Interview with Storyboard Artist James Doh (Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Drive)

 James Doh is one of the most sought after Storyboard Artists in the industry today. His imprint is on most of the top action movies in the last 15 years. In 2016 alone, he worked on “The Conjuring 2”, “Suicide Squad”, and “Star Trek Beyond”. He’s currently working on the upcoming blockbusters “Ghost in the Shell (2017”, “Aquaman (2018)”, and “The Predator (2018)”.

Go to his website at http://www.jamesdoh.com/

It was an honor to chat with him about his craft:

Matthew Toffolo: You have worked as a Storyboard Artist on over 30+ productions in the last 15 years. Do you have a favorite experience?

James Doh: It is sometimes rare to work with other storyboard artists, but through the years I’ve had the good fortune of having met some great colleagues.

That will probably be what I remember most from my work experience.

I’ve been fortunate to work with and meet some wonderful people.

PHOTO: James’ storyboard from X-Men: Origins:

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MT: The film DRIVE (2011), is a very stylistic film, but not the conventional action/thriller film that you work on. How was your experience working on that film?

JD: That show had a great crew from the top down. It was a low budget production, but the crew were all top talents.

Credit to the EP for bringing together such a great team.

They wanted to bring me in for the car chases and sequences that required production prep.

When I read the script, it was one of those that you rarely get as a storyboard artist. Hossein Amini wrote a great screenplay.
I was also a fan of Nicolas Refn’s Pusher series of films, so I thought it was an exciting combination of material and director.

Interestingly, Nicolas was batting around different ideas for that elevator scene where Driver stomps the hitman to death. He had me board a different version that certainly was more brutal, but I like the elevator because it works so well for the entire sequence.

MT: How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

JD: Storyboards have several key roles. One of them is a communication tool for the production. It’s a visual script of those sequences.

It’s important to get the sequence down, to allow various departments to prep.

Boards are also important early on for budgeting, and to start developing what the sequences will look and feel like.

There are amazing fight and stunt choreographers, whose ideas we will integrate into the boards if they are involved at the time.

Other times, the boards are a jumping off point for the stunt/action team and a way for the director to convey his ideas on action sequences.

By the way, 2nd unit also can have their own storyboard artists to plan out their sequences too. Again, for communication, a drawing is a fundamental tool.

They are especially important for VFX intensive films, where costs and feasibility have to be looked at and planning is vital. Storyboards put everyone on the same page.

On Furious 7, we had the tragic death of Paul Walker and had to go into some very specific VFX planning to make the film work. There was some innovative work there and the storyboards were a part in planning those shots and sequences.

There are a multitude of uses for storyboards, so it can be a very powerful tool for directors to utilize.

PHOTO: James’ storyboard from Fast & Furious 7:

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MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

JD: Very early. Many times we are the first ones on the show, months ahead of production many times. Often they circle back in post, and need storyboards once VFX gets into the nitty gritty of creating shots.

The working relationship is different with everyone but it’s really about developing the ideas or getting the boards to convey what the director is looking for.

MT: What are you looking for in a director?

JD: Good communication, convey vision, intent, style of the sequence. I’m looking to get as clear a vision as I can for the sequence.

Sometimes it’s wide open and they want you to run with it, and other times it’s very specific. Many times it falls somewhere in the middle.

I have been fortunate to work with directors that love to collaborate, encourage creative contributions, and understand the process of storyboarding.

MT: What does a director look for in a storyboard artist?

JD: To translate their ideas into a viable sequence. Directors look to you to visually lay out the sequence with creative solutions, in a way that they can shoot.

I also think it’s important that you have a good working relationship, because you can spend a lot of time hashing out ideas.

For storyboard artists, the fundamental key is visual storytelling.

You need to hash out the sequence and make it work for the director.

MT: What advice would you have for people who would like to do what you do for a living?

JD: Translating scripts to visual sequences can take a lot of time. If someone wants to become a storyboard artist, 1. Watch a lot of films. 2. Think about where you are placing the camera 3. Be able to draw anything at any angle. I know that sounds so broad, but if you learn to draw the human figure, you will be alright with everything else.

Most importantly, don’t be precious about your work. Things can and will change often for a multitude of reasons.

Storyboarding is a process. Sequences are developed. Things are culled, new ideas crafted, budgets change… you have to roll with that and adapt.

Did you see the Amityville flashback sequence in Conjuring 2? Look at the basics. Look at how he staged and told the story inside the house. He had a house, and a few actors to work with.

How do you tell that story in a way that’s fresh? That is film school. The Conjuring and Conjuring 2 are film school.

I would tell people to look at movies, and see how they tell the story. See what it takes to make simple things interesting.
Ask a lot of questions while you watch a film. It’s about decisions. What setups are you choosing and why?

Push yourself to improve. Always be a student of film and be a good listener.

