Storyboarding Your Vision Is Old School, But It Works
Modern filmmakers journey into the land of filmmaking technology known and unknown.
An interview and story featuring Luke Bubb (VR Concept/Storyboard artist), Mark Millicent (Storyboard Artist), and Krisztian Majdik (Editor/The Third Floor)
Before we begin, I’ve taken it upon myself to spotlight, search for, and interview the punk rock disruptors, the independent artists, the risk-takers, the ones who make up this ever-changing entertainment industry that challenges the status quo of the industry.
There’s a credo that I stand by: be open to new ideas, be skeptical of grand illusions, promote, question, and open a dialogue about this brave new world that we’re living in. Meaning, know what the smoke is, know where the mirrors are placed.
In the end, no one person is right about their creative approach, and no one person is wrong about the future about these creative endeavors. The fact is no one can know what’s in store for the future of film and entertainment. So we can only ask the professionals who’ve seen the landscape to guide us from their experiences and then draw our own conclusions.
I first met Luke Bubb in 2016 surfing in the tropical waters of where celebrity meets backpacker amongst the hippie-yoga-crystal themed streets of Byron Bay, Australia. We’d both gathered for what was to be a fun-filled week of festival panels and promotions of new tech in the world of VR and AR. Some of the titans of industry had arrived to promote their latest insight to the industry, push their gizmos, and make vast predictions of as to what VR/AR would achieve and replace in cinema. I had joined the rank and file of this panel as a freelancer who had delivered to Youtube and GoPro content for their 3D/360 Video campaigns. 3D/360 was a stylish trend that many thought would deliver the clickbait they needed to promote their newest platforms. Many compared it to 3D television, and even bigger skeptics referred to it as “Smell-o-vision”.
It’s history now, still surviving on some platforms, but to note, it started a sparked the many VR/AR experiences we have today.
The conference was a tech-filled wanderlust of 16 camera-arrays, video stitching applications, and supercharged black boxes that promised faster renders. Yet, behind the braggadocios claims by most of us being on the VR and AR forefront, one thing was becoming evident, the gathering of these individuals was not for the triumph of who had the biggest toys, (although it sorta was), but about how the technology was changing by the minute.
That topic brought Luke and me closer together of what would be three long nights, under the influence of scotch filled whiskey day-dreams, of what his vision of the future for concept art and storyboards would be in VR/AR.
Luke confessed to me he was committing to a new process and divorcing everything he knew about his craft. A journey that would, as he described, redefine his career. All of this on a hunch, a self-subscribed prophecy, an educated guess as to where concepts art and storyboarding was heading. He was about to leave a profitable, secure, well-paid career and leap from being a well-established concept artist and storyboard artist for large commercial brands with films like “Prometheus” under his belt to entering the vortex/matrix/dark-rabbit-hole and becoming stuck forever.
Was this the next “Lost In La Mancha” in VR, starring Luke Bubb?
You have to remember, at this moment in history, headsets were clunky, tethered to expensive boxes, that quite honestly intimidated most commoners. Yet, with all these hurdles he was about to take a leap and pursue what was the artist dilemma - chase the dream or become the nightmare.
I left Byron Bay wondering what was to become of Luke.
As the months and years, past Luke and I stayed in touch. We sent long-winded instant messages about potential VR projects, some we completed, others died on the vine. It wasn’t important, we were doing what artist do best, sharing, pitching, testing the waters of potential brilliance, or shooting down the bad ideas in creative skeet. During this period Luke’s social media become inundated with case studies and bizarre concept art in VR via Gravity Sketch. The work itself was all very wondrous beauty, yet I wondered if he was not taking this to Howard Hughes type isolation in his studio and cutting himself off completely - I wasn’t worried, I was alarmed.
Not in regards to his well-being, that wasn’t a concern, I was astonished that he had committed to his dream. In this world of fantasy to screen, there are few who take their vision to the next step. I was witnessing this first hand.
Luke was indeed losing money, working less, and trying to stay above water to not sink into his dream.
Not without pain, Luke was indeed losing money, working less, and trying to stay above water to not sink into his dream. To me, this was the making of a drama, high stakes illusions of grandeur, the almighty hero’s quest, a steam engining barely on the tracks careening toward a brick-walled ending that I hoped wouldn’t end with the ancient Greeks pastime, tragedy. We were slowly approaching the third act, and the bad guys were stacked to the nines and no plan was there to save the day.
Then, Luke had a breakthrough…
2019. Luke’s dream has entered the station. To know the future is to see the future, he began booking work with his new methods. He had done what he set out to do, future-proof his work and find new ways. I asked Luke to talk a little bit more about this journey, this is what he said:
NoFilmSchool: Tell me more about yourself?
