Storyboarding FX's The Bridge
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Storyboarding FX's The Bridge
Famous Frames, established in 1988 and headquartered in Culver City, CA, is a talent agency representing 100+ artists who specialize in storyboards, shooting boards, comp art, illustration and full-service cinematic, animatic & board-o-matic production.
Famous Frames agent Pamela Gross reached out to The Bridge showrunner Patrick Markey. "He got back to me needing a Spanish-speaking storyboard artist," she says. "They met with Rudi Liden and Eddy Mayer, who are both bilingual, and they liked them both and hired them both. Producers hire the storyboard artists for TV series, and sometimes they'll ask for a certain style or personality type. For FX Networks' The Bridge, they needed storyboard artists who understood shooting boards. Rudi, Eddy and Brad Vancata all understand camera movement and have a nice clean style." After the pilot, the relationship continued for the rest of the season.
"The Famous Frames storyboard artists we hired to help us visualize complicated sequences on our premier season of The Bridge were extremely helpful to us," says Markey. "They were creative, quick, smart, and pleasant to deal with, and their lack of self-importance was refreshing. I would go back to them in a minute on Season Two, should we find ourselves getting picked-up."
Creative COW spoke with the three Famous Frame storyboard artists who worked on The Bridge.
It's pretty typical for a single-camera TV show to use storyboarding. Even shows that you wouldn't think would be storyboarded do, with a car chase or a VFX -- anything that involves having to communicate something visually that could create a problem. Storyboards allow the director to communicate with key department heads so everyone can see what it's going to look like. A storyboard saves a lot of time.
I started working on Famous Frames earlier this year, and one of the first things they threw at me was the pilot for The Bridge. I met with the producer, Patrick Markey, and we talked about the world of Juarez and how rich a backdrop for storytelling it is because it's such a violent, lawless place now. So much of the population in Juarez has been victimized by the drug wars, and we talked about what that would mean.
One of the challenges that the production faces is that they can only access parts of Juarez safely. That's where storyboarding comes in and becomes useful. How do you show an establishing shot that will make you believe your characters are in that part of Juarez? You can't do just a simple establishing shot and then cut into an interior of a building. Audiences are becoming more visually sophisticated. If you can do a shot inside a car and then outside the car showing it passing through Juarez, it's more effective in making the viewer believe it is actually there. The production has a challenge to create shots like that.
I created these storyboards to show what coverage needed to be shot in Juarez, and then the production handed them off to a skeleton crew. For example, for that shot of the car passing through Juarez, the crew had a double of the car and shot it driving through Juarez. The storyboard showed a few angles and over-the-shoulders that will match the shot inside the car, which was done in another location, so when you cut them together, it makes it seamlessly appear that our characters are driving through Juarez. The storyboards allow the production to send a skeleton crew so they'll have something they can match in editing.
One of the reasons I was picked to storyboard for the pilot was that the director, Gerardo Naranjo wanted someone who understood Spanish so if there were any communication issues, we could depend on two languages. Gerardo's English is excellent, so we did a Spanglish thing.
In the second episode I worked on, with director Charlotte Sieling, there's a gag with a horse that gets killed by being hung from a rafter with its throat slit. That shot raised a lot of questions: How do you shoot it so you don't give away that it's a dummy horse? How do you explain it visually? How are you going to hoist an animal that big from a rafter? What kind of winch do you use? Is there enough space in the barn?
The actual challenge -- to sell the dead horse -- is something the director and I wanted to figure out on a piece of paper before she was actually shooting in the barn with the dummy. Working with the director, we came up with the solution, which was the use of strong silhouettes and close-ups.
In another scene, there are three pages of dialogue and two characters, and my challenge was to figure out how to break it up so it doesn't become talking heads. It might become something as simple as one goes to retrieve a phone, so the dynamic changes from one person standing over another to two people switching positions. These are aspects of visual storytelling in which the power shifts, and it has to make sense on the page.
My work depends on what the screenplay says. I personally enjoy the problem solving part of the process; I never take the lead away from the director, but how much I'm involved in storytelling depends on the director and my relationship with him or her. Some directors know right off the bat what they want, and others like the give-and-take with a storyboard artist. In The Bridge, [the director] Gerardo [Naranjo] had a clear idea of what he wanted and I was like a sounding board. I might throw ideas on the table and he'd either reject them or throw it into the mix and ask me to draw them up. Because The Bridge is a remake from a Danish TV series, there are several aspects of the original series they wanted to bring in. It's like building a house. The principle aspect from the original series was the climax of the episode, in which a journalist finds himself locked in his car along with a bomb. The way the original tackled the suspense was very effective.
I've worked really hard to be good at storytelling. It requires so many different skills -- from understanding how a camera works to what different lenses do -- and the ability to draw just about anything, especially depending on what type of storyboard you're doing. A good storyboard artist also has to have a certain amount of understanding about acting and know how to convey an idea quickly.
Having made a movie has helped me be a better storyboard artist. I did a micro-budget feature with a friend that was in the Los Angeles Film Festival. It was really hard and an unbelievable learning experience. The biggest learning experience was editing where you learn what you should have done. Now I understand coverage in a different way, from the reality of getting stuff done. I work with a lot of directors who really understand that.
One of the greatest things with storyboarding is that I get to work with a ton of directors all of whom have a different way of storytelling and problem solving. Very few people have access to that, to know how to look at a script and know where to put the camera. To sit down with all these directors has been a tremendous education. I can't think of a single job where I didn't walk away without learning at least one thing -- and usually I learn a lot.
