Concept Fantasy Art and Story Boarding Help Put You in the Movie's Action

by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor
David Russell, Return of the Jedi Story Board
David Russell, Return of the Jedi Story Board

When watching an action/adventure flick, you normally see multiple thrills, such as car chases, dog fights in the sky, and perils such as fire, wind, rain, snow and other elements. Think “We Are Marshall” and the necessity to have the running and passing scenes choreographed for the cameras.

Often, (at least I did) the term ‘storyboarding’ came to mind when thinking of animated productions or those with complex special effect and computer generated backgrounds. After penning an article about the flying aces of the Tuskegee Airmen in detailed dogfights in “Red Tails,” I, first , learned that those armadas of aircraft were computer generated. Filmmakers had only a few of the actual antique planes.

What I didn’t know, until now, was the extent that a motion picture director relies on story boarding.

James C. Russell (, center) Tuskegee 1944
James C. Russell (, center) Tuskegee 1944

According to David Russell, whose early life was influenced by fantasies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” mythology and comic book icons like Jack Kirby and Frank Frazetta, explained in an Australian Production Design Guild Interview:

“The storyboard, of course, provides the first look at the film as it might be shot. Directing is a difficult and demanding art form; you need an edge. Good storyboarding gives you that edge. Prior to the involvement of the storyboard artist, most films have existed only in text form. The storyboard approximates the film itself, allowing the director to clarify his or her own vision by means of this visual narrative. If handled correctly, the storyboard artist can serve as an ‘auxiliary director’, or more accurately, provide ‘direction on paper’

George (“Star Wars,” “Phantom Menace,”) Lucas gave David Russell his first big break as a story board and concept director on “Return of the Jedi.” Russell has become one of Hollywood’s most talented and creative visual illustrators. His credits include:

David Russell Tuskegee ("Red Tails") storyboard
David Russell Tuskegee ("Red Tails") storyboard

Paradise Lost, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Voyage of the Dawn Treader, X Men Origins: Wolverine, Moulin Rouge, Master & Commander, The Thin Red Line, Tombstone, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Bat Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Red Tails.

George Lucas spent $58 million dollars of his own money and 20 year to put “Red Tails” on the big screen. During an interview in the Detroit Free Press, Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays pipe smoking Major Emmanuel Stance, said that the state of the art aerial visual effects put you in the cockpit. “You’re going to come to this movie and feel that you can fly a plane.”

Gooding compared the cliff hanging roller coaster effects to “Raiders of the Lost Art,” and revealed that two Tuskegee Airmen watched an early screening. Gooding , said in the Free Press, “they were so caught up in the aerial battle scenes that they were hunching their shoulders and moving to the left and right, as if they were in the planes themselves.”

The flight scenes have a special connection to history and the Airmen. Executive Producer George Lucas asked illustrator David Russell in 2008 to design key action sequences in “Red Tails,” including the opening attack scene. Russell’s father, James C. Russell, was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, was thrilled to work on the project.

Concept Illustration of Batman
Concept Illustration of Batman

Russell wanted to make the viewer’s feel they were “in the cockpit,” and brought his considerable storytelling abilities (as a concept illustrator and story-boarder)  to bear, enhanced by his father’s wartime experiences.

Seattle Post Intelligencer critic Tim Hall wrote: “What does work for Red Tails is the intense action sequences. Each dogfight puts you right in the cockpit with the pilots.”  Variety senior film critic, Peter Debruge,  described these airborne scenes as “dazzling.”  When asked in a recent interview how he directed airborne sequences, film director Anthony Hopkins said: “you take storyboards for all the action sequences, you give them to computer artists who then animate those storyboards.  I was able to [then] sit with the actors and talk about the sequences, so they knew what I was asking.”

HNN had an opportunity to discuss story boarding and concept illustrating of films with David Russell.

HNN: Has it been your experience that nearly all movies have a pre-shooting story board?

Concept Illustration Voyage of Dawn Treader
Concept Illustration Voyage of Dawn Treader

DAVID RUSSELL: In general, yes. Storyboarding provides the first visual roadmap of the proposed film. This is important in many ways, as not only allows the director to help realize his or her particular vision, but also serves as a critical budgeting device, especially in regards to the design of complex action and VFX sequences.

The storyboard artist, who works in a close, almost exclusive collaboration with the director, must quickly become familiar with the script, often to a degree exceeded only by the director himself. The storyboard artist must likewise control a wide range of skills specific to the field: understanding the camera, shot continuity, VFX design, stunts, dramatic staging and lighting, composition, graphic design, good draftsmanship, the ability to render quickly in black and white or color (either by hand or with digital techniques), an extensive knowledge of past and present films, awareness of social and political issues—these comprise the basic skill set.

However, the most important ingredient is imagination, which powers the creation of memorable film imagery.