Luke Bubb: I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa - so deep down I still have my heart there even though I’ve moved around quite a bit. My family migrated when I was 13 to New Zealand and now I’ve been living in Australia for about 15 years so it turned me into a bit of a melting pot of cultural influence. (Luke’s accent is a beautiful enigma)
Growing up, I’ve done a lot of different jobs like farm-laboring, construction, removalist, cleaner, hotel hospitality, yet always in the background, there has been this addiction to computers, gaming, and digital art tools. So although this love for computers would lead me to leave school early, travel would I finally get a breakthrough and entered VFX. This was the turning point in many ways for me bringing my art and love for tech into one.
NFS: Pinpoint your craft?
Bubb: I make images (Luke’s understating his talent here) but more recently I’m starting to understand that at my core I’m a world builder but then I’m wrapped up with the philosophy you get from an artist and with the structures found in designers. Although my process is most likely called dynamic drawing its better understood to most people that I’m designing ideas as a concept artist, giving direction as an art director and creating stories as a world builder (Storyboard Artist).
NFS: From what I’ve seen, you’ve been on this journey to push your skills in a new direction into VR/AR, a sort of reinvention of your skills and process. Tell me about this?
Bubb: Look your right, it’s a new direction in terms of the tools but to be honest it feels more like I'm returning back to my nature after spending so long having my hands tied behind my back. What I mean to say is humanity’s spent so long conforming to the limited physical architecture of the computational medium that as soon as you get to use your body in a natural way there’s an absolute revelation that can only be compared to a spiritual awakening. We’ve been creating all through our evolution, our body is designed perfectly and now there is a promise of actually being able to use it in the modern age! F*ck yeah!! So yes you could say its a reinvention of my process, I call it human computing but that’s a terrible name, so it's probably better described as working with the digital medium and natural human motion.
NFS: Talk to me about your successes and struggles of this “new way?"
Bubb: It’s super complicated, you're pretty much an outlier and in the current climate everything is up in the air so it feels like such a personal struggle unless you’re a ninja then it appears to be pretty sweet. I mean you’re supposed to be an artist, a worker, a brand or commercial entity but every tool is in its early stages or in development, from production to final delivery/marketing not to mention people are trying to create the tools of the new medium with the old mediums ideas (He’s chatting about clients and directors relying on traditional shooting methods). It’s all a bit of a mess but don’t get me wrong its a two-sided coin, never has there been such possibilities and it’s only just the beginning.
So to be honest, the work I’m doing doesn’t fit yet perfectly into the deliverables of the old system. It’s like I’m sitting in a halfway house between pre-production/previs and final output for film/commercials. For a single artist to build assets and design a shot within VR and a realtime game engine all the while rendering, edit and sound all in a day's work is quite incredible.
But not everything is possible and animation is still a bit tricky if you are not an expert. This workflow though exists at the cutting edge of film/game as virtual production but as a solo freelance artist doing it all yourself it's hard for people to even understand what the hell you are doing. So, yes, in my case there are too many pieces of the pie being bitten off at once but if you have a 3 person crew of experts you could pretty much replace an entire production team so there is a lot of strength in these experiments. (Alla garage band of production)
NFS: Sounds like it's similar Steve Jobs working out of a garage?
Bubb: [laughs] Well, look [at it] from my point of view, this is the role of the artist in society, because really most people don't want to dig in the dirt uncovering something new, people just want to be comfortable and I completely respect that but obviously for myself I can't stop digging in the dirt. Over the years I’ve been haunted by concepts that I have no control over so although it's been incredible changing and evolving with these ideas I’d like to think there is a grander hand at work here. Looking back at my childhood, the way I acted out huge scenes with toy cars, the action of the war comics that captured my attention and the epic space battle drawings I drew all point towards world-building for me (Luke and I both have this in common). The output from this passion maybe film for now but very soon these worlds will become transmedia, virtually explorable and breaming with narratives not yet explored in our current mediums of VR/AR.
When I first drew in VR, with tilt brush, my mind literally blew up! If I think about it for the larger vision, it’s still happening. Sure, there have been a lot of realizations along the way -- but I think the true holy grail is when I can virtually embody my characters to animate their personality traits and have some intuitive procedural tools/automation/AI to augment the rest of the process. Then, you really can just focus on building out the story world and spitting it out to whatever medium you want (translation, tilt brush gives Luke many exports, creative, tech options to choose from). This gives me some crazy ass magic right there in VR!
