Every Friday I answer questions about filmmaking – Have questions for a future Filmmaking Friday? Send ‘em to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s Filmmaking Friday is a continuation from last week’s question about day to day life at Dreamworks.
My work as a Story Artist revolves around two poles: the launch and the pitch, and my day is structured according to where I am in relation to those two events. Today I’d like to talk specifically about the launch.
A launch is what we call the meeting where you’re given your assignment. It typically will involve the Head of Story on my show, the Production Coordinator for our Story team, and usually the Producer and Director as well. No two launches are the same, but all fall between two extremes, which I’ll call open launch and closed launch for the sake of convenience.
An open launch, or blue sky launch, is when the task you’re given is very open-ended. Right now I’m working on the forthcoming Penguins of Madagascar feature, and many of my launches involve taking an existing scene or piece of business from the film and trying to make it funnier. It’s less linear and more random. I try to think of as many funny/creative things without worrying where they would fit into a sequential narrative. I can’t use examples from my show (for some reason at DW we call movies shows, and the most common question you hear between coworkers who haven’t talked in a while is “What show are you on?”), but here’s something like it:
Senor Fazekas is revealed to be a werewolf in the third act of the film. What are some funny/interesting/dramatic ways to suggest his wolf-like nature throughout the first two acts?
A closed launch, on the other hand, is when you’re handed a clear vision of what a director wants for a scene, whether in the form of script pages or in a very detailed verbal launch in which the director describes the exact shots he wants.
The kinds of launches each story artist receives are a function of three factors: casting, show style, and production schedule.
Refers to the unique skills of the individual artist. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two poles: Comedy and Camera. “Comedy” story artsts are known for being extremely funny at writing jokes and coming up with ideas, and consequently tend to care less about pretty drawings. Their focus is on communicating the idea.
“Camera” guys and girls tend to be more aware of cinematic language and staging, and are more concerned with draftsmanship. They excel at dramatic scenes, both of the emotional or action-packed variety. Nobody is all one or the other, and no story artist is alike, but their skills tend to lean toward one of the two poles.
A “camera” artist might get more closed launches, while a “comedy” artist might get more open launches, depending on that artist’s strengths.
Show Style –
I’ve heard it said that every show at Dreamworks is like its own mini-studio, complete with its own culture. It takes a story team a while to gel with the desires of the director, but after while a rhythm is arrived at – certain launch patterns for certain artists. For some artists, this is great, while others artists can feel pigeon holed.
For the record, even with a closed launch its wise to be on the lookout for subtle ways to plus the material and make it better. One thing I learned from Dave Pimentel, story artist extraordinaire and the guy who trained me at DW, is that a story artist is never just a “hired wrist,” who mindlessly executes what’s handed to him. A story artist is just that: an artist! And that involves not just your wrist, but your mind (your ideas) and your voice (your ability to communicate those ideas).
Production Schedules –
The preproduction period of a film is divided into screenings, which occur every few months. A screening is a viewing of all of the storyboards up until that point, edited together with music, dialogue and sound effects.
Production gets a little “crunchy,” or higher pressure, the closer we get to the screening date. Also, for a newer artist like myself, much of time in the week before the screening is spent doing fixes and cleanup boards on existing scenes.
The variety of launches and creative problems we’re posed means that life is never boring for story artists.