I think we all push ourselves every show to do better, and push ourselves creatively.

MT: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

JD: Aliens (extended edition) and Heat (Michael Mann) are ones i’ve seen a million times.

I love genre films and Korean films.

Korean cinema is tremendous, and I would encourage anyone to give it a try.

So many films on heavy rotation in my library! Tony Scott’s work, Gareth Evans…

BTW, one of my favorite scenes of brilliant acting is Christopher Walken in Catch Me if You Can. The scene in the restaurant when his son (DiCaprio) tries to give him a Cadillac. That is just masterful. Every moment tells you a story, and within a couple minutes you deeply know this man. It’s amazing, most of it unspoken.

MT: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the film industry?

JD: I had always been interested in design and film.

My introduction to art in film was with my college teachers Tim Flattery and Warren Manser who are brilliant concept artists and designers in their own right.

They really sparked the possibility to enter the film business.

My first job was with RGA/LA (now Imaginary Forces) a main title company. I learned an appreciation for typography and graphic design there.

Then moved on to feature film storyboarding because that is where my passion was.

MT: Is there a type of film that you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

JD: What is rewarding for me is working with great directors and crew. The projects rarely get me more excited than the possibility of working with great people.

It’s not so much the material itself as the director’s take on the material that gets me excited.

And by the way, it’s not just directors but all the other departments you interact with as a storyboard artist. Those professionals are at the top of their respective fields.
You are working with the absolute hallmark people in every department and that’s really exciting to see.

The challenge to board for these directors is in pushing the creative solutions and coming up with ideas that work for their respective visions.

PHOTO: James’ storyboards from Suicide Squad: 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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Interview with Story Artist Chris Paluszek (Robot Chicken, The LEGO Movies)

the_lego_movie.jpgWhat fun it was to sit down with the extraordinarily talented artist Chris Paluszek. In many ways his career is just getting started as he’ll be helping create all of the upcoming LEGO Movies in the next few years.

Enjoy!

Matthew Toffolo: What job has been your most valuable experience so far?

Chris Paluszek: I think the first film I ever worked on, “The LEGO Movie.” The crew was relatively small and I had a lot of opportunity to work with really smart, talented people who were very patient and answered a lot of questions I had about storyboarding, storytelling, and the film industry.

MT: How is the LEGO MOVIE experience? It seems to be a franchise in the making and you’re on board for the creative experience.

CP: The first LEGO film was a bit of an outlier. The franchise hadn’t been established, so there weren’t many boundaries on what we could or couldn’t do. So, we had a ton of fun trying lots of crazy ideas that you just don’t usually have the freedom to try on other films. Definitely a highlight of my career.

MT: Is there a type of film that you haven’t worked on yet that you would love to work on?

CP: I would love to work on a short film, like the Pixar shorts that precede an animated feature. Small, self-contained narratives like that are great opportunities for artists to push themselves and experiment.

MT: What is the typical job storyboarding animation movies?

CP: It can depend, but usually there’s a working script that is constantly evolving in conversations between the writer and the director, and a story artist “boards out” a scene from the latest draft. The story artist draws whatever the scene calls for, whether it’s a high speed car chase, or two characters talking in a coffee shop. Whatever case, it’s up to the storyboard artist to depict the action and decide on what shot language best tells the story.

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director?

CP: The director has a vision for their movie, and as a story artist you’re there to support that vision. When you’re given an assignment you meet with the director, who lays out how they imagine the scene. You ask lots of questions and at the end of the meeting you should hopefully have a clear idea of what the director wants to see. Within that framework, you can bring some of yourself into the scene, whether it’s acting choices, or maybe a really cool composition that frames the action, or even a small comedic beat (if it suits the tone of the scene).

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve working on, have you watched the most times in your life?

CP: I’m always awed by Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” It’s fantastical, yet down to earth. It’s lighthearted and also deeply emotional. Everytime I watch it I see something new.

MT: Do you have a storyboard mentor?

CP: My first story position was an internship on a TV show, and the Story Lead for that crew really helped me out. He was patient and helped me with the basics, like maintaining shot continuity as you “cut” (draw a new shot) around the action.

MT: Where do you see the future of storyboards in the motion pictures?

CP: Most story jobs are within a tight crew of artists that work intimately with the director, so they can nimbly address major story changes in time for deadlines. However, some studios have made whole films by sending work out to freelancers, working from home. While I can’t say I love my commute, working alongside incredible talent has been the chief way I’ve improved as an artist and storyteller.

MT: Where did you grow up? How did you get into working in the film industry?

