(Editor’s Note: Neil D’Monte is an accomplished storyboard artist and has worked on a wide range of films such as The Greasy Strangler, Cooties, and even The Mummy. With his newest project Clan of the Vein, Neil along with co-creator/co-writer Neo Edmund are making a dark fantasy thriller that caught our attention, so we’re hoping to get you guys some coverage of that soon. In the meantime, enjoy the feature! – Jason)
I began following Modern Horrors on Instagram last year and subsequently, their website. I loved the informative articles and reviews, particularly their recommendations for all things horror/sci-fi/dark fantasy related. Mania Daniel, one of the contributing writers, and I struck up a friendship and she referred me to her editor, Jason Almenas, about being a contributing writer and offering up some insight and perspective as to what it is like to work in the film industry. Naturally I jumped at the chance to do so. I thought it would be fun to offer up some facts about what goes on behind the cameras to you, the reader, on subjects that may be a little foreign to you in regards to how productions work and especially why being a ‘team player’ is so crucial to the show’s success.
I started in this business as a storyboard artist which I continue to do to this day – mostly working on SpectreVision and Company X’s films. It was, and continues to be, the best film school that I could ever have hoped for. I am usually one of the first people hired on a production in its infancy and producers and directors count on me and my expertise to translate a film’s script into a visual medium used to communicate a director’s “vision” from words on a page to moving visuals. This process is fun yet very challenging. It’s my job to get into a director’s head and “see” what they envision the film/tv series should look like – from concept to shooting and even to post-production. As a new director myself, I have been learning firsthand the thought, breakdown and execution of what directors, both seasoned and fledgling, must undergo to create a visual medium from scratch. And how the overall budget can affect how we create and stage scenes.
THE ART OF THE LOOK
Storyboards are essentially comic book panels which show camera direction. It is used as a template which directors use to show the cast and crew their ideas on how they intend to make the production “look”. Most directors whom I have worked with stick pretty much verbatim to the boards which we work on together, while others are much looser in their interpretation of the art and will only have me work on the more difficult shots rather than boarding out an entire film, shot by shot. Some directors only have me come on board for creating the stunts and visual effect shots while others keep me on staff throughout the course of production. It really depends on the director who hires me.
Directors get hired based on what they can bring to the production. This can be from people whom they have established relationships with (both cast and crew) to people who want to work with them. Producers will usually option a script (option meaning that they secure the rights with the author/screenwriter) so that they can start the process of making the written verse into a visual interpretation of the work. A director will get the script, usually through his/her agent/manager, read through it, make notes and decide what he/she can bring to this. They will then begin gathering information and create a pitch using a “look book” with images of art, photographs, film clips, etc., making a visual library of these collected works which they submit as a reference. The look book contains all this media and is one of the ways the director showcases what he/she intends to present to the producers in order to get his/her ideas across and secure the job. Storyboards (like exibit A) usually accompany this presentation package. For this, I tend to do more elaborate artwork using the pics and references given to me by the director.
I am usually contacted by a producer directly. Most of the time it is someone I have worked with or on a referral from someone I had previously worked with). They email me or call and ask me my availability and what is my rate. I am also asked to send a link to a website or to email samples with a variety of styles of my art for review. If hired, an initial meeting with a director is scheduled over coffee or lunch. We meet and go over what the director likes: shots, pacing, art, style, etc. I ask them to name a few films which they would like me to reference. Shockingly enough, ‘The Big Lebowski’ is on EVERYONE’S list. I have YET to meet a director who has NOT mentioned that film to me! Most are also Stanley Kubrick Fans too. We go over their look books and they pick what aspect ratio they would like me to work in and if I can either work directly with them in person over the next few weeks or go off of quick ‘thumbnail’ sketches (exhibit B). We also go over what angles they like (high, low, reveals, blocking, etc.) and I then head home to start my research. I watch the films the recommend and start the initial sketching process. Being able to draw fast is a MUST as we don’t have a lot of time. I cannot stress this enough.
THE SEASONED DIRECTOR
Working with directors who have had more experience on set and whom have more content is a lot easier than working with new or first time directors. But both are challenging. Bigger budgets usually accompany seasoned directors, making it much easier for us to bring their style and vision to life. Scott Speer (MTV’s Scream, Midnight Sun) and I have been working together pretty much exclusively for about 5 years. In that time, he has not only become a good friend but also someone whom I consider a mentor. Scott began his career as a music video director. We met on a Broken Road production and worked well together as have similar styles. In the time I have gotten to know him, he is really coming into his own style and has a wonderful Hitchcockian feel to his more recent work.
Scott is very visual. His mind is like a laser – very sharp and focused. Whenever we meet to start a project, he has a wonderful palette of work in front of him. His dining table is completely covered with photo references which set a tone of what he is trying to accomplish. He then uploads these images to a link and labels everything (from sets to locations to character looks) so that I have a reference for my art. We then break the script down together and knock out the most difficult shots first and then move onto coverage shots (ie: ots, profiles, ¾, two-shots, etc.) last. Scott loves it when we work together coming up with shots that have an artistic feel to it and ones that reveal information as the story progresses. We go over these and really nail things down based on the parameters set by the budget. I know what he wants because he knows what he wants. And he has a number of years of experience ranging from music videos to commercials and television to feature films.
These days, there are quite a few first-time directors who are given $1 – $5 million dollar budgets to do a film. Most of the time, production companies will give the director a small budget, somewhere between $5K on upwards, to do a proof of concept with a small crew in order to prove that they can handle a full production. This can be done by choosing a few scenes to shoot or by shooting a short film. It depends on what the producers ask the fledgling director to do.
Most first-time or “green” directors have had some experience behind the camera. Many have shot music videos, student films, short films and even a commercial or two. But there are some who have never had even this level of experience and are given a chance to direct a feature film. This can sometimes be very challenging and intimidating to these individuals. I can always tell how much experience and expertise one has when I meet with them. One such case happened a while ago.
I was hired to work with a new director whose project was optioned and about to go into pre-
production. The budget for this film was around $5 million which is decent for this character-driven story. I agreed to meet with the director at his production office and we started our conversation. He immediately informed me that he had never worked with a storyboard artist before but he had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. He mentioned a few films which I was familiar with, including ‘The Big Lebowski’. So I had a pretty good idea of what he wanted in his storytelling and what he wanted to achieve cinematically. We talked a while longer and he then mentioned that he only had directed actors in plays and was thinking of shooting most of the film on sticks with two cameras rolling. I was a little alarmed and told him that he should experiment with high angles to show drama and low angles to establish power. He may also want to use the camera to reveal things about characters as the story progresses, based on the roster of films he had mentioned previously. As I was offering him some of my advice, it became clear to me that he had no experience whatsoever behind a camera.
At this time, I let him know that myself and the DP (Director of Photography) were there to make his job easier and to give him the confidence he needed to get this film done. The confidence I had put him at ease. Once the DP was hired and we all had our meeting, we assured the director that his vision would be in good hands and we were there to make it happen. Luckily, the production went well with only minor hiccups.
Directing is no easy job! It is fun but very, very challenging. I am telling you that from the limited experience I have working as a director myself. Storyboarding is essentially “directing on paper”. It is a great tool for visual communication and a great way to have a rough copy of your film beforehand so that you can get your ideas across to the cast, crew and even yourself. Artists, like myself, and the rest of the crew are there to make director’s jobs easier. Every production is usually pre-planned down to the minute but there are always setbacks which can happen. It is my job to put new directors, and even experienced directors, in a comfort zone and to let them know I can deliver quality and creative shots within the time constraints we face.