The art of storyboarding

When I was a Central Saint Martins student, my absolutely favourite part of any performance design project was creating a storyboard. I still vividly remember the very first project we had, where we had to create a visual concept for a theatrical piece in response to Johnny Cash’s song, The Man Comes Around. I remember sitting on my bed with my earphones, listening to the music on repeat and drawing a step-by-step choreography of a group of people including a man with a blindfold going around a circle, a juggler, and a girl with a skipping rope. Many of my storyboards were hand drawn, like the one I did for a theatrical adaptation of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye – below are images from its two versions: the initial sketchy storyboard and the final one.

Many of my other storyboards consisted of digitally manipulated photographs of a scale model, where I would move miniature figures and props, like in a stop-motion animation. Later on, as I was becoming more and more fluent in Adobe Photoshop, I started producing detailed storyboards with lots of captures showing subtle changes between the scenes, as the software allowed me to do that without having to create each new image from scratch. An example of this is storyboard to my final MA Bacon Project which has 84 images. The architecture of the space had been rendered in 3DMax, and all the rest (i.e. people, props, lights) was a massively time-consuming digital montage of photos and drawings in Photoshop over the course of 8 months. This storyboard is now the basis for an animation I’m working on. Below you can see an image from the storyboard in its final version as well as a quick initial sketch.

I decided to write about storyboarding for this week’s blog post, after a recent discovery of a stunningly beautiful film – Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece, Hero (2002) — and of its storyboard on the DVD bonus material. I must say, this type of “extra” is something I always look for on a DVD, albeit not many directors storyboard their productions. It is a shame, because the range of styles and techniques is vast and exciting to look at. Needless to say, a storyboard provides a lot of information necessary for finding or building locations, designing set and costumes, setting up camera positions, lighting etc. before the camera even starts rolling to minimise the cost of retakes.

Visually breath-taking (bravo to cinematographer Christopher Doyle!), the film is a moving story about an assassination attempt on the first emperor of China, King of Qin in 227 BC. The hero, referred to as the Nameless, gives an account of his past battles with the emperors’ enemies, rewinding the narrative time. As his audience with the emperor progresses, the story is retold differently and each segment has its own distinctive palette of colours. Poetic and moving, the film raises questions about bravery, faithfulness and sacrifice, and the story, as well as the acting, are no less interesting than the visuals. But since this is a martial arts film, it truly excels at the balletic swordplay performed in various gorgeous settings including a mountain lake (where the water drops actually become part of the exquisite fight).

I was very excited to see the storyboard drawings for each single shot of the film. Their simple yet powerful brushwork perfectly conveys the finesse of swordsmen and swordswomen engaged in enchanting aerial acrobatics.

Another great example of a fantastic storyboard is Ridley Scott’s Alien, a 1979 cult sci-fi/horror film about an extra-terrestrial creature that kills the crew of the Nostromo spaceship which makes a landing on a planetoid during its return trip to Earth. Apparently, the initial 2×3 inch drawings Ridley created for the film had such an effect on the studio people that they doubled their budget from $4.2 to $8.4 million. Given that both Ridley, a Royal College of Art graduate, and four different artists: HR Giger (mentioned in one of my previous posts), Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were behind this project, it is hardly surprising that they came up with such a large amount of delicious visual material. There are two sets of storyboards – the thumbnail size “Ridleygrams,” and the later, more complete, images which were handed off to Visual Effects Supervisors and others to create their 3D versions.

Next there is another Scott film, Gladiator (2000), which, again I saw quite recently. The film tells a story of a fictional character, Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is reduced to being a slave but soon becomes a magnificent gladiator, after Marcus Aurelius’ ambitious son Commodus murders his father and seizes the throne. I must say that, however exquisitely shot and overall very enjoyable to watch, the film disappointed me with its horrendous historical inaccuracy (there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to that and I agree with historian Allen Ward of the University of Connecticut who said that “creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts in historical fiction.”) Despite that, the film is a visual feast and this is largely thanks to artist Sylvain Despretz who provided a number of magnificent drawings, many of which could stand on their own as finished illustrations. There is a DVD disc entirely devoted to storyboarding which also includes a documentary that gives an insight into this fascinating and very demanding art. Sylvain has an incredibly rigorous discipline when it comes to drawing storyboards – he avoids drawing too quickly (even though the film crew is normally easily pleased with “impressions” rather than finished drawings), as well as relying on the computer. He stresses the importance of indicating where the light comes from, the distances, and the “less is more” rule. There is a detailed storyboard for each section of the film: Germania battle, the battle of Carthage, Maximus’ escape, various fights, and the duel between Maximus and Commodus.

Next comes one of my favourite films about one of my favourite painters – Caravaggio, directed by Derek Jarman (1986). The film is a fictionalised re-telling of the life of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio but unlike Gladiator, it is not claiming to be an accurate account of the period, but a poetic and theatrical interpretation with visual elements from different time periods including the modernity. It is worth emphasising that Jarman was not just a film director but a multi-disciplinary artist, stage designer, gardener and writer. Last year I bought a book which includes the film script, stills and fascinating notes about the rather complicated process of making this film. The DVD I have also includes the storyboard which is a real feast as Jarman produced 72 beautifully crafted and stunningly composed drawings.

And finally, there is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. The DVD set my boyfriend has is an overwhelming 12-disc special edition with lots of fascinating documentation of the creative process. Jackson began working with storyboard artist Christian Rivers almost five years before the film was released and before the script was finished. Part of the storyboarding process was creating animatics, which meant video-taping each frame of the storyboard, which would then be digitalised and edited together to show the shots as they would be in terms of pace. Peter wanted to take the storyboard to a new level and make it more accurate. Since some of the design drawings were made into models, Peter was working around these models using toy figures and a camera. The camera was connected to a video monitor which had a freeze frame function, so he could experiment with angles and positioning, say “that’s the frame, pause it” and then draw directly from the screen. Another thing that was used in the process was “previs”: 3D computer versions of the drawings which allowed the director to test out some of the insanely complicated shots.

My final comment in this post would be to quote Sylvain Despretz who said: The nicest thing that happened to storyboards is DVDs because people can see them.And share them on their blogs, I would add.