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The Cinematographer, Storyboards, and Creative License?


Stephen Sanchez
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Specifically for narrative DPs. How involved are you in the storyboarding process? And how do you feel about producing shots or sequences that an artist designed, rather than you? And how common is it for shots to be determined outside of the DP's involvement?

Or are they simply the director's soft vision conveyed to an artist, and not concrete?

Thanks friends.

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I know you specifically said "narrative DP's" and because you labeled yourself, "cinematagrapher", not "director", ... I want to preface my point with where I'm coming from which is the advertising world...

In advertising the storyboards almost never involve the DP.  The first boards are drawn up by the agency and then go out to directors for them to pitch their ideas through a phone/zoom call that gets narrowed down to the top three.  Then the director writes a treatment ( or hires someone to) that involves loads of sample images.  Then if the director wins the job, they do their own boards with their own storyboard artist.  

Obviously it's all totally different in feature films.  For me personally, if I get to make a feature from any one of the scripts I've been working on, I would board the whole movie and shoot and edit the boards with sound and everything to show people for feedback.  Then I would collaborate with the DP on their ideas for shots and lighting.  I'm excited to get to that point... the collaboration.  

Edited by Justin Hayward
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My background is in commercials, same as Justin's, although most likely a few years further in the past. My specialty was combining Live Action with Animation and we would have many meetings with ad agencies, discussing storyboards, revising storyboards, creating animatics, revising animatics , before a DP would get involved, usually not until just a few days before the shoot. The DP would be in charge of lighting and creating the desired look. I would always pick the shot angles, compositions and camera moves and would discuss focal lengths with the DP. The DPs I worked with were quite happy with that arrangement. My favorite DP was mostly interested in lighting and film stocks and would never touch or operate a camera.

When making a narrative film, I storyboard the entire script and edit the boards to a scratch track of the dialogue. Figuring out the film language to support the narrative is for me an essential part of filmmaking. There are lots of different ways you can tell the same story visually and some directors are happy to share that responsibility with the DP. Others have a clear vision of what exactly they want to achieve. There is always room for improvement and it would be counter-productive to dismiss good ideas on the actual set but I usually stick to my plan.

Edited by Uli Meyer
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It's really interesting because the little work that I have done has mostly been narrative and I'm lucky to have the DP with whom I love working the most at home in the form of my partner. So it's always a collaborative someone has an idea and then we figure out if it can be used and how. In the end as the director it's either I have an idea how to use it or get persuaded into using it by good arguments. Most of the time it comes out better than something I would do myself. 

The thing is that lately we've been getting into more and more commercial work lately. Here it really is more defined from the start since when coming up with the idea for a commercial we usually spend more time together with the client, agency, producer and myself as the director developing everything. I actually see and feel the difference in the stuff that eventually gets created, because while it is clean and works great, I often miss the creativity involved in figuring something really different. But then the DP and everyone involved gets brought in once the main idea has gotten rubber stamped. 

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By my experience, the method of directors storyboarding the whole project beforehand without the dp works pretty well for short projects with unlimited budget if the director is extremely experienced. 

But for indie productions with limited resources it tends to be a really crappy and frustrating working method so I tend to advice against it until the script is the final version and it is possible to discuss about the logistics and budget and available gear etc before storyboarding anything at all. Then we can do the storyboarding together or the director can draw the boards if he wants and I will provide input and visual ideas when needed to be able to correct bad ideas before it is too late. 

An inexperienced director making his own plans without the dp and other hods does not usually work and in most cases almost all the director's plans have needed to be scrapped because they were impossible for the time and budget and in some cases too dangerous to shoot. For example a low budget music video where the director had made plans what shots he wants to the final video (about 60 shots) and I immediately said that we only had time and budget to shoot about 20 of them if we were lucky 😛 Then we had to make new plans on set to make it work at all.

So directors making their own plans without feedback may work well if they are very experienced and have unlimited budget and they know all the technology very well and are willing to think about crew and actors safety beforehand, knowing rigging methods and all that. But most productions are not like that and then the auteur directors thinking they are the only ones capable of planning anything are just messing things up and will need to accept help later to make the movie shootable in the first place

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57 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

storyboarding the whole project beforehand without the dp works pretty well for short projects with unlimited budget if the director is extremely experienced. 

Aapo, it is quite the opposite. A precise storyboard helps save cost and time. I've frequently come in under budget and time because everything was meticulously planned. Very useful when you do NOT have a big budget.

57 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

until the script is the final version

you wouldn't start your storyboard without a final script.

