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Using Storyboards & Moodboards for Better Compositions

By David Ariew
Cinema 4D

Professional renders in Cinema 4D always look so dang good. How can you improve your projects and take your design to the next level?

Designing in 3D allows you to create incredible worlds, characters, and scenes. You're limited only by your imagination, but it can sometimes feel like you're held back by the limitations of your skill. What you see in your mind doesn't always translate onto the screen. How can you make your renders better?
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Today, we're going to take a look at ways you can improve your Cinema 4D renders using Octane. By the end of this process, you'll have a better understanding of a professional 3D workflow, a better handle on the tools you'll use, and more confidence in your end results.
In this tutorial, we're going to explore Moodboards and Storyboards. You'll learn:
  • What is the difference between a moodboard and a storyboard?
  • Compositional rules for better design, such as the rule of thirds
  • How to define your foreground, mid ground, and background
  • How to design with contrast and leading lines
  • Why you need to build in randomness
  • And more
In addition to the video, we've created a custom PDF with these tips so you never have to search for answers. Download the free file below so you can follow along, and for your future reference.

Download the Free PDF Here

Grab the free PDF for Moodboards and Storyboards!

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Follow Along to Learn How to Use Storyboards & Moodboards for Create Better Compositions

What is the difference between a Moodboard and Storyboard?

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A Moodboard (or Mood Board, if you're fancy) is a collage of images, text, and samples of objects. It can use references from other artists, movies, and images from the real world to convey color, design, or emotion.
A Storyboard is a pre-visualization of a motion picture, animation, or other media represented by a series of still images.
It can really help to create storyboards and moodboards before you start your renders, which will assist you in building a solid composition and internally consistent world, rather than jumping right into 3D. I’m actually terrible at drawing so my wife tends to help me.
It’s an invaluable skill you can use to test out compositions and quickly draft ideas. I like to use the app PureRef, which is amazing and also free!
If you’re not comfortable drawing then you can also block out your composition in 3D with simple shapes.

What are the different rules for composition?

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There are tons of principles that go into good design and composition, and way more than I could cover here, but let’s go over a few. These are meant to be guides, and not rules, because often the most pleasing compositions break all the rules, or use things that we’d otherwise consider ugly or mistakes to draw the eye intentionally.
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Kirkjufell in Iceland, Licensed through Adobe Stock
The easiest compositional rule to cover is the rule of thirds, which just states that compositions become more interesting when we divide our image into a grid like this and place focal points on a third line, or the intersections of the grid, rather than the center. You can enhance the image by not putting the horizon at the center, and either placing it on the upper third and having the focus be more on what’s happening here on the ground, or the lower third and have most of the space taken by the sky.
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This is the Phi Grid which is based on the golden ratio spiral, another compositional tool that classical painters and artists have used for centuries to create pleasing images. Others are the golden triangles, also based on the golden ratio, and the dynamic symmetry grid, which includes baroque and sinister diagonals that can be great to align and pose characters to.
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Stanley Kubrik's The Shining
Now plenty of times it can be great to ignore the rule of thirds or Phi grids. One easy example is by center framing, which works great when you’ve got symmetrical composition.

How do you define your foreground, mid ground, and background?

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Good compositions usually have a defined foreground, midground, and background, and atmospheric perspective or volumetrics can help define those depths, as can good lighting, both of which we’ll cover in future lessons.

How can you design with contrast and leading lines?

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Our eye also usually goes to the brightest part of an image, as long as most of the image is dark, though if most of the image is bright our eye will immediately find the darkest part of the image. We are drawn to contrast, so use this tool to create defined silhouettes to guide the eye. So either a dark object on a bright background or a bright object on a dark background can create a strong silhouette.
Another principle is containment. For instance, if you have patches of sunlight coming through some pillars, use that to contain a darker character against the bright background.
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Sometimes it can be great to have a frame within a frame, which is a form of containment, as in using some branches that are in the foreground to frame your image.
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Picture by Ansel Adams
Another very helpful technique is to create leading lines and shapes that point at what we should look at. Here’s a great example from the famous photographer Ansel Adams where our eye flows down the river until it reaches the mountain as our destination. 
It’s also important to experiment with a variety of aspect ratios when building your compositions. Sticking to just one aspect all the time like the instagram ratio will limit your images, and wide aspects are often associated with the most cinematic. That’s not to say that any aspect is better than any other, but playing with a variety of ratios and crops on your renders will help you improve your compositions and get out of a rut if you’re in one. 

