Interview with Storyboard Artist Stephen Forrest-Smith (Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight)

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

I had a blast sitting down with the very talented storyboard artist Stephen Forrest-Smith. Stephen has worked on some of the most popular films in the last 15 years, including “The Dark Knight,” the last three “Harry Potter” films, and last year’s “Star Wars” film.

His candor in the following interview is educational and very entertaining. Enjoy:

Matthew Toffolo: When coming aboard a project on a Hollywood film, how does the process generally work? Do you start with a preliminary chat with the director about themes etc..? How early do you arrive before production? When do you generally exit the job?

Stephen Forrest-Smith: There really is no normal to my job anymore. Every project seems to be different now and asks for a different approach. A film project could call on a storyboard artist at any stage from pre-pre production, ( when the film is trying to get funding) right the way through to post production for VFX, (after principal photography has been completed). The bulk of my work tends to be early in the pre-production taking the first pass at sequences to get the ball rolling on them. Usually I’d start with a chat with a Director, though it could be VFX supervisor or production designer and then work on from there. I used to expect to finish when filming starts but now I might stay almost to the end of shooting then be called back for reshoots and post production.

Matthew: How was your recent experience working on the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast with director Bill Condon?

Stephen: Beauty and the Beast is shaping up to be a really beautiful and wonderful production of the fairytale. I didn’t work directly with Bill Condon but instead was briefed by Tobias A. Schliessler, the director of photography. This doesn’t happen very often but I like working with the DOP as I get to see more of the technical side to the filmmaking process. The film also has many amazing musical routines that were carefully choreographed which needed storyboards added to them. This was fun as I never work on a musical before. I think this is my favourite part of the job – getting to work with and learn from such a variety of very talented people across all the departments.

Matthew: World War Z is such a visual film. How many boards did you do for that film?

Stephen: World War Z was a very troubled production, which stumbled to the finish somehow! I think that film chewed up 5 storyboard artists over its run. I had two spells on that job. The first spell I worked on the escape from Malta sequence. I returned to work with the second unit director the battle for Moscow part which was cut from the movie.

Matthew: When you watch the final product, like Star Wars for examples, and you see your visual designs on screen in live-action, how does that feel? It must be a goose-bump experience.

Stephen: It’s always a strange feeling watching the films that I’ve worked on. Its quite a long time between finishing on them and seeing them in the cinema. I might have worked on two or three films in-between seeing the finished movie. This means I tend to sit there trying to remember what i drew for which part of the movie and if anything made it! Sometimes a sequence will run out just as it was storyboarded then you get a feeling of “deja vu”. Other times its nice to sit back and watch the response of the audience to see if a moment works or not.

Matthew: You’ve been credited as being a “Conceptual Artist” in films like Speilberg’s War Horse. What does that job detail?

Stephen: Conceptual Artist is a cover all title for film illustrators / 3d artists / designers who are involved in the initial visualising of the designs of the film. It can also include producing images on the sets as they are being designed to communicate them to the director and producer.

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Matthew: What’s your ideal working experience with a director?

Stephen: For me the most satisfying part of the job is seeing the boards being used on set and being shot from. Making movies rapidly becomes an insanely complicated endeavor and a good set of storyboards is the best way of communicating to all the crew what they are all trying to achieve. A director who’s invested in the boards and wants them to be used, and sent out to the crew is my ideal.

Matthew: You also worked on The Dark Knight, which ended up being an iconic film. Did you expect it to be so popular? What part of the film did you do boards for?

Stephen: I was very excited to work on The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan was my favourite director at the time. It was clear from reading the script that he had a great take on the Joker that Heath Ledger went onto realise. My friend Jim Cornish got me the job. Jim was booked to go onto Harry Potter and the Half blood Prince so he recommended me to come and finish off for him. He had done the bulk of the work when I started so I had amendments to make on his sequences. I then drew the Jokers attack on Bruce Wayne’s apartment and Batman and Two Face’s stand off at the end of the film. Yes I did expect it to be popular as Batman Begins and had been a big hit already.

Matthew: When is does the “I’m now allowed to talk about it” statue of limitations with Star Wars end? When are you allowed to talk about your experiences working on the film and put the storyboards that you worked on for the film in your portfolio?

Stephen: I think this is the most onerous part of the job now. We have to sign NDA’s for every project and they last forever. So I shouldn’t talk to you at all!

