Archive for the ‘Storyboarding’ Category

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…

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Storyboarding “Bless of an Angel”

February 2, 2014

I’ve been storyboarding again!

I’ve mentioned before how useful I find storyboarding. That it makes you think about your story visually and through editing. That it’s like a first pass at making your film. Yeah, it takes ages to do and you frequently find yourself cutting illustrative corners (the end scenes of so many of my flicks were boarded with rough, wireframe-like sketches), but the level of preparation it gives you and the opportunities to try things out in relatively cost-free safety is invaluable.

I’ve also discussed how I’ve gone through a variety of approaches over the years- lots of little frames to a page, three to a page, one big image over a sheet of A4, hand-drawn, photoshopped, drawn in pencil, drawn in ink, designed like animation elements so you could create an animatic… But now I have a new way. And in my opinion, the best way to storyboard.

On an iPad.

Now, I’m not an Apple fanboy. Very rarely does something come out of Cupertino and give me a hard on (although the new mac pro does raise the pulse a little) but I tend to adopt a “best tool for the job” attitude for the most part. I do use macs exclusively and have done for over a decade, I edit on Final Cut Pro (including the new, marmite-like prodigal son FCPX) and 18 months ago, I bought an iPad. Why? Shits and giggles I guess… But I soon realised that by using a stylus and a half decent drawing app, this stalwart of the gadget freak and clueless pensioner alike would become a very useful storyboarding tool.

When I first blogged about this I was using an app called Penultimate to draw storyboards with and described it as “a hipster MS Paint” because of its retardedly basic controls, limited options and moleskine-esque notebook stylings. You couldn’t zoom, shading was impossible and, like those small boxes of crayons you used to get bundled with colouring books, you only got about five colours to work with (and one of them was “rancid yellow”). But it got the job done and I could export the images to the camera roll where other apps like Celtx Shots could import it.

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Concept art drawn in Sketchbook Pro

However, I soon found that there were better options for drawing on an iPad. Sketchbook Pro was the first I tried and with its varied toolsets and photoshop-like layers, was actually a very good app. You could actually zoom in (as opposed to the frankly pitiful magnifier loupe thing the Paper app promotes as a better alternative), you had a pencil tool that actually looked and “felt” like a pencil tool and you could export the full file, layers and all, to something like Photoshop if desired. Downside? It was optimised for the weird dimensions of the retina display, meaning that if I wanted to export and print anything, I’d end up with a large chunk of space on A4 paper and possibly some scaling artefacts. I also couldn’t import images from elsewhere, like storyboard templates, and draw over the top of them- which meant I had to draw the bloody frames in the app itself. Not ideal, but then, this is a drawing app not a storyboard drawing app so I can’t be too harsh.

My current app of choice for drawing storyboards (and anything else for that matter) is Procreate. Unintentionally hilarious names aside, this app has all the functions I need as a storyboard artist. There’s a setting for A4- which means I can print the images properly and at the right resolution. You can import images too, which means I finally get that storyboard template I want and since its A4, I can fit the right number of frames on it. The pencil looks like a pencil, the pencil shaders feel like pencil shaders… The whole app seems geared towards artists being able to create the sort of work they could if they had paper, pencils, paint and other things beginning with P.

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Using Procreate and the Cosmonaut Stylus

Anyway, I’ve been using it to storyboard the music video for “Bless of an Angel.” Being a dramatic music video with actors and performances and visual storytelling means that storyboards are a necessity. Particularly since I’m not the one operating the camera, so it’s a great communication tool for me and Ashley, the DoP. It’ll also help when Emily and I start putting together the schedule because we can work out the set-ups based on position and lens used. Actors like to see storyboards as well- in my experience because it gives them confidence in the script and in you the director. Like everyone, they get to see how the film will look (or more accurately, how it could look!) and their role in bringing it to life.

I’m lucky enough to be able to draw well enough that there’s little distance between what I see in my head and what ends up on the page (or in this case, screen). But storyboards don’t have to be elaborate, detailed or pieces of fine art (although if you’re trying to impress cast, crew or investors, that might be wise…), they just need to tell the story and show your vision of the film. Just like the script, they’re not blueprints. They’re a starting point, a way of exploring what the film could be and a way of communicating that to everyone else.

And I’m only about halfway through them, so I really must get back to doodling…

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The iPad and the Joys of Celtx

July 4, 2012

Recently, I joined the 21st century and bought an iPad. I’d resisted joining the Apple iGadget fraternity for a while (even though I’ve owned and been decidedly pro-mac for years) because, while I really liked the iPad and knew I wanted one (unlike an iPhone), I couldn’t justify getting one.

