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DYNAMATION … from a lecture by Ray Harryhausen in 1984

Dynamation is a term which was coined by producer Charles Schneer when we started making black and white films together in the 1950s. We specialised in combining live actors with animated models and, since nobody knew quite what stop motion photography was, they would call it an animated film. We were trying to establish a new division between cartoon and three-dimensional animation, so we came up with the word ‘Dynamation’ for that process. As the years went by, the publicity department felt that they had to enhance the word, so we got ‘Super Dynamation’!

Georges Meliés experimented with stop motion photography in France before 1900 with his unique short film Trip to the Moon but it was Wilis O’Brien in America who first found a commercial use for stop motion. His greatest triumph was King Kong which set me off and I have never been the same since!

It left such an impression on me that I felt it was the type of career I wanted, so I made it my business to find out how it was done – hence Dynamation sprang out of the basic O’Brien technique.

The principle behind the technique is that we project a small picture of the live action. Unlike many companies who build 50ft models, we build small models and shrink the actors down to size in order to have control. The larger you go with complicated hydraulically controlled mechanisms, the less control you have – particularly in dramatic situations – so we use a small rear-projected image of the live action behind the animated model, sometimes adding matting process.

When we were presented with the story of Gulliver’s Travels’ we wanted to make it as inexpensively as possible. We had heard of the yellow backing travelling matte process used in England at that time (1959) making its own matte instantaneously using a bi-pack camera. We thought that would simplify combining big people with little people. Since we had planned 150 travelling matte shots, we came to the UK to investigate and we have been here ever since. We used the yellow backing system on three pictures, then it suddenly went out of fashion. That was the darkest day I can remember. Now, of course, we use the blue backing system.

We had just perfected the miniature projection duping process for Twenty Million Miles to Earth where you could hardly distinguish between the original negative and the Dynamation shots – and I would have liked to do the next picture that way – but Charles Spooner said you could not shoot an ‘Arabian Nights’ type picture in black and white, so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in colour. This took some experimenting as we did not have a choice of colour film which we could use for back projection plates. However, we took the plunge and it worked out quite well commercially. Not too many people found it objectionable to see rather grainy Dynamation shots intercut with the original negative. People who are technically minded are far more aware of that than the average cinema audience, although audiences today are very astute and certainly do not accept things that they would have done twenty years ago.

One of the biggest problems with colour film is contrast and change of colour and we found that the new low contrast print film, designed mainly for television, was very useful. It is much easier to control the colour balance today than it was back in 1958, when you could not leave an unfinished shot in the camera overnight. If you did, it was quite evident the next day to see a colour change jump due to the California temperature drop during the night.

Many times I set my own challenges and I find that my goal is always a little too high for the assets we have. I think that one of my greatest challenges was in Jason and the Argonauts where three men fight seven skeletons. That sequence presented a lot of problems and there were times when I averaged about thirteen frames per nine-hour day – which is less than one foot of film. The accountants got very uptight because they expected me to grind out the footage very much faster than that!

Some of the animated figures used in Jason and the Argonauts

It was necessary for me to handle all the skeletons myself as they had to be synchronised very intimately with the three miniature-projected swordsmen. The skeleton’s feet had to be fastened to the floor and, the minute they left the ground, I had to suspend them on wires for accurate control over the animation. Being keen to make the skeletons look professional, I studied fencing myself but unfortunately, I threw my hip out of joint and had to give it up!

The whole fencing sequence had to be choreographed like a ballet and broken down into numbers. We had to pre-plan the cuts ahead of time through the storyboard – and I cannot stress enough how important that it. When you get on the set you do no want to have a lot of arguments and discussions on how shots should be set up. I always make a number of pre-production drawings which aid everyone concerned in visualising just what the final effect will look like on the screen.