Charlotte Sieling, who directed the first episodes of the Danish series, directed Episode 103. It was a lot of fun; she was very collaborative. We talked about the scenes she was having trouble visualizing and I helped her figure them out to be clear on how she wanted to shoot them. It was great working with Charlotte because she gave me a lot of background information on the original show. I had never worked with a European director before, and she had a cool vibe about her. She didn't really work differently than American directors I've worked with but she was really focused on the general mood and feeling of the scenes.
In this episode, there's a funeral that takes place on location -- outdoors at a ranch -- with horses pulling the casket and a very large procession. She wanted this funeral scene to be slow, emotional, almost poetic. We decided to have a nice establishing shot of the group along with some very visual moments, like close-ups of the procession's feet walking across camera and dust flying up in the air. There was a long pan from behind large trees and she wanted to visualize how to shoot that.
Looking at photos from the location scout, Charlotte and I chose what camera angles would work best and choreographed the flow and movement for the shot. She had another scene where two characters are walking down a busy Juarez street, with crowds of people going in every direction, and suddenly a shooting takes place in front of them. Charlotte wanted to figure out the movements and placements of the characters in the scene. After our meeting, I went back to my office and worked on the storyboards for five days. She loved them and once the episode aired, it was very exciting to see my work come to life.
Keith Gordon was the director of Episode 109, called "The Beetle." Keith is a big-time director and actor, so I was sort of intimidated, but when I met with him at Occidental Studios where The Bridge's production is headquartered, and he was really nice and down-to-earth. Keith was planning a super-visual crash scene. He knew he'd only have one chance to shoot it and wanted to cover it with numerous angles and then decide in the edit room what to use. He was going to place several cameras inside and outside the vehicles in addition to high and low angles for the road. He also wanted to cover shots of the people in the car so it was very complicated.
The production studio was going to construct a spinning rig for the actors inside the car. Keith's idea was to spin the rig 180-degrees one way while the camera is spinning 180-degrees the opposite way, to create a 360-degree motion with a lot of movement but kind of slow because they're going in different directions. My storyboards helped the actors and crew to understand what Keith wanted to accomplish. I also storyboarded the scenes pre-crash and post-crash. Keith was very happy with the end result -- he said it was just what he wanted.
The storyboard is the director's blueprint of the scene to figure out where to place the camera and the action that's taking place. How much they're used completely depends on the director -- some work with storyboard artists and are used to it, and some don't. Alfred Hitchcock famously storyboarded every single scene from his movies and Steven Spielberg draws his own boards, which later get cleaned up by a story artist. It's a very creative part of the pre-production process of filmmaking.
After a stint in the video game industry, he bounced back to comics and then, in 2003, began doing storyboards. "I had the visual storytelling chops from comics, so I decided I'd like to try it," he says. After a potential client saw and liked his work, they recommended him to Famous Frames. That was a little over seven years ago, and Vancata now primarily works on creating storyboards, illustrations and concepts. "Comics was good training to do a lot of different things," he says. "So I have a pretty broad skillset."
I worked on Episodes 105 ("The Beast") and 110 ("Old Friends") of The Bridge. Gwyneth Horder-Payton, who directed several episodes of Once Upon a Time, Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead among many other shows, directed Episode 105. I had a sit down with her and she was very nice. Some directors don't draw because many times it's not their strong suit. That's why they hire me. But she had actually done some rough thumbnails to show me what she was thinking and how she wanted the shots to go.
As she walked me through her sketches, everything started gelling in my head. With my background in comics, shot selections and narrative storytelling in general are pretty intuitive for me at this point. As is usually the case in episodic TV, a lot of people needed to show her things during out meeting, so her time was limited. We were able to meet for about 30 minutes.
The scene she worked with me on dealt with finding the best way to have a character cross the bridge through the pedestrian walkway from the U.S. into Mexico. They wanted to make sure the scenes they had in mind would flow, as well as figure out the logistics of shooting her wandering through the crowds.
A lot of directors already know in their minds how they want things to go, but it's helpful to have visuals, which is why storyboards are useful. When the episode was shot, some camera angles were changed slightly, but the content was there in the storyboard, and it was more or less shot exactly that way. After the fact, the production designer mentioned to me that the boards helped clarify things for his department too, which was great for me to hear because that's definitely what they're supposed to do.
Alex Zakrzewski directed Episode 110. He's directed several episodes of CSI: NY and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I had more time to meet with him to discuss the episode, probably because I was handling more shots for this episode than the first one. There's an intense, powerful confrontation scene on the bridge in this episode, and that's the sequence I worked on. Alex drew up some overhead sketches of where the set pieces would be, to give me a sense of location, and where the cars and characters would be. A bridge in Long Beach, CA is doubling for the Juarez bridge, so we couldn't shoot from any angle that would reveal things like the Queen Mary, which is docked there. Everything had to be shot from the opposite angle, so I had to be creative within that limitation, which is a challenge I enjoyed.
I like to do thumbnail sketches first of each frame in the whole sequence and send those to the director. For this episode, I did them about half-sized. My thumbnails are very detailed, so Alex looked them over and actually ended up being fine with them as finishes. Because it was a total of 140 shots, working them all up as full-sized frames would have taken a lot of time. I usually complete about 20 frames a day, or roughly three an hour. Because these were half-sized, I could do about 40 a day so the job took about three days. I was happy I could pull it off in thumbnails alone. My thumbnails are clear, because, again, I learned to draw tightly in comics.
The director and the crew are all professionals and are highly skilled at what they do. Storyboards really primarily help to clarify things for everyone. They show things like the set-ups and give an indication of where the camera will go. They're a shared visual language for everyone involved in the production. They help everyone understand the logistics of what needs to be done and, even for producers, can help with budgeting concerns too.
THE BRIDGE - New Series Trailer | HD