“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Paul McCartney during the recording of Helter Skelter.
During my school years I was the kid at the back of the class who was either looking out the window, day dreaming, or sketching in my notebooks and doing lots of flip book animation. Usually things like an arrow going through some poor guys head or spaceships firing lasers in space combat. I used my pocket money to buy drawing materials and worked part-time jobs to buy oil paints. I painted landscapes and sunsets and all those things that sweet little old ladies would like to buy to go with their curtains and to my surprise they bought them too! In my teens I had a money jar that had $700 bucks in it which was a lot for a kid in the early Eighties! Every sketch and every brush stroke was preparing me for the career path I would soon launch into.
To be competent commercially, an artist or illustrator requires a high level of skill and draftsmanship and the only way to get proficient at it, even after tertiary level training, is to practice, practice, practice! It’s no different to learning an instrument, to be good at it, the fundamentals have to be there. When you hear a great performance you’re (hopefully) not listening to the the countless hours of practicing scales but the sum of many parts all brought together in one brief moment. A beautiful painting or drawing should have the same effect. I used to copy the masters to learn technique and when you develop you also learn from their mistakes and begin to establish your own style. But my art didn’t lead me into animation. I began my career by pestering a director for a job and making him view my folio. My first impromptu interview went something like this.
Here are some of those early sketches…
And at that I stopped my studies at art school and landed my first job. I started on the Monday and began working on the film, a martial arts actioner titled, ‘The Sword of Bushido’ 1988. Never intended to be the equivalent of a Kubrick masterpiece, it nevertheless gave me a great opportunity to see how hard but also how rewarding the work was. I would sit with the director, Adrian Carr, for hours on end talking through shots and sketching up dozens of frames that we would edit and throw out, so I learned pretty quickly not to get too precious about it. I considered myself a visual translator of sorts. The director would describe his shots and I would attempt to illustrate his vision in pencil sketches. The average working day would be 10 or so hours but to make an impression I would go home and work another 6 or 8 hours a night. I found myself dozing and drooling at my drawing board more than once…
…And trembling from the 15th cup of instant coffee.
The fascinating thing to me was that I was learning a different language. I was learning to tell a story by the juxtaposition of images and when it is done right, is dynamic and exciting but at worst ponderous and confusing. The structure of the narrative for any movie depends on how filmed images are placed to tell a coherent story and storyboarding is often the first step in establishing the language for any given motion picture. Through storyboards one can readily see the flow of images the story unfolding and anything that may get in the way of relating that story. A good filmic language allows you to follow a story without the use of dialogue. Watch any great movie and turn the volume down and watch the way the images and their placement tell the story. It is surprising how much of the story is told this way. And a good storyboard should do the same. Sitting around all day and drawing lots of pictures and getting paid for it sounds fantastic but after your 30th frame with sore knuckles, blisters on your fingers and you’ve made a mistake that renders the whole scene redundant meaning you’ll have to start again, you look at the clock that reads 2.30 am…. you know you’re being tested . Story-boarding in that way is a lot like screenwriting except you are doing it through pictures, and both can be terribly frustrating and after the hard work is over, very rewarding. They are both as much about art as they are about discipline.
Because the old adage ‘time is money’ drives the business of film you must work fast – a standard would be about 20 frames per day. In animation a storyboard artist may be required to cover 1 – 3 minutes of screen-time per week.
On Little Johnny I knew the schedule was tight, we had allocated 15 weeks to produce approximately 2500 frames which was about 30 frames per day. That’s a hell of a lot of drawing and that doesn’t allow for error. If I miss a day I have to churn out 60 frames, the next. It wasn’t going to be easy. Other factors weighed heavily about the reality of doing this. Because of the tightening budget I couldn’t just call in more artists and even if I did directing them and the amount of briefing time would probably render the exercise counterproductive. For it to work I had to get into a zone where I could stage the entire scene in my head (often considering my out points first and working back from there) and draw it as it unfolded like a bizarre image streaming exercise. It was spontaneous, fun and exciting. On a good run I was hitting 60 or so frames per day and keeping up with a schedule and on a particularly frenzied session I produced 90 frames. The following are examples of the pencil sketched frames that my loving wife would scan for me at 3am in the morning!
The first is a cute scene set outside the church at Sunday school where Little Johnny is out done by a precocious Little Suzie!
And the next is a climactic sequence from the Billycart race where Little Johnny comes face to face with his arch rival, Jason.
Little Johnny The Movie