The famous Skeleton Fight from Jason and the Argonauts

I always prefer to animate models of animals for exotic settings and situations instead of using real animals. It is so difficult to find a talented crab who will perform just the way you want, or a baboon who can play chess! You do not want to be at the whim and mercy of a lizard, hoping he will go from point A to point B in so many seconds. I find that real lizards become lethargic under the hot studio lights and barely blink or yawn for the benefit of the camera. The animated ones will perform exactly as directed.

For the bulk of the shots in our films I prefer to use miniature rear projection instead of travelling mattes because it’s easier to execute intimate interplay between actor and model. You have the projected image right there in front of you, rather than wait for weeks to see the combined effect from an optical printer. However, we do resort to many travelling matte shots which, in themselves, are very time consuming to put together.

Dynamation is a word which really means using every trick in the trade – but there comes a point in the economics of doing stop motion animation where you cannot do as much as you would like to do in the way of retakes and careful matching. The time factor is quite considerable. The ideal situation in the future is the Chroma Key method as used in television. When this method has the same resolution as film, you will be able to make instantaneous travelling mattes. I believe that some companies are working on this at the moment.

In recent years there has been a great exposé of the ‘behind the scenes’ details of making complicated special effects. It is my belief that it rather spoils the illusion when the audience is told how it is achieved. It is like a stage magician who tells everyone how he achieves his illusions of magic – soon the audience loses interest in the show!

 

 

 

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The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

I’ve been really busy for the past couple of years helping my Art Director friend, Terry Ackland-Snow, to write a book about working in the film Art Department. We decided to call it The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film & Television because that’s what making a film or a television programme is all about – sorry to dis-illusion you but what you and the rest of the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

Like all good things, this project was started over a glass of wine. Maybe I should think twice next time – but I’ve really enjoyed working with Terry and helping him to pull this whole thing together.

Essentially, the book is aimed at anyone wanting to make a career in film production and it will take you through the processes involved in creating a film set step by step. Film sets have been constantly developing from the simple canvas backcloths used on theatre stages, right through to the present day where computer generated effects augment the highly sophisticated art of designing, building and dressing sets.

All of the tips, tricks and techniques described in the book have been used and refined over many decades and, although the technology might have changed, the essence of film making is still the same as it was in those early days.

The Production Designer and Art Director are artists who can adapt their style to any number of different types of production. They integrate themselves and their team into the mood and feeling of any project, comedy, musical, costume drama or science fiction. The range of materials used and the scope of the design evolve as the development of technology and visual processes year by year.

In film and television production the learning process never ends and so even the most experienced film maker will find each new project a challenge!

The book is due to be published by The Crowood Press in September, provisionally priced at £18.99 and with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. It will be available to buy from all good bookshops and from the Crowood website, www.crowood.com.

 

 

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The Stuntman’s World by Jim Dowdall

Fom the perspective of one who has been ‘at it’ for rather a long time and should know better by now!

Jim Dowdall

Jim Dowdall

When I came into the industry in the 1960’s as an armourer with Bapty’s, my first film was ‘The Dirty Dozen’ – and what a picture that was to cut your teeth on!

Surrounded by the legendary luminaries of both the acting and technical departments, I began to realise that, despite my mother’s exhortations that I would be destitute for life without the obligatory 5 ‘O’ levels and 2 ‘A’ levels, it might be possible to make a living in an industry that neither required nor asked for bits of paper – and that my single English ‘O’ level was not required on the voyage!

A prior spell working with big cats as a beastman for Bertram Mills Circus, with a bit of trapeze thrown in and a number of other odd jobs, had infected me with the ‘adventure bug’ and, having left the armoury business some time after finishing on ‘Where Eagles Dare’, I joined the Parachute Regiment, got the Champion Recruit’s Cup and thought that the army was going to be my career – but a parachuting accident left me unfit and I was invalided out 18 months later.

It was now the early 1970’s and the film business was booming, so I enrolled with the ‘Ugly’ agency and a couple of others to get some walk-on work and thus acquire the very desirable (and hard to come by in those days) Equity card.

