2D animation and basically had to teach myself from books and whatever I could scrap together from the internet (there weren’t many web tutorials back then.)
The best thing about it was making friends with an awesome bunch of talented folk who I consider as good friends of mine today, despite being on the other side of the globe.
Is it essential for artists to have formal education in order to make it as a story artist?
No, I wouldn’t say it is essential but attending uni was very fundamental to building my career because of the friends I made. One of those friends was very key to helping me get my foot in the door and for influencing my career choices which lead me to where I am today.
In terms of becoming a story artist, I learned from extra classes, friends, mentors, leads, co-workers and self-directed work. A lot of my education about story and cinematography came after my years at uni.
Are you a full time artist or do you balance with a day job?
I have been fortunate enough to be a full time artist for most of my career, particularly in the last few years but I do switch back and forth between full time (PAYE) contracts and freelance work.
Sometimes I do freelance in my spare time on top of a full time storyboard job. In terms of how I make it work, I try not to take on more than what I know I can handle. If I take on extra freelance on top of a full time job, it’s normally very short term. I’m at an age where pulling all nighters really destroys my ability to function properly!
What was your first credit as an artist and how did you land it?
My very first paid freelance job was doing illustrations for a PC game that was a promotional piece for a truck company. A fellow CoFA graduate who was a year older than me reached out to me to do this freelance work. I don’t remember exactly how he found me.
You’ve also had work published as comics. Is this a format that you’d like to do more of?
I’ve published only 2 short stories (both 2 pages long) through a kids magazine I also used to illustrate for, based in Australia called The School Magazine. I’m always dreaming about publishing my own graphic novel one day but the more my career in animation grows, the less likely it seems I’ll have time to work on one.
I do try to stay looped into the comics/graphic novel scene when I can, for example, I’m attending Thought Bubble this year (just as a spectator/spender though!)
What advice do you have for artists who want to get started in storyboarding?
You need storyboard samples in your portfolio. Not just this but you need samples that suit the job you are applying for. You must show that you understand what the role involves.
For example, I see a lot of people applying to TV series with samples that aren’t suitable for TV series. You need to demonstrate that you are at least aware of what a storyboard for the kind of project you’re applying for should look like. It’s easy enough to do this, find established storyboard artists in the industry working in the type of roles that you want to apply for and observe their portfolio samples.
The number one question professionals get asked is how to get a storyboarding job. A lot of storyboard jobs are found by word of mouth. Applying to any advertised role can be a shot in the dark and numbers of applications to these ads are often in the thousands! It’s better if you have someone you know within the company already who can put your name forward for the open role.
But what if you don’t know anybody?
I think the best tactic (that I’ve seen someone do) is to reach out to people already in the industry and ask for their feedback on your storyboard piece, your portfolio, your student film… anything you have. Be genuinely interested in the person and their work too, so reach out to some artists you like the work of, perhaps mention what it is you like about their work. It shows you’re genuinely wanting to make a connection and not just using them to find work. It might take them a while to respond (if at all)–professionals are busy folk.
But if you do hear back, please remember to drop them a note of thanks, even just a brief reply goes a long way. Several of my colleagues have been baffled about the amount of people reaching out for advice and not taking the time to even say a quick thanks.
It’s about forming relationships, keeping in touch whilst reminding people of what you want. If you make a good impression, these people will remember you when someone comes along and asks if they know anybody available to fill a role.
How important is it for artists to have an online presence?
These days, some form of online presence really does help.
I have heard recruiters love to find artists over instagram. A lot of people are on social media and if you post good quality work even just once in a while, it keeps you and your work fresh in people’s minds.
You never know who’s watching, they could be the ones who might know of an upcoming job you would be suitable for!
What software is essential for story artists.
The essential software for a story artist is whichever software a project demands them to use. Every production will have different requirements.
The good news is that it’s not difficult to learn software. There are so many tutorials online available to everybody for free, all it might mean is spending an evening or two just brushing up on basics. The rest you’ll pick up as you go on the job and hopefully you’ll also have a very savvy team member or two who’s more than willing to share tips.
The most common softwares for storyboarding at the moment are Toonboom Storyboard Pro and Photoshop but there are definitely others. With increasing work-from-home project models, it’s also handy to know production management software like Shotgun or Flix.