NFS: Sounds to me, you had your breakthrough, can you talk about the film 2040, explain how you convinced the director to do the storyboards in VR for a 2D delivery?
Bubb: Two years ago. So I was very deep in evolving this VR process for moving concept art, and that’s when the director (Damon Gameau) would come into my studio to talk through some of the film ideas he was working with. It was only natural for me to literally speed sketch it out right there in front of him and then put him in VR and say "you mean like this?” And, after that ,I could spend my own time refining it.
Although the producers questioned if it was necessary, I really believe in the power of pre-visualizing ideas. Having worked in VR with the crew at CumulusVFX before was very helpful -- but it was never to this scale.
I really had to put in my own time to get some of the larger experiments of sketching city architecture over photogrammetry working. In the end it became a great tool for all parts of production considering it is pretty rare for VFX companies to work in realtime game engines but that’s changing.
VIDEOS - Storyboard to Screen:
NFS: Do you think this will be the way of the future, and if it is, can you make predictions about the future and how you’ll get there or how we’ll get there?
Bubb: For filmmaking, it's already happening, if you look at what James Cameron has been doing with the new Avatars or how the new Lion King has completely shot in a game engine/virtual world also within the concept art world you can see it evolving. I’m excited for creating living story worlds you can explore and that's going to take me a few more steps before I can personally produce that on my own but if your a bit more tech-savvy you can use Houdini to procedurally populate a world then setup unreal engine for virtual production and use motion capture to embody your actors all while filming in mixed reality. You can have artist/technicians controlling elements live onset, linked to real-world lights or background screens mimicking virtual camera angles to the extent that you could capture everything on film without any post-production or everything virtually without any onset shoot.
In the long term though its the equivalent of putting a smartphone camera in everybody's hand, it has unexpected implications and no one could have predicted the camera's effect on humanity or the insane image-based digital world we now live in. The same can be said for the virtual augmentation of the human body, it's so layered with so many aspects of our life and culture being effected that we cant truly comprehend its path. (defined, Luke sees a future where the physical production of filmmaking is quickly disappearing. We’re entering the Matrix of production).
Roberts: Explain your pipeline, how can someone start doing what you do?
Bubb: Not sure I want to prescribe my insanity to others. :)
The best place to start is with experimenting in VR/AR and game engines. Depending on how deep you want to go down the rabbit hole you can start with just sketching in VR for concept art production or follow it through into a game engine to start building worlds and ultimately create your own films or VR experiences. There’s no one magic button but a combination of tools. I’d say as a start you'd need to learn VR sketching software like Gravity Sketch, Oculus Medium or Quill for asset creation and then for production or building out shots/worlds use Unreal Engine to pull it all together. Also, I experiment with finish it off on an IPad for final edits in Luma Fusion and create the music in Apple's garage band. Trying getting through this process in a day is the challenge but then you’re setting yourself up to compete with traditional 2d practices and leaves you with an incredible advantage in this ever-evolving industry.
Roberts: Where can people follow your madness?
Bubb: Instagram, under the alias of lukebubb.art or lukebubb.com for the commercial projects I worked on.
Part 2: What's happening to Storyboarding?
After my conversation with Luke, I begin to wonder if traditional storyboarding was to become extinct in the near future. Storyboarding isn’t a new process and all arts encounter change - so I wanted to get a better perspective as to where the current state of using good old fashion ink to make your vision come to life. I reached out to Mark Millicent, who’s been sketching for most of our readers lifetime. He’s got some chops and has penned (worst pun ever) a lifetime of work before the digital revolution.
Oden Roberts: What’s your back story?
Mark Millicent: Storyboarding for me started about 35 years ago, covered in steaming hot porridge at the end of an English motorway on a particularly grey, rainy afternoon. iPhones had yet to be invented, indeed mobile phones were in their infancy, in short, the digital age had not yet begun, it was the digital Neolithic age and I was the neanderthal art school graduate off to find gainful employment-it was the early 1980’s. My career had gotten off to this inauspicious and shaky start as fresh out of art school I hitchhiked my way down to London where all the storyboard work was, from 'up north.' A truckload of railway workers had slowed down, I thought to offer me a ride to London - but no, they opened the double doors of the small yellow bus and pelted me with many plastic cups of steaming, sticky porridge. Driving off in hysterical laughter leaving the startled hitchhiker, me: looking a sad and steamy porridge covered mess gripping tightly to his art college portfolio. It got a little better, I made it to London, I got a job, I worked on the very first Ridley Scott - Blade Runner inspired Apple commercials before Apple was a global force. I learned my trade and I storyboarded in the UK’s capital for a decade working for various advertising agencies and production companies, directors and producers. Until America beckoned.