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ - 1989

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ – 1989

 

The Stunt Register was just being formed as a professional stunt body within the remit of Equity and I squeezed in with a few of the stunt contracts I had acquired working for an agency called ‘Havoc…Specialists in Hazards’.Since then, life seems to have been a fantastic whirl of various films, TV shows, commercials and occasionally, live shows (which are always unnerving for their very real inability to ‘go again’)

The normal course of events runs like most productions with a script being offered, various meetings to ‘get the job’ and then the business of breaking down the ‘gag’ to work out the best way of translating the director’s wishes into the camera – and always within the limitations of the producers depth of pocket. Of course, just occasionally, one gets the chance to work on various productions (like the earlier Bonds) where you just said what bits of kit and personnel were required and it was so.

 

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

The early days of Bond were a real eye opener for me as everything (as on all productions in those days) was shot in-camera and we would sometimes have weeks of rehearsals either on location or in the Band Room at Pinewood Studios – which would be fully kitted out with mats, trampolines and all the other bits of equipment which might be required, usually for the ‘end sequence’ in the villains lair, which then had to be blown up over a number of days. When we did the submarine sequence for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (for which the famous Pinewood 007 stage was constructed) filming began shortly after Christmas in a very cold January on a vast stage with a requirement for a number of us to do ‘falls’ into the water. Although we would be paid a stunt ‘adjustment’ for these falls, there was a certain ‘hanging back’ as we knew that it would be unlikely that we would have time to change into a dry costume before take two – and few of us owned such a sophisticated piece of kit as a wet suit!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

Wire work on pictures like ‘Superman’ 1 & 2 was pushing the envelope at the time and Geoffrey Unsworth’s capacity to ‘light out’ the wires was masterful – in those days it was without the benefit of ‘Paintbox’ or such sophisticated bits of kit which would come on stream in the 80s. I remember being on wires wearing a space suit with the helmet sealed on which gave me a limited amount of oxygen before I began to get a bit woozy. I would then see Geoffrey up and down a tall ladder spraying the wires with a black paint aerosol just before we shot. I had to be revived twice with a whiff of oxygen after a couple of …‘sorry, just need a second on the wire spraying’… occasions.

For ‘Flash Gordon’ doubling for Timothy Dalton, we spent weeks rehearsing the fight on the disc floating in space with knives coming up out of the floor. We also all had to learn how to use a bullwhip from one of the stunt boys, Reg Harding, who had been a ‘jackaroo’ in Australia and was a master with that very dangerous (mostly to the user) bit of kit

Hours spent in the chair having prosthetics put on to double the monster on wires

With Michael Caine  on 'The Eagle has Landed' in 1976
With Michael Caine on ‘The Eagle has Landed’ in 1976

 

for Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’ meant a 6am start and sometimes a 10pm finish 6 days a week with all the penalty payments and overtime one could imagine – luckily all before Christmas – and the car park at Shepperton Studios, stuffed with a variety of our newly acquired BMWs and Range Rovers after the holidays, became known as the ‘thank you Michael Mann’ car park!

As the 1980s progressed and the sophistication in filmmaking began galloping forward, commercials became a great laboratory for new devices and gimmicks as the repetition on TV, combined with bulky production budgets, meant that the directors wanted to use every new device that was either coming on stream or was just nudging its way through a crack in the door.

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

For me, this was an opportunity to be introduced to the cutting edge of every new gizmo whether it was the ‘Hothead’ or ‘Paintbox’ – and I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of the early experimental work on Libra with Nick Phillips and Harvey Harrison by driving various vehicles either on racetracks or bolted to the side of Land Rovers going over really rough territory.

‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, ‘Batman’, ‘Bond’, ‘Indy’, ‘Private Ryan’, ‘English Patient’, ‘Enemy at the Gates’, ‘Corelli’, ‘The Pianist’ etc etc, all have their interesting facets and learning curves which require a certain thought process and how we can make it look good safely (within reason….) and the challenge continues!