In  a typical live-action film, perhaps 30-50% of the film will be storyboarded, usually the most challenging or dramatically significant passages. In animation, however, the storyboard is quite literally a shooting guide, and every minute of the film will be boarded, often in great detail. Complex 3D animated features might require 1-2 years to board, with teams assigned various segments of the script.

HNN: Since you began work with Mr. Lucas on "Jedi", what (if any) work did you do on Phantom Menace, which goes into 3D release this week?

Peter Pan Painting by Russell (Spielberg Collection)
Peter Pan Painting by Russell (Spielberg Collection)

DAVID RUSSELL: No. I was not approached to work on the new trilogy. I would have passed on the job in any case, since I feel it’s unethical to create a sort of hero out of a pathological killer. Still, the new series was visually amazing, and  I appreciated  its  interesting political sub-text, most of which seemed go unnoticed by the public.

HNN: During your history with Mr. Lucas, how often and how "enthused" was he about the Red Tails saga?

DAVID RUSSELL: As we know, George had been promoting the project since the 80’s. My father mentioned his visits to the LA branch of the 3332nd club on several occasions.  The subsequent history of the film’s development has since been described by George himself in numerous  interviews [in which he discusses the 20 years of development].

HNN: What do you think kept him shooting for the big screen? 

DAVID RUSSELL: George is a feature film director; I don’t think he ever envisioned placing Red Tails on the small screen.

Color Purple Illustration
Color Purple Illustration

HNN: Since he has a large amount of wealth, having to fund it himself would have been possible before this year. Any reason(s) that the Red Tails flick went into production when it did ?

DAVID RUSSELL: I believe George wanted to wait until all his Star Wars films were completed before tackling Red Tails. Many Hollywood  projects  take years--if not decades-- to reach the screen, so Red Tails is hardly unique in this way.

HNN:  Did your father or any of the men who flew provide 'supervision' for  accuracy during the shooting in Prague? Could you see any character as "dad" or did the writers stick with more 'composite' characters?

DAVID RUSSELL: My father was not involved, but many of his friends consulted with George on a regular basis. Some of their experiences were woven into the Red Tails storyline.

X MEN Wolverine Concept Art
X MEN Wolverine Concept Art



HNN: I was surprised to learn that so much of the dog fights were CGI generated and that in reality there were only a few real planes in the air. The process occurred seamlessly.  How many team members join to turn a few planes into an armada?

DAVID RUSSELL: The usual huge team of often-unsung digital artists helped this project fly. George is an absolute master of the art of digital imagery; you might say that, in some ways, he wrote the book on the subject. He was obviously determined to ensure that the action scenes in Red Tails looked and felt real, and in this he succeeded.

HNN: What are some of the features that you are currently in production/working on?

Roger Rabbit (concept art)
Roger Rabbit (concept art)

DAVID RUSSELL: I spent most of 2012 working on Alex Proyas’ epic feature Paradise Lost, based  of course on John Milton’s venerable poem. This is a completely unique, ground-breaking film, and it was a privilege to be part of the storyboard design team.

I’m currently involved in penning Mojo in Oz, an ebook due for release next month. The sequel to my recently release debook  Enchanters: Glys of Myradelle--a modern fairy tale with a dark edge—is also underway. I’ll be tackling two feature films this year, the first of which starts up in April.

PARADISE LOST AXED?

Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures (they were one of the producers of “We Are Marshall”) has dedicated about $120 million dollars for the action-fantasy shoot based on John Milton’s poem.

Concept Art Paradise Lost
Concept Art Paradise Lost

Callan (“I Am Number Four,” “Flipped”) McAuliffe plays archangel Uriel, one of the seven archangels God created. McAuliffe joins Benjamin Walker, as the archangel Michael, Casey Affleck, plays  Gabriel and Bradley Cooper, plays the fallen angel Lucifer. The story revolves around the epic war in heaven between archangels Lucifer and Michael, who share an extraordinary friendship bond with God until He creates Man (Adam and Eve).  Unable to remain subservient to God if it means bowing down to humanity, Lucifer begins his dark descent and is cast out – only to plot his revenge.

Filming had been set to begin in January 2012 in Australia, but based on reports, it has a temporary hold on it, while the scrip is rewritten to lower a budget whose visual effects and green screen work was going to come in 10%-15% over the film’s $120 million dollar budget. According to The Wrap, on Feb. 9, 2012, word has leaked that "Paradise Lost" has been scrubbed as too expensive. Reportedly, the epic heavenly battles meant f/x budgets could not be trimmed.

Alex (“The Crow,” “Dark City,” “Knowing”) Proyas directs and early word is that it will be an action vehicle including aerial warfare and may be shot in 3D.

The Enchantess
The Enchantess

David Russell’s work can be viewed at;

www.dynamicimagesdr.com

www.freyapublishing.com

www.davidbryanrussell.com

 Images Courtesy of David Russell (c)

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