Hi Film Folk!
The Film Doctor Team are delighted to bring you another edition of our Interview series. This time with the amazing mind (and fingers) behind the storyboards of Pan, Edge of Tomorrow, World War Z, both Sherlock Holmes movies and the forthcoming The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
We introduce to you the awesome David Allcock!
The role of Storyboard Artist isn’t recognised officially by most, if not all, of the Academies, is it? Do you think it’s an undervalued process inside or outside of the industry?
DA: I believe you’re right that it’s not recognised. I think in the States, where it’s a lot more unionised, it comes under the Art Directors Guild, which a lot of the storyboard artists or illustrators out there are not happy with, because they consider themselves to be more in line with writing and directing. And we often get considered as members of the art department, which, I guess, we draw, so people think we are art department, but, again I’m also inclined to think “Not really” – it’s more like visual scripting. So, in answer to your question, without sounding too bigheaded, yes, I think it’s an undervalued process.
And not a lot of people – even people within the industry – are quite sure what we really do. There are people outside of the industry completely unaware of it – you meet someone, they say ‘what do you do for a living?’ I say ‘I’m a storyboard artist’, they go ‘What?’, and you have to explain what you do. We are sort of “Hollywood’s dirty little secret”. Some directors love us, others hate us – because some see us as getting in the way and muddying the vision. We are sort of deep behind the scenes in pre-production, within this kind of weird netherworld, and what we do is hard to quantify and compartmentalise. It’s not work that ends up on the screen either – like, production design or cinematography. We are kind of in between: taking the script and designs and interpreting it. It’s kind of an interpretation. So, yeah, I guess it is undervalued – and that’s because not many people fully understand it.
Not all directors storyboard. Would you make a case as to why all should? Or can you understand why certain types of directors with certain styles may not storyboard?
DA: No, not all directors do and I can’t say they all should, either. They have completely different ways of working. Why would Woody Allen need storyboards? That would be almost counterproductive – the complete opposite to his process. They are generally used for complex sequences, action sequences with visual effects. And, unless you have a director that particularly likes the Hitchcock way – you know, every single shot has to be planned – why would you storyboard at all? With a talking head sequence there’s really no need to. So no, not every director should.
So do you think a lot of today’s usage is about coordinating the visuals and quite wide, complex shots, more than anything else?
DA: Yes, because films have become more technically complex. And now we have big blockbuster movies or smaller films, there’s no in-between, and that’s the way a lot of films are going – visual effects-heavy films. They need a lot of planning, because there are so many elements that go into them, with live action actors and green screen, and CGI; there’s a lot of compositing of elements, so you need to start visualising these things very early on. You storyboard it and then it goes into previs, where it would be fully animated and everything gets locked down. That’s the way it works. I went from thinking “Oh my god I’m a dinosaur already, with technology moving so fast that I’m going to be out of a job soon”, but the actual fact is, it’s kind of gone the other way: I’ve never been busier and storyboarding is still seen as a very efficient, quick and cheap (in the grand scheme of things) way of visualising complex sequences.
How closely do you usually work with the directors? Does it vary? To what degree? Any unusual processes/demands? Any particularly painstaking shoots you can remember?
DA: As I said before, it varies. Joe Wright, for instance, who I’ve worked with 3-4 times now, storyboards everything. He likes to be really, really prepared – almost to the Hitchcock extreme. But then, I worked with other directors that were completely not interested in it, and I was storyboarding for the producers, for the VFX supervisor, the second unit director, the stunt team. You do work with loads of different departments; you kind of collate information together, trying to build a series of images, which encapsulates everything that’s being discussed.
On other instances, like working with Guy Ritchie – he is more organic with it. He kind of uses me and storyboards as an idea generating tool. He’d almost say “This is what I’ve got in the script, why don’t you veer off that, see what else you can come up with, think outside the box”. So it’s not necessarily a “This is exactly how we’re going to do it” visual bible, but seeing what alternatives are there. So any other director has a different process.
In terms of painstaking shoots, “Pan” – I was on it for 10 months, very early prep, all the way through the shoot – it’s been amazing, because I’ve never been so involved in a project and so symbiotic with the director before. We would be storyboarding the night before what we’re going to shoot the next morning – exactly what Joe was going to shoot – I’d get there an hour before, they start shooting a couple of hours after, constantly evolving, almost like scripting. So it was very involved, but completely exhausting [laughs]. So, there are many extremes you can go to.
Going back in time, to your early years – what was your upbringing? Did you come from a film or a creative family? Or did you just have this dream of what you wanted to do and nobody really got it?
DA: [Laughs] Probably the latter. My father was a newspaper editor. He started doing film reviews, so he’s probably the one who got me interested in film. He watched a lot of movies. That might be where it came from. I was kind of discouraged, because it was seen as “Hey, Mum and Dad, I want to be a rock star”, you know “I want to work in movies” – “Yeah, yeah, whatever”. I think they thought maybe photography, maybe advertising, something like that, could be a more realistic option. They honestly didn’t think I could do it, so I was a certain character where that just made me want to do it even more and literally from the age of maybe 6 or 7 that’s what I wanted to do. In the back of my mind, I never entertained doing anything else – I was completely focused and set my sights on that. So I was a bit of a black sheep, really. And I never looked back. The more they said you can’t do it, the more I wanted to do it; the more I wanted to make it work and…so far, so good [laughs]
Was it in the form of wanting to be a storyboard artist in particular?