How important is randomness in composition?

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Another thing to keep in mind is building in randomness and variation. As CG artists, we’re always fighting the perfection that the computer creates by default, so for example with this nature scene, if we scale the trees to random sizes and rotations, already the render is looking better, and if we add variation to the colors using Octane’s random color node, we’ll get an even more natural looking picture.
For selling scale in a render, it can also be great to include something that cues our eye to the scale. Putting in little scale dudes may be overdone, but there’s a reason for that, and that’s because it works. Other things that can help define scale are birds, or even the lighting itself, but we’ll get into that in a later example. 

Wrap up

Failing to plan is planning to fail. That's true in basically every aspect of life, so design is no different. If you want your compositions and renders to stand out at a professional level, start with a good moodboard and a well thought out storyboard. Your final product will thank you.
This is just Part 1 of our 10-part series on Making Your Renders Better, so come back soon!

Want professional guidance on how to render better?

If you're ready to step into the next level of 3D design, we've got a course that's just right for you. Introducing Lights, Camera, Render, an in-depth advanced Cinema 4D course from David Ariew.
This course will teach you all of the invaluable skills that make up the core of cinematography, helping to propel your career to the next level. You’ll not only learn how to create a high-end professional render every time by mastering cinematic concepts, but you’ll be introduced to valuable assets, tools, and best practices that are critical to creating stunning work that will wow your clients!
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Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:
David Ariew (00:00): Composition can make or break a render. Storyboards and mood boards are tools you should consider before even hopping into 3d. And I'll show you how to use them.
David Ariew (00:16): Hey, what's up, I'm David Ariew and I'm a 3d motion designer and educator, and I'm going to help you make your renders better. In this video, you'll learn how to use storyboards and mood boards to lay the foundation for your renders, understand the principles of composition, such as the rule of thirds, the FY grid and the golden ratio spiral, avoid tangents and your renders, and how to create contrast and variation to bring your composition to life. If you want more ideas to improve your vendors, make sure to grab our PDF of 10 tips in the description. Now let's get started. It can really help to create storyboards and mood boards before you start your renders, which will assist you in building a solid composition and an internally consistent world rather than jumping right into 3d. For instance, here's a mood board for a recent project called down on the render farm for my upcoming course for school of motion on digital cinematography, half of this mood board is referenced to what farms actually look like as well as compositional references and other half has a snapshot of all the assets I was collecting to build the world.
David Ariew (01:09): I especially liked this composition here and that factored heavily into the storyboards that followed this. I'm actually really terrible at drawing. So my wife did these for me, but check out how much this helped. So here's the before sketch and what it turned into. Here's another before and then after And another before and after
David Ariew (01:36): This process has really made me want to learn how to draw properly, because it's an invaluable skill you can use to test out compositions and quickly draft ideas. Here's another example of a mood board for cyberpunk city. We're creating for the course and here's where I'm at with that. I'm still working on the scene and I need to add in all the props and sidewalks and all the other street level details, but you can see how those references influenced the direction I gave to the modeler, as well as my texturing process, along the way. Here's another mood board for some concert visuals for excision, figuring out those steam punk fives I wanted on this one. And then some clips from the final.
David Ariew (02:09): I also did a separate mood board for what the cockpit of the ship could look like. And you can see how that carried into the final for all of these. I'm using the free app, pure ref, which is amazing and also super intuitive to use. If you're not comfortable drawing like me and you don't have an awesome wife to help you draw, then you can also block out your composition in 3d with some simple shapes, for example, here's that composition for the establishing shot of the farm, but just with some very simple sculpting, it's pretty awesome. Just how much you can block out with just some planes and the sculpting tools in cinema 40. So while mood boards and storyboards can be an amazing assist in developing the look and the composition, let's talk about some actual compositional principles. There are tons of principles that go into good design and way more than I could cover here, but let's just go over a few.