CP: I grew up in Virginia, and always loved art as a way of telling stories. I went to school for animation, and moved out to Los Angeles thinking I could be an animator. Unfortunately my animation skills weren’t very good! But I was lucky to bump into someone at the right time, who took a chance and offered me a production internship at a small TV animation studio. While there I crossed paths with the Storyboard department, who were looking for extra help. I was able to become a full-time Story intern, which eventually led to an official job as a Story Artist! It was a strange path, threaded with a lot of luck and kindness.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca

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Interview with Storyboard Artist Yoriaki Mochizuki (The Lego Movie, Storks)

KFODHN_yorim.jpgIt was definitely an education chatting with story artist Yoriaki Mochizuki. He chats about working storyboarding animation movies and how it can be a much more creative process than working on live action films, and so much more….

Matthew Toffolo: How was your storyboard experience working on STORKS? When did you come aboard the film? Who did you mainly collaborate with?

Yori Mochizuki: I joined the Storks team in the spring of 2013. I collaborated primarily with directors Nick Stoller, Doug Sweetland and editor John Venzon. The story team worked in one open room which allowed us to discuss the story as a group regularly. We built animatic for the film with storyboards and temp sounds and tested it to ensure the story was working. Storks was a very special project for me because my daughter was one-year-old at the time and I used a lot of my parenting experiences as inspiration for my storyboards.

MT: You also worked as a Story Artist on the massive successful film THE LEGO MOVIE. What did that job entail?

YM: The LEGO Movie was one of the most creatively satisfying experiences. I collaborated closely with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller as well as co-director Chris McKay. I was encouraged to come up with my own ideas and to create sequences, often even without a script. One of my favorite experiences on the LEGO Movie was when I storyboarded the live-action sequence. First I storyboarded it purely from my imagination. Once the set was built, I revised it with Phil and Chris. Then I worked side by side with editor Dave Burrows to create the animatic. Phil and Chris shot the sequence based on our animatic in the sound stage next door. It was one of the most harmonious filmmaking processes I have been privileged to be part of.

MT: What advice would you have for people who would like to do what you do?

YM: Being a story artist is like being a director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and actor, all at once. It’s important to study visual storytelling and to develop your own point of view. No matter what job you are working on – big or small – always do your absolute best because that’s the only way you can grow as a filmmaker.

MT: Would you like to storyboard and collaborate on a live action film?

YM: I enjoyed collaborating with Guillermo del Toro on Pacific Rim, but, generally in live action films storyboard artists can influence the story visually, but not necessarily the story itself. On animated films, story artists literally shape the stories. There’s a clear distinction between storyboarding live action and storyboarding animation and each requires different skill set. Personally, I enjoy working in animation because I get to create the story and find the process much more creative and collaborative.

MT: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

YM: I grew up watching a lot of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Star Wars, Back to the Future and Dead Poets Society are some of my favorites and I have watched them many times.

MT: What first attracted you to work as a storyboard artist?

YM: I drew my own comic books as a kid and I storyboarded all my student films. When I moved to Los Angeles, I worked as production assistant for a TV pilot and met storyboard artist, Joe Musso. Joe was generous enough to teach me how to storyboard and helped me land my first commercial jobs. That’s where my storyboard artist career began.

MT: Where did you grow up? When did you first start drawing?

YM: I was born in Tokyo and grew up in a suburb of Saitama, Japan. I started drawing before I can even remember. I still have some drawings from my early childhood of giant robots.

Selected Yoriaki Mochizuki Storyboards: 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo (X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Wars: Episode VII)

Award winning Director, Animator and Illustrator and Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo discovered his passion for art and illustration at the tender age of five. Nicknamed “Sketch”, Castillo would draw his way through his difficult transition of returning to the US from the Dominican Republic, mastering English, and acclimating to the mostly white environment of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

It was an honor sitting down with one of the more sought out storyboard artists in Hollywood. In just the last year, Robert has worked on “Star Wars”, “Fifty Shades of Black”, “Ride Along 2”, “Keanu”,  “Captain America: Civil War”, “Bad Neighbours 2”, “X-Men: Apocalypse”, and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

Matthew Toffolo: You have worked as a Storyboard Artist on over 60+ productions in the last 15 years. Do you have a favorite experience?

Robert Castillo: I think that there are a few experiences but the one that sticks out to me would be working on the Ant-Man special features for Marvel. In the DVD extra example, they use my drawing of a Court room scene. It was great to do this job because I am a big Marvel fan and grew up with the comics.

Close second would be working on The Sopranos with Steve Buscemi.

Sopranos 1.jpg

MT: You are credited many times as being a Storyboard Artist: Promo Team. What does promo team mean?

RC: The Promo team would be whatever company is doing promotional commercials and advertising for the film. networks like VH1, MTV, TRU TV, Viacom etc.

They have me storyboards any advertising for the Film or TV show.

rooney

MT: You worked on three films that are about to being released for the 2016 summer movie season (Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, X-Men Apocalypse, Bad Neighours 2). Three different movies in terms of tone and genre. Did you have a positive time working on these films?