Roberts: So by definition, you’re a classic in the industry?
Millicent: Yes, I’m a Commercial Storyboard artist for the movie, gaming, and advertising world here in Los Angeles. I have worked on both low budget indies and $100MM movies as a Storyboarder. My skills are principally blocking shots and story beats to maximum cinematic effect in as little time as possible. I work for game companies and advertising agencies and production houses both in LA and the UK It’s primarily on a work for hire basis either via an agent or independently. I’m a member of the art directors guild local ADG 800 as some jobs are union only. Most of my work is done in the field of commercial advertising, both also covers production and agency. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have worked for many top tier directors and creators. I enjoy the challenge of an interesting scene or sequence working closely with the director to produce the best visual concept for their project or commercial. My client base ranges from Disney and Warner Brothers to Sony, RSA, and ABC and pretty much most of the production houses here in LA over the years. I generally board everything sitting alongside the director, drawing rough thumbnails pen on paper to then create digital files in ‘Procreate more recently on the iPad rather than the Wacom tablet.
Roberts: Tell me about being a storyboard artist 2019?
Millicent: The industry has moved on in the three decades I have been involved with it. I though am old school by definition. The digital age has been that precursor of that change. No more is it just acceptable to be able to render a rough breakdown of the 15 or 30-second commercial, into 15 or 20 pencil drawings on paper with magic marker colors on a foam board presentation. Today’s Hi-Tech world requires slick digital files, maybe in many layers that have to be delivered in various formats ASAP to be pasted into a PDF that is presented to clients. Some times very loose and energetic black and white line-work are all that's needed to tell the tale other times detailed highly referenced color frames with a photorealistic finish are required. Some times companies make the decision to use just photo reference in place of rendered boards in what is referred to a ‘ripped’ board— as sort of glorified ‘mood board’ — and the artist becomes a little less relevant. Movies are an area that still needs traditional boards. The 1000/ 2000 + plus frames are still required to help explain 100+ minutes of action, VFX, mood and dialogue. Everything is drawn to a 16:9 aspect ratio or for movies letterbox at 1:85 to 2:35. I like to try and bring an energy to the blocking of a shot or scene that will help with what the director has in mind - and hopefully make it sing a little!
Roberts: What will be the way of the future, or will we always need the pen to visualize our stories?
Millicent: The industry is changing rapidly but it will always need good draftsmen/women. That is a skill that is honed with practice like any other but today's artist has the added tools to contend with, that sort of doubled the workload - but once learned to proficiency the creative software is the draftsman’s friend. Life drawing from the human model is a foundation that can't be ignored. Storyboard artists come from an array of disciplines -painter, comic book illustrators, and creators, artists and filmmakers, and photographers but essentially you are all storytellers.
Roberts: Give us your advice, steps for success?
Millicent: Storyboarding, it’s become a very competitive field, gaming and its boards are now the new movies of today. Movies will always need to have a visual drafted road map - as it’s cheaper to lay it all out before there is a crew in place rather than after. Be up with the latest music trends, fashion, and pop culture - all fields you must be familiar with. (Regarding education) Art school and college are almost prohibitively expensive so take as many free night classes and discounted tutorials as you can where you can find them! Watch Youtube and above all else draw, keep a sketchbook and draw some more. All the worlds and warriors that are digitally created have to be rendered on a myriad of computer programs invest if possible in Z Brush, Dmax, Maya, and Mudbox, - I actually have no idea what these programs do!! But today's prospective boarder needs to know, as well as having extensive knowledge of human anatomy - So It’s not all about suit animation, background with texture rendering and movement engines. It starts with the marks you make on the paper. The requirements of today's industry are more extensive now than they ever were for me. But above all draw, watch movies and commercials and replicate styles and trends until you find one that is your own, then make it your own.
Roberts: Where can people see your craft?
Part 3: Previsualization
If traditional storyboarding isn’t dead and the methods of conception and storyboarding in VR hasn’t fully integrated into every pipeline, where are we in this process? Are we stuck in digital limbo, dangling and reaching blindly to the next branch? Or are we transitioning again? To better answer this I spoke with Krisztian Majdik who’s sitting on the apex of visual previz. Kris is Swiss-German so I knew I’d be sure to get precise answers to my questions…
Oden Roberts: Give me your details?
Kris Majdik: I was born and raised in Switzerland and moved in 2002 to the US to study film at NYU. After graduation, I moved to LA and survived the first few years doing odd jobs, mostly in reality TV. On the side, I cut a few lower budget indie features and one of them was animated one for Simon West’s company. This, with the help of a good friend, got me a job at the visualization company The Third Floor where I entered the world of high-end visualization.