David Ariew (02:51): These are meant to be guides and not rules because often the most pleasing compositions break all the rules or use things that we'd otherwise consider ugly or mistakes to draw the intentionally. The easiest compositional rule to cover is the rule of thirds, which just states that compositions become more interesting. When we divide our image into a grid like this and place focal points on a third line or the intersections of the grid, rather than the center, it could be something as simple as not putting the horizon at the center and either placing it on the upper third and having the focus be more on what's happening here on the ground or the lower third, and have most of the space taken by the sky just by panning to the right and reframing a render like this. We create a much more pleasing result. Many people don't think this rule is comprehensive enough.
David Ariew (03:30): So they use grids like these. This is the five grid, which is based on the golden ratio spiral. Another compositional tool that classical painters and artists have used for centuries to create pleasing images. Others are the golden triangles also based on the golden ratio and the dynamic symmetry grid, which includes Baroque and sinister diagonals. That can be great to align and post characters to let's go back to center framing though, which is not always a bad thing, especially when you've got a symmetrical composition. Wes Anderson is the master of this. And Stanley Kubrick is also really well known for symmetrical compositions and one point perspective. Another good thing to be aware of and usually avoid are tangents that's when two objects in your image are just touching and it creates a muddy silhouette and pulls your eye in a distracting way, check out this composition when there's a bunch of tangents going on versus without again, though, these rules can be broken.
David Ariew (04:20): Remember the shot from earlier, it's a great example of using a tangent to intentionally draw the eye. Good compositions, usually have a defined foreground mid-ground and background and atmospheric perspective or volumetrics can help define those depths as can good lighting both of which we'll cover in future videos. Another thing to keep in mind is that our eye usually goes to the brightest part of the image. So we can use that to direct the eye intentionally and improve our compositions. On the other hand, if most of the images bright that are, I immediately will find the darkest part of the image we're drawn to contrast. So you can use this as a tool to get the audience, to look where you want them to. So to recap, either a dark object and a bright background or a bright object on a dark background can create a really strong silhouette like this example from the counterpart titles, this principle of our, I usually finding the brightest part of the image first is also used in cinematography as well by placing practical lights between characters to connect them because these draw our eyes so quickly and they just act as a homing beacon to bring our eye really quickly to where it's supposed to go.
David Ariew (05:17): The shot from Sonic is another great example because the light above Jim Carey's head brings you right to him. And it's also a unique color temperature, same thing with the splash of red behind him, which is also unique and brings your eye to the center. This is also another awesome symmetrical composition. Here's a subtle example where this character is lit slightly more than the other people in the church. You can see the rim light here on his hair, in his face, but it is very subtle, but even so our eye goes right to him again, though this rule doesn't hold when the image is mostly bright in these cases, our eye goes to what's different and that's the dark figure on the bright background. The same thing could be true with patterns. If you have a pattern that suddenly broken our eye goes right there.
David Ariew (05:52): Here's a great example from the Pixar short for the birds. Another way you can trick the eye to going right to something is by grouping objects closely, but putting one further away from the others. And here I goes right to the loner again with color, the same thing is true. Here's a couple of examples from the photographer, Steve McCurry of how contrast in colors will draw your eye immediately, or how, when there's a unique pop of color in the shot, our eye goes right there. Another really cool principle is containment. For instance, if you have patches of sunlight coming through some pillars, use that to contain a darker character against the bright background or here in Scott, Robert limbs photography. We see that he uses this principle with his models to put them on a flat wall for a clean silhouette, but also includes a deep background that leads the eye and lets the audience explore the image much longer.
David Ariew (06:35): The clean background creates a nice area of rest and negative space. And then once your eye wants to explore more, there's all of this depth and complexity and the rest of the shot. Here's another example. That's very similar from the painter friends said, let check called the chemist where we can see again, the chemist contained on a flat background. And once again, we've got a bright character on a dark background, so it reads very easily. And then we can also see down this hall for some additional depth and mystery to the painting. Sometimes it can be great to have a frame within the frame, which is also a form of containment as in using some branches that are in the foreground to frame your image, or like in these other examples, I especially love this one from a render competition. I helped judge recently by Massimiliano Napoli because you can only see this poster through the mirror, which has its own unique frame.