RC: Yes I did! I have the greatest job in the world! I read a script someone wrote and try to visualize what they are seeing in their heads. I get to use my imagination all day, as I am doing this interview I am working on a commercial. I am always drawing everyday and I can’t complain. Some jobs are tougher than others and more demanding but at the end of the day I am drawing.

MT: You have worked on a lot of action films. How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

RC: It is super important and crucial to storyboarding action scenes or fight scenes. It helps everyone to be on the same page. Storyboards also have a psychological effect in that when its on paper its just one step away from being a reality.

Bonnie and Clyde set 02

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

RC: I wish I could say we always meet early but sometimes they call me a day before its due! It can be a very stressful lifestyle but I try and do the best job possible.

When things go right I meet with the director at least a week or a few days before I start drawing.

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MT: What are you looking for in a director?

RC: I look for a storyteller, someone that has a clear story in their mind and they know what they want to see on the screen but sometimes I get directors that don’t know what they want and it’s up to me to find that something they are looking for.

MT: What advice would you have for people who would like to do what you do?

RC: If you want to do storyboards for a living make sure that is what you want to do! Don’t do it just for the money! Take a lot of drawing classes or at least practice. Watch movies like Citizen Kane and Kurosawa films to learn composition and pacing. and practice everyday. I am still learning believe it or not after all these years.

MT: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

RC: The one movie that I have watched the most in my life would have to be the first Star Wars movie, because in 1977 when i came back to the U.S. from Dominican Republic it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen on the screen.

Top Five Storyboards

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go towww.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Trent Opaloch (Captain America: Civil War)

Trent Opaloch is easily the most talented and sought after cinematographers in the world today. He has DP’d for director Neil Blomkamp  on “District 9”, “Elysium”, and “Chappie”,  and director’s Anthony & Joe Russo on “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, and the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. It was an honor to sit down with him to chat about his career and the art of cinematography.

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Mathew Toffolo: You first worked with director Neil Blomkamp on the short films “Tempbot” and “Yellow”. How did you two meet? What makes your director/DP relationship so successful?

Trent Opaloch: I met Neill shooting low budget music videos. We shot a handful of videos & short films while I was working at Clairmont (camera rental house) & he had just left a vfx house here in Vancouver.

He used to do all his own vfx work back then so it was really interesting to see the the whole process. That was all happening at a very exciting time for vfx where some pretty sophisticated tracking software was coming out and it really freed up the camera & made it possible to use that hand held energy with extremely realistic visual effects. It was great because it was the first time your imagination wasn’t limited by what you were able to build in reality. It opened up the possibilities for story telling and those shorts and small projects were a great training ground for the big vfx movies that we’re doing now. You can apply those same basic principals on a much larger canvas at bigger budget levels.

MT: You both leaped into the feature film world in the highly successful film “District 9”. How was the initial experience moving from shorts to features? Do you remember the initial cinematic design conversations you had with Neil about the film?

TO: It was a pretty easy transition for Neill & I to go shoot District 9. We had developed a good short hand over the years on the shorts and music videos so it was just a matter of doing our thing with a much larger crew. The challenge is to communicate with the crew so everyone is on the same page. That’s a different dynamic to how we would have worked on the smaller things with just a few people.

The way Neill described the film to me, and to this day this is the best pitch I’ve ever heard. He said imagine there was a documentary made by the NFB (National Film Board here in Canada) that was about these aliens landing in Johanessburg in the 80’s. And someone taped that documentary when it played on tv in the 80’s on a vhs tape and then threw that tape in a drawer for 20 years. And you come along and blow the dust off it & pop it into your retro vhs machine & press play. That was his pitch for District 9 and it instantly communicated everything you needed to get the film. Brilliant.

Now things changed in the process of course so it wasn’t as degraded an image as that. I actually wanted to shoot on 16mm with the NFB doccie esthetic in mind but Peter Jackson bought a boatload of RED ONE cameras so that was nipped in the bud.

PHOTO: Cinematography of the film DISTRICT 9:

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MT: What were your reactions to the success of “District 9”? It must have really changed your life and career path?

TO: Well it was pretty amazing to work on something that was so well received around the world. It was a difficult film to make in some pretty harsh environments but we had a great group of people on it. It sort of felt like there weren’t any ‘grown ups’ around to tell us what to do really. Neill had set things up so that were on our own to make the movie our own way which was pretty amazing when you think it was his first feature.

MT: What brought you to the Captain America movies? How is it to DP a film that has two directors?

TO: I’ve actually worked with directing duos quite a bit in commercials so it wasn’t that strange for me to step into that sort of thing for Winter Soldier. I got the call for the first meeting with Joe & Anthony Russo and I was really impressed with them and their approach and how they wanted the film to feel.

