We’ll be following the yellow brick road to the theater tonight for the opening of ‘Oz,
The Great and Powerful’. We interviewed our artists, Dave Lowery and Marc Vena
about their experience working with Sam Raimi on the Disney prequel, which reimagines
L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of OZ’, published in 1900.
This fresh take on Oz, with a star-studded cast and stunning VFX, shows that we’re
definitely not in Kansas anymore!
How long have you been working in the business as a storyboard artist?
Marc: I am starting my 20th year in the film business.
Dave: I’ve been around long enough, that I am now considered an ‘old timer’. At first, my work was a little bit of everything (TV cartoons, promos, editorial cartoons and low-budget horror films), but then some of my steadiest work came from Storyboards Inc. doing commercials. After a stint up north at ILM, my movie work became the focus. My first big movie was a Ron Howard & George Lucas collaboration, ‘Willow’.
frames by Marc Vena
How much time did you spend working on Oz?
Marc: I did two different stints on the ‘OZ’ production. During the pre-production period I worked from February thru October, 2011, which overlapped a good portion of principal photography in Michigan. I also was asked back for about six weeks during their re-shoot schedule for additional scenes filmed in Los Angeles.
Dave: Sam Raimi’s movies are unique in that he allows his storyboard artists a long, long run at collaborating with him to hone his vision as we approach the shoot. I was on “Oz” for almost 2 years including many months prep in LA; 8 months on location for the prep and shoot and a couple months back in LA for the reshoots.
frame by Marc Vena
Give us an idea of what your process was like and working with Director Sam Raimi?
Marc: Well, the process varied between the pre-production period of the film and after principal photography began. For obvious reasons Sam was much more available for a story session during pre-production and much of the time Sam had very clear ideas for how he wanted a scene to be laid out. This being said, Sam was always open to hearing alternative ideas from his board artists if we thought there might be a better way to shoot a scene. He was so attentive to story and image that there really wasn’t any room for ‘spit-balling’ ideas. If you had a story idea you had to be able to back it up even when Sam would challenge you on the point. After a story discussion on what Sam wanted to see in the scene, we would board out the sequence and go through a series of reviews with him. Alternative ideas would be roughly sketched out and we would pitch it to Sam during this review process. After board sequences were approved, they would be handed off to the various Pre-Vis teams, which in turn would produce animatics for each scene. On location it was more of a challenge to meet with Sam. Usually, our story meetings were either before call time in the mornings, between takes on set or late after wrap. Needless to say, some of these meetings would occur as late as 2-3am as we approached the end of each week.
Dave: Sam will use several storyboard artists, assigning various sequences to us, as he deems appropriate to our style and expertise. He will describe his vision of each scene, and describe the most important elements he wants us to capture. We’ll go over the story, plot, character and action in each scene. As we’re developing the scene, we are encouraged to add as much invention, energy and wit as we can bring to it. This process goes on all the way until the movie is being shot! Sam is the most amazing director in that way- always searching; willing to add a new and better ‘beat’ up to the day it shoots!
frame by Marc Vena
Is there anything specific you can share about his direction style?
Marc: Well, of course Sam is a consummate storyteller and filmmaker with a sharp eye for images with strong composition. Any scene that we worked on had to be not only compelling story wise, but had to be visually appealing. Also, many of the camera moves that Sam and his cinematographer, Peter Deming used during the filming of the movie were executed solely to enhance the emotive reaction that a certain scene required. As board artists we had to take these cues into consideration when drawing out each scene. Also, Sam loves to talk about story. In our sessions, he loved to hear alternative ideas on shooting a scene, but these were not bull sessions. If you had a different idea, he would ask pointed questions of you as to why we thought that this alternative was better. You had to prove it!
Dave: Sam works harder than just about anybody I’ve ever known; and with that level of dedication and passion for the project, he inspires the same in you. You become an integral part of his process of making the movie. He also challenges you to be better, in a way. For instance, when he hands you the script for the first time, he says, “I want a 1000 notes from you on this script!” Now THAT is a challenge…
frames by Marc Vena
Were you working in a studio, or working on set with the Director during the process?
Marc & Dave: We worked both on set and at the production offices in Santa Monica and Pontiac, Michigan.
How do you draw such iconic characters that have such history, and make them your own?
Marc: This wasn’t as hard to do, as you would think. Being that “Oz, The Great & Powerful” is constructed as a prequel, we could really immerse ourselves in the world of L. Frank Baum through his series of books that dealt with the origins for many of the characters from The Land of Oz. Although always being mindful of the precedent set by the original characters, we felt unhindered in shaping them to conform with Sam’s vision of this mystical land.
