In Conversation: David Allcock (Storyboard Artist of Edge of Tomorrow, World War Z, Fast and Furious 6) – PART 2

Hi Film Folk!


On this wonderful Wednesday morning, we bring to you Part 2 of awesome storyboard artist, David Allcock‘s interview.


If you didn’t catch Part 1 of David Allcock’s interview, check it out here!!


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock - Film Doctor
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


How closely do you work with the cinematographer or production designer?

DA: Probably more closely with the production designer; sometimes, with the cinematographer. Again, with Directors like Joe Wright, he likes to sit down in a room with me and the DP, and have meetings just the 3 of us – read through the script and thumbnail it out together, with the DP’s input. So we’re already thinking about lenses and how it’s going to be lit, etc. Or, on Dark Shadows, I was working almost exclusively with Bruno Delbonnel, the DP; presenting ideas together to Tim (Burton). Other times, I’d never speak with the DP at all.

Most of the time, the Director would be first port of call, with the script, I’d go away and work my way through it, and go to the Production Designer for references for the set, the look – you know, the ‘world’ you have to work in. For example, the script might say you’re in a castle, but they only have a corner of a room, some steps and a doorway, the rest is CGI, so you have to know what the restrictions and the parameters are – which is where you would need to talk to a Production Designer.  



You’ve worked on Anna Karenina, Hanna, Dark Shadows, Fast and Furious 6 and Edge of Tomorrow, all quite different genre films with different ‘looks’ and styles. How does it work to draw for such variation? What processes change between something like Anna Karenina and FAF6? Do you use different apparatus? A different mindset? How do you approach these?

DA: Well, technically, I now work entirely on a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet, completely digitally, whereas before it was all on paper. Technologically it’s the same process, but mentally, I guess you have to adjust slightly. I like variety – it keeps you on your toes. And as a Storyboard Artist you should be able to visualise anything and everything – this should be part of your key skillset.

I have quite an eclectic taste in film and music, so I like that variety. I went from “Anna Karenina” straight into “Fast and Furious 6”; you couldn’t get 2 more completely different movies, but I enjoyed that. It keeps things fresh. So, it’s the same tools and it’s all storytelling and problem-solving, just on a slightly different canvas each time.



Are you given specific visual references (e.g. photos that might resemble a desired set-up or frame) from Directors or do you tend to work from written shot descriptions only?

DA: Nowadays, most of the time when you come on a project, there’s already some kind of reference file. I guess now the first people on board would be production designers or a concept artist, to start visualising the film, so there would be something that you could draw upon.

As you move forward, you have the set designs, location photos, etc., but it depends at what point you come into it. If it’s really early on, the Director might have certain references – even if it’s just a painting or a certain photographer’s work, something that you can ‘latch on’ to and start feeding into your process.

Sometimes there would be happy accidents – for example, on “Man from U.N.C.L.E”. I came on very early, one of the main bad guys wasn’t cast yet, we didn’t know what he looked like, what he’s going to wear, etc. and I just drew what I thought felt right. I cut the sequence into animatic and I was playing it to Guy Ritchie, and he was just laughing the whole time, giggling away to himself. I asked him what was so funny, he said “Wait till you see the fella we cast”; turns out the guy looked exactly the way I’ve drawn him – the same moustache, the same hair, everything. It’s just one of those things, when you’re both on the same wavelength, it just happens that way sometimes.     

The other thing about storyboarding is that it doesn’t have to be too precise. You have to find a happy medium – you have to have a certain level of detail, but not too much, because you don’t want to tie things down. Suggest rather than dictate.


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


How much room for suggestions is there when it comes to fulfilling the Director’s vision?

DA: Well, again, every director is different. Some directors will give you a very specific shot list, “Just draw that”, so you’re just visualising their precise shots. But most directors welcome a certain amount of input. And that’s probably the best way to use us – for the Director to have a clear idea, but leave a bit room for manoeuvre. Quite often I get asked for input. And, you know, a good idea is a good idea – if you’ve got something better, just throw it in. Most directors are wise enough to know that. It’s a team effort.


