Lights Film School Online recently had the opportunity to interview Giuseppe “Peppe” Cristiano, a professional storyboard artist currently living in Stockhom (Sweden). Giuseppe has numberous storyboard manuals published worldwide including two books many of our blog readers have either seen, heard of, or have on their bookshelves such as The Storyboard Artist or Storyboard Design Course. Giuseppe was kind enough to sit down with Lights Film School Online to chat with our readers about the job of a storyboard artist, what skills are necessary and how to use a storyboard not so much as a comic book, but more of a budgetary tool to help on your independent productions. You can find our interview with Giuseppe below. Enjoy!
Hello Giuseppe and thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat with Lights Film School Blog readers about the storyboarding process.
As you know, many of our readers are indie filmmakers with high expectations from themselves. That being said, they are nevertheless often working with limited budgets. Let’s start this conversion off by talking about something you said to me earlier, which was “a storyboard is more of a budget tool rather than a comic book”. Where are the areas you feel a storyboard artist can help the most in terms of cutting down on a project’s budget?
Sometimes when I get a call for a job and that happens to be a short film or an independent production, I ask what the budget is. This gives me an idea of what might be possible in terms of visuals and shooting, but also gives me a direction in what terms I should be thinking during the meetings with the directors or the DoP. Of course that also gives me an idea of what my budget would be and what I could expect as payment for my work.
The main purpose of the first meeting with the director is to get an understanding of the mood of the film, the style, the director’s vision. During this session we might watch reference clips, test films, perhaps a pilot if they have produced one. We look at the casting, the location, design etc. But mostly we talk about movies in general, influences and what we last saw. It’s a way of getting to know each other.
I also do a bit of homework. Prior to the meeting I check out what the director has done before (or what ever else the production company has produced), might even watch his previous movies. It is important for me to know how he/she works. I also ask what cameras they’ll be using, what equipment will be available etc.
Once this is set, we start sketching and working on the script. I say “working on the script” because often we end up changing portions of the scripts as once we start visualizing we get a better view of the storyline and action, and as a consequence might decide to combine scenes, move locations around, cut dialogue, or even change the whole ending of the film. Now that helps the production a lot. Doing a proper storyboard, keeping in mind the limitations of the budget (for example the distance between locations, the rental of crane or other equipment, post-production, stunts or effects), could shave days off the schedule, and each day of production represents a huge cost.
Another good use of storyboard is to limit the post-production work and effects. To be able to lock a scene in camera, finding a smart solution so that you won’t have to “fix it in post”, which can be quite costly.
When I work on a film, I need to understand the story, the characters, the subtext – it may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how few artists actually do that. Characters’ decisions (actions) have to be motivated by their personality. Often this is overlooked in the script.
I also think that a film should be storyboarded from beginning to end. I have worked a lot on movies where they only used a storyboard for certain scenes (perhaps to coordinate a stunt, or for a special effect). In such cases, I can’t really do much more than simply draw what the director asks me to. I don’t know anything else about the movie, so I cannot come up with solutions or ideas other than purely technical ones pertaining to the scene in question.
In general, a good storyboard can help all the departments. For example, a storyboard would give you an overview of the locations and what designs have to be made, what props are needed. It also helps the production assistant prepare the call-sheets. It helps the DoP to know which lenses to use. It helps the editor to put together the material for the rough cut. It can also help the producer to find investors and financers for the film, not to mention a perfect way to show where products can be placed.
What are the main elements that each storyboard “clip” needs to contain or communicate.
To name a few; angle, frame, depth, movement. In general, the storyboard artist is not hired for his drawing skills but for his imagination. What is actually much less important on a storyboard are the lights and shadows. In many cases, you might add some embellishment to the frame in order to create a good composition, but that would be purely to make the board look nice, as it does not actually serve any practical purpose. Unless of course a particular use of light forms part of the action. Sometimes not even the background or location details are important, simply because in many cases the locations have not been approved or they tend to change. What is important is the action and the continuity in the scene. Camera movements are also very important; often the DoP will draw a floor plan of the scene with the various camera position and movement to explain his vision. That helps a lot.
So let’s take a look at a practical example. Let’s take this basic scene and use it as a jumping off point for the next part of our discussion. Let’s say we have a script and one of our scenes reads as follows:
As a storyboard artist how would you approach this scene? What are the steps involved to being able to shoot a scene such as the one mentioned above? Again, let’s assume this is a micro-budget production so we have very few resources. Is there a strategy or process you find helpful after reading a script?
My first approach to an assignment like this would be to ask about the overall story and what happened in the scene before. In case it is necessary to connect the scenes, for example. Also to create continuity. After that, I would discuss the shots with the director who generally would give me his vision before we start brainstorming to find solutions or alternative shots and framing.
Sometimes, however, I might be on my own without even a shot list from the director. In that case, I follow my own version of the scene doing very rough sketches and thumbnails.
