‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ storyboard artist – Simon Duric – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk!

With the imminent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Film Doctor team have been good Jedis and bring you another on of our interviews.

This time with amazing storyboard artist, 2nd Unit Director and person Simon Duric!

 

The Woman in Black storyboards by Simon Duric
The Woman in Black storyboards by Simon Duric

 

Tell us a bit about your background – did you come from a creative family, what was your relationship to film growing up and when did you first realise that film was the industry for you?

In terms of creativity in my family, not really. My Mum’s a social worker. My Dad’s a technical draftsmen – which I suppose there’s a creative element to that, designing engines and machinery. My brother’s an accountant and my other one’s a T-shirt printer. It was just me really.

I suppose my awakening moment was at about 6 or 7 years old. My Mum, bless her, videoed Jason and the Argonauts, and that was how she used to keep me quiet. She’d sit me down in front of the TV and pop in the old VHS and I’d watch Jason and the Argonauts back to back to back!

Apparently, I don’t remember this, she told me this, I would draw scenes as they happened on screen. Not storyboards but my own interpretations of the scenes. I’d do that for hours and hours.  In school, when they asked me to draw pictures everybody else was drawing themselves with their family in front of the house and a yellow sun – I’d draw a Minotaur or the Medusa [laughs] That was my creative awakening.

 








 

So how did that lead on to ‘I’m definitely going to work in the film industry’?

My parents split up and so I had weekend with Dad and weekend with Mum and I was staying with my Dad one weekend and he said “Mate, I’ve got to go out and you can’t come with me. Here’s a couple of videos. Watch these.” I was about 8 or 9 years old and it was Alien and Terminator….

So I spent a whole day watching Alien and Terminator back to back and I absolutely had my mind blown! When my Dad came home later that day I asked him all these questions and he said “someone creates that, someone builds that. It’s someone’s job to do that” very much in laymen’s terms.

The idea of that being a job just f***ing blew my mind. Apparently, a few days after in art class, I said ‘I want to work in films’ and my teacher said ‘You better pack your bags and go to America’ [laughs] Bearing in mind, I’m from this tiny little village in Derbyshire so that’s quite a scary proposition for a 9 or 10 year old.

 




 

So how did you progress from there?

It was quite a long-winded way of getting there. GCSEs and A-Levels, same as everyone else. I was actually going to go to University to do sports science but then I had that last minute moment of ‘Oh shit, is this really what I want to do? Be a sports teacher?!’

So I went to my Art teacher, who was a sort of friend growing up, and he said “no mate, go to art college and see how you feel.” So I did a year at art college and absolutely hated it, thought I better go to University now. I tried, didn’t like it and left. Took a year out, tried again, didn’t like it, left. Took a year out, tried againwent to a college to do Graphic Design and that didn’t work out either.

I’d done nothing film-related which is the bizarre thing. Then I stopped trying to do anything creative at all and ended up becoming a barman. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I realised I wasn’t going to do that either. I took 6 months out, taught myself how to storyboard, built up a portfolio and moved to London.

 
 

So film had just drifted out of your consciousness for a while?

Well, I was living in Nottingham and I just didn’t think it was a possibility. The only tangible link to film was Shane Meadows. I love Shane Meadows films but if you watch them you know they’ve never been storyboarded. So it was that strange thing of ‘what do I do?’

A friend of mine from art college said ‘why don’t you get some work experience on a film?’ and he had some kind of link to Harry Potter so I went and did a month on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in the Art Dept which basically consisted of sweeping floors, making tea, taking designs from Art Dept to VFX etc etc. I did it for free for a month. Seeing behind the scenes was just a bit of a revelation because everyone that works in the film industry is just a person. Working on a movie is a job. It’s an incredibly privileged job and it’s a fantastic job but it is just a job.

I suppose it helped demystify it. That was always the big thing for me. There seemed to be so much mystery around the film industry. So having seen that made me take the 6 months out, create a portfolio and move to London. I’d only been to London once before that. Didn’t know a single person there, had no contacts. I just did it on a whim.

 

Dracula Zero One storyboard by Simon Duric
Dracula Year Zero storyboard by Simon Duric


 

So how did you get started in London?

Within a year of moving, the first thing I got was Krakatoa – with a director called Sam Miller. I worked incessantly. My friends back home would come up ‘How’s London?’ because everybody expects you to have this huge amazing adventure in London but I just f***ing worked. I worked in bars to make money and I worked on my portfolio and I stalked people incessantly. I’d send out portfolios, I’d make phone calls, I’d send emails all the time. That became almost a second job to me.

