The story of storyboarding: exploring the hidden art form behind films
Peeking behind the panels of this unseen discipline, we look into a multifarious world of artwork made to stay on the drawing board.
For many of us, exposure to storyboards starts and ends with watching DVD extras of film crews in meetings surrounded by paper. After all, by definition, storyboarding is a mode of illustration not meant to be published in its original form. A rare book looking at the discipline academically, Storyboarding: A Critical History discusses how many storyboards from Hollywood’s history, often “viewed as little more than industrial waste products,” have been lost since the studios broke up in the 70s, or survived purely by “happenstance” in archives and private collections. While the internet era means more storyboards are now traceable on subreddits and social media, what is available is scant. But what does this mean for the artwork and practice of storyboard artists working today?
As a job, storyboarding gigs are spread across multiple industries, from films and animation to music videos and even theme parks. According to Storyboarding: A Critical History, the origins of the technique itself are not clear-cut, with some early traces found in film and advertising in the early 1900s, although a key first use of storyboards was in 1937 for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Today, in animation, storyboarding is a relatively small industry that is largely untaught in UK universities, but it’s even more niche in live-action film, where the odds of needing a storyboard at all, depend on the director and the project.
If you go and see The French Dispatch this month, most of what you see on screen will have been drawn by storyboard artist Jay Clarke first. Jay says when you spend most of your time working on films that aren’t allowed to be seen yet, it becomes a bit tricky to build up your identity on things like Instagram. “There are many drawers and hard discs full of sequences that will never be seen,” he tells It’s Nice That. “There are a lot of situations where you’re working on scenes that do fall away and disappear. But to be positive about it, the idea is it’s all helping to grow the best possible version of the film.”
Beginning his career at Aardman, Jay has worked as Wes Anderson’s storyboarder since The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ever since his venture into animation on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson storyboards each of his films extensively, beginning the process when he reaches around 20 pages into the script. Anderson gets Jay to sow the seeds of the film’s aesthetic into his boards from the get-go, something Jay describes as being almost like method storyboarding: if you feed inspirations into storyboards seen by puppet makers or set designers, hopefully, it will filter into the finished product.
“There are many drawers and hard discs full of sequences that will never be seen.”Jay Clarke
While Jay has his own style when it comes to storyboarding – lively, watercolour-esque illustrations drawn digitally – he adapts it depending on the project. For Grand Budapest, this meant evoking the “quirky illustrations” of artists like Ludwig Bemelmans, famous for the children’s book series Madeline. On Isle of Dogs, Jay remembers: “That’s such an extreme difference of Wes saying, well maybe the storyboards can look like Japanese woodblock prints. So then you start to look at certain brushes that you’re working with in Photoshop and this amazing history of woodblock prints almost as a way of starting the whole creative vibe of what the film might be.”
But, this is just one of the many creative ways a storyboard can be used. Storyboard artist Sylvain Despretz, who has worked for Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, and Luc Besson among others, says that the discipline can’t be standardised. At least, any more than the job of a director can be, which a storyboard is nothing more than an appendage to, varying tremendously as a result. For the live-action industry, Sylvain says the job of a storyboard artist is: “niche to the point of where if you find three to four directors that you work really well with, that’s about as many people as you are ever going to work well with in your entire life.” “Why? Because every director brings a different knowledge.” Alongside the varying nature of a storyboard depending on the director, the technically mountainous work involved in completing many is a reason Sylvain says the discipline remains largely undiscussed.
“One of the reasons we don’t hear about technical jobs in the industry is because, in order to talk about them, we have to agree to bring the reader into the minutia.”Sylvain Despretz
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Sylvain Despretz: Los ángeles (Copyright © Sylvain Despretz, 2020)
“One of the reasons we don’t hear about technical jobs in the industry is because, in order to talk about them, we have to agree to bring the reader into the minutia,” Sylvain explains. “If you think about it, film criticism typically talks about acting and screenwriting, which are the two most popular activities, in essence, because they are the most accessible... The difference between those activities and every other technical job from carpenter all the way to directing or producing is that the minutia involved is exactly the same as being a flight pilot...”
In his recently released book, Los ángeles, Despretz has tried to unpack some of this minutia, presenting his work with a focus on the illustrations themselves, without any shot-by-shot comparisons to films, an activity which he says spreads an incorrect understanding on the function of the storyboard as “compositional templates” for the filmmaker to follow. These storyboards demonstrate not only how deft his draftsmanship needs to be when working with directors like Ridley Scott, but how informative. His storyboards need to translate practical details from the script – if there’s a shaft of light in a specific scene, Sylvain says it better be in his storyboard, or they’ll be ripping a hole in the ceiling when it comes to filming. But they also communicate the “kinetics of film language” which could mean anything from types of lenses used to “motion or absence of motion, verticals, horizontals, perspective, darks, lights,” says Sylvain. He adds that getting an education on this can only come from watching films. Since sneaking into A Clockwork Orange “no less than 20 times” when he was younger “to absorb it over and over,” Sylvain has found the best training comes from replaying film sequences to study them carefully.
Another storyboarding artist who knows the importance of a knowledge of film is Oliver Hamilton, who began his career working for Cartoon Network on The Amazing World of Gumball and now works freelance for clients like Netflix. While storyboards for animation, and the skills entailed, vary hugely from storyboarding for live-action – so much so that crossover between the two fields from artists like Jay is a rarity – Oliver says to do his work well, a memory bank of films is crucial.
After receiving a script, Oliver has to produce a first pass, or rough draft, quickly, often drawing up to 100 frames a day. Sometimes, an elaborate sequence will be described with only a few words by the show’s writers; Oliver notes five days of drawing work might read in the script as “there’s a crazy action scene with loads of break dancing and fighting.” The process then starts with Oliver asking himself: “Where have I seen something like that before? Where a cake is thrown in the air and lands on someone’s head?” Scanning his memory bank for similar sequences he’s seen in comedy films from Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges, Oliver visually constructs the staging for a new joke. Learning how to make these moments work takes more than speed and precision with a pen, but taking time to watch lots of films.
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Cartoon Network: The Amazing World of Gumball: The Copycats (Copyright © WarnerMedia, 2016-17)
Throughout film history, this level of artistry and consideration can often be found behind the surface in storyboards. Although, Sylvain warns against those looking at the industry with rose-tinted glasses. For him, the artistic relationships he’s been lucky enough to build with great directors is the joyful part of an industry that frequently builds pressure into work environments for artists, assuming they will find a way to work despite poor treatment; “Like airlines, gut pilot prices and say, well if they love to fly they’ll take the cut.”
To aspiring storyboard artists seeking out the work, Jay says it’s definitely possible, although “you have got to have quite a bit of drive,” he explains. “I really went down to Bristol with nothing more than a promise of two weeks work experience in the [Aardman] art department. You just get yourself in there. Just get inside the building!” Oliver says while storyboarding can be pretty relentless, its nature as “invisible, basically,” can work for you in this regard. As other artists overlook storyboarding for “roles where the work they do is the finished project,” more space opens up for work in what is a “small industry”, but an industry with “an even a smaller amount of storyboarders” – “or at least storyboarders that are quite experienced in working on TV shows,” Oli says.
The nature of these roles has changed considerably from the era of working in rooms full of paper sketches. As the discipline enters a digital age increasingly favouring remote-working, one can only hope the online art world catches up by carving out digital spaces to better showcase storyboarding, and the rich pool of illustrative work produced by its practitioners.
Cartoon Network: The Amazing World of Gumball: The Ghouls (Copyright © WarnerMedia, 2018)