Matthew: Do you have a storyboard mentor?

Stephen: The person who not only gave me my break but was the best mentor ever was Stephen Sommers of “The Mummy” fame – His best advice was ‘ don’t give me hundreds of angles but show how few shots I need to shoot the sequence”. I’ve kept that as my philosophy since and i love the rigour of working in this way.

Matthew: What film have you seen the most in your life?

Stephen: The Directors I return to again and again are Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. So probably “North by Northwest”, “Seven Samurai” and “Fistfull of Dollars”. Not a moment is wasted in their movies – they are true cinema for me.

Matthew: Do you worked on over 30 productions in the last 17 years. Do you have a favorite working experience?

Stephen: I’m sure I’ve worked on more than that!!! My jobs can vary from a days world to years so I’ve done a lot now. “The Mummy” is still by far my favourite ever film experience as every moment was exciting and new. I’d also taken a big gamble changing my career from architecture to film and the Mummy was my first chance to make the gamble work out. I started with a two week trial then worked on for 9 months storyboarding the whole film on my own. I got to travel to Marakesh and the red sahara. Got to swim in a swimming pool with Kate Winslet and rode on camels in the Sahara. Not bad for a first job.

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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.

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Interview with Stunt Performer James Cox (Star Wars VII, The Dark Knight Rise)

A stunt performer, often referred to as a stuntman or daredevil, is someone who performs dangerous stunts for the Film and TV industry.

James Cox has worked on over 40 productions as a stunt performer in just the last 6 years of his young career. He’s been a part of the most popular and iconic films and TV shows too, including: Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Downton Abbey, Wrath of the Titans, The Impossible, Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, World War Z, Spectre and of course Star Wars: Episode VII.

I was thrilled to be able to ask him a few questions about his job and career.

Matthew Toffolo: First off, we need to talk about Star Wars as you were a part of what is going to be the most popular movie of all-time. What was your role in “The Force Awakens”? How many days did you work on set? Did you have to sign a confidentiality agreement after you left set? 

James Cox: I was fortunate enough to join the Star Wars stunt team after finishing work on Avengers: Age of Ultron in late 2014. Its well known that security on the set of The Force Awakens was unprecedented but rightly so, the film was so highly anticipated that any leak from the set would have undoubtably ruined elements of the story that the whole crew were working to keep top secret.

Matthew: Have you suffered a lot of injuries doing stunts? If so, what has been your worst injury?

James:  To date I’ve not had any serious accidents; thats not to say we all don’t get bashed up pretty regularly, in fact thats actually part of the fun.  You can’t really fall down stairs, jump through glass, get hit by cars or get set on fire without getting bruised, cut or a little bit burnt here and there.  I’ve had friends badly injured, one recently, that was involved in a very serious accident on set which was featured in a lot of media outlets, she ( Olivia Jackson) is now starting out on the long road to recovery [ There’s a fund currently running to help Olivia in her recovery. Go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49 ] As an industry we definitely need to learn the benefits of learning from failure.
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Matthew: How did you get into the stunt performer game? Was there extensive training involved? 

James: I was planning to go to university and it was while on a year out to work and earn some money that I decided to follow a childhood ambition and trying to become a stunt performer.  The JISC stunt register is the world most well established body of professional stunt performers and the training is definitely extensive, ranging from Marital arts, scuba diving, gymnastics, rock climbing, horse riding, rally driving to trampolining.  Needless to say I didn’t end up going to university and after training for 4 years in six different discipline I qualified and joined the elite ranks of the British Stunt Register.

Matthew: What type of skills do you have as a stunt performer? 

James: There are a number of sporting disciplines which you need to complete to qualify for the JISC Stunt Register but there are also number of elements which I believe are essential to become a solid stunt performer; including having a good sense of timing, a professional attitude, a commitment to working as a team player and the ability to learn and adapt quickly….even changing your physical performance from one take to the next.  The skills you learn to qualify for the Register don’t necessarily make you a good performer but they do give you the very best starting point.

James: Physically, working on Edge of Tomorrow (Which was named All You Need Is Kill during shooting) was very hard work.  For the main beach landing battle sequence we wore 40kg-50kg ‘exo suits’ which looked like mechanised exoskeleton suits, they were designed to look like they would assist the soldiers to run, jump and fight at superhuman ability, the reality was they were a combination of metal, plastic, nuts, bolts and cable ties which the stunt team had to make look like they were effortlessly wearing to fight the alien invaders. To make matters worse we were fighting on a bombed beach…imagine playing tag on sand dunes while giving someone a piggyback!

