The Scorsese Storyboard

Last summer, I took a Design and Composition class for animation. We were discussing the art of planning out a story, and our professor told us that Martin Scorsese drew his own storyboards. And artistically, he said they were horrible. (I’m pretty sure he used the word “horrible”.)

“Have you seen the boards he drew for ‘Raging Bull’?” he asked us. “Horrible! But if you line them up in an animatic and play them alongside the final film, you’ll see that they’re completely accurate. Every punch is how Scorsese saw it in his mind.”

This fascinated me. I went home and Googled “Scorsese Raging Bull storyboard”, and I found this:

I don’t know what I was expecting – miserable stick figures, perhaps – but I have to say, I didn’t think these were horrible. But I could see what my professor was getting at. Also, he’s been in the animation industry for 30+ years, and he’s used to seeing stuff like this:

I spend a lot of time (read: way too much time) worrying about the things I draw, if they’re good enough, what it means about me as an artist, as a filmmaker, should I even be doing this, etc., blah blah blah. If I draw a mediocre thing, or a downright bad thing, a thing that doesn’t turn out as I’d hoped, it becomes this concretized edifice of How Bad I Suck, and then I must spend even more time and energy trying to chip away at it so I can try again. So when I heard about Scorsese’s storyboarding process, this grabbed me, and opened a window into my little self-imposed Bad Artist prison. Here is one of the most successful and innovative filmmakers of all time, drawing “Horrible” Storyboards:

Hey, I can draw Horrible Storyboards, too! In fact, I’m really good at it! It’s something that can help me move past the paralyzing perfection paradigm and really dig into the work; what a wonderful release!

[Side note: I particularly love the direction in the bottom boxes: “Zoom out – truck in simultaneously” and “HE PULLS BACK – can’t believe it”. I looked up this effect (I always wondered what it was), and apparently it’s called a  “dolly zoom” which gives a telescoping feel to the camera shot and visually amplifies a sense of unreality.]

At this stage in the process, I suspect Scorsese’s biggest goal is to get the film out of his head and onto the paper, so he can see it and work with it. I also suspect that he couldn’t care less whether his storyboards have any artistic merit in the eyes of others. In this interview, he says: “Storyboards express what I want to communicate … they show how I would imagine a scene and how it should move to the next. My storyboards are absolutely essential for my team meetings.”

I love how it is a means to an end, the beginning of a process that gets closer and closer to the finished product. From the same interview: “These drawings continue to serve as both a basis of my meetings with cameramen as well as any preparatory designs we need. These storyboards are not the only means of communication for what I imagine, but they are the point where I begin.”

Here is the finished zoom-in and truck-out scene from Raging Bull. The shot starts at 1:49.

Is the finished shot an exact replication of the storyboard? Who cares? Scorsese knew what he wanted, and used the board as a way to get to that awesome shot. The board was not the final product, but “horrible” art and all, it was a crucial part of the process.

The Scorsese Storyboard concept helps me give myself permission to draw whatever it is I need to draw in order to get where I want to go. And attaching the name Scorsese to it helps me feel like a little bit of a badass. Not bad for an artistic Dumbo’s feather.

There’s also something magical about drawing the stuff in your head, no matter how it turns out. It gives me hope that if I start with this,

“Lake Shore Drive” – Navy Pier – rough

it might eventually end up looking like this:

Lake Shore Drive” – Navy Pier – layout

[Side note 2: The professor who introduced me to the Scorsese Storyboard is Donald Poynter, and he teaches Design and Composition for Animation at the Continuing Education department of the School of Visual Arts. He is a fantastic instructor. He taught our class with a voracious enthusiasm for the technique of art, and I came away with a much improved appreciation for it. If you want to learn about what makes art awesome without the pretensiousness or the stuffiness, Don’s the guy for you.]

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