How do you fit everything in?!

DA: [laughs] I don’t. It’s a struggle. I’m now a father to a 18-month old girl and a 4 year old girl; I think I’m happily married [laughs]. But yes, because it’s been particularly busy the last few years, it’s tough. When you are working at this level, you’re travelling a lot and the hours are long, it’s very hard to achieve the work-life balance. So, I don’t fit it all in – I try to. There’s so many other things I’d like to do. I’d like to do some writing myself, maybe do some painting, but there’s just not enough time. My plate is full, but, really, I wouldn’t have it any other way – I’m very grateful to be doing what I’m doing and making a living out of it.


What do you usually have to travel for?

Well, it depends where the production is based and how involved I am with it. I have done whole jobs from home, just having remote meetings through Skype, but then, when things get really busy and on larger scale stuff, you kind of need to be there – you should be in the production office, with all the references and all the department team. For instance, on “World War Z”, I went out to Budapest for a while; I’ve spent a few months in Berlin, when they were doing “Unknown”; “Hanna” was also in Berlin; “Man from U.N.C.L.E” went to Italy for a bit. It’s wherever they’re based. I might not be there for the whole time, but yes, there’s a lot of travel.


Presumably you’re wanted for pre-production only? Are there any exceptions? Do you sketch on set? If so, why and when?

DA: With Joe Wright, yes. But most of pre-production and usually a little bit into the shoot, but I’m finding that with these large movies I am staying on a lot longer, because a lot of it is VFX and it is so complex, that storyboarding it, once again, is a quick way of visualising something. And things change so much, that I’m being kept around more – sometimes, even into post-production.

For instance, on “Edge Of Tomorrow”, there was a short amount of time where I was sitting in with the Editors and we were on this Skype conference with Tom (Cruise) and the Director,  Doug Liman – we were in London, they were in LA; we were going through the cut, changing it and they had some additional photography planned. So, I’d be sitting there, drawing and we’d be inserting storyboards into the edit as we were going along. So yes, it used to be exclusively pre-production, but now it seems to be carrying over.


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


How has the role of Storyboard Artist changed in the years you’ve been working? Both technologically and creatively?

DA: Technology is a big one. There are a few guys that still work the old fashioned way, on paper, but most people now are completely digital. It’s made it easier in one way, it’s made it harder in another – more is expected of you. And the same way the whole of filmmaking has gone digital – you can change so much, so quickly, the goal posts are constantly moving.

I see myself working on projects longer now, changing things more; working more with the VFX department – there have been a few times where I was part of the VFX department. Directing the previs guys; almost directing the animation – which is fun. Mostly, because technology is constantly evolving, decisions are being made further into the process, whereas not long ago, a decision would be made, you commit to it and that’s it. Now things continually evolve, all the time.


Presumably, the guys who are doing it “the old fashioned way” are finding it harder now? You’d have to do a specific type of project, if you need to be quite fast and interchangeable…

DA: True. Personally, I’m probably still quicker with a pencil and a bit of paper – in actual speed of drawing. But the way I work now, I do a lot of ‘animatics’, which is in between the storyboard and the previs; I work on Adobe Bridge – I draw in Photoshop and use Bridge, which can lay out a contact sheet or timeline, so I have a timeline, working individual shots.

So I’m kind of working like an editor anyway. That way I can reorder a sequence very quickly, edit it, change it, do loads of things in Photoshop… I don’t know how I’d do that ‘the old fashioned way’ – I couldn’t work the way I work ‘the old fashioned way’. But of course, there’s been the odd Director that said “I’m not interested in any of that, I just want some nice pencil sketches. So, again, depends who you’re working with.


Is there one common trait that you’ve noticed amongst particularly successful directors?

