Straight from the Changing Channels vault, I have a 2018 interview from Supernatural storyboard artist, John Lund. Enjoy!
Exactly what does a storyboard artist do?
A storyboard artist is basically a person who works with the director to interpret how you’re going to shoot a specific scene from the script. The original storyboard artist as far as we know – whose accredited with this – is Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock had a different reason for it. He figured they’d get off his back if he gave them the drawings – then he never would have to answer to anybody. That was primarily what he did. You can look up Alfred Hitchcock storyboards and see them, they’re pretty basic. But that’s what he did.
So think about it this way – you have a script that’s written. And then you have to transform that into the visual art, so from word form, you’re going into the visual form. That’s like reading a favourite book and saying, oh my gosh, I see the pictures in my head. But now how do I convey that so that every department – the camera people, the visual effects people, you name it – everybody. Costumes, lighting, rigging – they all have to understand what the director’s vision is. So that’s where a storyboard artist comes in.
I think a lot of people don’t quite understand what storyboarding is. I fell into it by accident, very quickly. I was doing children’s books – I was represented by a top agency in New York. My first big breakthrough was to do Dr. Seuss books, which is really quite an honour. He’d been dead for 10 years and Random House decided to do a new run of his work but the stuff that he wrote – they had other writers coming in but his wife, who owned the property and Sesame Street, was part of it. They decided to do a new run of stuff.
They loved my work. I had just come in at the right time. My agent submitted, and I got this work so it was a really, really exciting thing.
I fell into this without any training. I didn’t even know what a storyboard artist was; I fell into this because my job was literally vaporized on 9/11. There was no work – there was no publishing work where I could make a living at it. So I had to find a new way in life in 2001. I fell into the film industry, just through a friend of mine who is a locations manager; he said hey, c'mon, be a PA. I saw on the third day they brought storyboards out.
So, what are storyboards? An artist that can do storyboards really has to be an artist to a large degree but there's a lot more to it. You really have to know film. That's the part I had to catch up on. Just being a good artist, say someone who draws comic books and stuff like that -- if that's all they have, and they're very good at it, they're not going to be good storyboard artists. You have to have a lot more in you.
The third aspect of it is you really have to understand the beats of a screenplay. Do you ever read scripts, Carol?
I've seen a couple, yes.
A screenplay is written in a different format from anything -- if you're reading a magazine or you're reading a novel. It's in bullet form -- it's basically say what you need to for the camera. It's a visual art -- it's written only so that you and your mind can see this on a visual level.
Now, what you have to do as the storyboard artist, is you and the director sit down and you have to convey that into a panel where people understand exactly what the camera is going to shoot -- what they want you to shoot. That is where the difference is. If I went into an art school and said okay, give me 10 of your best illustrators/artists -- that doesn't mean they're going to be successful storyboard artists.
You have to understand what the art of storyboarding is all about. We break it down, in film, into what's called beats. If you're musical, you'll understand beats are as well ... it's like the 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2 -- that's what beats are. Beats are also in the writing. A beat is an emotional moment.
So Carol is the actor, John is the actor, we're doing a scene together. Carol says a line, John is shocked by what she has to say, and that's a beat. You say the line, I come back on that, that's an emotional beat. My response can be an emotional beat -- the director has to choose how to use the cinematic vision to a) heighten the emotion and b) make it the most appealing way you can shoot it. In a lot of times you're going to have person A says something and person B reacts and then you might go back to person A, again; but the truth is, a good director is going to change that and maybe shoot it differently. He's going to hold back and do something else, and then come back to the person on the fourth beat.
Understanding storyboarding is actually understanding storytelling. It gets exciting. I discovered it really, really quickly. I've been a writer in a sense myself for a quite a while. I was almost published worldwide for a series of children’s history books in England. So that's always been a thing for me anyway. Now I'm surrounded with these really great writers -- and it's a different art form.
You're working with directors who say okay, this is my vision, let's put these shots together. So that's what a storyboard is. It's a blueprint for how a director wants to shoot a particular scene.
My other question is -- how detailed is the art in the storyboards -- will someone from outside of crew be able to recognize Jared and Jensen or something like that?
Not necessarily, it's not that important. You don't have the time to draw out the fine details. Having said that, I came on early and understand that I was an illustrator for Random House and Simon & Schuster and I was very good at inking. So when I got into the storyboard industry, I knew how to work very quickly. My artwork was pretty amazing. I tell you, there's a lot of directors that work on the show to this day, they still chuckle when they look back at the days back when I was doing this in 2005, and I started on the first episode after the pilot, so it would be episode two.