But again, I don’t think you really have to worry about them until you need to learn them for a job.
The creation of a piece of animation is very collaborative. How would you describe the collaboration between a writer and a story artist?
I think it’s different for film productions where there’s a bit of bouncing back and forth between the story team and the writers.
In series, unfortunately it’s very rare for writers and story artists to collaborate directly.
Often, writing rooms will wrap up as storyboards are only halfway through the season. In series, it’s more common for writers to only be working with the director. The director will then act as a bridge between writers and story team.
In series, usually writers will work on a script until it is ‘locked.’ From then on the director and storyboard artist take over. Depending on the project, storyboarders may be invited to plus/tweak aspects of the episode to enhance the storytelling but it is up to the director to make the final call on these changes.
In most productions, story artists and writers don’t really get to talk to each other.
Having said that, I am currently on a project where as a story artist, I am being briefed by the writers and invited to plus/collaborate to improve the episode. It’s a super new and interesting process for me and I don’t think many shows work this way… yet. But I’m grateful to try something new and I do love that I’m hearing directly from the writers!
Generally speaking, how much of the writing of an animated TV episode is done at the boarding stage?
It depends on the project and depends on whether the script is working for the director.
I have worked on shows where I stick very close to the script and all I did was translate it to visuals. But then, I’ve worked on other shows where a director has told me an action part of an episode needed to be much longer than what’s suggested in the script so I pretty much had to restructure and add missing beats.
I’ve worked on an episode where the director said he didn’t like what was written and gave me a written outline of the beats he wanted to happen and I storyboarded from those beats.
I’ve worked on musical sequences where in the script it was less than half a page but the song was 3-4 minutes long so I had to make a lot of the visual content up.
I’ve heard of shows where boarders work from just a premise (1-2 sentences) and have to write dialogue themselves — I’ve yet to work on one of these. It really varies!
What can writers do to improve the collaborative process? Do they sometimes tend to over or under write action?
I recently read a script and was really impressed by the way the writer handled montage sequences and action sequences. They would start with a sentence or two describing the overall action then follow up with a list of 3-5 examples.
Even if a director might ask us to come up with different ideas or we might rework some of the suggestions to punch them up and make them funnier, having something written there is better than nothing. I’ve seen a fair few scripts by professional animation writers that do offer ideas but I still work with a lot of scripts that don’t.
For TV series, it is very important to write something as it gives production managers a better indication for running time and assumptions of an episode. One of the most unhelpful things is to get a very short sentence somewhat akin to saying “and then they fight” and it ends up being 2 minutes of storyboard we have to figure out that’s not accounted for. Also, any ideas are really great! If I think an idea is brilliant or really funny, I do my best to keep it in my storyboard and make it work.
In terms of what a writer can do, I think one of the things that was lacking in some of the serialised projects I’ve worked on is clueing your story team in the overall season’s story. It is very useful for us to know where the story is going. The more we know, the more nuances and foreshadowing we can help pepper in throughout the season.
Also, because scripts need to stick to page counts, often some key information or clarity of the writer’s intentions can be lost in later drafts. Access to any extra documents, outlines, earlier drafts, premises … etc can be very helpful. All we want is to understand and execute your original intentions for the episode. The less information we have, the more we’re stabbing in the dark and guessing what things mean, especially when we find moments that are unclear.
Overall across animation production, I think there could be more done with bridging communication between writing and storyboard departments. It’s tricky because writing teams can start and finish so much earlier than storyboards. But the more we talk and the more access we have to you to ask our questions, the closer we can get to clarity and understanding what it is you want to achieve.
I think it’s equally important for production staff to understand the need for this when scheduling/planning the show but writers should know they are welcome to reach out to us. We certainly ask to speak to writers! We’d love to collaborate more.
I’ve been working on various animation projects over the last year or so. It’s definitely been a learning experience when it comes to the production side. That common belief that “you can do anything with animation” is technically true… but at a big cost!
How can writers prepare themselves for working in animation?
I think it’s helpful to be mindful of budgets and know what kind of things in a script can blow an episode’s budget out of proportion. Some very organised productions will give you assumptions from the start but others won’t until further into the season when people realise how expensive it will be to actualise all the scripts.