DA: Endurance, stamina and the art of compromise. A lot of them are able to retain a certain amount of their own particular vision, but also tailor it to the limitations of the project and what other people wish for. It’s getting what they want and achieving a vision, but still being able to compromise in certain areas. A lot of them are just really good with people and they’re good communicators.

I’ve just written down a great quote from Guillermo del Toro, which I think is absolutely spot on: “Everybody thinks that directing is an exercise in pure control, but the reality is directing is a negotiation between what is there and what you want. Be it daylight, actor that is not responding, or special effects not working, or a studio that doesn’t like the dailies. You cannot lock yourself into ‘It’s my way or I don’t do it’. You have to be pliable and, like Bruce Lee would say, like water.”


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


What can a director/writer do to make your work better/easier?

DA: I guess…to make it better – inspire me. Give me enough information, be specific enough, but without being too specific, to give me that room for manoeuvre, so I can put something from myself in it. So I don’t feel like I’m just a drone. The more inspired I am, the better my work will be. It’s good to have boundaries and perimeters to work within, but it’s also good to have room to play within those boundaries, so I’m not just a machine, churning out shot lists.      


What do you notice is often lacking in aspiring storyboard artists work?

DA: I can tell if someone has good technical knowledge. Film language knowledge – that’s often lacking. Also, dynamism – you can draw the most beautiful storyboards, but for me it has to be alive. It has to have a certain amount of energy in it. That could be just my personal taste, of course. But, although we’re drawing still images, it’s a film – it’s sequential, it’s got to move; it’s got to keep you moving forward through it, it has to flow.

I do get sent stuff by youngsters and some of them are really beautiful, pretty pictures – but that’s all they are, completely useless as a working storyboard for a film. It’s about good storytelling and the information contained within those pictures.


What are your personal “golden rules” for illustration workflow?  Do you have a ‘recommended process?’ What do you draw with? What technology do you use? What order do you work in? Do you start with thumbnails?

DA: I still start with pencil – or biro, actually. Either right on the script or a sketchbook – I keep one with me all the time. Even sometimes not having seeing the Director, knowing what sequence I’ve got to work on, just start feeling my way through it.

So yes, start with thumbnails – quite often, sit down with the Director and do ‘brainstorming’ together. Take a brief, start sketching stuff out, then take it away and work it out neater, send it back to the Director – that I would do on the Cintiq, on the graphic tablet, using Photoshop. Put it together as an ‘animatic’ or as a pdf and send it off. Get some feedback, do it again [laughs]  When I go away to draw it neater, again, I’d gather as much information as I can – about the set design, the VFX elements, all the elements that go into that and feed all that information in.


What do you think should be in every good illustrator’s arsenal? If there was an “essentials kit” – what would you recommend?

DA: Sketchbook, sketchbook, sketchbook. Which you should take with you all the time: on the tube, at lunch time, walking through a park, anywhere. Just draw everything, all the time. Ideas and things pop into my head at any given moment, so I always have my sketchbook with me, and a pen or a pencil. If you’re getting into it now, you’d probably also need to invest in digital equipment. Learn previs, as well.


What would you be doing previs in?

DA: Oh, they use Maya, Cinema 4D, all kinds of 3D packages. I’m not too sure – I thought about getting into it myself, but I’m not sure I have the technical brain to be working that kind of equipment. But yes, essentially, for an illustrator or storyboard artist, have a sketchbook with you at all times.


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


What’s your biggest obstacle when storyboarding a sequence?

DA: Well, it’s the most boring answer, but time. Deadlines. Sometimes, budget. You have to make things fit, so you can’t just draw the craziest, most outlandish, fantastical sequence, it’s all got to be within certain parameters. You might have a couple of hours to do it, you might have a couple of days – there are always restrictions, so being able to deliver the goods within these restrictions.   

