"Memory monitor activating!"
TCC: If you'll bear with a little quasi-philosophy for a moment, I would say that there are, at the core of things, two kinds of people -- those who know what they want to be doing with their lives and those who spend their entire life searching for that very awareness. I get the distinct impression that you've been expressing yourself artistically since you were quite young, and that activity obviously had staying power. What inspired you to become an artist?
RUSSELL: This is largely unanswerable, though I suspect the stimulus occurred in very early childhood, and is lost to memory.
TCC: Who would you cite as your most important early influences, and who influences and inspires you today?
RUSSELL: This is a question more easily addressed. At the age of six, I was given an illustrated book on Norse mythology, and the impact of this was tremendous. Television provided another stimulus, especially the original SUPERMAN series, but it was not until I picked up my first Jack Kirby comic in 1962 that my imagination was truly energized. I began to copy Jack's vigorous drawings, and it is from here that I chart the onset of my career. Of course, other influences followed: the pantheon of Marvel heroes, the work of Frank Frazetta, the fantasy literature of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Lord Dunsany, and others. My later arts training exposed me to the European masters, of which Lautrec, Gaugin, Rembrandt, and Carravagio made the strongest impressions. The American illustrator N. C. Wyeth was a final strong influence in my early twenties.
Current inspirations? Well, they are all filmmakers, as you might suspect. Not all have succeeded in creating a consistent body of work; this is very difficult to accomplish in film. Still, from past to the present, here are some names: Jean Cocteau, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George and Marsha Lucas, the Wachowski Brothers, Carl Franklin, Peter Weir, and Baz Luhrmann.
RUSSELL: I was introduced to the art in college, and did my first commercial storyboard at 19. But it wasn't until I began planning my student film "The Jewels in the Forest" (based on Fritz Leiber's short story) in 1975 that I applied the skill to filmmaking. Even then, it would be six years before I began work in the field: first in animation, later moving to live-action. By a remarkable set of circumstances, my first film project was RETURN OF THE JEDI, an extraordinary experience which jump-started my career in a big way. Interestingly, it was my storyboards for "Jewels in the Forest" which helped me land my first animation job, and the position with Lucasfilm.
TCC: You've referred to storyboarding as "directing on paper," a description that I find incredibly apt as I learn more about that world. How do you usually go about translating the script to storyboard form? What kind of preparation do you do for that process?
RUSSELL: A storyboard artist is attached to a film production at a very early stage. Once the script has been completed, the director will often want to begin visualizing key sequences, especially if the script contains a good deal of drama, action, and visual effects. The point of storyboarding is to get a first look at how the film might be shot, and, through the boarding process itself, how the storytelling might be improved. Of course, storyboards can also help with budgeting a film. Additionally, the boards sometimes act as a selling device for the film, presenting a far more dramatic realization than the written word can provide.
"If they thought THAT was something, wait'll they see what's next!"
In the case of an animation storyboard (and the TRANSFORMERS assignments were typical of this) the storyboard artist is literally directing the show; this also happens in live-action productions. Here a storyboard artist's responsibilities can range from following the director's precise shot descriptions to essentially directing the film on paper.
Regarding the question of preparation, this depends upon the project. An animation script from a show such as THE TRANSFORMERS would include numerous character and locale sketches, which I would need to study before begining work. On a live-action assignment, I may be one of the first people visualizing the film, so in this case you're a bit on your own, at least until a production designer is hired. In other cases, I might join a film that's well into pre-production, and would then need to catch up on such designs that have already been generated.
RUSSELL: Each type of scene presents its own challenges. I always strive to create something unique -- which is no easy task, given the enormous number of films created over the years! Still, each script projects a singular vitality; each director is unique. Out of this matrix, many things are possible.
I do particularly enjoy action and effects sequences, but a close second would be moments of high drama.
TCC: You have done extensive work in both live-action and the animated field. How do the two forms compare in terms of storyboarding?
RUSSELL: In animation, the storyboard represents the film as it will be shot. Expansive films such as FINDING NEMO can take twelve months or more to storyboard. (Except for computer games storyboards, I have worked on very few animation projects in recent years.)
In contrast, often only one or two artists are utilized for a live-action film, and the director is generally the sole source of information (other than the artist) as to how the film should be planned. On average, about one-third of a live-action film is boarded.
TCC: The twentieth anniversary of the original TRANSFORMERS franchise is upon us, and as you have no doubt noticed, there is still a great passion for it today, with a base of fans both old and new. Since the mid-1990s, new toy lines, TV series, and comics have been continually produced, and people of a wider age range than one might expect keep alive the many aspects of the TRANSFORMERS universe through websites of considerable variation, Usenet newsgroups, on-line chat rooms, and even annual conventions. How do you feel about that?
RUSSELL: For its time, THE TRANSFORMERS achieved an interesting aesthetic. There is an appealing mythological undertone to the storyline: protean beings descend to the Earth, enlist human aid, and continue their epic battles. We are at once reassured that there is a great, good power in the universe, and our suspicions about a dark power are also confirmed. The evil powers are portrayed as immense, but ultimately flawed; we know the Decepticons will never triumph. This is ultimately a positive message, and thus the series found its audience, helped along by the explosion of fantasy and science fiction films which intensified public hunger for such stories.
TCC: Does it surprise you that the concept still enjoys such a following?
RUSSELL: Not at all, and I'm pleased to see that it's still so robust.