I rolled into it doing these wonderfully beautiful drawings at record speed. All the guys kept looking at them going why don't we film John's art and just call it a day? I realized later on that you really don't have to do that. I think sometimes they thought, Wow, how does he do that so quickly! No. To answer your question, you don't have to do that, it's really clean art. I can send you samples of stuff and you can take a look at it.
It's a format that's really geared to saying, in the least amount of time, how can you draw a panel that will give every department a clear idea about how we're going to shoot this scene. Bear in mind, if you're looking at a script for a one-hour episode, you probably know this, but one page on a script is one minute of film, roughly. If it's a show that's on the NBC network like Supernatural is, it's going to be, with commercials, the script itself will probably be about 56 pages, so you're counting about 56 minutes of film. They often cut it down by a couple of minutes, they have to fit it in with commercials, and that's what you have.
Out of the scenes that get filled in, they're not going to do storyboarding for everything. They don't need it. If you and I are sitting at a table talking, and probably 2/3rds of all the scenes are either walking and talking or sitting and talking -- or standing and talking -- that's really it, that's the majority of stuff. If you ever pay attention to a show, that's what it is.
Storyboarding comes in when it's more complex. So that's when we have a roving camera. That's part of why storyboard artists have to be there because they have to show that it's more than just shooting talking heads. If it's talking heads, we just have what's called overs -- we have Carol talking, and then we have a camera on John. When we film Carol talking we're going over the shoulder of John and then we're on Carol, and when we're going the other way, we just have Carol over the shoulder, on the reverse side of the frame towards John. That's really what we call talking heads. That's pretty much what those scenes are about. So they don't need you for that. They need you for fight scenes, they need you for visual effects, they need you for special intricate camera work; sometimes you have a high shot from a crane that's coming down, and it swoops into a window, stuff like that. That's where they really need the storyboard artist's help.
I've only worked on the show sporadically since the fifth season -- I've gotten called in to work with one of the legendary directors named John Badham who was the first big name Hollywood director to put Vancouver on the map for film.
He did Stakeout, and he did Bird on a Wire with Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn. He was the hottest director, and he loved Vancouver. John Badham still does Supernatural from time to time. He's basically doing this to pay for his grandkids' college.
What was your favourite episode to work on?
I can't tell you that really. I did so many of them -- how many are on my IMDb?
Something like 70, right?
Something like that. What's one you remember the most?
I remember my first episode working with Kim Manners. I'll tell you that story because it's going to blow your mind. It's really, really funny.
It was episode 3 or 4, I was supposed to meet Kim Manners at the Sutton Hotel where these directors were staying. I'm standing there thinking, well this lobby is filled with people, how am I ever going to recognize the guy I'm supposed to be having a meeting with? So this is with me as a rookie, I had only done a couple of shows before this had come around. So I called my production co-ordinator at the office, I went how I do know who he is, does he have my number? Nowadays people have each other's numbers so I could call them and they'll come down from their room or wherever they are, or they'll be waiting for me in the lobby, or we might meet in a restaurant or we can meet in their room, whatever.
In particular this was the legendary Kim Manners who was famous for producing and directing the X-Files. Famous for being producer/director, I believe he was a producer on Jump Street with Johnny Depp. Who was a very close friend of his, as I understand. So anyway, he had said he was going to retire after doing the X-Files; and he was down in Roach, Missouri, and the networks called him up to do this show. Everyone was like, oh my God, the big legendary Kim Manners is coming back to Vancouver, and the rookie John Lund gets to work with this great man. So I'm sweating, I'm going oh my God, he's in here, how do I know who he is? I asked my co-ordinator, what does he look like? He goes, he looks like a surfer dude from the 70s that got hit by a truck. What the hell does a surfer dude from the 70s, that got hit by a truck, look like?
Guess what? The first guy that walks past me exactly fits that description. I said, "Are you Kim Manners?" He goes, "How the f* do you know that?"
That was the beginning of our friendship. It was incredible. So you're asking me, what episode do I remember, I certainly can't forget that story. It was great.
So Kim had a plan, he wasn't going to take me up to his room -- his wife was always staying with him. He said okay, we're going to go to the bar, Johnny -- I became Johnny very, very quickly -- not John -- so this is me, the rookie, and the great, great Kim Manners in the bar of the Sutton Hotel. He said, we're not sitting here at the bar, we're going to have a special place in the back that's reserved for us. I can tell you every bartender loved this guy.