I got my break – the most mundane break ever [laughs] – doing a corporate video for the society of chiropodists…It’s amazing right? I spent 3 days drawing feet and I hate drawing feet. I was in my element though, I was like ‘amazing! I got my first storyboard job!’ 

I must have done a good job because that company called me a couple of months later and said ‘we’ve got another corporate video job for Vodafone.’ Luckily the director on that was signed to RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) and we did that job together and clicked and he said “I’ve got this toothpaste commercial I’m doing in Nigeria. Do you want to do the storyboards?” I was like “Yeah, glamour! I’m doing a commercial!”

So I did that for him and all of a sudden I had a credit as a storyboard artist on a commercial for a director at RSA. It was phenomenal how many doors that opened up. I sent those samples out to production companies and I sent them to one company – and I don’t advocate this as a piece of advice necessarily – but when I started out my rates were pitiful, I was begging, I’d work for free which no-one should do. I didn’t care because I was doing what I wanted to do.

Anyway, I sent them out to this one commercials company and ended up doing a series of spots for Specsavers with Sam Miller and he said ‘Look, I’m doing this TV movie and we’ve got some big VFX elements and do you want to do the storyboards?’

One of the things I’d done in the 6 months I’d had off was watch a lot of DVD extras, so I had a layman’s (or better) understanding of how VFX works. So when he was talking about the VFX elements on that job, I knew what he meant and I knew how to get them down on paper.

So now I had commercials credits and a TV credit. I took samples and emailed those to film production companies. I was very lucky to get them in front of two people who still remain really important in my career and I still owe a lot of thanks to. They got me in for my first feature film which was a film called Penelope with Christina Ricci and James McAvoy.

It was with an American director who’d done a lot of 2nd Unit directing on Michael Bay movies and was his first feature film being produced by Reese Witherspoon so it was a big deal. I interviewed for the job and didn’t get it but the storyboard artist who started it got ill, unfortunately for him, and I basically got a call saying ‘we’re desperate, can you come back in?’ and I spent 3 months working on that.

That was a real education because, comparatively at that point, I had little storyboarding experience. But I understood the shots, how to draw and the language.

 
 

Was life all set up from there onwards?

It was still tricky. I was doing commercials mainly. But I met two people on Penelope – a producer called Paul and a PM called Jen. Jen has got me so many film jobs over the years. I owe her such a lot. She got me on Eden Lake. Then she and Jon Harris got me on The Descent 2.

You can do movies that aren’t necessarily a huge success but they’re made with good people… Jon Harris is an Oscar nominated editor now.

 
 

What’s really interesting is you’ve got such a range of work. Penelope has the fairytale element, Eden Lake is pretty grim, Sherlock Holmes, Hanna a European action thriller, Under the Skin, The Woman in Black, Pride, The Inbetweeners 2! They’re so varied! What’s different about how you approach the job on each?

The fundamentals, for me, of storyboarding are the same whether you’re doing a 30 second commercial or a $100m feature film. There’s very little difference in the actual storyboarding. 

The Woman in Black was a very intense job. Again working with James. We had a rapport and relationship by that point. James is a very collaborative director and they are my absolute favourites to work for because they have a vision for their film and they know how they want to tell that story but they’re also smart enough to know that if someone’s got a better idea than them then use it.

For me, that’s what a director does: surrounds himself with the best people possible, who all know what they’re doing in their chosen fields, and he cherry picks the very best ideas. That can be from Production Designer, Editor, DOP, camera op – it can be from anyone.

That film was storyboarded by design. I watch a lot of movies anyway but we spent a lot of time watching other movies, watching successful horror films, breaking those sequences down scientifically. What is it about that particular sequence from Halloween or The Omen or from The Thing that makes it work? Trying to find out the psychology of a horror film. All those scares that are in The Woman in Black, which I would hope came across effortlessly, were really, really, meticulously planned and designed.

On that job, I did a phenomenal amount of storyboards because it would be ‘what are the different ways we can approach this scene? How about this approach? How about that approach? How about we build up like this to this moment? How about this technique?’ We were just trying to explore different avenues.