Dave: Well, you don’t make them your own per se… with a history and a fan following of a Spider-Man or Ironman, you hope to portray the character that the audience knows and loves. We do get to add to the characters ‘history’ and ‘oeuvre’ a little bit when you help make a big action scene for them.
frames by Marc Vena
Who did you collaborate with most besides the director – production designers, set designers or visual effects artists? What was the process like?
Marc: Other than Sam, most of my other interaction was with the Production Designer, Robert Stromberg. In some of the more complex scenes such as the one scene where Oz is sucked up into the tornado, I had to also work closely with the Art Directors and our Pre-Vis team.
Dave: Since storyboarding is about the shooting of the movie, most of our work was with Sam. Though as the shots and scenes are defined and revised, a lot of input comes from those other departments; often resulting in revisions of the storyboards.
Are you given a full scene to draw at once, or just different sequences? Is the entire film boarded out or just certain parts of the film?
Marc: I usually boarded out full scenes. Since “Oz” was shot on stage many of the scenes had elaborate digital backdrops that required great attention to how they were staged in storyboard form. Because of this careful attention to staging, most of the film was storyboarded.
Dave: Generally a whole scene, one always hopes to get to do the ‘final battle’ or other big sequences. Even the biggest films start by storyboarding the most difficult or complex scenes, and then whittle it down from there. Often most all of the movie gets drawn or pre-vizzed, and often that happens more than once.
frame by Dave Lowery
How tight or finished do you take the frames? Does the director ever ask for loose rough frames?
Marc: I had to work in both methods depending on how quickly the sequence needed to be completed. On story pitches to Sam, I worked very roughly and quickly to get my point across as his story time is very valuable, especially as the production moved into principal photography.
Dave: Generally you start loose then hope to get time to finish them up a bit ‘prettier’ than just rough pencils.
Is it all B&W sketches or are you asked to go to color?
Marc: In “Oz, The Great & Powerful”, there were two instances that I included color into my boards and one was the scene when Oz first enters The Land of Oz. As in the original, the film opens to a black and white world but as we enter the magic world of Oz everything is bathed in hyper rich color. The other was a special effects pass over the Haunted Forest as it rejuvenates itself and turns to a vibrant green.
Dave: Mine is a black, white and gray world!
frames by Marc Vena
What happens if and when the Director isn’t happy with the boards?
Marc: Well with Sam, there’s usually some good-natured ribbing if you haven’t quite caught his eye with a scene followed by advice and direction on how to correct it. Storyboarding in general is a very organic process that can come with periods of fits and starts. When your working with such a talented and accomplished director as Sam Raimi, he knows that process will happen when it comes to laying out these board sequences.
Dave: I guess if it’s not working between the storyboard guy and the director, they’re more likely to replace the ‘board guy’ than the director!
What advice would you give a young storyboard artist who would like to have a career in film like you have?
Marc: Draw, draw, draw… all the time!! Draw people from life. Draw people of different character and different actions. Practice the ability to draw different environments like rain, fog, fire, etc. with the most economy of line as possible.
Dave: I’ve given spoken to a lot of art and film students and I always say, “work begets more work!” Start now, dig up jobs, no matter how small, in the field you want and do them to the very best of your ability, then go get more!
frames by Marc Vena
How is that process, do you start on paper then work digitally after, is it fully digital, or fully traditional?
Marc: I usually start on paper then scan the boards and finish them in Photoshop, using a Wacom Cintiq. In some cases depending on the speed that I need to complete the sequence, I’ll draw straight on the Cintiq.
Dave: I will take notes and write a shot list from my first meetings with the Director with old-fashioned pen and paper; but then it’s all digital drawing for me! Cintiq 21 with Photoshop on a mac… the usual nowadays.
What kind of preparation is needed to board a film like this?
Marc: A thorough understanding of the script, familiarity with all the concept and set designs and regular consultations with the director are indispensable in creating successful board sequences and alternative ideas to present to the director.
Dave: It all starts with the script, and the director’s vision of that story. In general, research what is needed to begin as well as understanding the director’s visual style and approach to storytelling.
frame by Marc Vena
Are high visual effects films more difficult than a standard live action film? What are the challenges?
Marc: We are filming in a mostly digital world and every shot that holds a horizon line in the background requires great expense, so it’s important as a storyboard artist to utilize as much of the practical sets as possible in drawing out a scene. In live action films when you’re on location, you have more flexibility in how you shoot a scene, but even then you are required to take into consideration the limits of any sets built or whether there is a digital backdrop in the scene.
Dave: More often than not at the beginning of a movie, storyboard and concept artists both are told to go as far out as you can imagine, and don’t worry about ‘how’ to do it. That’s always good advice I think, as it’s the only way to hope to invent or imagine something new.