The main differences between then and now is that we all have mobiles and email and GPS and CGI … but when it comes down to it, the business still requires a good script, good direction, good actors and good action where required. We are just a part of the jigsaw puzzle, the big difference is that the successful ones can put the linament on the bruises with a £50 note!

Stunt people have, by definition, to be jacks of all trades and sometimes master of one or two – tomorrow might be a stair fall on fire, Tuesday falling off a horse, Wednesday turning a car over, Thursday a high fall and Friday a fight sequence.

I did have a week like that a couple of times. Exciting it is, boring it ain’t!

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins ‘inspecting the meat’

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins
‘inspecting the meat’

Jim Dowdall’s film credits include: Skyfall – 2012, Safe House – 2012, Blitz 2011, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – 2010, The Descent 1&2 – 2009 & 2005, RocknRolla – 2008, Death Defying Acts – 2007, The Flood – 2007, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 2005,  Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 2005, Sahara – 2005, Finding Neverland – 2004, The Bourne Supremacy – 2004, Die Another Day – 2002, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – 2001, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Entrapment – 1999, Little Voice – 1998, Saving Private Ryan – 1998, Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997, The English Patient – 1996, Batman – 1989, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade – 1989, Whoops Apocalypse – 1986, Brazil – 1985, Octopussy – 1983, For Your Eyes Only – 1981, Star Wars V – 1980, Force 10 from Navarone – 1978, The Spy Who Loved Me – 1977, A Bridge Too Far – 1977, Star Wars IV – 1977, The Eagle Has Landed – 1976, Where Eagles Dare – 1968, The Dirty Dozen – 1967.

Television credits include: Eastenders 2012, Call the Midwife – 2012, Richard hammond’s Invisible Worlds – 2010, Rock & Chips – 2010, The Bill – 2004 to 2009, Top Gear – 2008, Dalziel & Pascoe – 2006 to 2007, The Gathering Storm – 2002, Prime Suspect – 1995, Minder – 1991, The Professionals – 1982, Doctor Who – 1975.

 

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The Special Effects Secrets of Gillie Potter

Gillie Potter 1923 - 2004

Gillie Potter was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of special effects in television advertising. He elevated the boring ‘pack shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack.

His commercial work started in the mid 1950s. This work earned him more than 40 international awards, including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival and was involved in the production of more than 2,000 ads, including classic commercials for Rolo, Vicks Vapour Rub, Quaker Oats, Nesquick and Shredded Wheat. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Gillie Potter was a living legend, still working because he loved it, right up until his death in 2004 at the age of 80. He was the magician of advertisements during the early years of commercial television. In those days, trick film work was a novelty and, at the morning coffee breaks across the land, last night’s TV ads would be a hot topic of discussion …. ‘just how did they do that?‘. Indeed, when we look at some of his early show-reels today it is difficult to see exactly how he did it – in fact, they often look digital when digital technology was at least 20 years in the future.

The predominant brief at that time for commercials was that they should contain something which was very different from anything that had ever been seen before. Once this challenge had been faced and some sort of presentation devised, the vital next step was to select the most appropriate method to achieve it. This usually turned out to be the simplest way of doing it and that, in turn, often proved to be the cheapest – or at least the most cost-effective.  The budgets for special effects commercials in those early days were actually quite small compared with those of live action shoots.  

Usually, the main sections of special effects shoots were made ‘in camera’ – sometimes using multiple exposure but more often shooting a free-standing optical illusion that Gillie’s small team had created. The final work might be embellished by optical composites but in-camera methods kept overall control in the hands of the production company. This was often the cheapest and usually the quickest method. They had the further, very positive, advantage of keeping down the number of generations, as film stock was more primitive in those days and generation-free digital copying was not yet even a dream.