I actually don’t mind the director duo thing as long as they have their dynamic figured out between them. Different directing teams work in their own way that is specific to their combined personalities so you get different approaches. The fact that Joe & Anthony are brothers is great because they have this great bond between them that goes back decades and they’ve worked together on so many things in films & tv shows that they have a good system down.

MT: “The Winter Soldier” was an amazing comic book/action film. Even the Fanboys couldn’t help but give it ultimate praise. What were the broad strokes ideas you had with the Russo’s in terms of the cinematic life you gave the film? It was a different feel to the other Marvel films, but it still was a Marvel film. A fine line to balance one would assume!

TO: It’s funny because I never really planned on ever shooting anything like that but I loved the creative approach that the Russo’s had for the film. Our whole thing was to take the edge off the genre of it all by basing it in reality as much as we could. I really liked the idea of shooting the film like a 70’s conspiracy thriller to ground the whole thing a bit. We referenced films like “Marathon Man” & “The Three Days of The Condor” early in prep.

PHOTO: Chris Evans in Captain America: Winter Soldier:

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MT: You have a big film coming up in “Captain America: Civil War”. How were you experiences working on that film? Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? It seems like all of the stars of the Marvel Universe are in this film!

TO: It was great to get back with the Russo’s and the team again for Civil War. We had just an amazing crew so that makes the whole experience so much better. The people around you are very important when you’re up against challenging situations. We shot quite a bit of our exteriors on the Pinewood backlot in Atlanta & the heat & humidity can be quite brutal.

On a movie of this size it’s assumed that everybody knows their jobs at this point so it really comes down to having a great attitude under pressure and being there together for the film.

We were also very fortunate to work with a great German crew in Berlin that made our transition over there very smooth.

There were a ton of actors on this film and that was actually quite challenging to shoot them all with their crazy schedules. The tough thing is that you can end up shooting someones close up in another country and weeks after you’ve shot the other side of the conversation so it’s always a challenge dealing with changing weather conditions etc. to maintain some cohesiveness to the scene.

I’m starting up prep on the new Infinity Wars films that we’re shooting back to back with the Russo’s later this year & the scale of those two films combined is a bit mind blowing so it’s good that these last two films have ramped up in terms of scale and complexity because each one prepares you for the next.

PHOTO: Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War:

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MT: How much of the Captain America films are storyboarded? Are you a part of that process in pre-production?

TO: These films are heavily boarded & pre-vised, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. The pre-vis process starts very early in the film’s development so that’s when you have to get in there to help start guiding the process along with the directors so that it fits in with what everyone is aiming for and what the production team is going to do on set.

The Marvel films are incredibly collaborative and that’s a huge part of their success I think. We have worked with the vfx supervisor Dan Deleeuw on these last two films and he is in charge of building the pre-vis sequences so that is an invaluable resource to start the discussion with the whole team before you get out there on the real-time clock burning production money.

MT: You have obviously mastered the cinematic artform of the intense action/thriller film. Is there another genre that you like to work in?

TO: I don’t have any specific genre goals as far as the types of films I’d like to work on really. I’m always just looking for scripts that I enjoy and that hopefully have something to add to what’s out there already. I shoot a lot of commercials in between film projects so I don’t mind turning down things & waiting until something interesting comes along. Feature films have such a long development period & then you’re away from home for most of the year prepping & shooting so you have to choose your projects carefully.

MT: What advantages/disadvantages do you think you have had starting in the short film/indy world in comparison to other DPs who worked through the Unions to become a cinematographer?

TO: The biggest thing I feel was missing from the early days was the opportunity to see how other cinematographers worked. That’s the nice thing about working your way up through the ranks. You’re in the front row watching how the big boys do it. I used to do set visits when I worked at the rental house & it was always cool to see the different lighting approaches or specific rigging that someone had done.

Also my step dad had a subscription to American Cinematographer so I had read every single page of every issue since I was 16 years old. That was invaluable, of course this was years before the internet and the behind the scenes special features on dvd’s & blu rays that we have now so that was the best way of seeing how things were done at the time.

I think the advantage of starting the way I did is that you’re doing what you want to do from the beginning so you start developing right away. The trap in working your way up through the different crew positions is that you can get trapped there. All of a sudden you’re 15 years into working sets and paying off a mortgage so it’s tough to make the leap & reimagine your career as a DP. I think if you want to do something than you should just start doing it at whatever level you can.

MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

TO: I don’t have one individual really but there are countless people that I learned from when I first started shooting. I started working at Clairmont Camera in Vancouver after film school so I was around professional camera crews full time & just tried to learn everything I could, just hoover up as much information as you can. Why that lens over this one, when to use a fluid head vs. wheels etc. Just tons of little details that you absorb over time. I think that was a great introduction to how things worked on set but at the same time I wasn’t that interested in working on tv shows or MOV’s at the time so I shot my own stuff or with friends on the weekends & was able to develop over time and make mistakes in a safe environment where there wasn’t a ton of money on the line.

MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

TO: Well it’s an exciting time as far as what’s out there already & what’s coming out. The camera technology just keep getting better every year and LED lighting is really coming into it’s own so it’s great to have options available to you to choose from the toolbox for different scenarios. I’ve really been enjoying running our lighting setups through DMX lighting consoles and media servers for the last couple of years. You just have almost infinite control over the quality and the dynamics of the light as far as movement and colour.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

TO: That’s a tough question. Probably “Blade Runner”, “Heat”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Jaws”, “Godfather 1&2”, “Stalker”, “The Conversation” “Apocalypse Now” all the classic iconic movies. There’s a ton more for sure. There are just some films that you come across on tv and it’s impossible to stop watching even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. My parents had “Das Boat” and “Fitzcarraldo” basically on infinite repeat in my house when I was young too which drove my sister and I crazy at the time.

MT: Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a cinematographer?

TO: I was born and raised in a place called Thunder Bay in Ontario Canada. It’s quite a small town and I moved away for high school but went back to film school at Confederation College so it was great to be back in my home town, starting a new chapter of my life. I was more into music as a kid and played in different bands growing up so I never really thought of film as a career until my early 20’s when I went to film school.

My step dad was a nature cameraman when I was a kid so he took me out on his shoots and taught me how to load film and thread the camera etc. Of course it was more documentary work so there was no lighting at all but it was a good introduction to camera and sound equipment. I used to go into the post production offices where they cut his films and would see shots that we had taken cut into the edit so it was almost like pre-film school for me as a kid.

 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Storyboard Artist Cristiano Donzelli (Ben-Hur, The Young Messiah)

A storyboard artist, or story artist, creates storyboards for film productions.

Storyboard Artist Cristiano Donzelli is a wealth of knowledge. You can feel his passion for what he does. No wonder all of the top filmmakers in the world who venture to Italy want to work with him. He simply makes all the films he storyboards better.

Cristiano’s credits include Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Rome (2005). Zoolander 2 (2016), The American (2010). Ben-Hur (2016), The Young Messiah (2016), and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Go to his website at www.cristianodonzelli.com

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Matthew Toffolo: You have been the storyboard artist on over 40 productions in the last 20 years. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Cristiano Donzelli: First of all I want to say that I do this work because I love cinema, I’m very passionate about movies, so for me it’s not just a job, it’s more than that. After weeks of drawing the scenes of a film, developing it with the director and seeing it growing little by little, it becomes part of you. So each film I worked for, has been a unique experience, so I’m equally proud of all of them.

MT: Ben Stiller sings your praises. You just worked with him on “Zoolander 2”. What can you say about the Ben Stiller experience?

CD: Ben Stiller is an icon in the film industry and Zoolander is a cult movie so when they called me to work on Zoolander 2 I already knew that would be an important and funny experience for me. I worked with Ben Stiller for four months and we shared so many laughs while working. He’s a good person and such a great artist, always full of ideas and I can say he has the comedy in his blood. He asked me to use my creativity to imagine gags and re-write together the scenes of the script with the storyboards. He’s a very sensitive person and I can say the film business didn’t change his genuineness, enthusiasm and sincere approach to his work.

PHOTO: Cristiano with Ben Stiller:

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MT: Can you give us a teaser of what we’ll expect to see in “Ben-Hur”? How was it to work on the remake of such an iconic film? That’s seems like it would be a very daunting and overwhelming task!

CD: Too bad I can’t tell you anything about it, as you may know before starting to work in a film production, an artist has to sign an NDA so he can’t tell anything about the movie before it’s out on the screens. The only thing I can say is that it’ll be very spectacular and visually great. I’ve worked closely for months with the director Timur Bekmambetov, the second unit director Phil Neilson and with the VFX supervisor Jim Rygiel (3 Oscar winning for the Lords of Ring trilogy), creating spectacular action scenes especially for the iconic chariots race scene that won’t delude the old Ben Hur movie fans.

MT: You’ve also directed some short films, commercials, and music videos. Is directing something you like to do more professionally? Is directing a Hollywood feature film your ultimate goal?

CD: I’ve been second unit director for James McTeigue (V for Vendetta director) in his project “Caserta Palace Dream”, I directed over 40 tv commercials, three music videos and the 30 minute short film “Una Storia Di Lupi – aka A Wolves Tale” that stars Franco Nero as main actor that won two important film festivals as best short. I was born with a passion for drawing, then I realized that I had a great passion for directing too. When I was a child my father often took me to the cinema and since then I had this dream to work in the film industry and be a director. I’m developing different projects and writing treatments, so yes, directing a Hollywood feature film is my next goal.