As for emotionally, I’m not too sure.  Each job has its own set of challenges and finding yourself in unnatural or uncomfortable situations without letting your natural instincts get in the way of your performance is definitely a challenge of the job. On Wrath of the Titans  (2011) a few of us were buried face down (in what was essentially a grave) with a small breathing tube which was removed a few minutes before “action” was called. We had to burst out from the ground and ambush an attacking army of monsters, those minutes lying there, sightless, soundless and unable to move would be a lot of peoples idea of a living hell.  I’ve definitely found myself in a number of situations where I’ve thought to myself “…well, this is pretty surreal”
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Matthew: I see that you worked on Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show and don’t remember many stunts. Can you tell us what you did on the show? 

James: haha yeah thats right, I was on an episode of Downton.  You’d be surprised at the number of stunt performers required for tv shows/films which you wouldn’t think of as having much action. Downton Abbey was actually one of my first jobs, I was used as a stunt double for the actor Thomas Howes, in the 2nd series his character had gone to fight in World War One and I doubled him for a sequence where he got blown up by a shell.  I also performed various stunts as British and Germany soldiers, getting shot and blown up.

Matthew: What do you look for in a solid stunt performer partner? 

James: Me personally, I definitely enjoy working with someone who I feel has good timing, without it, you could be the very best athlete in the world but if you can’t hit that mark, when your told too then you’re never going to get it right.  Often that means adapting to changing timings on the fly. For example: if an actor has totally changed the timing of a fight routine, because they feel it is right to take an ‘acting beat’ then its up to you to adapt to that and be there when they need you to be…not the other way round!  Of course it almost goes without saying that you definitely need to trust your fellow performer. One huge advantage to the training needed for the stunt register is that no matter your background, we can trust that newly qualified performers can work under pressure have a high level of physical ability.
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Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer mentor? 

James: Not a mentor as such, but there are definitely certain performers which I aspire to be like. Working as a stunt performers is an ever changing job so I most admire the stunt men and women that can learn and adapt to new skills quickly.

Matthew: How was working on The Dark Knight Rises? Another movie that was very “hush-hush” during filming?

James: It was another massive tick on my wish list for a number of reasons – while I only did a small amount of work on The Dark Knight it was amazing to see director Christopher Nolan at work, as well as the high calibre actors which appear in the Batman series.  The stunt coordinator and stunt team on the Dark Knight were also a collection of some of the worlds best stunt men and women so it was a huge opportunity for me to learn.
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Matthew: What movie, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life? 

James: As a kid I watched a re-watched Jurassic Park so many times that I would dream about being on the Island myself! I don’t get a lot of time to re-watch films but most recently I’ve seen Ex Machina a few times (I also read the original script which is very different from the final screenplay, but brilliant none the less!)

Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer or director that you’d love to work with? 

James: There are a couple of well known directors which I’d love to see working in person.  Tarantino and Spielberg are legends and it would be great to work for them, for obvious reasons.  Fortunatley I’m soon to begin to work on the new project of director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and with Brick being one of my favourite films I’m very excited to work with him. To date I’ve been luck enough to work under some incredible directors (Danny Boyle was definitely a highlight!) but I’m always interested to work for anyone, they can all have such different ways to go about achieving the same goals its always fascinating.
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Matthew: What is the main difference when working on a television show like Game of Thrones in comparison to a big studio film like Skyfall and Star Wars?

James: Normally the biggest two elements are budget and time. Films usually have a lot more of both, I say normally because your example of Game of Thrones is actually one of the exceptions to the rule, GoT actually operates a bit more like 3 films than a small tv series; shot simultaneously across multiples countries and with a huge budget its much more like a film than a tv series.

As a stunt performer there are a couple of differences but the standard of performer is the same – you’ll get the same stuntmen/stuntwomen working on a small tv show and the biggest film from one week to the next.
On films we often get more time to prep a stunt or stunt sequence and there might be more elements involved, fire explosions, pneumatic ratchets, air-rams etc where are with tv, you might (not always) only have that day to prepare for a stunt.