Most directors I work with are used to my “sketchy” boards and we have a really fast way of communicating even through email.
So I’ll begin with a first run of sketches (see below).
Being a family drama independent film, I understand that there will be some limitations in terms of equipment, so I avoided, for example, any camera movement involving high vantage points, such as a crane shot. Personally I think these kinds of movies should keep the framing at a subjective view angle to come closer to the core of the story and the characters. To bring the action closer to reality so to speak.
I open with a wide shot (1) with the man standing at the door. In frame nr 2 I kind of jump very close to the man, a pretty brutal cut in a way but I feel this way we have established the waiting and the tension in him.
The truck entering and cutting the line of action (3) for me represents another conflict.
Here I made a change in the script (it often happens when brainstorming with the director that you end up making a lot of changes to the text and the action. I felt that our characters have a deeper conflict and that either the young man is angry at him and accuses him of something so that he wants a confrontation (then he will be staring at the old man and will be more aggressive) or he is troubled and confused, almost crying, desperate but still there is something between the two men which is then underlined by the father’s speech at the end of the scene. Analyzing this I thought that the young man doesn’t really look at his father.
He enters the house (4) avoiding him. He sits down and talks to the old man without looking at him (5-6), suddenly he turns his head (8) and that breaks the old man, changing his mood from worried and preoccupied to more irritated and angry (9).
The dialogue continues in 10 followed by a silent moment. The silence continues in 11 where the old man sits down next to his son. On an intense close up (12), perhaps with a slow movement of camera toward him, the old man delivers his monologue.
This is a rough board, more or less what I do during meetings, sometimes it might be even rougher, a series of incomprehensible doodles that only me and the director are capable of understanding. After we have gone through the board and made adjustments, if necessary, I do a cleanup of the board. That could be done in different styles and resolution depending on the production company and director’s needs.
Here is a sample of the polished board.
It could be used to seek financing, in that case it has to sort of look like a comic book, though not quite as detailed. Definitively not in color, although sometimes you might want to indicate special effect and colors could be required as a guideline so to speak.
Let’s talk a little bit about the artistic and technical abilities of a storyboard artist. Many indie filmmakers will be drawing up their own storyboards. Most of us don’t have spectacular drawing skills, although some of us can get by using the basic art skills we learnt in elementary school. But in your opinion what is required from a storyboard artist to help create a functioning board?
As I said before, an artist with lots of ideas is probably what most directors want to work with. It is true that many directors used to draw their own storyboards and in some cases I have seen really excellent work. I used to work with a director who can really draw very well, in fact I think he’s at least as good as me, but he‘s so busy and he told me once that the producer forbade him to do the storyboard and called me instead because it was taking too much time away from his other duties. The storyboard needs to be handed out to the production team, therefore it needs to be clear, which is why even if the director can do his own sketches they sometimes hire an artist to “clean up” the board.
I believe that a professional storyboard artist should have a great knowledge of films, not just what films are out there, what series are on TV, but also what new technologies there are. A storyboard artist has to stay up-to-date with the industry, know the latest development when it comes to special effects etc.
I recommend subscribing to movie magazines to keep an eye to the latest releases etc. but also to look at special features on DVDs, the “making of” sequences. You can learn a lot from those documentaries.
Working with directors, most of the conversations will end up being about movies, so you better know your stuff.
For filmmakers who have no artistic abilities would you recommend they use a software program? Would you recommend a particular program for those that lack artistic abilities?
I am not sure about software to be honest. It could become quite time consuming to work in 3D programs (such as Poser, 3D Studio Max or even Google Sketchup). I’ll say it’s better to sketch using stick figures rather than anonymous stiff characters moving around in some sterile 3D environment. Google Sketchup might be a good alternative, for example, for building up a location (some directors I work with sometimes prepare their shot lists this way).
You could also use a digital camera to make a rough storyboard. Then even if you can’t draw I am sure you can trace a photo
In the end, hiring an artist for a job is not just for their artistic ability but also for the input they can give and the imaginative solutions they might suggest.
Before you put pen to paper do you believe that you should keep your possibilities open and start by a general brainstorming session? If so how would you approach this brainstorming step?
During the first meeting, we usually draw very little and talk a lot. There are many ways to approach and visualize a scene, but one should know what is more appropriate and in the right context. The first question to ask is what sort of mood and style they want for the film. Once you know that you can start building. Generally speaking, the same approach is valid also for other jobs (advertising, TV commercials, music videos, games etc.). Before you can get started, you need to have directions and I ask all sort of questions before I begin drawing an assignment. It is important also to know the target audience for the film. It’s often overlooked, but the language of a film sometimes has to adapt to a certain audience and even the editing and the choice of framing matters as well as the overall tempo.
There are moments when, as an artist, I might ask what the character is thinking – just like a method actor would do ☺. I’m supposed to draw his action after all, aren’t I?
Or feel free to visit his website here.