Gillie had invented a particular device – the groundbreaking technique of putting a moving picture onto a moving pack. He always tried to obey one very important rule – keeping the product identity – which most often means the product pack itself right there in the shot. How many commercials we see today leave no lasting impression of what they were about!  Gillie’s ingenious idea was to build on this important principle by showing a movie of the product being used on the surfaces of a moving (usually rotating) pack of that very product. This seems easy now, particularly with all the digital systems available but at that time, it was something that had never been seen before in a television commercial. Camera people guessed that he must have used a rotating projector but they were puzzled as to why it didn’t appear in the shot at some point. The crucial item here was a small mirror, which enabled the rotating projector to be positioned below the field of view of the camera.

A cigarette advert which had cigarettes, packets and disembodied titles built up into an increasingly impossible pyramid before the whole structure collapsed, with the cigarettes all landing neatly in their packets. Few viewers ever guessed that the sequence was shot by laying the packet and the cigarettes on a glass table and shooting upwards, from below. The text pieces were to be stop-motion animated onto the film afterwards, so it was vital that the artist’s hand should maintain the correct separation throughout the main shoot. Particularly delightful is a move in which the text of the word ‘tipped’ goes off balance and the letters are meticulously animated to take up a sloping format and then corrected, when the hand goes in to make the line level again.  

This might well have been the very first use of video assist in a commercial shoot, as the cameraman and the director were able to co-ordinate the whole procedure with an improvised form of closed circuit television from a video camera strapped alongside the 35mm film camera.        

This article is published with the kind permission of the Potter family. There is a DVD of this interview, which outlines Gillie’s techniques in detail, particularly useful to course leaders and students who would like to experiment with their own in-camera effects. For more information on purchasing the DVD Network Nine News info@network-nine.com

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Special Effects

 

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So, you want to work in the Production Office……?

So, you want to work in the Production Office……?

I miss being a 3rd AD. Every day is new and, because a 3rd doesn’t have to worry about the grander things on set, you can use every moment to watch, listen, learn and implement. I might, at that time, have only been good at making tea and getting the right lunch orders but one has to treat EVERY job as if it is the most important thing in one’s career.

This is from an article written by Terry Bamber in Network Nine News. If you want further information contact me through www.network-nine.com

Sadly, on recent projects, I have had to sack youngsters who have not fully understood the importance of a Production Runner’s job and the dedication and tenacity required. Indeed, everyone’s job on a film is important – right through from the cleaning staff to the Producer – producing a film from script to screen is a joint effort undertaken by every individual in the crew.

The great thing about youth is the experience of turning up each day to be amazed by a wonderfully exciting day. Visiting the set to collect the Camera Sheets from the Camera Clapper/Loader, the tentative approach to the Script Supervisor for her notes to take to the Production Secretary. To make a great cup of tea for the Production Secretary (as she was then called) and to be praised for it used to make my day!

I was working on ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ at Pinewood and was having a wonderful time as Production Office Runner when the Production Secretary gave me permission to join the 3rd Assistant Director on set to get some floor experience – this brought on a whole new set of challenges!

So, the 2nd Unit was going to shoot on Sunday to help finish the film on time. It had taken me quite a while to understand the complexities of ….‘Tea, medium brown, with a dash of milk and a level teaspoon of sugar’.… it’s almost impossible to make a medium brown cup of tea, with just a dash of milk …. but I digress!

One of the scenes we were filming this day involved Sir Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, the main baddie in the movie.  He is hiding from Bond in the final shootout. I had to cue Mr Lee when he had to step forward from this hiding place.

The first rehearsal commenced and my mind went into overdrive.

Was I supposed to cue Mr Lee as soon as I heard the 1st AD’s voice or leave it a beat and then cue Mr Lee?….    Would Mr Lee see me move my arm to indicate it was his cue for action?….   Should I look at Mr Lee straight in the eye or avert eye contact so as not to distract him?…. 

The first rehearsal started. I could feel perspiration on my forehead and my hands were getting clammy. Suddenly the rehearsal was cut short. Oh Gawd! – had I missed the cue? I stared into the dark of the set and mumbled to Mr Lee that we had stopped ‘I can hear that dear Boy!’ he said. Oops – it was then I remembered the advice my Dad had given me ….‘Keep quiet and people will only think you are an idiot, open your mouth and you remove all possible doubt’….