DA: No, not particularly. I knew I wanted to work in film. I think, initially, like many people of my generation, it was “Star Wars”, “James Bond”, and “Indiana Jones” that inspired me. I’d seen the ‘making of’ and the behind the scenes stuff, and realised “Wow, these people actually do that for a living”. It was probably the special effects that initially got me interested. I always was, and still am, fascinated by old school practical FX and the hands-on craft of film-making. Then, I’ve always drawn as a hobby. When I ended up studying film at University – I did a Film & Video degree at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, I specialised in Editing and set my sights on being an Editor. When I went for an interview at the university – this was at the time Tarantino had just hit big and every kid had come in and said they wanted to direct, they wanted to be Tarantino. I came in and said I wanted to edit, they went “Great, right, we’ll have you”, took me straight in. And that was the plan, to be an Editor.
I finished that, got some work experience at a production company that did commercials and music videos – I just needed a foot in the door, a way to get in, so I was a runner for Vadim Jean; one day a Storyboard Artist came in to do some boards for a Pringles commercial and the Director came in and decided he wanted to change them all. He literally said around the office “Can anyone draw?” and I put my hand up, “I can draw”. I changed them and he said “Great, that’s it, you’re doing it from now on” – and I became like an in-house storyboard artist. Then it got to the point I was runner, PA, did every job you could imagine on set when they were shooting the commercials, then eventually this Director said “I think you found your niche, get out, you need to work with other people, you should go and be a freelance storyboard artist”. And that was it.
So, at that point in time, how did you transition from that job? Did you have a portfolio?
DA: Well, through working on various commercials and music videos for other directors in that company, I had a portfolio of sorts. And I also took on some shorts – just friends of friends, anything to build up a portfolio. Then I had just enough people to go to, once I went freelance. And at the time, Vadim Jean was just about to go and do a movie in Canada. So, as a last sort of work together, he said “I’ll take you over to Canada with me, to be my Assistant. You can do all the storyboards for the film. Then once we come back to London, that’s it, you need to go, do your own thing”. Just before that they got a deal with a German production company – they did a film called The Virgin of Liverpool, which never got released here; one of the other commercial directors did his first film and I did something similar on that. They knew I’ve always wanted to get into movies, so they gave me those 2 experiences, and then said “Off you go”.
So your entry to film was specifically through them?
DA: Yes, it’s called The Mob Film Company. They mostly did commercials and music videos, but through Vadim, who’s a feature film Director as well, they always had some movie stuff in development. So that was the first step. After that, the movie in Canada was through a company called Gold Circle Films; Vadim knew the guy that ran that, they did My Big Fat Greek Wedding and lots of other stuff. They were making a horror movie, called White Noise and they had a British Director called Geoff Sax, and they’d seen me with Vadim, storyboarding away; they just said, “He’s in London, you’re going back to London, we’ve got some complex kind of visual effects sequences, can you go and work with Geoff in London?” So that was my first official freelance gig. It turned out alright, the film did pretty well, and I’m still working with Geoff.
Awesome. Around that time, what do you think was the key to getting new work? Was it proactivity, luck, recommendations?
DA: All of the above. It’s a cliché, but a lot of it is about who you know. And recommendation, like any good craftsman or builder, or plumber or electrician – most of your work comes through referrals from other clients. A lot of it is about reputation. Keep building a portfolio. When I was getting started, the web was just blowing up; get a website, get some online presence. But, more than anything, sheer determination – just keep plugging away, because, like many other fields in the industry, you’ll keep getting knocked back, and if you let it get to you, it will chew you up and spit you out. I’m a strong believer that you make your own luck. So just keep working hard, doing good work, you’ll keep getting more referrals, more recommendations, and you’ll just keep building and building. It took me 10 years to really make a name for myself, to get where I wanted to be.
How did you wind up working on the “Hogfather”, which is a TV production?
DA: I can’t remember whether it was before or after Sherlock Holmes, but it was with Vadim Jean, again. So, I’d already gone freelance and he had that, and they did another one afterwards, called The Colour Of Magic, and they’d made this deal with Sky and Terry Pratchett. And, although it was lower budget, it wasn’t dissimilar to working on a movie.
Your first big studio movie was “Sherlock Holmes”. How did you land that? Talk us through it and how things changed for you on that project.
DA: Yep, I guess you could say that was my ‘big break’. I got that through Max Keene, the 1st AD, whom I knew from a previous film, Mutant Chronicles. We got to know each other very well. He worked with Guy Ritchie once before, I think on RocknRolla, he was one of Guy Ritchie’s crew, and just through networking, staying in touch, hearing that he was doing Sherlock Holmes and just being in the right place at the right time. They needed a Storyboard Artist – Max recommended me. It worked out and turned into Sherlock Holmes 2, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and now King Arthur. I’ve worked with those guys a lot, just a really strong network.
So did things change for you in the process doing Sherlock Holmes? Presumably, it was a bigger affair?
DA: Well, with projects like that you have a bit more time. There’s normally a few of you – there would be 2 or 3 storyboard artists, each working on different sequences; it’s more collaborative. But yes, it was very daunting. I knew it was a big opportunity and I couldn’t screw it up – I really had to kind of prove myself; had to do the best work I could. I was on that for quite a long time, probably 8 months – working all through pre-production, through a lot of the shoot. But yes, it really set me up – you do something like that and you move up the league table; you’re now on the radar of people you’d not been before.
From there you’ve worked on a variety of different big budget projects. What do you notice working at that level? More time? Or less? More detail required? More changes?
DA: It’s often the same problems, the same process, just on a much bigger scale. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s more drawn out and, because of it, there would be lots and lots of changes. For example, on Pan, with ‘the big finale’, if you look back through my files on my computer, we ended up on version 19 of the big end sequence – we did it over and over again; it would be re-written, it would cost too much money, so you’d have to condense it, it would completely change. Storyboarding is a quick way of re-visualising something to see if it works. You can’t be precious about your work at all.