Aaron Sowd and Trevor Goring have a lot to say about the art of narrative storytelling. Aaron’s worked on movie storyboarding and concepting for Steven Soderbergh and Michael Bay, comics for Marvel and DC, art for Apple and Netflix, designs for theme parks and video games, and illustrations for the New York Times and People Magazine. Trevor’s been doing film and TV concepts and boards for decades with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Bryan Singer, and Michel Gondry and on fan favorites like Watchmen, X-Men, Twilight, and Lost, plus plenty of comics art, ad illustrations, and game design. Both were special guests at last month’s WonderCon, Southern California’s warm-up to the summer’s San Diego Comic-Con.
They appeared on the Art Directors Guild panel titled “Illustrators who Work in Two Worlds” to discuss the ups and downs of illustrating for print and film media. The moderator, filmmaker Chris Brandt, praised Aaron’s and Trevor’s no-holds-barred revelations about the working lives of “sequential illustrators.” And since they’d barely warmed up by the end of the session, here’s my follow-up conversation, in which they cover their formative influences, their interactions with directors, and their insights about the future of comics and storyboarding.
Q: How did you first get interested in illustrating stories?
Aaron Sowd: I grew up with no TV, so when I discovered comics as a kid, they changed my life: they had both words and pictures! I started off reading all the Tintin and Asterix comics that I found at my local library, then I moved on to superhero comics.
When I was seven, Star Wars came out and changed my life yet again. I saved up my allowance to buy the Joe Johnson sketchbook and the Ralph McQuarrie portfolio and memorized every image! I knew right then and there that I wanted to work in movies. But I didn’t really yet know what storyboards were. I thought that I wanted to build models or maybe do special effects. I remember building and blowing up a lot of TIE Fighter models with firecrackers in my basement and trying to film it!
Trevor Goring: When I was reading novels as a child, I always visualized the story in my head. Before I got into comics I read science fiction and horror books, particularly H.P. Lovecraft. He left a lot to the imagination, so I filled in the blanks. It wasn’t until I discovered Marvel comics in the mid-‘sixties and became enamored with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colon – and later Jim Steranko – that I became interested in drawing comics. On reflection, perhaps it was because these artists told the story themselves through their art and not from the full script of a writer. They had more visual freedom.
I later found it easier to adapt a film script than a full comic script. Film scripts give more latitude to tell the story the way the artist envisions it. A full comic script lays out every frame and the writer often chooses what frames are on the page. In a film script, the artist is the one who breaks down the script beats, visually.
Q: What do you see as the important differences between creating comics and storyboards?
Trevor: With comics, you’re the director, production designer, fashion designer, etc., rolled into one. You usually have more time; you can be more nuanced because in a film the director needs to be able to see instantly what’s going on in the frame. In a comic the reader can take more time looking at panels. Also, you have no production budget concerns in the sense that you can draw anything and it doesn’t have to be built in actuality.
In a storyboard you can do as many shots as you want and it gets cut down later. At the beginning you can make the scene as long as you want and come up with as many ideas as possible and then they cut it down from there. Some directors will give you very specific shot counts, more like a comic. But with the funeral scene in Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World, I was initially left to my own discretion.
On a comic you can be restricted to a certain page count in which you have to express the script: a limited amount of space in which to tell the story. Iron Siege was also adapted from a screenplay but I had the page count limitation. I primarily worked with Andrew Hong, who wrote the script with James Abraham.
Aaron: MasterMinds was fun because it’s my creator-owned comic and I get to do whatever I want. It’s my baby. It appeared in Komikwerks #1, an anthology book. I worked on it with my writing partners Lance Karutz and James Denning, and we’d have a blast coming up with storylines, gags, and scenes I wanted to draw. Later, when we were developing it as an animated feature, we did a short and I brought Stan Lee in as the voice of the narrator. Stan did it as a favor to me, and I’ll always be eternally grateful to him for that.
After Earth was a much different process. I was brought on late in the game by Will Smith and Caleeb Pinkett and we worked directly with M. Night Shyamalan and the studio to get the movie where Will wanted it to be. They entrusted me with their baby. I boarded a lot of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor – or the “digital trash can,” as I guess it must now be called.
It’s easy for someone like Frank Miller to sit down and do Sin City alone, as an auteur. He does it all. The film director as auteur is much more rare. Hitchcock is considered one, but he worked with an entire crew to get the film he wanted. So is that fair?
In film, I’m often trying to bring someone else’s vision to life, be it the director’s, the writer’s, the studio’s, or a combination of all three. The very nature of film is collaborative by necessity, whereas comics can easily be done by a single creator. That creator designs the characters, writes the script, acts as the actors when he draws the characters, acts as the set designer, the lighting designer; the entire crew in essence. Creating your own comic is like doing your own movie, but with no budget limitations. You’re really only limited by your imagination, your singular vision. It’s much more personal.
Q: Your collaboration with every director is different, right?
Aaron: Some let me do my own thing and give me little to no feedback. Others will create a shot list for me, or draw thumbnails, or take reference photos. Sam Raimi knows exactly what he wants to see on screen, so he provided me with all three. I like working with directors who provide a strong creative vision but allow you to collaborate and be part of the process. Sam is the best!