David Ariew (07:19): So that builds in a bit of mystery to the image. This is also a great example of how if you create multiple focal points in your image, the audience will explore the picture for much longer. First, we're curious here about the note and the rocket. And then as we explore more, we find the poster of the astronaut writing the meteor and the reflection. Think about the kids' books, where's Waldo and ice by. They kept us entertained for hours trying to find all the details in the image, through all the various focal points. Another very useful technique is to create leading lines and shapes that point at what we want the audience to look at. Here's a great example from the famous photographer, Steve McCurry, where all the shapes lead us to the central character. Here's another great one from Ansell Adams, where I flows down the river until it reaches the mountain as our final destination.
David Ariew (07:59): This piece of concept art leads your eyes so nicely through the shot because of this pathway, which has alternating areas of light and shadow as well as multiple focal points that eventually land on these guys over here with their dark silhouette against the bright background. It's also important to make sure you've got elements on the edge of frame to imply that the world is larger than what we see. For instance, here's an example where everything is contained within the frame, which makes the world feel smaller and kind of fake as if we've just crafted everything for the camera's perspective, but nothing exists beyond the frame. Here's what happens if we move some of these objects to break frame, and now it feels like this world could be a lot larger. It's also really important to experiment with a wide variety of aspect ratios when building your compositions, sticking to just one aspect ratio all the time, like the Instagram ratio will limit your images and white aspect ratios are often associated with the most cinematic looks.
David Ariew (08:47): That's not to say that any aspect ratio is better than any other, but playing with a variety of ratios and crops on your renders will help you improve your compositions. Get out of a rut. If you're in one. Another important thing to keep in mind is building and randomness and variation as CG artists, we're always fighting the perfection that the computer creates by default. So for example, with this nature scene, if we scale the trees to random sizes and rotations already, the renders looking much better. And if we add in variation to the colors using Octane's random color node, we'll get an even more natural looking picture. Here's another example of the project I did for Intel, where the green are looking cool and create a nice pattern, but it's all too uniform. So I added another displacement pattern with slightly different color to create a bit of color variation.
David Ariew (09:28): And then I duplicated the Greenville, displacement texture and scaled it up to create a few islands of a larger scale. And that really helped break up the monotony and frame the chip for selling scale in a render. It can also be great to include something that queues our eye to this scale, check out people's renders for instance, with a signature peoples people or stews or here who creates these vast looking scifi renders. But without the minuscule figures, we'd have no idea what the scale is putting in little scale. Dudes may be overdone, but there's a reason for that. And that's because it works other things that can help define scale or birds or even the lighting itself. But we'll get into that in a later video. Finally, let's take a look at the progression of this competition. I created during a project for the awesome studio already been chewed for the client UFC.
David Ariew (10:10): I started by creating this nature scene, but then move the horizon line down to the lower third and already this helped a ton. Then I blocked in the main UFC sign and several smaller signs and objects. But at this point it was pretty useless to try and figure out the final composition because I had two other large signs I had to design that would be important, focal points here's with adding one of them in there. And that caused me to move other elements around, to fit. And then here I moved the camera lower and shot with a wider lens to make the UFC sign loom over us more and create a more epic, imposing feel here. There's too much overlap on the Conor McGregor sign. So on the next pass where the second sign is added in, I made sure to overlap it just a bit.
David Ariew (10:46): Also once the other signs were in the ticket sign became distracting and too much information to process. So I decided to move it to the right here and turned it 90 degrees. So it'd be more of a design element to add detail, but not something else that we had to read and focus on. Finally here I scaled up the Donald Sarone sign to give it equal weight to the other one and a bit of overlap with the main UFC sign. And then finally I added in the transmission tower to balance out the composition. Here's one final important tip in cinema 40 under the camera object. There's actually a composition tab. And if you enable the composition helpers, you can turn on things like the rule of thirds, the golden section across hair for the exact center of the frame, triangles, diagonals, and even the golden spiral by keeping these tips in mind, you'll be well on your way to consistently creating awesome renders. If you want to learn more ways to improve your renders, make sure to subscribe to this channel and hit the bell icon. So you'll be notified when we drop the next tip.