Working on something like Sherlock Holmes, which I was on for 6 months. The first 2 I was on my own and then they brought Dave Allcock on board. That’s how we met and became friends. That was mostly about VFX. Guy Ritchie loves an idea. I really enjoyed working with him. He’s very open to ideas.

His big thing on that was ‘How do I track these big sequences? How do we do the fight scene before the boat is settled on the water? How do we incorporate the anchor on the boat?’ I spent 3 months working on 1 sequence that never made it into the film. Every single shot was a VFX shot. Played out, I think it would have been unlike anything anyone’s ever seen on screen, literally. But, for a 5 minute sequence, I think it would have pretty much doubled the budget. It was monstrous but was exciting to explore that option.

Those kind of films are very much different for films like Pride, which I actually didn’t do that much work on in the end, just the final sequence of the film.

 
 

Dracula Year Zero storyboard by Simon Duric
Dracula Year Zero storyboard by Simon Duric

 

The Inbetweeners 2 interests because obviously comedy performance is a very instinctive thing. Did you have to storyboard literal comedy?

The Inbetweeners 2 was an interesting one. It’s the only comedy I’ve done really. The 2 directors on that were very much fans of physical, visual comedy. Again they were very open to ideas.

The opening sequence was the first thing we did. What I liked is that, for a British comedy and with the budget they had, they said ‘we want a big ballsy cinematic open’ and were talking about this helicopter shot over the Bristol river.

I did the sequence literally frame-for-frame. Normally, although I think it was a budgetary constraint, a more successful approach would have been to do animatics and 3D animatics but I don’t think that was an option.

In terms of drawing for comedy, I tend to keep my boards quite simple. I’m not an actor, I’m not a performer, I’m not a comedian. I don’t think anybody takes or should ever take storyboards that literally – facial expressions etc etc. My boards were more about how we used the camera to work with that comedy.

Like we explored the sequence where Jay is writing them an email about his idealised version of Australia. In the moment where he punches the koala bear in the face I had an idea (where he’d be punching hundreds of koalas in the face), told it to them and they laughed and I storyboarded it but ultimately it was too expensive. It was great to explore though.

That’s the great thing about storyboarding – you can explore things at the cost of a pencil and a piece of paper.

 
 

Did you storyboard for Kanye and Jay-Z?

Yeah, Jay-Z and Kanye music video ‘No Church in the Wild’ directed by Romain Gavras who is one of my favourite directors to work for. He’s awesome. Every now and again you meet these directors who are literally their own animals. He’s one of them.

Romain’s got a really interesting relationship with on-screen violence. He did 2 music videos for MIA and this felt like a continuation of those. Romain’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll [laughs].

Great guy to work for. He uses the storyboards not as a plan but to spark a train of thought. You can’t plan everything. There are little moments of magic that can happen on set.

 
 

And how was working on Jonathan Glazer‘s Under the Skin?

Under the Skin I worked on 6 years before the film was released. It was utterly bizarre – I was working on a commercial and I got a phone call from a producer called Jim Wilson and he said “I’ve seen some of your illustrations (I used to do book and magazine illustrations) and I’m working on a project with a director who really likes those drawings. Would you come in for a meeting?”

Of course, the first question in your head is who’s the director? And what’s the project? He said “the director’s Glazer.” Now I f***ing love Jonathan Glazer‘s work. Each commercial he did was a work of art in itself. All his music videos are phenomenal stuff. I’d read that he was doing an adaptation of Under the Skin which was a book that I’d just finished reading at the time (the book was in my bag when the producer called) and I just blurted out “is this Under the Skin?” and he said “yes” and I said “I’m in.”

I had the meeting with Jon and he said what he wanted and I basically spent 3 weeks doing somewhere between concept design and key frames. He’d give me a very, very, very specific moment in the film and say “I want a drawing which encapsulates everything about that moment.” These were full on drawings. A3 size. Serious man hours. He was so specific. The face wasn’t right or the character wasn’t thinking the right thing. It was that literal with the drawings. I ended up doing 18 or 19 hour days but, for me, there’s nothing better than working with a director who pushes and pushes and pushes and pushes. Because that means he cares and if he cares, I care.

 
 

Do you have to travel a lot for work?

Yep. Changes from job to job. I always say to production “the director’s the boss and I’ll do whatever’s easiest for him.” He’s the captain, he’s the one driving the ship and we’re all there to support him.