Narratively, I guess knowing where you are in the timeline and where you’ve been. A lot of it comes down to, again, film language and thinking like a director. Whose point of view is this from, etc. Or like, technically speaking, you might know that they have a certain actor only for one day, but you’re shooting for four, so they’d use stand ins or doubles and you’d need to split the sequence into 1st unit and 2nd unit; in 2nd unit you’d think how can I shoot it in the most interesting way, without having the actor’s face seen. That could be another example of restriction.



What differences have you found between storyboarding for film and other sequential artwork like comic books?

DA: It’s a lot of the same skillset, but it’s a different canvas. I guess, with film and storyboarding, there’s all the technical information and certain parameters that you need to fit in, whereas if you’re doing a comic book, you’re not thinking about budget and time, so the sky’s the limit. There’s a different set of parameters there: you’ve got a certain amount of pages, you got certain amount of space on that page; depending on how big each box is, determines how long you read that; you got word balloons – you can only squeeze so much within.  


Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock


What advice would you give to an aspiring storyboard artist wanting to make a name for themselves, in the way that you have, today?

DA: Stamina, endurance, make your own luck, be in the right place at the right time, watch as many films as possible – watch everything and anything, doesn’t matter what it is. And for God’s sake watch old movies, not just brand new stuff. A lot of older films can teach you pure cinema, before CGI existed, before 3D. The real visual language that exists when you simply splice different images together. There’s treasure out there, so go digging.

Also, you can learn just as much from watching bad movies as good movies. And study them. Really analyse every shot and every cut. Something I used to do with “Die Hard” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” [laughs] is watch the film, pause it and rewind it, and just sketch each shot as I was watching it. Or try and sketch without pausing it – try to get down as much essential information, as quickly as possible. It’s quite a nice exercise for anyone who’s thinking about storyboarding. Carry that sketchbook everywhere, draw everything. And never stop learning.

But number one, you have to love it more than anything else. You have to want to do it more than anything else in the entire universe, otherwise don’t even bother. It really is draining. You might like the idea of being a storyboard artist and drawing all day, but when you’re drawing for 10-12 hours every day – sometimes, 6 days a week – will you still love it then? It’s deadline heavy. You have to have real passion for it.

My number 1 rule is ‘Never miss a deadline’. Even if your work gets rougher, you never ever miss a deadline; you have to deliver the goods. With the web now, get your work out there – there are so many avenues you can go down, with your own personal website, Facebook, Twitter, you can get your work out there very quickly, to a huge number of people and get feedback. Learn new software, because it’s all going digital. Learn how to do animatics, learn Final Cut; stay current with the technology. On DVDs and Blu Rays, listen to Director’s commentaries, they’ll talk you through everything that was going on when they were shooting, why they did it that way and it’s good to know that kind of information.


Did you know in your heart and soul that you would be where you are today?

DA: Oh there’s always a certain amount of uncertainty. That comes from being a freelancer as well. You’re never quite sure what’s around the corner, and this is an extremely competitive field. But, not to sound too arrogant, this is it for me – I never entertained doing anything else. I couldn’t do anything else, it’s in my veins. You almost have to be that way if you want to be successful.   



What advice would you give to an aspiring producer, writer or director, wanting to make an impression on the industry (whether starting out or having struggled for years)?

DA: Know your audience. Know exactly who you’re aiming your product towards. What kind of films you want to make. Whether you are just starting out or been doing it for a while but not quite where you want to be, know your audience. Like, Edgar Wright for instance: yes, he’s working on a very commercial level now – his career has exploded at such a rate, but he was aiming for a very specific audience.

You’ll only get there if there are people out there who want to watch what you’re putting out. And whichever one it is, make it original and unique. And never ever give up: more often than not, the people who do make it, are the ones who never ever gave up.


Come back Friday to find out David’s film recommendations! Read Part 1 of the interview here!
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard - David Allcock
Edge of Tomorrow storyboard – David Allcock
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