Often films employ a full time team of stunt performers to work on the full duration of the film whereas tv will normally employ performers specifically for one sequence where the work could be a few weeks, or even just one day.

Matthew: Where do you see the future of green-screen stunt performing in the motion pictures? 

James: Great question!  As a performer I can only give my personal opinion and perhaps coordinators would give you a different answer but I feel that while clearly there are huge advances being made in CGI there will still be a place for physical performers.  I feel that for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, people are experts at detecting unnatural movements from CGI characters – we spend our whole life observing other humans walking, running, maybe falling over, we know how our own bodies work in the real world and until CGI can get the very smallest nuances of human physical movement past the brains detection system I think people will always react badly to seeing ‘CGI stunt performers.’ (See the uncanny valley hypothesis)  Secondly, people like to know that someone really did do a stunt.  In fact, as you can see from some of the media coverage given to Mission Impossible and The Force Awakens a lot of attention was given to the fact that real people were standing on real sets and this extends to real stunts.  One of the selling points of the hugely successful Bond franchise is that the stunts are real and there is minimal CGI, the same goes for the recent Mad Max: Fury Road film which is currently nominated for a massive 10 Oscars….none for best stunt co-ordinator, but thats a discussion for another interview…!
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For fund raising efforts for the injured Stunt Performer Olivia Jackson, go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49

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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.

Interview with Graphic Designer Tina Charad (Maleficent, Fifty Shades of Grey)

Graphic Designer creates the props and set-pieces for film productions and works directly with the Production Designer. Depending on the period and genre, these can be newspapers, love letters, shop signs, posters, cigarette boxes, logos. Basically, they create the original materials needed for a film that haven’t yet been invented.  

I was fortunate enough to interview the extremely talented Graphic Designer Tina Charad. In the last 10 years she has worked on over 30 productions including the films “Robin Hood”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “World War Z”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “The Fifth Wave”, and “RocknRolla”.

Matthew Toffolo: Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Tina: Well, in terms of pure indulgence, of being spoilt and designing beauty day after day, it would be 47 Ronin. Perhaps Maleficent too – for the same reasons.

Tina created images in the film “47 Ronin”:
47_ronin_image

Matthew: How long do you generally work on a film? How early do you come on in pre-production? Do you stay until the end of filming?

Tina: It really does depend. On the whole, a large studio film in the UK could be 9/10 months work. The prep time is longer as is the shooting schedule. I have worked both in the UK, where I started and the US, where I now live. In the UK the Graphic Designer is really responsible for a large amount more work than the US. That may sound bizarre in terms of the work load varying but in the US there are a lot more print houses and production places that can facilitate some of the graphic design parts where as in the UK, the Graphic Designer creates all the Art department, set dec & prop pieces – no matter how big or small.

Matthew: What’s the difference when working on different genres? From a straight up drama like “Body of Lies”, to a pure fantasy like “Maleficent”?

Tina: Well there is a huge difference. With something like BOL, you’re not creating fantasy. Often you are recreating reality but in a different location. So you’re making mobile phone stores, embassy clinics, roads signage. They are a huge part of what makes the film real, but not wildly creative. You have to be on the nose accurate, especially when working in foreign languages and alphabet like that film. We shot in Morocco, but were predominantly set in Jordan. The Arabic is different in these two countries. I had to have a translator who knew the differences. I then had to set about researching contemporary Arabic branding and identities as you would in the US. I had to create large scale banks and corporations but in Arabic. I spent a lot of money purchasing good contemporary Arabic fonts.
With Maleficent, I was re-united with a favorite designer. He wanted me to create a large scale tapestry for Sleeping Beauty’s bedroom. Whilst there were suggestions of medieval tapestries etc thrown in, he was very clear that he wanted to design something original. Also he pointed out that we were not a historical film, but a fantasy and the tapestry should show that. I think the brief was “Grayson Perry Meets Flemish”. So I worked on a fantastical forest scape that was a day and night scene. It has a wealth of lovely references and feels both fresh and stylistically fitted the brief.

Tina created the Sleeping Beauty bedroom images in “Maleficent”
malficifent_bedroom

Matthew: What about your experiences working on “American Ultra” or “The Crazy Ones” TV show? Is a straight up comedy an entirely different experience? Is your creative process all about making people laugh?