Communication

One of the worst jobs for 3rd Ads, especially now with so many departments having their own walkie-talkies, is ensuring that batteries are always charged and that you have a check list of which department has chargers, ear pieces and spare batteries. Obviously, you must make sure the Assistant Directors are all catered for but once again, think ahead!! If there is a scene involving action cars then work out how many radios will be required for the drivers to receive their instructions.

As the Second Assistant Director has to make a report at the end of each day noting call times, the time the principal cast were on set, ‘wrapped’ (that is finished work for the day) on set and time they left the studio or locations (this also applies to Background Artistes and Stunts) it’s a great help if the 3rd Assistant is totally thorough in noting these times. It could have a big impact on any overtime that may be incurred by all the elements of the cast.

When the unit breaks for lunch the 3rd AD should find out from the 1st who is in the first setup after lunch and ensure they get their lunch quickly so they can have their makeup/hair and costume checks on time, before coming back to the set. However, sometimes the crew will work a 10 hour straight-through day and then it takes much tighter management to ensure that the cast get enough time to eat. This is when teamwork from all the Assistant Directors is brought to bear. A 1st AD once said that on every shot there is always a perfect position for the 3rd to be to make sure that everything is covered.

A few basic things to remember on set:

ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR RADIO – NEVER, NEVER HAVE TO ASK THE 1ST AD TO REPEAT HIM/HERSELF!! THIS IS A CAPITAL OFFENCE!

THINK AHEAD. PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING.

POLITENESS TO EVERYBODY and SMILE, SMILE AND SMILE, NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS!

NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING – ASSUMPTION IS THE MOTHER OF ALL COCKUPS!

LEARN FROM EVERYONE IN ORDER TO MAKE YOURSELF A BETTER ASSISTANT DIRECTOR.

Terry Bamber’s film & television credits include: ‘World War Z’, ‘Ra.One’, ‘Katherine of Alexandria’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Quantum of Solace’, ‘Casino Royale’, ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life’, ‘Die Another Day’, ‘Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’, ‘102 Dalmatians’, ‘The World is Not Enough’, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Luther’, ‘Poirot’, ‘Dinotopia’, ‘Cadfael’, ‘Young Indiana Jones’, ‘Jeeves & Wooster’, ‘Paradise Club’, ‘Max Headroom’.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Production Office

 

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STORYBOARD MAN!……or how to tell the story in pictures

The following is from an article by Martin Asbury in Network Nine News.  www.network-nine.com

Martin Asbury

A good storyboard artist has to know, understand and love film. He has to think like a camera and draw pictures as stills of movement. He has to tell you all you need to know about what you will see on screen but leave that little bit out for the imagination and invention.

Cutting my speed to 150 m.p.h. I fly low in a sweeping curve, banking with my crimson cloak streaming out behind me. I swoop in a wide graceful curve over the Film Studios dropping down and landing lithely in the car park on the balls of my feet – like a cat.

The security guard outside the Production Office instantly recognises me. “Thank God you’re here!” he exclaims.

As I stride into the office the Co-ordinator screams with delight. “Thank God you’re here!” she squeals. “The Director – he’s in his office” she smiles wanly. “Go on through.”

Brief, firm knock on the door and I enter. The man at the desk is slumped, his head in his hands. He raises his head, grey faced rheumy blood shot eyes staring at me.

“Storyboardman! Thank God you’re here!” he says. “No problem sir.” I reply. “I’m here to help.”

Quickly I undo my compact drawing tools, sitting opposite him and fixing him with a reassuring yet piercing gaze. I open my sketch book.

“Now what’s the first sequence in the script?”

