Friday, March 28, 2008

INTERVIEW: Storyboard Artist Jason Hanks

[Article Originally written for Cartoons Dammit - Feb 08]

Jason Hanks is an animation storyboard artist who has a prolific career working within the art department on such shows as Dr Strange, The Invincible Iron Man and Ultimate Avengers.

JAMES MCLEAN: First of all, for the benefit of the uninitiated, could you explain the roles of a storyboard artist?

JASON HANKS: The main role of the storyboard artist is to effectively convey a script into pictures to tell the story!

Could you tell us a little about your artistic background and by what route you fell into working as a storyboard artist?

I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil! I started to seriously study art at the age of 12 and fell in love with comics.

At the of age 17, my middle school teacher (whom I still keep in touch with) had me meet a friend of hers who loved my portfolio and got me my first job!

I stepped out of the art scene from ages 19 to 22 for one reason or another - but then I met up with my teacher's said friend again and he put me to work on a show called Roswell: Conspiracies for BKN! The rest is - as we say - history! I am very lucky with the work I have had in such a short amount of time. I am very grateful for all of the wonderful people I have met and worked with.

So the motto is to make sure you network as much as you can, right?

Absolutely! Networking is the key in this business! You can be the next Michaelangelo and all but if you don't get your stuff out there for everyone to see and make acquaintances... it just won't go anywhere.

What equipment to you use for storyboarding? Do you always use the same approach?

As far as equipment it's pretty usual stuff. The company gives me the paper, I use a 0.5 Pentel red-lead followed by 0.5 regular lead for the clean-up. Sometimes I will use a thicker lead for close ups (for instance, face-shots) and FG [foreground] elements. I use Prismacolor markers and AD markers for colors and effects. If requested, I'll occasionally use pen and ink. All of this stuff can be found at art supply stores. Oh, and I also use circle and oval ellipses and templates.

You've worked on several animation shows doing storyboard work - how has the work differed between shows, and how does discipline vary from studio to studio?

Every studio has a difference of opinion on how [story]boards need to be done and they most certainly have differences on how tight or loose they want those boards finished! Not to mention how "on model" things need to be. The most recent example of studio differences I have experienced is just how the sheer number of board pages can drastically change your life! Prepare yourself up for a lot of sleepless nights and almost alienating you family [laughs].

Sounds like it can be a little stressful! Could you take us through the process of one of your storyboards assignments?

There was this one time I was working on a show for about 15 episodes and things were working out great, but it was hard work. I was just finishing one storyboard when it hit me - I had just drawn 350 pages in less than a week!! A storyboard artist should understand that a story act of any show will be around 150-200 storyboards.. I wasn't expecting it to be 350 storyboards!

The problem was that if I took any stuff out of the script to cut down the amount of storyboards required I would have been probably booted from the show, so I just sent this monster workload after cleaning up the images the following week. They liked it so much that was I basically told to keep doing large page counts! In short, I had about 10 episodes to go with anywhere from 250 to 400 pages every 2 weeks! Needless to say that drawing was definitely my LIFE on that show! [laughs]

Was your work for the studios more often a lonely experience or a group one?

Oh definitely a group ordeal! We are all in the project together and if one guy slacks the rest of the group feels it! With deadlines to meet, if someone doesn't pull their weight it shows! If quality dips it also puts a lot of strain on the relationship with upper management and then the next thing you know, you don't have a job next season! It can be really scary like that!

Could you give us a quick run down on a day working as a storyboard artist?

First we get the scripts in, then we have a meeting, say, around 10 am to discuss the scripts. Soon it's lunch! After lunch, we finish the meeting on the script. Then we start working on the storyboards. We are pretty much left alone to work after the meeting and the assignments are given out. However that's just the process at the places I have worked. I know other studios can be different.

How do you find work as an animation storyboard artist

Well I work for TAG [The Animation Guild] now which helps me find any work I need, but in the beginning it was WHO I knew that helped me find the jobs. However being lucky with useful contacts can take you only so far because those people won't always be around. The best way is to call around the studio job hotlines and submitting a portfolio. It is a tough job to get into, I won't fool you on that, but if you're good, and you're determined, nothing can stop you doing becoming a storyboard artist!

Does being a storyboard artist mean you have to live near studios?

Well, I am always reminded by one person or another that I should move out to where the work is! A lot of the guys I know have apartments in Los Angeles and fly home on the weekends to be with their families. I did it for a while when I worked for the WB - very grueling at first but, you get use to it. I have been working at home for most of my career and love it. Sure, I would probably get more work If I were closer to the action but I have too much as it is and I am not complaining! Like I said, I am very lucky!

Is it worth it becoming a storyboard artist? Are the hours, graft and stress worth it at the end of the day?

It is!!! I can't think of anything better than telling stories with pencil drawings!

What advice would you give someone interested in storyboarding?

Advice? Hmmmmmm.
  • Carry a sketch book - draw everything you see.
  • Study your butt off with anatomy and fluidity of movement
  • Don't care what others say or think about your work (unless it's your boss!)
  • Take the critiques (good AND bad) well. Learn from them. Don't take feedback personally!