57 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

So directors making their own plans without feedback may work well if they are very experienced and have unlimited budget

It sounds like the directors you work with are all inexperienced kids with whacky ideas. A storyboard is not a wish list of impossible tasks but a precise plan that helps keeping costs down. Btw. being experienced doesn't mean you always have unlimited resources and I'm not certain why you think storyboarding and big budgets go hand in hand.

Edited by Uli Meyer
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5 minutes ago, Uli Meyer said:

being experienced doesn't mean you always have unlimited resources and I'm not certain why you think storyboarding and big budgets go hand in hand.

If the director doesn't need to ask if something is possible to do or not and can instead just plan it and expect it to happen automatically then there has to be lots of available resources to make it happen without the need to verify beforehand if it is even possible to do or not.

Storyboarding works very well for some directors and projects but I think it is a great misunderstanding that it automatically works perfectly for all types of projects with all kind of budget range. A good example is shooting drama scenes with long handheld takes following characters on close range. That type of scenes are pretty impossible to plan correctly without the dp and operator.

For low budget indie the typical storyboarding concept is that the director thinks he is just doing his own graphic novel / comic book before even finishing the script which magically translates to final film 1:1 without any alterations and the movie would magically just work perfectly as a movie after that. Even if the storyboard would work OK, I would still want to change stuff and add some minor extra shots so that the director has at least the minimum coverage and is not screwed when the original plan does not work in the edit and the original "graphic novel" needs to be changed a little to make the story work as a movie

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26 minutes ago, Uli Meyer said:

you wouldn't start your storyboard without a final script.

most indie directors tend to want to start with a storyboard or shot list because the indie shorts are usually based around a single visual idea of a shot or scene and the characters are just "empty shells" walking throught the sets to justify the visual idea the director wants to present.  They need to be constantly reminded to finish the script first to make the characters, scenes and dialogue work in the first place (to focus on the story instead of focusing on only the single shot visual idea the movie is centered on) to make the short work as a movie (after which nice visual ideas can be added if needed to sell it better) .

Kind of like the recipe of making a superhero movie nowadays:   take 10 gallons of rancid cream and bake the biggest most gorgeous looking cream cake there is!  Everyone admits by the looks of it that it is indeed the biggest most delicious looking cake there is. Until someone tries to actually eat it and gets the diarrhea of their life because the VISUALS WERE NICE BUT THE SCRIPT AND CHARACTERS DID NOT WORK  😄

that is why I am allergic to storyboards and most superhero movies too 😄

Edited by aapo lettinen
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6 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

that is why I am allergic to storyboards

Maybe because of my background in animation I have the complete opposite view. In animation you create your film as a storyboard and work on it until it works as a story, the characters are defined and the visual language is solid. You don't start the process until you are certain that it all works because it is way too expensive to keep re-doing stuff. Wes Anderson now makes animatics of his movies before shooting because of his experience working with animators on 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'.

I plan my Live Action projects the same way and it gives me a sense of security, knowing that what I have planned will get a working result. A good storyboard reduces the need for shooting coverage but I want to stress that it doesn't mean you shouldn't. Especially if you have just saved time on set, knowing that you have got what you need, you can use that time to add spontaneous ideas, cut-aways etc.

21 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

They need to be constantly reminded to finish the script

How does that happen? Isn't that the first thing you do when you make a narrative film? The directors you mention won't be in the business for long if they are just winging it.

 

27 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

and most superhero movies too

I've worked on big budget movies where the script was appalling to start with and I could never understand why they were greenlit. Storyboards did help in those cases to improve matters.

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it should definitely be much easier if the director having animation background. Or when translating stuff from drawn end product to animated end product like manga-->anime translations where the manga is often used as a storyboard for the most important shots, the important stuff even being almost 1:1 compared to manga (partially benefits from the way the story is telled using the manga form which differs from the Western comic book storytelling style)

most low budget indie directors have film-o-holic background  which in most cases does not help much when trying to tell one's own stories instead of copying the existing work of others. this easily leads to the "single visual ideas" approach which is never good when trying to get the audience connect with the characters and story in any way.

I see the "empty shell characters" being a huge problem in indie films but also in feature films and today's productions in general. Meaning that the characters are only needed in the production so that the visual ideas can be expressed and the characters are not fully developed or taken care of, being kind of 1-dimensional "cardboard cutouts" which don't feel like real human beings and which behave very irrationally and which are unable to connect emotionally with.    This is very common in higher budget productions too and it seems to get much worse if the director has a ads/commercials background where characters are not as important as expressing single visual ideas and baked on emotions with very nice looking images (kind of a Vimeography approach to telling stories where one tries to forcefully connect multiple different nice looking visual ideas together by adding some kind of forced basic story to it afterwards)

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