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

CD: It depends on the project, sometimes they call me very early even before the pre-production just because the director and the producers want to have an idea about how the film will be and how much it’ll cost more or less for each scene. Other times they call me later, when the locations and the sets are decided so the director can give me more precise information about the scenes. The general working relationship between me and a director is also something different each time. Some directors have very clear ideas about what they wants, some others give you the script directly and ask you to do all by yourself. He assigns you the responsibility to take decisions choosing the shots, in some way it’s like if you direct part of the movie. Between me and a director there is an artistic exchange, you give something to him but you also get something from him, his vision, his way of tell a story and most important, you know closely a person and an artist.

MT: What are you looking for in a director?

CD: Maybe the question should be “what a director usually looks for in a storyboard artist?” I would answer that a director wants to work with a person who is able to understand his vision of a story, who is able to give ideas, understand the possible problems of a complicated scene and give solutions, be able to show with his drawings all the information that a storyboard has to provide to all the different departments in a movie productions. And above all I think a director wants to find a person to be comfortable with because he will have to spend weeks with him.

CD: I had the chance to work with so many directors, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Paul Haggis, Kevin Reynolds, Brian Helgeland, Ben Stiller and with many of them, besides a professional relationship, I cultivate a good friendship.

MT: Do you have a Storyboard mentor?

CD: Actually I have no specific mentor, I am a self taught, I learnt everything by myself. I spent hours drawing and watching movies, sectioning them, trying to learn the language of telling a story with images, the framing and the editing. There are a lot of good storyboard artists around and I like their work. Sometimes I take some inspiration from them as all the artists do with other artists’ work.

MT: You have worked on a lot of Action films. How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

CD: Very important. A storyboard is the translation of written pages in images, it’s the first virtual visualization of a story. So the director can see his movie before shooting it and explain to the producer, to the director of the photography, to the production designer and all the departments, what’s his idea of the film. Thanks to the storyboard you can also have an idea about all the problems you’ll have to deal with and find solutions before the shooting. In particular for the action scenes just because they can be very complicated to shoot, the storyboard can allow the team to prepare properly special effects, to coordinate stunts, to arrange everything that is needed, and most important to give to the producer an estimation of the costs for each scene.

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

CD: Once upon a time in America, Blade Runner.

MT: Do you have any advice for high school and university students who want to work in the film industry?

CD: As I said I am a self taught, what drove me along my life was my love for drawing and passion for movies. I can’t suggest any specific school because I don’t know it directly. My opinion is that first of all anyone who wants to work in the film industry has to have a strong will and passion for this work, no school or university can ever give you that. Of course the schools can give you the basics, the technique and teach you every other thing you need but what’s important to succeed in the film industry is the determination, the passion and the love for your job. And this is the best teaching for everything you care about in your life, always give it your best.

PHOTO: Cristiano’s Storyboards on KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Director Ridley Scott:

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Production Designer Jane Musky (When Harry Met Sally…, Ghost)

Jane Musky is one of the top Production Designers working in the industry today. She has designed over 40 productions in the last 30 years, working with directors Mike Newell, Ivan Reitman, Andy Tennant, Gus Van Sant, Jerry Zucker, James Foley, and The Coen Brothers, to name a few. She also happens to be married to the President of the United States (well on the TV show Scandel) for the last 28 years too!

It was an honor to interview Jane and talk about her amazing career, and it looks like she’s just getting started.

Matthew Toffolo: You have been the Production Designer on over 30 films in the last 35 years. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Jane Musky: My favorite films as a Designer are GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS and THE DEVIL’S OWN.

GlenGarry was a once in a lifetime chance to work with an INCREDIBLE ensemble of actors, great Director and DP and Mamet script. Who could ask for more?

David Mamet’s stories are full of great language, texture and sense of place which feeds his stories. That sense of place, that moment in time is a gift for a Designer to define.

PHOTO: Alec Baldwin gives his famous speech in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

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The Devil’s Own was not only a large budget film that involved the two biggest male film actors of that time, but was Directed by Alan Pakula and was his last film. Gordon Willis shot the film. I was very lucky to be with this group. Alan taught me more than any other Director I have been associated with.

I had started another film with Alan and Gordon that folded so I was happy when we launched into this story about the IRA. We shot in Ireland and New York. I loved doing the big shootout in the opening with a great Dutch special effects group.

MT: Early in your career, you were the Production Designer on the first two Coen Brothers films: Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. How did you first meet the brothers? After Blood Simple wrapped, what were your feelings? Did you foresee their iconic career?

JM: I met Ethan and Joel through a mutual friend, Mark Silverman. Mark was an up and coming Producer they had hired and I had worked with Mark before.

I was doing Summer Stock at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and they all drove up to meet me. I had never done a film, just smaller TV work. Most of my Design work was in the theatre then. We hit it off.