I don’t like it but I’ll do briefs over Skype. Some directors – if you have a pre-existing relation ship – will do briefs over the phone. 9 times out of 10 you go to an office to meet them. So when it becomes an actual job, it’s just logistics. On Sherlock Holmes, I spent every single day at their studio. On Star Wars it was every single day at Pinewood studios. On Hanna – which was originally Dave Allcock‘s job but he kindly told them to call me – I went to Berlin for a week.

I worked on Keanu Reeves‘ directorial debut called Man of Tai Chi. We did 3 months work in London. Sometimes I’d go to his apartment and sometimes, weirdly (for my neighbours), he’d come to mine. Eventually, I went to Beijing for 3 months, working out there with him.

With James Watkins, sometimes he’ll let me work from home, sometimes I’ll go to the studio, sometimes I go to his house, sometimes he likes to have me go to set.

All directors work differently and the one thing I’d say about being a storyboard artist is you’ve got to be flexible.

 

Storyboard by Simon Duric
Jay-Z and Kanye’s ‘No Church in the Wild’ storyboard by Simon Duric


 

Ho do you like to work? Do you have to deliver everything digitally?

I work old school. Pen and pencil, so the advantage to me is, as long as I’ve got a pen and pencil, I can storyboard anywhere.

Yep. You have to scan. PDFs. They have to be delivered digitally. I work old school because it’s the way I know best. I’ve dabbled in digital. It’s a different skill-set and for me to get to the same level as the guys working digitally will take a huge amount of time and at the point I’m at in my career, I’m hoping I won’t be storyboarding for much longer….

Everyone works differently. On Star Wars, I worked traditionally. One of the guys  would initially work traditionally and then work everything digitally and the other guy did everything digitally. I’d be sat in their with my poky little drawing board and they’d be sat their with these huge tablets and big screens. Pretty impressive.

 
 

Have you ever had to work in colour?

Never. I did some in commercials but it’s a nightmare really.

 
 

So you’ve done quite a bit of 2nd Unit Direction – Diana, The Crown etc. Tell us a bit about it and where you want to go with that?

Ultimately, I want to direct. The great thing about the 2nd Unit is the notion of the curtain being pulled back. So all these things you’ve been storyboarding, you’re now shooting.

Diana was the first time I’d done 2nd Unit. I’d directed a short film before that. I was only supposed to be storyboarding on that film for a week, for one sequence, but I hit it off with the director and ended up doing some more.

One day he was briefing me on a sequence and his DOP said to him “well this seems like a 2nd Unit element” and the director, Oliver, nodded and looked at me and said “do you want to direct 2nd Unit?” and I went “yeah” and that was it [laughs].

I ended up doing a weeks worth of 2nd Unit directing on that, which was mostly pickups and inserts. Hands grabbing door knobs, opening doors, feet along corridors. I also did an extended sequence of Princess Diana jogging through Hyde park. 75% of that was with body doubles and the rest was with Naomi Watts.

We ended up doing an opening to the film which was either really heavily edited or not used at all. We filmed the journey of the cars on the roads, the police vehicles, the blocked traffics, the fans on the side of the street waving flag. It was amazing because it was the first time I’d ever been in a tracking vehicle, the first time I’d been sat with a camera op using a crane. Directing those shots live in the moment was fantastic.

The biggest one I’ve done is Bastille Day directed by James Watkins. Full on stunt sequences. Action. Car chases. Explosions. Hand to hand fighting. The whole shebang. I f***ing loved it.

 
 

So you’ve got The Loch as your first feature directing gig.

Yep, The Loch is still in development. It’s a character driven horror thriller. Again I’m working with James Watkins on that. That’s still very much in its infancy. Myself and a friend are about to sign contracts on a TV series – both as co-creators and co-writers and I’m hoping to direct some of the episodes.

I’m in early negotiations with something else but I can’t talk about it. It’s exciting.

 JZ + KW 3 JZ + KW 2
 

So, let’s hop onto working on Star Warshow did you land the gig?

Pure luck. There are probably 10 or 15 storyboard artists in the UK who should have got that job before me. But fortunately for me they were all busy. I’m sure they got further down the list and thought ‘oh this guy, he’s done Sherlock Holmes and Dracula’. I’m under no illusions that I would not have been top of anyone’s list for a job of that scale, purely because I’ve never worked on anything that big. I’m sure you can tell that is a big movie.