Tina: Well to be fair, In American Ultra I was doing reshoots especially of all the insert work. The producers and director found that the stuff didn’t work once they had shot it. For many reasons it had to all be recreated so it wasn’t really humorous at that point. You are just trying to get all these pieces and stick them together. In fact I didn’t get the script for that so I had no idea it was a comedy. It all seemed like a typical spy caper to me at the time.

I did a little on The Crazy Ones as they wanted to elevate the look and feel of the show. I had also worked at Leo Burnett where the show was supposedly based on. Despite what the designer hoped for, there is still only so much you can do with a comedy show – the jokes have to be pretty brash and in your face. No room for subtlety. It’s not my best genre – TV comedy. I find myself always fighting for the more subtle joke, and losing…

Matthew: What is the most challenging aspect of being a graphic designer?

Tina: Going to have to be clearances & the legal side.

Matthew: I have to ask you about the “Fifty Shades of Grey”
experience?

Tina: One of the most anticipated films of 2015. Were your design themes all about power and sex?

I started with David Wasco before any other art department. Initially we worked on researching the sex furniture for the red room of pain. David knows that I can do illustrative work so I looked at initial pieces of what these key pieces of furniture would look like. I have worked for a lot of designers sourcing reference and style imagery so we looked at humanizing the story. The book is pretty 2 dimensional as are the characters, so between Sam the director and David, they wanted to add life into it. In terms of the graphics in that film, trying to design a logo that doesn’t look like a film graphic and that could carry through 3 films and maybe 5 years without looking dated or getting changed, was a challenge. But I did several passes at first and Sam knew straight away which to choose. That initial Grey Enterprises logo is what Universal based their entire marketing campaign on. The other key logo was SIP – Seattle Publishing which actually didn’t make it into the film but is a key part of book2. I bet they use a new logo but that would be a huge pity. I rather liked my SIP work!

Tina’s created logos for “Fifty Shades of Grey”:
fifty_shades_of_grey_image

Matthew: You worked as a Graphic Designer on the David Fincher directed music video “Justin Timberlake Ft. Jay-Z: Suit & Tie”. How long did you work on the video, what did you do, and how was working with so many iconic people?

Tina: Good Question! I watched the video again to remind myself. Well that and sifted through my back up folders. I remembered doing a lot of etched mirror and glass for that video and sets. I remember there was a nightclub that was branded (signage, props etc) and had an old rat pack feel. What one has to remember is what is in the final edit does not show what was made. We prepare for what is initially discussed but things can change on the shoot day, the director or cast and request changes and then a whole scene can be cut. David Fincher is very particular about everything so the designer had all sets covered from an art direction, graphics and prop side. Better safe than sorry.

Matthew: Do you have a Production Designer or Graphic Designer mentor?

Tina: No – not really;

I spent 10 years in the real world of branding & advertising before moving into film. I loved Fabien Baron -you might guess from the fifty shades ;). So I didn’t really need mentoring when it came to graphics in the film industry with a designer so to speak, as I already had the skills. I have a couple designers I would work for regardless of pay or the job (let’s hope they don’t read this) they are David Wasco & Gary Freeman. Love the projects David chooses, they are often smaller and more interesting pieces. He is a designer that graphics are hugely important too. Gary uses me more as a Graphic illustrator on large scale pieces. Installations that normally are dreams briefs.

Matthew: What movie, besides the ones you’ve work on, have you seen the most in your life?

Tina: Another great question. There isn’t 1 but 3.
Gladiator – no explanation needed
Team America – I will never stop laughing or being furious I didn’t work on it
Love Actually – it’s on every Christmas

Matthew: You’ve worked as a Production Designer on more than a few short films. Is that a position that you aspire to hold in the Hollywood feature film world? Is there a place where we can watch your short films?

Tina: I have done that. I’ve also worked quite extensively as a stylist and assistant set decorator which is something I did pursue for a while I never wanted to design. All my design jobs have honestly been decorating jobs. Then I moved to the US and had to choose between 44 or 800 and I decided to focus only on graphics. I have no idea if you can watch these shorts. I’ll have to investigate…..

Matthew: What Production Designer and/or Director would you love to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?

Tina: That would be KK Barrett for Production Design and Tim Burton.

Matthew: You’re working on the new Bourne Identity sequel. Can you give us a sneak peek to what to expect?

Tina: No! Haha

For more information on Tina, please go to her website: http://www.tinacharad.com/
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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.