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Sooner or later in the media making process you need to define what art style your film or game will be in. Beginners especially tend to overlook the importance of this step for the overall feeling and also the workflow of the complete visuals. In this article I will give you a quick overview of how you can use “mood boards” to find and define a look and feel for your project, and explain why it is important to put so much work into visual developing.

So what are mood boards?

A mood board is a collage of pictures (photos, paintings, stills from films, movies, games, illustrations from books etc.) that are examples of how you want your project (or an aspect of it) to look and feel.

Before we dive into making mood boards let’s have a quick look at why defining every detail of your project’s art style is important:

Support your story

The most important question you should ask yourself is how the look can support your story. Find a style that feels like what you want to tell – that is the mission of a mood board.

If it’s a sad story you might want the art to be dark, with little light, high contrast, many lines in an etching style. You could choose those things just by going with what feels right or you could get the same result by constructing it analytically (darkness = sadness, little light = little remaining hope, high-contrast = the character only thinks in extremes at the moment, etching lines = everything is complicated).

And even if you are doing a happy movie, there are many possible directions to go into. Maybe you want simple shapes to play an important role for your designs, keeping it clear with little distraction. Or maybe ridiculously complicated shapes and very detailed drawing suit your film more… play around as long as you can!

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A choice for a faster workflow

Not only the obvious choice of the animation technique goes hand in hand with your art style, but your entire workflow and pipeline needs to be build based on your design choices. For example, if you understand that your film’s story is all about talking heads and dialog jokes, get the idea of a smooth Disney like style out of your head! It’s not what your story needs and would take forever to produce. Instead you could focus on inventing a new 2D puppet-rig animation style with an excellent and fast lip syncing pipeline.

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This is just a very brief glance at factors that could influence your style choices. Analyze what your story demands, but also train your instinct. Look at a lot of films, illustration, art and so on. Collect, bookmark, write down what you like, use any inspiration that you can get.!

A tool to communicate

The mood-boards we are about to have a closer look at, are not only meant for yourself. They are also a great tool to explain the art style of your project to somebody else. This can be a customer, who has more difficulties to imagine how your film could look like than other creative people.

But you can also use them when talking to your creative team to avoid some annoying iterations. You can now tell a background artist that you want these colors, with this line art and this shading just by pointing at the inspirational art on different mood boards. If you are not good with backgrounds like me, you didn’t waste a lot of time aimlessly trying to paint something yourself that doesn’t come close to what you want.

Let’s have a look at how you should put together a mood boards. I took most of these tips from a workshop with the guys from polynoid and woodblock.

Finding your art style with mood boards

Step 1: Gather anything from anywhere that feels like it could inspire something for your movie. Just spend one day on instagram, deviantart, tumblr or flickr and put everything that triggers an association how your film could be.

You will end up with a folder full of images… and that is where most people stop. They feel like they have done their research and can move on with the productions, but that is a mistake. Movie-making is about making choices and in order to have a defined art style you need to condense it.

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Step 2: Sort your pictures in categories that are important for your project. Categories could be: Colors of a character, Proportions of a character, Background colors, Character/Background Line Art, Textures, Lighting, Camera angles, atmosphere, feel of a particular scene etc.

Step 3: Pick ca. 9 pictures for each category and put them on one page. This will be your mood board for this particular element of your film. Only choose pictures that give you a new aspect in regard to how you want your style to look. And that means you have to be perfectly honest and throw out stuff that you like a lot (keep it in another folder, it might be a valuable inspiration for another project). If you done everything right you can go through the pictures and tell exactly why you chose it and where in your film you will use that aspect.

Sorting

An example

Let me show you how that process looks like for my recent project so far: This first image is what I used to throw at people as a pitching mock-up.

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Notice how I try to get out of making a background by throwing it into abstract space. However, I am already very happy with the character designs and will probably keep them that way… but the backgrounds… I had no idea…

So when this workshop came up I tried to use it to define the part that is my biggest weakness – the background art. I started with gathering content that I liked and that felt somehow fitting for one reason or another. Soon I had about a hundred pictures in a folder. At this point our tutors told us to sort them into the categories that would help us the most. With regard to my background deficit I chose the following ones: Colors for the villains (because they are super important for my story), colors of the world without the villains, the background line art, cartoony perspectives (which surprisingly turned out to be hard to find drawn examples of) and a quick research about the character shading.

Then I had to pick the pictures that represent what I am going for the most. And suddenly I had them: Mood boards that explain the art style that I am thinking of more than thousand words could:

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But we didn’t stop there. With our mood boards in mind, we were given the task to do a style frame – one picture of the (more or less) final look of the film. I was skeptical at first, because I really don’t have a lot of practice doing backgrounds. But being able to “steal” elements and colors from the mood boards before me it was surprisingly easy to get a result that I am quite happy with:

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I hope this proves to you how going through the effort of making mood boards can really take your project to the next step. Of course the work of defining your art doesn’t end here. More style-frames for more scenes and lighting situations, first layouts and character model sheets are already waiting around the corner.

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