In the past the making of a film was governed by the script. It was honed and nurtured and worked upon, re-written and re-written. When completed to everyone’s satisfaction it was almost set in concrete. It became the Bible – but these days there appears to be more impediments and pitfalls than ever to this process. Constant writing and re-writing of the script through the prep period can only increase the budget and cause wasted effort. I tell stories in pictures – I have told stories in pictures for all my life. So, if I were asked to direct a film, I would for sure write or draw down what I wanted to do before shooting any sequence – a shot list or stick figures.  It is common sense. Nobody in their right mind would walk onto set with no preparation and no plan.

All those people waiting – all the actors, the producers, the first second third fourth fifth sixth and seventh assistant directors, the lighting cameraman the gaffers, the stage hands, the assistants, the stand-bys – well, you know how it is.. and you are there with nothing in your head..  everyone looking..  it doesn’t bear thinking about!  So, the need for storyboarding becomes obvious.

Over the years they have been used extensively, from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and virtually every film since. On the basis that one picture tells a thousand words, a finished board shows everyone what the director has planned, what they have to do, where they have to be and what they are going to try and achieve.

The Director leans forward conspiratorially. “I need something really dramatic for the opening sequence.”

I tap my pencil. “How about an extreme top shot craning down to a quick track then pan followed by a jib up, jib down low angle Steadicam handheld Skycam sort of locked off shot which favours the star?” I say.

He gasps. “Is that possible?  Can we do that?”  

“We can do anything.” I reply.

Storyboards are not gospel. They serve as a starting point. They can be, and often are, discarded when events or maybe better options present themselves on the day. They can show what to do but, more importantly, what not to do. A whole 360º set might not be necessary to build. A scene can possibly be cut without detrimental effect to the story or can be revealed as being too costly. They can show whether set or location, when explosions and other special effects might occur or how, for example, to shoot the double of the star in one location whilst at the same time the star himself is shooting on another set elsewhere. They can show how to heighten drama with oh-such-cunning angles and camera moves and, of course, are almost indispensable to the ubiquitous car chase. They save time. They save money.

A side door opens and a large-framed man is framed in the frame. I frame a clever remark but the Director leaps to his feet.

“Problem solved!” He bellows. “Thank God for Storyboardman! What we’re going to do is: an extreme top shot craning down to a quick track then…”  

“Stop!”  The Producer steps forward, face grim. “Slow down! We may not have the money for it.” 

“But..but.. “ The Director gulps. “What about my dream?.. my vision?”

A successful storyboard will reflect the director’s vision, the concept that he has nursed for many months and translate it into usable workable drawings which the whole of the production team will understand. Everyone hopefully singing from the same hymn sheet. To achieve this the artist should try and get inside the director’s head – not to second guess him but to realise his dream for the first time in a visual way.

That sounds grandiose but nevertheless is essentially true. The storyboard is the very first time the script is translated into pictures.

Every director is different and every director wants something different. Some will be most specific about the way they see a sequence down to precise angles, framing and composition. Others will talk you through the scene detailing particular shots they are anxious to include -; a pan here, a track there, low or top shots, the lens to be used, the composition needed -and the storyboard artist will then make the smooth transition and join up the dots.  Others will allow complete carte blanche and the artist can make his own individual pass at the scene, presenting his own take to the director for perusal and criticism. Rarely in such a case does the director accept the offer-up completely and he might not like it at all – but usually much more discussion follows until he is satisfied. He may accept some of it, alter and revise bits or just cherry pick what he wants. All the time though, he is the sole arbiter of what is finally presented to the film’s producers and the rest of the unit.

The Director, leaning against his desk. “We cannot proceed unless we have a plan.”

Storyboardman  “… and I have that plan.”  Quickly I stand up. The Producer’s eyes widen as he takes in my perfectly formed body. 

I am resolute.  “Let me explain.” I say. I outline my extraordinary idea and with every second see him slowly relax, taking it all on board. I finish talking. I am satisfied.

He lowers his gaze. “You really are the one.” He mutters. “Truly  you are wonderful!  I never would have thought of that.”

