Director's Blog
February 23rd, 2012

One of the biggest difficulties in making a film is ensuring that the entire crew — the director, cinematographer, costumer, set dresser, prop man, everyone — is making the same movie.  Yes, you’re all working from the same script.  But the script can be interpreted differently by each department head.  This can lead to unnecessary confusion and time-consuming arguments when the cameras ought to be rolling.

That’s where storyboards come in.  Storyboards allow the director to communicate his or her vision to the crew without having to explain it to everyone, over and over.  They also help the director to visualize the shots that he or she needs to narrate a scene.  Kind of like panels in a comic book.

On SHANGHAI CALLING we didn’t have the money to hire a storyboard artist, so I wound up drawing many of the storyboards — crudely — on my own.  This was hugely time consuming and frequently interfered with the dozens of meetings and endless questions that a director faces during pre-production. But it helped the movie by forcing me to think specifically about where I wanted to place the camera, how wide or tight I wanted the shots to be, and what I wanted to appear in the frame.  This, in turn, allowed each department to visualize what they needed to have camera ready on the day.

Now here’s where I embarass myself.  Below are some of my actual storyboards for the scene in which Sam (DANIEL HENNEY) arrives at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and is greeted by Amanda (ELIZA COUPE).  I chose to share this particular scene with you because it’s a brief snippet of story that can be told without dialogue, and also because this scene happens to appear in the movie trailer.  Go ahead and compare these drawings to the trailer and see if you can spot the similarities and differences.

Did I mention that I’m not a great artist?

Shot 1: Low angle. Dress shoes and luggage wheels crossing us. We push thru crowd...

Shot 1: ...and tilt up to find Sam, disheveled and tired.

Shot 2: Dolly R as Sam passes row of Chinese men holding name signs.

Shot 3: Sam spots his name on sign. Looks up.

Shot 4: Tilt up from name sign to reveal Amanda. She white!

Looking through these storyboards again for the first time in nearly a year fills me with two emotions.  1) Relief that the movie looks so much better than my chicken scratch drawings, and  2) Surprise at how closely some of the shots in the scene resemble (in terms of framing) the plan I sketched out.  A great deal of credit goes to Director of Photography ARMANDO SALAS for sticking with the storyboards when they worked, and finding new, better camera angles when my drawings were shit.

Some of you eagle-eyed viewers may have also spotted one key difference between the way I sketched out the boards and the way we shot that scene: The opening shot in which Sam appears on the escalator.

In trying to design a cool shot to kick off Sam’s adventure in Shanghai, I thought it might be cool to open with a low dolly shot that pushes past business travelers’ feet and tilts up to find Sam as he comes down an escalator.  Only later did I realize what a stupid idea that was.  This was Sam’s arrival in Shanghai.  I needed Sam to be surrounded by Chinese people and Chinese signage in every shot of the scene.  Pushing past travelers’ feet wouldn’t communicate that at all — I needed faces in the shot.  So we tossed that particular storyboard, set the camera at eye level and dollied toward Sam as he comes up an escalator instead, rising into the frame.

So there’s another reason why storyboards are important: They can help eliminate bad shots that fail to communicate the story points or emotions that you are trying to get across.

And yes, I do realize that the drawings of “Amanda” don’t look anything like Eliza Coupe.  We probably hadn’t cast Eliza yet when I started drawing.  See my blog about the casting process casting to read more about that.


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