Assumptions are limitations like “how many new locations per episode” “how many characters” or “being mindful of writing about events that can mean animating crowds.” I also really appreciate when writers are mindful of page counts.
Generally for 11 minute shows the perfect number of pages lies around 14-16 pages long. Getting anything longer than that tells me I’m going to be working a lot harder that month on extra scenes that I know will have to be cut!
I’ve also worked on shows where from the premise you can tell that every single episode will have a brand new location. Unless you’re doing a high budget mini-series, these types of shows can get very expensive.
Be aware of having episodes that have back to back crowd/event scenes. It’s fine to have a few of these peppered throughout the season but It’s not great to constantly lean on writing about events to make interesting episode premises.
There was one episode of a series I worked on called Nate is Late called “The Great Ape” where a circus was in town. I’ll always remember the clever thing the writers did to avoid showing a crowd for the circus scenes–they wrote the action scene to take place during a “rehearsal” meaning there was no crowd there except for one character (the town police officer/guard) who just wanted a sneak preview. He alone represented an entire audience/crowd.
So think about ways you can avoid crowds and your entire production crew will be grateful!
As you get later in the season or into new seasons, it’s great to keep in mind what assets (locations/characters/props) you can revisit/reuse. The most budget friendly shows have most of their episodes taking place inside one central location (like a family house).
I’m talking from a TV series budget point of view though–I don’t have much experience with feature film so I can’t really advise there!
You have an amazing CV. How did you land your first regular series storyboard artist job?
My first proper series storyboard artist job was on Lexi and Lottie: Trusty Twin Detectives with a Sydney-based production company called SLR Productions. I was a designer for 8 years before I landed my first series storyboard role!
I got the job thanks to a higher demand for storyboard artists in Sydney at the time. Despite living in the UK (under a youth work visa at the time) I was still also an Australian resident for tax purposes so I also qualified for their tax break project requirements. Also, my portfolio contained a successful test from another studio (successful in that I was offered a job, despite having to turn it down because I couldn’t relocate to Canada for it).
The director saw potential in that storyboard sample but asked if I could do a test for the show. I did get some notes but overall they did like my ideas so I was hired for the season. Since that job, I’ve mostly worked in story departments for animated series.
You were a character designer for Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace. What was it like working not only with a global brand like Lego but also for a franchise as iconic as Star Wars?
It was one of the earliest Lego specials, perhaps the first Lego project in Australia before Animal Logic got to work on the first Lego film. So I do admit I don’t think I fully appreciated what it meant to work on a Lego and a Star Wars at the time.
My role involved creating vector graphics so it was not my favourite kind of work to do but I was just happy to be working at the company, I didn’t mind what the work was!
Some of the more popular characters already had artwork provided by Lego so my job was just to recreate them in vector for the production and provide the artwork that would be the CG textures for their costumes and faces. But I did get to design an original prop or two and a few of the characters that didn’t have lego designs yet at the time. I remember enjoying designing Lego Shaak Ti the most, she’s very unique.
You boarded nine episodes of the wonderful 101 Dalmatian Street with Disney. What was your experience like on the show and can you describe the process of taking the scripts to the next phase of production?
I was brought onto the show as a revisionist at first (although production was aware I was already an experienced storyboard artist.) It was a challenging project and the revisionist role was definitely not for beginners so I quickly understood their need for experienced boarders to be revisionists on the show.
It was my first high profile project working in story department and I have to admit, having the number 101 in the title was incredibly intimidating! I knew it meant it was a show with A LOT of characters on screen, which meant a lot of drawing. What helped was that it was about dogs and I love drawing dogs!
Being hired as a revisionist at first was really great, it took the pressure off. I could settle into the show and really prove myself to the team and convince myself that I was capable of doing the job. I was promoted to full storyboards soon after and got one of the sweetest episodes (Girl’s Day Out) as my debut storyboard — the Mother’s Day episode. I put a lot of heart into it.
In terms of process, it was a pretty typical process for a TV series of 11 minute episodes. We get a brief session where we read through the script and ask questions to the series director and episodic directors. We had about 7-9 days to do the first draft then we do our first pitch to directors.