They gave us a comfortable little area and we went to work. He gave me a literal massive chunk of the script, and he had what was called a three-camera set-up. There were three cameras moving all the time -- he had A camera, B camera, C camera, and they would always be positioned into different places. Sometimes they weren't -- they would be beside each other -- but this guy was such a master at shooting, that he had the set-up always put together in a specific way. Later on, some of the most famous directors that came to town that I worked with would ask what his secrets were. How did he manager to shoot that way and stuff like that.
Here I had to work with him probably four to five hours long, and the real challenge was I had to keep drinking with him while this is happening, because he get asking for whisky and we kept getting refills. I'm trying to keep track of where all these three cameras are through all the different scenes, and I have to do the miniature sketches right there on the spot so that I can remember everything.
I did the job, I did it very, very quickly, in about four days turnaround, I showed up and here he was, with his glasses on like a professor, he said give me your stuff. I think I had 160 panels done for him. He sits down, he puts his glasses on, and he's got a red marker in his hand -- that's not a good sign for a guy like me, right.
I watched him go through every page. When he got to the very last page, he said, you're flawless, man. It's perfect. I'm not changing a single shot. That was the beginning of my career with Kim Manners and Supernatural. He insisted that I was with him all the time, available to him. That was the beginning of our amazing relationship.
That's how I broke in.
That's awesome, that's a really cool story.
It's a great story. I'll tell you another great story. I got hired -- Jerry Wanek is the production designer. I was just in the business, as I said. I was basically cold calling everybody. Storyboarding wasn't as polished or really recognized; there wasn't as much work as there is today. We've never had as much work here in Vancouver as ever before. Back in the day there were some shows that would have used storyboarding and the majority would not. Me venturing into this unknown territory, I didn't know who specifically to call, so I just went over production managers, if I producer could see me yes, or an art director and a production designer would be great.
Jerry Wanek was new to town -- he was American, from Wisconsin -- he saw my portfolio, we were sitting down in Coal Harbour. He was living there; we had looked at my portfolio and he goes man, this is good stuff, I just haven't gotten a gig for myself either, so if I ever get anything I'll be sure to call you. He calls me up and he said, there's a show I just worked on it. We did the pilot. I want you to come meet the director who just shot the pilot.
I rushed down as fast as I could, and I had my portfolio with me with samples, and of course by this time I had done a few smaller shows, and I had done a lot of commercials. The director was David Nutter. David Nutter is one of the best, biggest directors in television in the world today. He's the producer/director of Game of Thrones.
He also did the pilot for Supernatural. He's basically known in the Hollywood as the "Pilot Whisperer." I think he did a string of 47 pilots that turned into syndication.
Anyway, it was David Nutter that was going to be looking at my portfolio -- but he had already shot the pilot and he was heading out the door, he was finished, he was going back to LA. In the 30 seconds that it took for him to look at my work, he said, he's hired. He points to Jerry, he said, hire him. He's great. David walked away, and I didn't see David again until last year when we worked on Lost in Space.
That's how I got hired. So then Kim Manners comes in on the third episode and that was the beginning. So Kim took over the show, he was a guest director; great story, because Supernatural was not off to a super strong start. I'm not sure if this is true, but they had been a little bit over the budget -- I'm not sure if they were shooting too long or something. They needed a really, really good showrunner to run it. Kim was asked after he did, after he shot the third or fourth episode -- it was immaculate. It was on time, it was on budget. Peter Roth, who was running NBC, he phoned him when he was just miles from his home in Roach, Missouri, he was heading back home. The phone rings and Peter Roth said I've got an offer for you that you can't refuse, and I want you to run the show. Kim Manners said yes, and came back and he was the best showrunner I've ever worked with. Amazing guy. He was beloved by all of the crew.
He always stood up for his people. He brought the best out in me. I learned from him. It was a really great experience. He passed away in either the fourth or the fifth season. I think it was the fourth, the beginning of the fourth. He was actually ill when I worked with him on the first episode of 4x01. I know he didn't last longer than maybe a month or so after that, he passed away.
A legend and beloved by everybody on the show. The boys were close to him as well. He was actually really good, he managed to work with them and it was a really good team. Really great team of people.
