Storyboarding 'Isle of Dogs': How Wes Anderson Channelled Kurosawa
Jay Clarke, storyboard artist for 'Isle of Dogs,' breaks down his process and the inspirations behind the film.
Every filmmaker has his or her own preferences when it comes to storyboarding. Some directors even believe it is among the most important elements of the filmmaking process. Ben Wheatley (High Rise), for example, storyboards with 1,000 drawings; the Coen brothers, meanwhile, go so far as to draw floor plans depicting where the camera and the actors will be for a particularly complex shot.
"[Storyboard artists] are effectively the 'take two, take three' of animation."
In animation, however, the importance of storyboarding simply cannot be overstated. At Berlinale 2018, storyboard artist Jay Clarke gave a presentation that demonstrated exactly why. Clarke, who served as the lead storyboard artist for The Grand Budapest Hotel, was in Berlin with Wes Anderson once again to premiere Isle of Dogs, the director's second foray into stop-motion animation. Below are some highlights from Clarke's talk, which spanned the film's visual inspirations, the challenge of differentiating between characters, and more.
The Role of the Storyboard Artist
"Storyboarding is problem-solving," Clarke said. "Our stock-in-trade is that this is a means to an end. We’re trying to figure out the problems before [they happen]."
Because an animated film can, in a manner of speaking, only be "shot" once, the director must present animators with an extremely detailed blueprint of his or her vision for each scene before the artists can work their magic bringing it to life. "We’re effectively the 'take two, take three' of animation," Clarke explained, "because you cannot do that in animation; you’ve got to get it right the first time."
"As a storyboarder, you’re constantly thinking about how to merge the reference material and the style of the director together."
Isle of Dogs is Clarke's second collaboration with Anderson, who initially hired him because he had animation experience. "In live-action, storyboarders are more focused on special effects and action sequences," Clarke explained. On this project, Anderson wanted to storyboard chronologically—shot by shot—which meant that the blueprint Clarke created would need to have a high degree of foresight and intentionality.
"Storyboarding is about the balance of creating a nice drawing that inspires and sets the mood," said Clarke, "but you can’t spend all day on it, and you can’t spend too long on any given sequence because it might get cut. It’s a particular beast."
Of course, the artistic vision doesn't end with the storyboard. "You want the storyboard to be a jumping-off point," Clarke said. "Down the line, art directors and other artists on the crew will bring their own visions to it."
"Early on, Wes cited Akira Kurosawa as a big influence," said Clarke. "As a storyboarder, you’re constantly thinking about how to merge the reference material and the style of the director together." Clarke hoped to emulate Kurosawa's "master choreography of actors," careful attention to framing silhouettes, and frequent depiction of characters that appear small in their environments.
Building upon classic Japanese influences, Anderson wanted the film's storyboards to look like Japanese woodblock print. Clarke visited museums with exhibitions in the style and researched the way in which the prints divided attention with framing, often using doorways, sliding screens, and trees. Anderson even asked Clarke to incorporate Japenese text into his storyboards, a tradition common to woodblock prints of this kind. "It was a challenge using Japanese text and having it work with the image and not get lost," said Clarke.
Other visual influences for Isle of Dogs included Citizen Kane— Anderson was inspired, in particular, by the film's Dutch angles.
Depicting Camera Movement
Clarke managed to bring the traditional Japanese screen and panel inspiration into early conceptions of camera movement. "Panels effectively give a pan left and right," he said. Merging that idea with Anderson's signature cinematography proved fruitful. "Wes has a very particular way of moving the camera, so you end up with these boxy images with directions, like 'snap tilt down.'" Visualizing the film in terms of panels lent an early shape and direction to the animation cinematography.
While storyboarding, "the challenge is that the drawing has to give you a sense of the camera movement," said Clarke. "How the character is posed and how you deal with the details should somehow [evoke movement] without having to use arrows."
"If there’s a camera move, it’s like cutting fabric, in a way," Clarke continued. "Have we got enough background here for this camera move? It’s all about thinking about what is in shot, but simultaneously, in order to get this particular camera move, thinking about the other pieces you need to construct [to make it work]."
Some of the earliest direction Clarke received from Anderson pertained to character design. One character, a dog called Nutmeg, was modeled after Lauren Bacall. "I tried to make these dogs look as different from each other as possible," said Clarke, "which builds upon the animator’s principle of characters always having a strong silhouette."
Anderson would sometimes brief Clarke on his ideas for how each character should behave physically and emotionally. "[Anderson] would say, 'What are the pauses? Maybe he can look more nervous here. Maybe he can try scratching his neck.' In the end, I supplied a little deli of details for him."
"We didn’t do this all the time," continued Clarke, "because of course the animators were going to bring their craft to it and imbue the characters with life, but sometimes there were emotional scenes we would spend time on. Action sequences, of course, are the staple of storyboarders—figuring out where everybody is, being clear with the action, and thinking about the different poses different dogs can strike."
Beyond character design, the biggest challenge for Clarke was figuring out how to make the film's main location, Trash Island, visually appealing. "How do you make such a horrible place look nice onscreen?" he wondered.
Once Clarke's drawings were approved, they were sent to an animatic editor, who put the images into After Effects, enabling the team to replicate camera moves. (As Clarke demonstrated during his presentation, many of the animatics physically zoom into the drawings.)
"Animatics give you a great sense of timing—how long a shot needs to last," said Clarke. "You also put sound and scratch dialogue to these. The big learning curve for me on this project was how useful an animatic can be to get the rhythm of a scene."