Responsible for providing the very first visualisation of how a film script will actually work, storyboard artists are at the cutting edge of any production. Here, Jaeson Finn (THE JACKET, CENTURION, UNKNOWN) explains why his is a role that goes way beyond drawing pretty pictures…
I would like nothing better than to complain bitterly about how difficult it was breaking into filmmaking as a storyboard artist but, now that I have achieved a level of success, that would be churlish. Besides, no one would listen to me.
“I love all the little arrows!” enthused Love is the Devil director John Maybury, perusing my meagre portfolio through a haze of cigarette smoke. This was the winter of 2003 and, up until this point, my body of work had consisted of a few adverts, little-seen short films and a run of comics. Suddenly, I had made it onto my first feature, The Jacket, and I had completed my first graphic novel, the ill-fated Rose Black. I felt I had finally broken through a wall.
There are filmmakers who dismiss storyboarding, and others who see it as an essential part of the development process. Thankfully for me, the latter are in the majority—and I don’t take that for granted. It’s a very privileged position to be in as, more often than not, I’m brought in at the very inception of a production. This period of time is a rush of creativity, where a small department of people shape the impending production shoot, throwing ideas into the mix and seeing what sticks.
Amidst the fun, we get to define parameters and save wasting precious budget later on. For example, in a recent car chase sequence I suggested a motorcycle cop being thrown through a shop window into surprised customers. “This… this is fantasy,” intoned the director, sternly. True, that would have taken a whole day of filming with expensive stunts and props as well as interrupting the pace of the action. Subsequent revisions of the sequence streamlined it into a punchy, exciting few minutes in the style of the Bourne franchise. On another project I drew rain into a dramatic fight scene. “We can’t afford that!” said our beleaguered line producer. Yeah, but it would have looked cool.
Looked at in the simplest form, storyboards are a comic-strip envisioning of the script. But, whereas comics can be unfettered flights of fancy, storyboard frames are tempered by how the film actually gets made. Future physical constraints such as camera lenses, locations, practical effects and budget have to be taken into consideration while scribbling visuals, and the language of film pervades—knowing when to use close-ups, 2-shots or POVs and no ‘crossing the line’. Sure, with computer-generated imagery we can envisage just about anything on screen, but if we don’t partner those images with a design aesthetic—along with some proven cinematic rules—the audience can be overwhelmed. Film and television are still a young art form where these rules can be redefined, even blatantly broken in some instances, but you can’t leave the viewers out of the equation.
Another important factor is time. Pre-production cannot last forever so I have to draw fast and in quantity. This can be tricky as I don’t do ‘stick figures’ and strive for clarity in my frames, hence all the aforementioned little arrows that I use to indicate action. A flexible workflow doesn’t do any harm either and I pretty much carry my whole office with me; sketchpad, pens, laptop, scanner, camera, etc. make me a mugger’s dream, but able to set up anywhere I’m asked. Less interestingly, I edit and compile my own PDFs for presentation or email, a dull but essential task considering how many departments view my final work.
Which brings me to one of the main reasons why I love doing this work: the people I get to meet and work with, coupled with the places I get to visit. On Neil Marshall’s Centurion we set up office in the legendary Ealing Studios, right next to Mike Tucker’s model shop, and familiar faces such as John Landis and David Tennant would flit by. On our Roman fort location, I swapped design ideas for gore effects with Paul Hyett, just before he went off to stab an arrow through Axelle Carolyn’s eye. The budget was tight and, with careful planning right from the beginning, we took steps to make every moment of the shoot count. The film came in under budget and under schedule, roughly a year from sitting at our desks to sitting in the cinema.
Later the same year, I joined late into the pre-production of Your Highness to find an office adorned with fantastic art and scale models for the high-budget, lowbrow comedic fantasy. Cavernous set-builds were well underway on the docks of Belfast, and I shared an early bus into work with the jovial construction crew. The sequences I worked on here were also heavy on action and special effects, so there had to be communication between several departments to bring these elements together. Fortunately, there wasn’t too far to run between offices to get approval on drawings. At one point I was stabbed by director David Gordon Greene and armourer Tommy Gunn, who were trying out weapons for the fight scenes.
I was then recruited for Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown on which, for a change of pace, I worked from home in Cornwall while conferencing with the director in Los Angeles and the producer, Peter McAleese, in Ireland—for a movie shot almost entirely in Berlin. A word of advice. Never trust your domestic broadband; they will always carry out ‘essential’ maintenance as you are about to send large files needed for an important production meeting. Have a back-up plan, like a nice local café with wireless and excellent hot chocolate.
My proudest achievement, however, remains Doomsday, the love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi homage for which I got to design the Mad Max inspired vehicles (see above), featured mostly in the climactic chase scene. I remember turning up for my interview with [director] Neil Marshall and [production designer] Simon Bowles with a hideous sketch of the ‘gimp chariot’ described in the script, which produced appropriate chuckles. Months later, my designs were faithfully reproduced by Alex Wheeler and his construction crew in South Africa, down to the hideous ‘skin car’ and ‘griller killer.’
If the above makes me look organised, don’t be fooled. My eclectic CV includes an extended period as assistant art director then production designer at the eccentric House of Fear Studios in Cornwall, and I can even claim a producer’s credit for the potential CGI animation series, Once Were Farmers. I’ve also returned to graphic-novel territory to adapt Neil Jones’ Reverend, and I’m currently extending my storyboarding into 3D machinima pre-visualisation—which is really little different from the PC games I waste way too much of my time on.
I can’t really give advice on how to break into my field as I’m not too sure how I did it myself, just that it involved a lot of drawing around the right kind of people, and serendipity. But, if you do manage to break through that wall into professional filmmaking, work hard, keep your skills sharp and, above all, enjoy yourself. If you’re not enjoying working in something as insane as this medium, there’s something horribly wrong with you. • @JaesonX