And I was broke- which didn’t help…

But I decided to buy one when I recently figured out some great filmmaking uses for it- and I’m not talking about those poxy clapperboard apps, either…

To put things in perspective, I always used to take my scripts, notes and storyboards on set with me in a big black ringbinder. Old school, yes. But not efficient. Fact is, I never used to print out or write down everything, meaning some stuff was missed out from my giant shooting bible. I also never had an easy way to connect my marked up script with individual storyboard panels- I was forever flicking pages back and forth and things were all over the place.

Old fashioned folder, meet the future!

But now I have an iPad. And thanks to a range of apps that can interconnect and trade material just like you can import/export files on a computer, I now have quite an efficient way of working in pre-production.

Before I get onto the apps though, a word about the hardware. If you’re going to get an iPad for on-set use, do yourself a favour and get a decent case for it. And I don’t mean that lame excuse for an add-on sale that is the Apple smart cover. Get something that will actually protect it against something more substantial than a sparrow fart. My suggestion?

The Griffin Survivor Case

There are a ton of choices out there, but I went with the Griffin Survivor case. A high tensile plastic shell with a big lump of rubber wrapped round it that, according to the blurb, is “military tested” (which in my mind means it was probably shot out of a tank turret by someone with a crew cut and camo paint!). Okay, so it isn’t as pretty as Steve Jobs would’ve liked and it certainly hides the fact that you’re using an iPad (so if being a pretentious wanker is important to you, this case won’t impress you or the object of your pretention much), but it feels pretty tough and actually, the look grows on you. It’s solid and grippy- something a naked iPad arguably isn’t. It does add some weight, but that just makes the iPad more palatable and substantial- while it can strain the wrist after extended holding, you don’t fear it being dropped because it’s buttery light. It’s also somewhat dust and moisture resistant with rubber flaps covering all the ports, even if they can be a pain to pin back so you can use the dock or hear the speaker (I’m also afraid that they’ll tear off through use, although so far I’ve had no problems). The silly plastic stand is shite, but it doubles as a bit of added purchase for hand-holding which is very welcome and probably an unintentional bonus. The whole thing was £55- not cheap (Amazon currently has it for half this- not impressed!), but a worthwhile investment to protect the more expensive investment of an iPad.

The Studio Neat Cosmonaut

It don’t look like much, but…

The other bit of hardware I bought was a stylus because I wanted to be able to draw storyboards on the iPad and fingers just don’t cut the proverbial mustard. Now if there are loads of different cases on the market, there’s a confusing array of shockingly-similar stylii floating about- from the quite excellent Wacom Bamboo to the cheap and cheerful Pogo. Somewhat fortunately though, my choice of case made my choice of stylus pretty limited. You see, iPad stylii are capacitive and respond by conducting electricity at a similar rate as the human finger- which is how the iPad touch screen works. The Griffin Survivor case has a plastic screen built in which, while fine for human digits, is a lot less responsive for the soft tips on most stylii. After a bit of research, I took a risk on the Studio Neat Cosmonaut. It doesn’t look like much- compared to the fancier stylii with their spongy nubbins and silver grips it looks like a wax crayon. Or more accurately, with its grippy rubber coating and solid, phallic stubbiness it looks like something a modern woman would keep in her sock drawer, but it’s this solidity that makes it work well with the Survivor case. Rather than squishing its nib like other stylii would, the Cosmonaut is a solid lump of metal and rubber with a slightly soft tip. This means that you can apply just a bit of pressure and the iPad picks up the contact pretty reliably through the screen barrier- ideal for drawing apps. It sometimes feels like you’re using a magic marker- like you’re Rolf Harris on Rolf’s Cartoon Time- but generally, it’s pretty good.

Celtx Shots, Scripts and Cloud Services

Which brings me onto the apps themselves. Top filmmaking marks must go to the Celtx family of apps. My first introduction to Celtx was as a free script writing program for the computer. I used it just to write and format scripts correctly, but Celtx has a lot of indexing and pre-production tools so you can structure story, create a catalogue of locations and characters and ultimately create breakdowns and schedules from it. But all that has been augmented by the use of their cloud service to sync data between the desktop program and the Celtx mobile apps. You can now write your script on the desktop program, send it to the Celtx cloud, edit it on the Celtx Script mobile app or, as was of more interest to me, send it and its indexing to the Celtx Shots app.

Screengrab from the Celtx Shots app

Celtx Shots allows you to do what the desktop Celtx does and add shot lists and storyboard panels to the scenes. This will be my go-to app on set because not only can I view my storyboards and shot lists but I can also read the script at the tap of an icon. Shots also has a library of graphics and top-down icons so you can create floor plans or knock up quick compositions- with more you can purchase in-app. A nice feature, although since I can draw, this is less useful for me- I can just import a drawn storyboard panel, add some notes and attach it to the scene. You can’t draw directly in Celtx Shots, so what app do I draw my boards in?

