By Junsui Films | August 2012
The Storyboard Artist talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his break in comics, his transition into storyboarding for film, and tells us all about the differences between boarding his latest films, TAKE THIS WALTZ and TOTAL RECALL…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your break in comics and how you came to be a storyboard artist for film.
Rob McCallum: Since I was a kid, I’ve loved films. I also loved to draw. I grew up reading the brilliant UK comic 2000AD and when I was about 14 I started drawing my own comics, soaking up the artwork of Mike McMahon, Brendan McCarthy, Brett Ewins, Brian Bolland, Cam Kennedy, Jose Ortiz, Massimo Belardinelli, and so many other great artists that were doing work for 2000AD. I still loved films, but as a wee boy growing up in Greenock, Scotland, comics seemed a far more viable industry to get into.
When I was accepted to Glasgow School of Art, they were less encouraging about the comics thing. It was looked on as a lesser form and the only comics that seemed to be respected by them were the more self published, non-commercial stuff and I didn’t like most of the drawing in those. This was around 1989 when comics started forcing themselves into the media with huge sales and works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight were showing that even mainstream superhero stuff could do great things.
At the time there were a lot of adult-humour comics in the UK, Viz being the one that started it all and when I was 17 I went along to meet the team behind a Glasgow based comic called “Electric Soup”. There I met and became friends with a guy who signed his name Frank Quitely – who now draws Batman, Superman and X-Men like the comic superstar he is.
I did stuff for Electric Soup and it sold pretty well around Glasgow which led me to my first job, ”Lobo Bounty Hunting for Fun and Profit” for DC after Alan Grant suggested me as an artist. From there I went on to do stuff for Dark Horse and even 2000AD before landing the job on the lead title of Stan Lee’s Excelsior line, a comic written by Kurt Busiek. I worked on it for almost two years and then the whole line was put on hold before anything ever came out. Now it’s just sitting in a drawer at Marvel somewhere.
In the end, having had a lot of work unpublished and an idea ripped off by a writer who was meant to be a friend, I was just sick of the whole comics-world. I took a few years to regroup and ended up in Canada, and not long after that I started to get some storyboarding and concept work. I’d already storyboarded films and TV in Scotland and always found I enjoyed it, so the transition felt natural. I still get contacted about doing some comics work, but right now it’s not for me. Maybe one day.
JF: What are your preferred tools and media when storyboarding?
I tend to stick to pencil and paper for storyboards – it’s quick. Then I usually scan them in and “tart them up” with Photoshop. Depending on what I’m drawing mind you, I sometimes draw straight into photoshop. For concept art, I’m probably more likely to do it digitally as it’s far easier to get out of a bad situation if the drawing goes wrong.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your process and role as a storyboard artist, starting from when you first receive a script, to your interactions with the other art departments, all the way through to your time on set.
It all starts from reading the script. Directors have different ways they work. Sometimes I get a shot list, other times I get sketches. I can sit with the director and bang out the sequence or I can just be left to work out the first pass myself.
I try to do the hard work in rougher form to avoid time consuming changes if I go too far with the finish. Of couse, it doesn’t always work out that way as things often can and do change further down the line.
I usually always have to check up with the art department to see what they have planned for a set and also with locations. You end up knowing most of the departments because some people can take the storyboards too literally rather than the guide they are meant to be. On one film, someone was caught counting heads in crowd scenes I’d drawn to know how many extras to hire. I’d just drawn enough to fill the space in my board!
JF: For you, what is it that makes a good storyboard, and how much creative freedom are you typically afforded when boarding a film?
A good storyboard is a mixture of clear drawing, an understanding of framing and good storytelling. Just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can board. It’s the storytelling and information in the frame that’s the important part. It also helps if you can draw vaguely realistically as it helps people visualise the shots a lot better
As for creative freedom, it depends on the film. Sometimes a director knows exactly what they want and you draw to that spec with no input. Other times you are able to suggest ideas. Most are open to hearing and seeing them. Then it’s up to them to take it or reject it. Other times I can be left to just work things out myself as a starting point. It’s always nice to see the sequences you came up with making it to the finished film.
JF: You’ve worked across a broad range of mediums, from studio films such as Four Brothers and The Thing (2011) through to independent productions such as Take This Waltz. What are the key differences between boarding such contrasting genres?
Truthfully, there’s little difference in the process, just in the stuff you’re drawing. On one film, you’ll be drawing anti-gravity car chases like in Total Recall and on films like Take This Waltz, two folks on a couch. It’s all in the storytelling. There really should be no wasted or pointlessly “showy” shots in any sequence no matter what the budget of the film.
JF: How did you become involved in Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, and did you have any reservations about working on the remake of such a visually distinct classic?
I’ve worked with just about all of the crew before including the producer and they recommended me to Len. Yeah, I’ll admit, it’s odd working on remakes of films you love, having worked on the prequel to The Thing, and right now I’m hard at work on the new Robocop. My teenage self would hate me! It’s fun to work on the different takes on the story though and I had a good time working with Len and the rest of the crew.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the creative relationship between storyboard artist and director.
As said, it’s different with almost every director. When on The Thing, Matthijs would have a good idea of what he wanted but we still used to sit and knock ideas around. I had a great time working with him. When I worked with Guillermo [del Toro] on Pacific Rim, another great experience, he would sit and sketch out what he wanted and then I’d go and draw it up. He was open to ideas but his rule was “draw what I want first”.
On other films, I’ve had the great experience of working with some amazing directors, there’s no better feeling when working on a sequence of having an idea already sketched out and the director asking for that very thing and you’ve already done it! Sometimes you get so in sync and it just flows.
JF: What have been your most challenging set of storyboards to create?
There’s always a challenge. Either the difficulty of what you’re trying to draw, the sequence, how the hell you’re going to tell that bit of the story and the ever present “how the hell am I going to get this drawn in time?”. Time is always a factor and is frequently your nemesis!
I’ve had jobs where I had to stay up all night a few nights in a row to get the boards finished in time. I’ve had boards that I finished in the middle of the night be shooting six hours after I drew them. Time. The challenge is always doing it on time.
JF: How was it working with Guillermo [del Toro] on the eagerly anticipated Pacific Rim?
It was amazing. The man is so creative and inspirational. The boards I did for Pacific Rim are probably the ones I’m most proud of and some of them had to be done in a very short amount of time. I was so glad to get the chance to finally work with Guillermo as he’d offered me a job on Hellboy 2 years earlier and sadly it didn’t work out schedule wise. I can’t wait for the world to see what he’s done with Pacific Rim.
Take This Waltz and Total Recall are out now.
©All images copyright of Rob McCallum (& the respected studios where stated) and are displayed here with the artist’s full permission.