Storyboarding: Drawing from Script to Screen

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With Storyboard Artist Mark Bristol

Motion picture directors commonly rely on hundreds of technicians and craftsmen to help bring their stories to the silver screen. The set designer makes fantasy worlds real. The cinematographer puts that reality on film. The composer writes music that evokes strong emotion. When it all comes together, a movie is born. Among the many unsung heroes of motion picture production is the storyboard artist.

Months before filming even begins, he or she is hard at work creating sequential illustrations that will help the director and others pre-visualize what a film will look like, and how it will be filmed. Without storyboard artists for guidance, many filmmakers would be lost.

Storyboard artist Mark Bristol

A montage of Mark Bristol’s work from films, television, and games. These pieces primarily represent more refined concept keyframe storyboards that he often does for projects in development.

Mark Bristol of Austin, Tex., has been a storyboard artist since 1992, though he had an interest in the field long before that. To date, Bristol has drawn the storyboards for more than 60 motion pictures, television shows, commercials and video games, including The Thin Red Line, Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation, The Mummy and Fear the Walking Dead. Most recently, he created the storyboards for Mission: Impossible–Fallout, including the harrowing helicopter chase at the end of the film.

Where Storyboarding Starts

Storyboards are a sequence of drawings, much like a comic book without dialogue, that illustrate how a specific scene will look on film. The illustrations help directors determine where to place the camera for the best effect; whether to shoot closeup, medium or long; how long a scene will run, and more. “It’s one of the most important behind-the-scenes jobs there is on feature films,” Bristol observes. “Our primary purpose is to help directors bring their vision to life.”

Storyboards were relatively unknown until Walt Disney started making full-length feature cartoons, Bristol reports. Disney artists and animators would tack the illustrations for a particular scene to long boards, and from those boards the movie would gradually emerge. In the years that followed, visualists such as Alfred Hitchcock came to rely heavily on storyboards to lay out a movie before filming began. Today, most directors rely on storyboards to some degree.

Storyboard artist Mark Bristol 2

These highly detailed boards were used to establish the style and visual tone of the scenes in the film.

“Every production is different,” Bristol says. “The process is usually the same, but how the storyboards are utilized depends on the director and their own process.” Chris McQuarrie, the director of Mission: Impossible–Fallout, tends to rely heavily on storyboards, Bristol notes, whereas Terrence Malick, with whom Bristol worked on The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life, is more of an “in the moment” director for whom storyboards are merely a suggestion.

A Star Wars Start

Bristol’s love affair with motion pictures started with Star Wars: A New Hope, which he saw when he was 8 years old. Filmmaking, Bristol knew, was something he definitely wanted to be involved in. A few years later, Bristol came across an illustrated screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which included storyboards by Joe Johnston. This, Bristol realized, was something he could do. “My art has always been focused on movies,” he says. “I never wanted to be a painter or anything else. It was always about movies, and the illustrated Raiders of the Lost Ark script was my early training. I copied Joe Johnston’s storyboards over and over.”

Bristol’s first break came in middle school. His baseball coach was William Wittliff, a screenwriter whose credits include The Perfect Storm, Legends of the Fall, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries. Bristol eventually got up the nerve to show Wittliff his drawings, and Wittliff became a mentor. In 1992, Wittliff came to Austin to film the television movie Ned Blessing: The True Story of My Life, which became a series the following year. Wittliff hired Bristol to storyboard the series. “The production manager on that show went on to do Dazed and Confused, so that was my first movie,” Bristol notes. “It led to a wonderful 25-year career.”

Creative Huddle with Sketches

Whether creating storyboards for a movie, television show, or commercial, Bristol usually begins by sitting down with the director and others on the production to discuss exactly what they are looking for. He often draws as they talk, making quick thumbnail sketches that he will later use as reference for the fleshed out storyboard illustrations, typically three to a page depending on the aspect ratio. Though many of his colleagues use computers exclusively, Bristol still draws everything by hand, then scans the illustrations into Photoshop so he can clean them up and add color or gray scales if required. When done, he sends the finished boards to the production as PDFs.

Storyboard artist Mark Bristol 3

From an unproduced film Mark was set to direct. He spent more time shading the images to establish the lighting design for the shots.

Most of the time this work is done well in advance of filming. Sometimes, however, Bristol is asked to make a quick storyboard while production is ongoing. During the first days of filming Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation in Vienna, for example, Bristol was asked by director Chris McQuarrie to storyboard the sequence in which Ethan and Ilsa rappel down a flagpole. However, Bristol was in Austin, Tex., and had no idea how the flagpoles were laid out – an essential piece of information for doing the job correctly. Luckily, he was able to find some paparazzi photos online of Tom Cruise during rehearsals the day before that clearly showed the flagpoles. Problem solved. “I got lucky on that one,” Bristol confesses. “It’s actually rare that I’m delivering stuff that will be shot the very next day.”

Storyboarding for Commercials

Whereas motion pictures typically give storyboard artists plenty of
time to do their job, commercials tend to be just the opposite, Bristol says. “Deadlines on commercials are incredibly tight,” he confirms. “Usually the directors on commercials are very clear about what they want. We’ll have a meeting and the storyboards may be due the next day or the day after.”

Bristol is a self-taught artist who credits a number of well-known illustrators for inspiration, including comic book legends Joe Kubert, John Buscema and Jean Giraud. “What I love about Kubert’s work is the efficiency of his lines,” he notes. “It’s a loose style, an economy of line, but his compositions are so good. Even now, when I have some downtime, I’ll take my favorite Kubert covers and try to learn from them.” Buscema, who illustrated the book How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, taught Bristol muscle structure. “In high school, I was always copying his work, trying to learn,” Bristol says.

Equally edifying is Frame Dump, a Facebook page for storyboard artists on which members display a single image from a storyboard, and sometimes discuss the tools and techniques they used. “That forum is magnificent,” Bristol states. “I love seeing how people render and do their own shading. As an artist, I’m always learning and pushing myself in everything I do. It’s always good to look around and see what other people are doing. Frame Dump has been a wonderful resource to learn by.”

Where else do design and the motion pictures collide? How about in cinema’s sordid past? Or the “golden age” of adult film posters?