Penultimate

There are so many drawing apps on the iPad that I’m not even going to bother exploring them all- or even the ones that I’ve got on mine (like the wonderful Sketchbook Pro). I’m just going to mention Penultimate. Now Penultimate isn’t a replacement for Photoshop- its more like a hipster MS Paint with a handmade notebook feel and retardedly simple controls. But it comes into its own because of its simplicity- the lack of options means you concentrate on scribbling down your shot rather than fiddling about with fine details and shading. Also, with the custom papers created by ProLost.com‘s Stu Maschwicz, you have some great templates for 16:9 and scope aspect ratios, making it easy to scribble an effective panel and send it to your photo library where Celtx Shots can import it. (You can find the links to his custom papers in this article)

All in all, the iPad has so far made me more productive with regard to planning my shots and pulling stuff together. If the Celtx cloud service works as well as I hope it will, then it’ll also allow for better collaboration with my AD and other crew members. Overall, a win-win for the 21st century filmmaker.

In fact, the only losers in this are WH Smith when I have no need for any more big black ringbinders. Perhaps they should sell more iPad cases instead…

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Prepare to be Boarded!

February 23, 2012

I love storyboarding.

I know a lot of directors hate it and feel like they’re forced into putting together storyboards, preferring instead to just shot-list things, but I find the whole process very useful. Maybe it’s because I can draw and the idea of scribbling a quick composition down doesn’t fill me with embarrassment like it does for others, where fear of opening themselves up for illustrational criticism takes them back to a school art class and a well-meaning but unenthused teacher telling them their unintentionally abstract drawing is “very nice.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been marking up the script for this Persona shoot and drawing storyboards for everything. Don, the Producer, has insisted on boards from all the directors on this season. But even if it wasn’t a requirement, I’d do them anyway because I find them extremely useful.

I’ve used storyboards almost since the beginning of my filmmaking career. Sometimes it’s just a single scene or a short sequence, sometimes it’s the whole film. Sometimes I use a wacom tablet and Photoshop but more often I get out the trusted pencil and start scribbling. I find it a productive way to plan my coverage for the edit, make sure I get the orientation and screen direction right and start to create a look and tone for the visuals. I also find that it helps my shoot-and-setup-logic and I often merge setups because of how similar the framings become. I’ve also developed several tricks for conveying camera movement, action progress and editing pacing- not that any of these “tricks” are groundbreaking or anything, but they work for me!

The Good, The Bad and The Undead was the first time I’d really storyboarded a whole film properly. Prior to this, I’d storyboarded scenes and sequences, but if something was simple I’d just scrawl down “CU Serena” or whatever and not even bother drawing it! GBU was different because I wasn’t directing it- the writer, Luke Owen, was. And because he lacked directing experience and was looking to me for the visual side of things, I took to storyboarding everything so we knew we were on the same page. I intended to do the whole lot in Photoshop with my newly-purchased Wacom tablet but after the opening shot (above) took over an hour to do, I quickly reverted to the trusty low-tech pencil and paper with inking over the top.

Note the scrawl to the side that also lists crosscut CUs as part of the coverage- simple shots that I couldn’t be bothered to draw! Nowadays I tend not to put so much detail into backgrounds and things. In fact, some frames are just loose skeletons with outlines and no details or facial expressions. And these can be on the same page as nicely detailed or textured frames. Depends a) how I feel and b) if I think the detail, shading or colour will add something and convey what I need it to.

When we made The Collector’s Room the other year, the storyboarding varied wildly. The Last Serenade, which I directed, was boarded almost the whole way through. I think I ran out of steam for the whole process by the time I got to the final scene, but every other scene has boards for it.

These are the sort of boards I do now. Scribbles where only the basic composition is needed, nicely drawn images for character moments and expressions, camera moves marked by start and end frames, floor plans and other inserts into the text area to the right…

Ultimately, I put this sort of effort into storyboards because I find it a great development process for the film to go through- it enables me to “make the film without making it” in a way and more importantly allows me to change my mind without any money or much time wasted. When I’m on set, I use the storyboards as my starting point rather than a marked up script or shot list, so I need them to be at least passable. I also show them to the DoP, to the actors, to the sound guy… anyone who needs to know what the shot is can see it in pen, pencil and digital scribble form on a page in my Big Black Ringbinder (which I really need to replace with something like an iPad and join the 21st century!). I also do digital colour palette type boards from time to time- what I call swatch-shots- as a way of exploring the colours, lighting and tone for a shot and the scene it sits in. These take a bit more time, but are ultimately very useful for the DoP, Production Designer and the Colourist (not that I’ve worked with the latter, but I know they’d like me for it!).

So while some directors might balk at having to put pencil to paper, I think it’s a great way to make a first version of your film without wasting time, money, stock, equipment and people’s patience. I would say you save on catering too, but I get through lots of crisps and chocolate buttons when I’m boarding so it’s not completely free!