Afterwards we address any notes and clean up our rough passes over 10 days, pitch again, then the remaining days (usually 1-3) we do final tweaks before finally delivering to edit. The overall challenging thing was the scripts were often a bit too long (usually around 18-21 pages). So it was a lot of work for us, especially having to knock out a first draft in 7-9 days.
The new thing for me on this project was pitching! I was super nervous at first and was put off by the fact that I had to pitch in the open plan office where everyone was quietly working. I hated the idea that I was making so much distracting noise for everyone quietly working. On my next pitch (or next episode, I can’t remember) I got to pitch in the meeting room. I was way more confident on that pitch! These days I LOVE pitching storyboards.
You’ve also boarded three episodes of The Adventures of Paddington Bear with Blue Zoo / Studio Canal / Heyday Films. This is such a beautiful show. What challenges did it present?
It is a beautiful show! I’m so happy to have been part of it, even just for 3 episodes of season 2.
The challenge at first was having to learn the in-house storyboarding software, Panel Forge. Once I got the hang of it, as well as the hang of working with 3D models, it was good fun. I love the brushes in that program.
The other challenge was the schedule was very tight, especially considering we also had to do rough 3D layout. The team was brilliant and the directors were awesome to work with. I learned so much.
You worked on 3 episodes of a French/Irish co-production called Boy Girl Dog Cat Mouse Cheese. What did you enjoy about that project?
I just really appreciated the scripts. It was during the same time as I was taking a sitcom class and it was so good to understand why these scripts worked and were so funny. I just loved seeing pages of lines of dialogue that were jokes told in character.
Another great thing was that you could pretty much hide the names of the characters above the lines of dialogue but you could almost always tell who was talking. These were the kinds of things my sitcom tutor said to aim for and it was so great to understand and appreciate them in practice!
You mention that you attended a sitcom class, which is really interesting. What class was it and what led you to sign up? How much did it impact on your work as a story artist?
So much of animation works with comedy. I wanted to keep my edge as a storyboard artist in animation by growing my understanding of comedy so I signed up to the course. Six weeks sounded like an easy amount of time to commit to!
It was an excellent course and it gave me so much more than I expected. Within 6 weeks we had to write a 15 minute pilot. Some of the techniques I learned (like sticking post-its/cards as story beats on a physical board) is something I also do with thumbnails as a story artist when I have to rework the structure of a scene.
I had very little knowledge about sitcoms and after the course it opened up that world to me. I now have a better understanding of when a joke works and when it doesn’t and why. As a story artist I can just give it a bit of a nudge in a certain direction to get joke working better visually.
You also work as a visual development artist, working on pitch projects. What does this involve and what tips do you have for creating strong pitch materials – both for writers and artists?
I’m hired by clients/companies to work on projects in development/pitch stage as an artist. This means coming up with character designs, beat boards, look frames, illustrations — any visual aids to help sell the show and gain funding for further development and hopefully eventually having the series green lit for production.
There’s many ways to go about pitching shows and it really depends on who you are pitching to. Some broadcasters/streamers/commissioners appreciate any extra visuals (whether it’s storyboards, animatics, character designs… etc). Anything to help get them excited about a show. Others don’t like that at all! They prefer just to hear an idea in much earlier stages so when they option it, they can mould and shape it and have a hand in developing it. I think it’s best to know who you’re pitching to. Attaching a big name (like a well known actor, talent or director) to the project also makes it an attractive project.
To be honest, I have not had a lot of experience pitching my own show to anybody yet and can only speak from watching my colleagues and my husband do it so I’m probably not the best to give advice for this. There are plenty of others who do have this experience and have made videos and guides about it online!
What projects are you currently working on (that you can tell us about)?
Work wise, everything I’m working on at the moment is under NDA! But I can mention that I have three animated short film ideas, all very different from each other and I’m equally excited about all of them. I’ve started collaborating with a writer/producer/director to hopefully pitch and apply for development funding. If that goes well, I hope we can work on the other projects together.
I’m also storyboarding one of my short film ideas for my WIA Mentorship Circle Program. It’s in a constant state of flux but you can catch glimpses of it on my instagram. I also have an adult animated series pitch document that I submitted to something recently.
What has been the biggest achievement of your career so far?