Talking to guest stars and people who currently work on the show, I've heard many, many, many a time on how wonderful the atmosphere is for cast and crew on Supernatural. Basically every one continues to say it's like a big family. They're all welcoming and how Jared and Jensen are like Southern gentlemen and everything trickles down.
That's true. There were a couple of times when the boys -- I won't go into details -- but I
remember there was an incident when something was happening -- after Kim was gone -- and someone was trying to pull something, to change something, which would have affected a lot of the crew members. The boys heard about it and they walked off the set, refused to shoot, I understand -- that's what I was told. And they went to the studio heads and they said, this is not tolerated. Kim would not have allowed it anyway, and guess what -- that's a family. That is almost unheard of. So yes, I would back you on that statement.
I worked with Jensen Ackles on one of his first directing gigs -- so when he came in to do it, that was me that was working with him. Really nice gentleman, great guy. Jared and I actually made a movie -- he did the Christmas Cottage. A Thomas Kincaide. We shot that in Langley. I didn't work with him, he was the star of the show, but I did that movie as well.
When you've got people that have worked together for many, many years, you're just going to have a family atmosphere too. It's not always that case, but I'm going to give Kim Manners a lot of the credit. He was the commanding general who treated everybody like they mattered. It's just amazing. To work with him, to the very end ...
The last time I ever worked with him, like I said, it was episode 4x01. We worked late at night at the studios. He said to his assistant, I can't remember her name at the time, everybody was shutting down about 7 o'clock -- and we were just starting, and he said to his assistant he said get my best bottle out of the drawer. I didn't know that was the last time we'd ever work with each other. He was literally dead in less than a month. We started working that night, late. And the fun part was Kim, by that time, we were friendly and loved working together.
The stories had come out, and he was great. He'd say, Johnny, if you ever work on a show they tell you that they're going to shoot something that's never been shot before -- tell 'em to f* off." What he was saying was he'd been around forever, you can't do something that's never been done before. But you can pretend it is.
That was Kim. It was fun to work on that show.
Another guy I really enjoyed working with was Lou Bollo, the stunt co-ordinator. Lou's a beautiful person. A great, great guy. Always had a fast, fast line in the board meetings. Just a great guy.
There were some really great people. Some of the directors that worked on the show in the early years are some superstars today. I'm quite close to quite a few of them, one of them is Charles Beeson, Charles just got a big show in New York. Just look Charles Beeson up ... one of the best directors I had ever worked with, we did a Spielberg series together as well. Ken Girotti, he's done extremely well. He did Vikings and a whole bunch of other big shows, he was in there early. Of course we had David Nutter, it was a real stable of good directors that cut their teeth when they worked on the show and have moved on to big, big shows, big Netflix shows and things like that.
It's kind of interesting that the last episode that you worked on with Kim was would have been Lazarus Rising -- with the appearance of Castiel.
I'm trying to remember -- I don't remember if it was that one particular episode; but there was one episode that we were in the same room so my memory shows me in the boardroom office in the Burnaby studios and I'm working with him. Was that the night when we had to do a scene where the boys are fighting invisible demons but they can only be shown as shadows on the wall. That's where Ivan Haydn came in because they had to do the visual effects to match my boards. It was a real challenge, but Kim of course, being the brilliant director, pulled it off. That was a real accomplishment to be able to do that ... imagine that, filming the boys fighting against invisible entities, but you don't see them -- you can only see their shadows, flying through the background. It was amazing. I love that. There's always so many fresh ideas on the show.
Great friendships have been forged, really interesting people. I think in an e-mail to you I said we were kind of the "other" show at the time. Small World was big. Stargate was big. Now, everyone is going, òh my God, those shows are so far behind in the rear window. They were big at the time, and we were in the same area, we were in Burnaby -- we were known as "that other show." Like an afterthought. I remember the day when everything changed. It was really a funny story.
So I'm in the studio, I'm working with -- I think I'm working with Kim -- and we're pounding out some boards. And Yale, who was our production co-ordinator -- he comes into the office and he goes, oh man, we need your attention on this one. I'm going to venture that it was Kim, but I don't know. But whatever it was, I was there when it happened.
What had taken place was a large airplane filled with American women landed at YVR and they demanded -- we didn't even know they were coming -- they were big fans of the show and they demanded that they got to meet the boys and get souvenirs. Somebody, one of us -- said, "Oh my god, we just became a big show." I think that was around Season 3.
Amazing interview. Good work. I really enjoyed it especially the part where speaks about issues and dealing with it. You've just tripled my love for Dee Thanks a lot.