Trevor: When I did the title sequence for Watchmen, Zach Snyder drew small thumbnails before I was briefed by the production designer Alex McDowell. Then Zach approved the final drawings.
Q: Which comics projects are you most proud of?
Aaron: Probably Batman’s Harley Quinn #1. It was the first appearance of Harley Quinn in comics. Paul Dini wrote it, Yvel Guichet penciled it, and I inked it. It sold out and has been reprinted countless times since.
Trevor: I’m usually most happy with my most recent works, because I learn as I draw and I apply the new knowledge in each subsequent work. The drawing of my graphic novel Waterloo Sunset with writer Andrew Stephenson was the closest I’ve come yet to translating my own vision onto the page.
But I’m also pleased with my work on the upcoming graphic novel Psychopomp. It’ll be 270 pages. It’s written by Blake Leibel, adapted from his screenplay, and I had a lot of visual and storytelling input throughout.
Q: How about storyboards?
Aaron: Storyboards are harder to rank, since I’ve worked on great movies where my storyboards looked awful, nothing more than rough thumbnails, not pretty drawings. And I’ve worked on awful movies where my storyboards looked great! Working on Solaris by Steven Soderbergh was a career highlight. Michael Bay’s Transformers, too!
Trevor: I loved working on a pitch of Marvel’s Dr. Strange for director Scott Derrickson – Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still – that I drew using the Wacom Cintiq.
Q: What are your current projects?
Trevor: I worked in Boston on the film The Judge, directed by David Dobkin that will be out this year, and have done quite a bit of work recently with a cutting edge pre-viz company, The Third Floor, including a video game for a international Chinese company that was very exciting.
My new book, co-authored with my wife Joyce, is titled Storyboards: The Unseen Art of Hollywood, and will be out this year from Hermes Press.
Aaron: I completed storyboard and animatic work on the remakes of Point Break and Annie, which come out this Christmas, I think. I’m storyboarding a film still in early pre-production that hasn’t been announced yet.
I teach a comic book class at Otis School of Design, and it looks like I’ll be teaching a storyboarding workshop at the Silver Academy at the end of May. I love teaching, it’s very inspirational and rewarding.
Q: How has new technology changed your work methods?
Trevor: I’ve found an increased freedom of expression by using the Cintiq tablet. Initially I was trying to make my realistic style work on the Cintiq like I do with pen and pencil. But I had to learn to make use of the Cintiq’s capabilities. It opened many possibilities, including for me to give more tonal depth and increased perspective. It’s more stylized but also has more energy and looks more contemporary.
Aaron: Technology has made my job so much easier. Working in Photoshop and Painter with my Cintiq makes revisions a breeze. Not like the dark ages of erasers, white-out, and Post-it notes. No more Xeroxing boards and watching them fade with every copy of a copy.
Also, the internet makes gathering reference material so much easier and faster. It helps my creativity to see what my friends and colleagues are doing and inspires me to work harder and be better. Easier to get your work out and promote yourself, to find the next job as a freelancer in a world market.
Q: And how about pre-visualization?
Aaron: Some storyboard artists dread pre-viz and complain that it takes jobs away from us. I’ve worked hand in hand with companies like Third Floor, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences with pre-viz.
Pre-viz is very expensive and time-consuming, so not every production can afford it. But if you have a lot of CG sequences in your film, it makes a lot of sense. But dollar for dollar, pound for pound, storyboards and animatics are still the quickest, easiest, most efficient way to develop your film.
Trevor: With Pre-viz, at first it seemed the technology artists would take over the role of storyboard artists. But now the pre-viz artists rely on storyboard artists to break down the shots for them. So we’re working together rather than as competitors.
Q: What other changes do you anticipate in comics?
Trevor: With comics I’m also working for the iPad, so I’m using landscape format so that it fits nicely on the digital version.
There are many new apps available for digital. One, called Scrollon, lets you scan through the whole book as one long tapestry, page to page, image to image, without gutters.
Aaron: Digital comics seem to be taking off, but I’m not sure they’ll ever replace print comics. People love to hold a tangible book in their hands. And you can’t polybag your iPad!
I think the biggest hurdle comics have to overcome is that the entire field is still synonymous with only one genre: superheroes. At least here in America. There are so many great non-superhero comics out there. 100 Bullets, Saga, The Private Eye, Maus, Scalped, the Parker novel adaptations by Darwyn Cooke, etc.
It makes me said when people say “I used to read comics.” That’s because they’d only read superhero comics as a kid and never got beyond that one genre. Nobody says “I used to watch TV, or I used to watch movies.” Your tastes change as you grow: The movies I watch now are not the same movies I watched as a kid.
Q: How about changes in storyboarding?
Trevor: A lot of storyboarding jobs are now out of California, where many of the artists live. And one has to go on and stay on location, sometimes for long periods of time.
Aaron: Storyboarding will grow as technology advances and I’m growing along with it. I’ve learned After Effects, ZBrush, Sketchup, and any software that can make my job easier and more efficient.
Technology is just a tool and we need to learn these tools to thrive in a digital age. It’s a great time to be alive. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
If you want more of Michael Dooley’s expertise and critical gaze on comics, dig into Print Magazine’s February issue, available in PDF and digital iPad editions.
Do you have an outstanding project worth showing off to a crowd? There’s still time to enter the 2014 RDA.