Most recently I’ve had a lot of exciting things happen, like being invited to pitch my creative vision for a development project I’ve been freelancing on to the head of a broadcasting company. And having a director/producer taking interest in two or three of my own original short film projects. These don’t feel as grounded as getting an award or a promotion but I feel like there’s potential to do big things ahead.
I was also selected for Women in Animation (WIA) Mentorship Circle for Fall 2021 and am part of this amazing group of 10 storyboard artists with Tamara Lusher as our mentor. We’re all working on our own original animated short storyboards and helping each other. It’s been an incredible experience. All this in the last few months really–it’s been very exciting and flattering!
What are your current goals?
At the start of the year I really really really just wanted to work on an animated feature. I was interviewed recently by an animated film company but just missed out on the role because they needed someone to start immediately and I was tied to a contract and had to give a month’s notice. I feel like my portfolio is getting the attention of these companies but the timing just hasn’t worked out.
More recently I’ve had the opportunity to create my own original pitch projects and seem to be getting interest from key people to help actually make them (like get funding, etc). I feel like I’m being handed something new and shiny and don’t really know what to make of it yet! For now I’m just rolling with it and I’ll see where I land. I think once something solidifies, I’ll be able to form new goals. For now let’s just say I’m in a transition period and need to re-evaluate–but it’s a good thing!
How much of an impact has the pandemic had on your work?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have kept my health and my job. Working from home has given me a lot more time to take care of myself and also a lot more flexibility. My husband and I often work on the same projects so we do see each other a lot but these days we are at different companies. I still work from home and he does both (in-house and remote). I’m very grateful to still be able to see him most of the time–if it weren’t for remote work, we probably wouldn’t see much of each other!
On the other hand, I do really love to work with an in-house team. I love the creative energy of being in the same room, water cooler chats and going to lunches. I miss meeting and getting to know other artists on production in person. I definitely miss Friday pub drinks!
Is imposter syndrome something that you ever have to deal with?
Overall I’m a confident and resourceful person and I don’t tend to go for roles I feel are beyond my abilities or put myself in those situations but I do get caught out every so often!
The one incident that does come to mind was when I took a sitcom writing course, that very first lesson, all the other students seemed so savvy when it came to talking about sitcoms and I could barely keep up. I literally sunk in my chair and had a panic attack. What was I even doing there? I just barely spoke and piped up when an animated sitcom was mentioned. I watched a lot of sitcoms that week so I could catch up for the next lesson!
Another time was when I first worked for Animal Logic. I was young and felt like I didn’t belong there… I spent the weekend prior studying Adobe Illustrator to do my job. But for some reason that was more than enough and I quickly found that I could do my job very well!
My first day on 101 Dalmatians was also a little nerve wracking. I found myself being anxious about being able to draw fast enough. But it was drawing dogs, I was in my element and just enjoyed the work. Good feedback from my supervisor and the series director helped reassure me too.
Who are the artists who inspire you?
The artists who inspire me most are my colleagues and friends. My husband who is also a storyboard artist (on some occasions, my story lead/supervisor) was my first storyboard mentor and taught me a lot of what I know. We bounce ideas off each other and give each other feedback. Beyond that, I am good friends with a lot of storyboard artists here in UK.
The thing that’s inspired me the most is their drive to create their own pitch projects. I don’t think I’d be doing that myself if it weren’t for me knowing them!
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other artists? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
If you want to learn and understand writing for screen, I highly recommend reading any scripts you can find of good films and TV shows! Not only is it a lot of fun, but it’s also super interesting to see what’s changed from script to film.
A favourite script read that comes to mind is the film “A Quiet Place.“
What’s the worst part of being a story artist?
This hasn’t been a problem for me so far (knock on wood) but the nature of the job is that you hop from project to project meaning that there rarely is ever any permanent roles as a story artist. At some point you will have to hustle for work. I think the worst part is when you’re so busy with your day job or you’re unemployed and desperate for work but you’re finding yourself having to apply and apply and apply. It’s so draining and takes so much time!
I’d love it if there were more permanent roles in UK where you’re just rolled onto the next project within the same company. I know some companies have been trying to get this happening but for now, a permanent role is pretty scarce.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Absurdist comedy. I love Douglas Adams’ work.
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