Blood Simple was really the first film for all of us. We were a very small crew. It all just clicked. We worked so hard and when it was over we all knew we had made a good film full of humor and irony and I thought it was stylish. Ethan and Joel were and still are great in how they plan and execute their work. It is all very lean and mean and cohesive. It was a utopian time for a young designer. We were a great young gang of filmmakers and everyone has done well from that original Coen Bros. group.

PHOTO: Bar Scene in Blood Simple (1984):

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MT: Some will argue that Raising Arizona is a masterpiece. You created a fantasy universe within the context of the reality of Arizona. Do you remember the initial conversations with the directors and your team about the overall look, feel, and tone of the film? How was your overall experience working on the film?

JM: Well, Raising Arizona. We had a blast. I have to say Phoenix back then was such a bizarre place. It was still a small town pretending it had the hutzpah of Dallas.

There was a great collision of the Wild West meets the nouveau riche of Arizona.

Once I got that vibe it was easy to create the fantasy of their world. I enhanced the style that was already rampant. What a confusing place, stylistically. Once I grabbed the idea of the Arizona home I next designed the GRIB for the Boys to get of sense of how far everyone wanted to go with the humor and then it all flowed. Ethan and Joel’s scripts were very much defined as to what happens; dialogue and great descriptions of each character. They really allow their Designers to run with it.

PHOTO: Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona (1987):

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MT: When Harry Met Sally…, is another all-time classic. It has a timeless feel to it. How was your experience creating the world of this couple in a span of 15 years in New York City?

JM: When we began working on “When Harry Met Sally”, New York City was on a roll.

It was a Single’s City full of romance. Harry and Sally’s opening drive to begin their lives after college in NYC had to be as unsophisticated as could be so we could feel their rite of passage into adult life in a complicated city. What are the chances they would meet again after parting at Washington Square, and how complicated their lives had already become after a few years apart?

The passage of time allows for a more complicated story and Nora Efron just hit a great stride in her writing and fed the complications of the relationships which in turn allows the Designer to jump right in to define their lives and begin to ground the story for the audience visually.

PHOTO: The 3 frame phone call shot in When Harry Met Sally… (1989):

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MT: Harry/Sally had a lot of exterior shots of NYC, plus interior locations within the city (like the famous restaurant scene). Generally, what is the Production Designers main job when working on a location that is already established and known by many? What do you need to add or remove (or not) to enhance the story?

JM: Iconic locations are picked because they are perfect or almost perfect for the story in that moment. There is little I can do to enhance the Design value of these landmarks other than to pick the right ones for the moment. We had many Iconic locations; Katz’s Deli, Central Park. All were chosen to give us a romantic New York. The more romantic the location or the more counter to the romantic moment like Katz’s, the more we hit Harry and Sally on the head saying…Fall in Love. Iconic locations give the audience a great comfort and familiarity that allows them to fall into the story more easily wishing they were there.

MT: What is a director looking for in a Production Designer?

JM: Each Director I work for has their own different idea as to what they want from their Designer. The Director and Designer are the first ones of the Creative Staff working on the job. Those early moments together are used to dissect the story and begin to give it a visual tone and map the moments. It is during these first weeks the Designer morphs to suit the Director’s vision and enhance that vision and help tell the story. The Director must be followed and a Designer must take their lead from the Director and faithfully back that vision.

MT: What is a Production Designer looking for in a director?

JM: The Designer and Director are first of the Creative Team on a film. That is what I consider my Golden Time. This is when I look to the Director to take the lead as to where the story is headed creatively. We spend a lot of One to One time these first few weeks to set the visual plan for the film. At times I have to work hard to pull at ideas from a Director. The more comfortable this process, the better the journey.

MT: How early do you come into pre-production before shooting starts? When do your hire and bring on the rest of your key team members?

JM: I come on to a film very early on and the earlier the better so I can wrangle the location scouting. I am usually on 6-8 weeks before the DP depending upon the project. My crew comes on about 6- 8 weeks before we shoot but now a days with smaller budgets sometimes this moves up to 5 weeks before we shoot which is scary.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

JM: Well, of course everyone has seen the Wizard of Oz tons of times, and Munchkin Land made me wonder, WHO creates this stuff?!

I am a fan of To Kill a Mocking Bird. The story is stirring for sure but as a Designer; The Town, The House. I also love, Last Picture Show. Again the subtlety of the Town and easiness of creating the environments. Carnal Knowledge also for many of the same reasons.

For a bit of Romance I love The Goodbye Girl. I’m not as old as my taste in favorite films, haha.

MT: Do you have a Production Designer mentor?

JM: That is easy…Polly Platt and Eugene Lee. Their work has always pointed me in a good direction. I started in the theatre as a Designer so Eugene Lee was a big influence and then I watched him move between Theatre and TV/Film/Concert Sets, (Simon and Garfunkel Central Park). He helped me understand how a Designer could move between these Mediums.

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

JM: I’d love to do a BIG FAT period piece in Europe or Asia.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.