Roberts: So you’re a….?
Majdik: I’m an editor with a focus on editing visualization on VFX heavy movies. I work as part of a team and help conceive complex action-heavy sequences. My last few projects as a visualization editor were Captain America: Civil War, where I worked on the airport and end battle, Captain Marvel, Avenger: Infinity War and Endgame. I’m also about to finish an indie horror film called Dweller where I was picture editor.
Roberts: Explain in detail the pipeline you work in?
Majdik: The job of a visualization editor is often confused with that of a VFX editor. We work for the vision of the director through the Previs Supervisor and the VFX Supervisor, and we start months before principal photography begins and often stay on during production and post. We are the hub for the previs team and help develop story ideas and design challenging sequences. Our main focus is to ensure that the team’s work always serves the story. We either start a sequence from scratch with some notes from the writers or director, or we have a storyboarded version that we build upon. The early stages is brainstorming. We come up with fun gags, emotional moments and create a shotlist. The visualization supervisor then takes that to his team who starts working on individual shots. At first, the shots are rough and long and it’s my job to mold them into something kinetic and exciting by manipulating speed, framing, lens choices or simply requesting more coverage. In the end, my focus is to get the drama and emotions of the scene across.
Roberts: Some directors have commented about this process as being “art/directing by committee”, or is it a way of helping directors be precise?
Majdik: Big budget movies are intensely collaborative due to the insane complexity of shooting a VFX heavy film. Our job is to interpret and serve the directors vision. I don’t see it as art by committee. Visualization is just another tool in the director's hands that is absolutely necessary these days. What we do can be 100% replicated on set. We use the exact camera and lens specs, just in a virtual world. We build virtual sets that represent precisely the real ones. We create a sandbox to play in without the immense time pressure and cost of making these decisions on the day of the shoot. Plus, a fully visualized sequence gets the whole crew on the same page and minimizes the need for coverage. Through our team, the director can precisely plan and test what’s in his head before he steps on set.
Roberts: Did animatics kill the storyboard artist? Or has it helped them?
Majdik: I don’t think it killed the storyboard artist, in fact, I work on every show with a world-class storyboard team and we supplement each other. A top storyboard artist is hired for his skill to bring innovative ideas quickly to the table. That’s a very valuable and sought after skill in this town.
Roberts: Do you think this will be the way of the future, and if it is, can you make predictions about the future of where you’re going, what you’re pushing, and how you’ll get there or how we’ll get there?
Majdik: It already is the way of the future. From Marvel to Star Wars, every big-budget film these days uses visualization like ours. More and more TV shows as well. I know Game of Thrones heavily depended upon a visualization team to develop and plan out some of the more memorable action scenes. As the technology becomes more accessible, I believe it will also enter the indie film world. Especially for low budget movies, having the means to visualize everything before shooting on a tight deadline is priceless and a huge money saver. I believe the tech is heading towards what we call Virtual Production. Instead of creating scenes shot by shot, a director would have the opportunity to enter a fully fleshed out scene either by means of a mocap camera or through VR and shoot the scene virtually on a simple stage. It’s similar to the tech James Cameron used on Avatar (A popular point with everyone). I also believe the future will be real-time engines such as the unreal engine and possibly VR. The ability to virtually location scout and shoot a scene while changing weather, lighting, and sets in real-time is the goal.
Roberts: Explain your pipeline, how can someone start doing what you do? Are there ways to do the DIY version. What have you seen that inspires you?
Majdik: There are simpler tools out there that let’s one dabble in the world of visualization for cheap. Frameforge, shotpro and iclone come to my mind. I personally just shot a short and downloaded the free version of Maya and did some very simple blocking within it. Learn basic animation, lighting, and camera in Maya or a similar software package and you are good to go. For me, it was a necessity because even drawing a stick figure is challenging to me! In terms of editing, I recommend one to become an expert in AVID Media Composer and Premiere Pro. FCPX should be in your toolbox as well. Basic Photoshop and After Effects skills are helpful. I edit in whatever software the client/picture editor will end up using. In my experience, that’s mostly AVID. There’s a free version online and plenty of tutorials all over the web that simplifies the learning process.
Roberts: What links do you recommend to see the process?
I’d like to hear what you think, what are you confused by, or what you want me to ask more of. Luke Bubb's story is one of the many stories that will show the good, the bold, and unpredictable filmmakers in the arena today. This won’t be the last time I write about this, as the technology is changing daily and so are the artists. Until next time, keep chasing the dream, keep disrupting the craft.