J.J. said in the interview “I don’t want pieces of art. I want quick. I want energy to them. Don’t worry about finishing them up too much.” You’re sat there going ‘uh huh, uh huh’ and then you’re like ‘f*** we’ve got to do the ‘making of’ book! We actually had a draw off with Star Wars illustrations!

 
 

How was it? What were the challenges on that?

The security on the film was a challenge. That script was locked in a safe. Most of the time on a film you can sit at your desk with a copy of the script next to you. On this, you couldn’t. That’s fine but it was tricky in places.

We couldn’t store anything on computers, they had to set us up a drop box thing. One day I forgot my security pass and they wouldn’t let me in the building. I understand the level of security though because we had crazy stuff going on.

We had people flying drones over Pinewood studios trying to take photographs. It was nuts. If a prop was being moved we had to have them covered in a big black sheet. We were told in an email to be weary of drones.

Also, on a film that’s so big and there’s so many moving parts and there is a different person for almost every single task, it was difficult to get hold of certain things at certain times.

It wasn’t the most complicated job I’ve ever been on though!

 
 

Was there an ideas generation vibe like on other projects?

I didn’t have that personally. J.J. Abrams was the busiest, most energetic man I’ve ever seen. I didn’t get a whole lot of time with him because he was piloting the biggest tank ever. In the few brief times I had with JJ was he was incredibly collaborative but he did have a very specific vision for the film.

In my dream world there would have been many more sessions sat there with him and the DOP and talk through ideas but the nature of the job didn’t allow that.

 
 

How is it working with other storyboard artists?

We’re kind of our own strange standalone beast but what I like is there’s a real camaraderie between storyboard artists. When we were doing Star Wars, we all hooked up with the guys doing Pan and had a chat. You just all get to know each other.

 
 

Did you do any day sketching on set?

I finished before they started shooting.

 

Samsung commercial storyboard by Simon DuricSamsung Charge 2

 

What advice can you give to aspiring storyboard artists?

You’ve got to ask yourself how much you want it. It’s on a sliding scale, of course, but I took a lot of risks moving to London. I didn’t know anyone and a lot of this industry is right time, right place.

You’ve got to be willing to work hard. I think the one thing people don’t understand is it’s a real grafters industry. Long hours on set. Storyboarding sometimes 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s not glamour.

You’ve got to want it.

Also, many kids coming out of art school or film school come out with pretty pictures but storyboards aren’t pretty pictures. You need to understand perspective, you need to understand eye-line, you need to understand what makes a frame work.

Also, study editing. Editing is such a big part of storyboarding. Watch your favourite films and really look at how your favourite sequences are put together. Why’s he done that shot? Why’s he put that shot there? Why’s he done that in a track and not in a pan?

Watch different films and watch how they approach it.

Also speed. Sometime you have to work fast. Sometimes you have to hammer out drawings. If someone says ‘I need 60 frames by such-and-such’ then you have to deliver 60 frames by that deadline. That’s your job. If that means staying up and not sleeping then suck it up and do it.

Finding your style too. That was something I struggled with in my early days. I found myself trying to ape other artists. That’s a road to ruin. You need to be instinctive. You don’t want to be second guessing. Find a comfortable style of drawing that is quick and economical.

I’ll also add that it’s risk vs. reward when you’re starting out. They’re not going to give you the job if they don’t know you can do it but you can’t work if they don’t give you the job. So take whatever jobs you can at first. Corporate videos, commercials, music videos. Don’t sell yourself short but you do need to get experience.

 
 

Advice for Directors?

Plan. The biggest weapon you have in your arsenal is to plan. Even if you veer off on set, still have a plan.

 
 

Films that you might recommend – your personal favourites and/for someone looking to pursue career of a Storyboard Artist? 

Top of the list is Jaws. There are some incredibly well designed shots and sequences. A lot of them are so well designed, they are subliminal.

Ridley Scott had a period in the 70s/80s, Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise. All incredibly designed films.

The Thing, as well. It’s multiple characters in confined locations but it’s incredibly cinematic.

When it comes to camera moves – Paul Thomas Anderson. The guy uses a camera as like a wizard. Boogie Nights is one of the best.

Any David Fincher films. Alfred Hitchcock. Rear Window is one of my favourite films. So beautifully constructed.

 

Thank you, Simon!

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is open internationally from midnight tonight!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)..Ph: David James. Lucasfilm 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)..Ph: David James. Lucasfilm 2015

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