The storyboard artist is to the director what the concept artist is to the designer. He is a utensil, pure and simple. If he is worth his salt he will support and aid the director in all his endeavours. If successful, his boards can save a huge amount of money and prevent an equal amount of heartache. If nothing else they can offer up a back stop – a safety net if you will – and be the building blocks to gain the most out of any given sequence. They can kick off discussion or decision.

Nowadays with the advent and growth of the use of Previs, the line between the two approaches has become somewhat blurred. Previs are fantastic. They can be totally accurate in that they can demonstrate what any scene will look like from any given camera position, any lens, any lighting source. Clearly a wonderful tool for any director. At the moment they are expensive and take quite a while to produce but I am sure all that, in time, will change. When that day happens maybe storyboards per se will cease to exist – but I hope not. I still feel that the immediacy of drawing to the director on the spot cannot be substituted. A sudden change to shooting requirements can necessitate an instant storyboard. The good artist can block out a whole sequence in a couple of days and provide a cost-effective kick start for the whole creative process.

I quickly draw 1000 frames a day and complete the whole film in two weeks. Needless to say the whole of the production team is overcome and in awe of my dexterity and expertise.

As I present the final sequence to the gathered company the Producer rises to his feet his eyes watery and sad.

“Hey you guys – the Production Company has decided that they are against the whole idea. They are pulling out. We’re not going to make the film after all. See you on the next. Sorry about that….”

A good storyboard artist has to know, understand and love film. He has to think like a camera and draw pictures as stills of movement. He has to tell you all you need to know about what you will see on screen but leave that little bit out for the imagination and invention. An accomplished storyboard is good for what it tells you. If it is drawn well with excitement feeling and vigour then all to the good but it is all about information and communication. For that is why we are all involved in this business. We inform, we communicate, we tell stories and all in pictures.

Martin Asbury’s credit list as a Storyboard Artist includes such films as: ‘Malificent’, ’47 Ronin’, ‘Skyfall’. ‘Snow White & the Huntsman’, ‘The Cold Light of Day’, ‘Captain America’, the ‘Harry Potter’ series, ‘Quantum of Solace’, ‘Wanted’, ‘Casino Royale’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Die Another Day’, ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Chicken Run’, ‘Entrapment’, ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Alexander’, ‘Troy’, ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Legend’.

He also took over as the artist for ‘Garth’, the cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror, from 1971 until its final episode in 1997. www.martinasbury.com

 
 

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Do you want to work in Film Production ….. ?

So, you think that you would like to work in film production – why?

Wendy Laybourn - Editor

Is it because you’ve seen all the DVD ‘behind-the-camera’ footage and you fancy yourself in that glamorous world, having cocktails with the stars and walking the red carpet at the première of your latest blockbuster? Or, is it because you have an overwhelming passion to see something you’ve been involved in creating, in whatever capacity, up there on the silver screen? If it’s the former, then forget it and find another career – but, if it’s the latter then take care, you are entering a world where creativity walks hand-in-hand with job uncertainty and life will never be ‘normal’ again!

On any feature film, depending on the budget, there will be hundreds of people employed and, for those aspiring to be director, producer, cameraman, please remember that these are only three out of those couple of hundred people and it takes many years of perfecting your craft to reach these dizzy heights.

However, think carefully about the rest of the film crew – divided into departments and each needing skilled, reliable and committed people to produce a feature film to entertain a global audience.

The time to do this careful thinking is whilst you’re still at school – make no mistake, no matter which career path you choose you will always be best served by getting the highest grades possible – but, if you’re mad enough to think that you might still fancy a job in film production, then you need to do a bit of research – and this is what Network Nine can help you with.

We aim to give you enough information about the whole process of film production from the time the producer selects the script to the screening of the film at the cinema so that you can better understand where your particular talents might be best suited.

I’ll be posting articles from the News at intervals but, if you want to make the most of our information then you need to subscribe to the magazine from the web site www.network-nine.com

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Feature Film Production

 

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