Do you need a natural ability to draw fast and accurately or do you think it can be learned?

Drawing fast is only part of it! Making things look like they have form is the important part. I was very slow when I started in storyboard clean-up - 2 pages an hour! [laughs] Now I am up to about 10 pages on average, but I can often draw 12 pages an hour! I'm not bragging, I am just demonstrating that with work, you will improve. It just takes time.

I think anyone can learn to draw. I haven't always shared this opinion, but as I see it now anybody can but it takes certain individuals to LOVE the work and dedicate themselves. Not everyone has that.

I would just like to add that you can do really want to become a storyboard artist - if it is really what you want to do, please, please, PLEASE don't cater to the style of the week disease we see so often in comics and art in general! Please, be yourself! That's not to say you shouldn't learn to adapt elements of what you like about another artist's work. There is a difference between copying and learning. Don't be afraid to try new things and always keep a positive attitude!

If you love to draw - nobody will be able to stop you, no matter what!

James would like to thank Jason for his time.

REVIEW: One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates

[Article for Toon Zone News - 12.02.08]

It has been said there is nothing more fashionable than being late for a party.

But how late is "late"? Fifteen minutes? An hour? Okay, how about 183 hours? Or, to cast the same number in TV/cinematic terms, how about 343 episodes and 7 movies late?

One Piece, the acclaimed Japanese manga series by Eiichiro Oda, has spawned an anime TV series and more than half a dozen stand-alone movies. Like those earlier stories, The Desert Princess and the Pirates follows the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates, led by Monkey D. Luffy whose calling is to become the Pirate King as soon as he finds the fabled One Piece. This movie is a retelling of one of the TV series' earlier story arcs, edited down to ninety minutes.

It is also the first piece of One Piece animation I've ever seen.

Yes, I'm that late. So just how fashionable am I?

Fans of the series won't be swayed much but what I've got to say. But a wider audience might glean something useful from the perceptions of this outsider.

This film's plot concentrates on the Straw Hat Pirate crew's involvement in the Alabasta civil war. Cutting multiple episodes down to an hour and a half has required the amputation of several of the Alabasta arc's sub-plots and the sewing together of the more relevant parts into a seamless tale. In other words, this isn't just a lazy cut and splice of storylines. There are additional alterations to some of the original scenes to benefit story consistency. On top of this, I understand that some of the wide CG panoramics were done specially for this film presentation and so were not present in the original episode run. One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates is a film unto its own, and not just a slap and tickle job from a two-bit editing suite.

How does it fare as a stand-alone film? Despite being created to work on its own merits, if you aren't familiar with One Piece it will prove a bit of a struggle to slip into its world. The film offers no information beyond what is necessary to the storyline itself. However, if you just accept the characters as they appear, you won't get any headaches. For the most part, it's a lot of combat or action situations that aren't hard to follow. The lead archetypes should be familiar to even the most casual filmgoer: you'll find your usual spread of protagonists, comic relief, cool anti-heroes, and sweet heroines.

That said, though neither the story nor character types break any new ground, the film's light, airy ambiance, coupled with its odd mix of visual humor and extreme violence, does offer a unique experience. One Piece seems to work best through its quirky but relatable characters and bullet-paced humor. By diluting the violence found in the gratuitous close combat through the saturated use of silly moves and ridiculous physics, the show keeps the action in line with the series' overall tone. It is very much an odd pastiche of comedy, action and drama, carried along by some rather bizarre designs and creative nuances.

The story moves at a brisk pace and avoids getting trapped in too much clunky dialogue (though Luffy's awkward commentary on friendship and death won a wince from this reviewer). Humor is laid on thick and realism kept firmly in the closet. Watch out for the anime favorite: impossible group hurling a singular character up in the air while "in flight." A similar technique was adopted in Final Fantasy: Advent Children.

The traditional 2D visuals are clean and the CG elements are integrated with a fair degree of fluidity. The three dimensional renders of Alabasta do help visualize the complex city and thereby the narrative drive of the story.

Unsurprisingly, there is a choice of English dub or original Japanese, which left me torn. Personally I found that Crocodile's Japanese VA was far more engaging than the English dub, but that Princess Vivi's English dub was far less abrasive than the Japanese. Both tracks carry their own failures and successes. I actually enjoyed flicking between the two, thereby enjoying the benefits of both!

One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates will disappoint both fans and casual viewers in the DVD treatment, however. It's rare for any reinvention to be given such careful treatment and then slapped onto a DVD with no salute for those who put it together. Fans of the show and curious first timers like myself both really deserve at least a feature explaining the history of this release. Personally I'd have liked to have get a commentary instead of a very lazy pack of trailers.

Overall, this One Piece neophyte found the DVD initially a little bewildering but ultimately an enjoyable action affair. It doesn't feel quite as complete a tale as could be hoped for, but given the complex nature of condensing a whole episodic arc into a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end, the result is entertaining, violent and largely satisfying. For fans it should be an interesting re-visit of past adventures with a few changes, extended measures of violence, and CG additions to make it worthwhile.