homepage logo

A discussion with storyboard artist David Russell of ‘Red Tails,’ ‘Jedi’

By Staff | Feb 29, 2012

When watching an action/adventure flick, you normally see multiple thrills, such as car chases, dog fights in the sky, and perils such as fire, wind, rain, snow and other elements. Think “We Are Marshall” and the necessity to have the running and passing scenes choreographed for the cameras.

The term “storyboarding” comes to mind when thinking of animated productions or those with complex special effects and computer generated backgrounds.

It was after penning an article about the flying aces of the Tuskegee Airmen and detailed dogfights in “Red Tails” that I first learned that those armadas of aircraft were computer generated. Filmmakers had only a few of the actual antique planes.

What I didn’t know – until now – was to what extent a motion picture director relies on storyboarding.

Storyboard and concept director and artist David Russell, whose early life was influenced by fantasies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” mythology and comic book icons like Jack Kirby and Frank Frazetta, explained this in an Australian Production Design Guild Interview:

“The storyboard, of course, provides the first look at the film as it might be shot. Directing is a difficult and demanding art form; you need an edge. Good storyboarding gives you that edge. Prior to the involvement of the storyboard artist, most films have existed only in text form. The storyboard approximates the film itself, allowing the director to clarify his or her own vision by means of this visual narrative. If handled correctly, the storyboard artist can serve as an ‘auxiliary director’, or more accurately, provide ‘direction on paper.'”

George (“Star Wars,” “Phantom Menace,”) Lucas gave David Russell his first big break as a storyboard and concept director on “Return of the Jedi.” Russell has become one of Hollywood’s most talented and creative visual illustrators. His credits include: “Paradise Lost,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Master and Commander,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Tombstone,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Batman,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Red Tails.”

George Lucas spent $58 million dollars of his own money and 20 years to put “Red Tails” on the big screen. During an interview in the Detroit Free Press, Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays pipe smoking Major Emmanuel Stance, said that the state of the art aerial visual effects put you in the cockpit. “You’re going to come to this movie and feel that you can fly a plane.”

Gooding compared the cliff hanging roller coaster effects to “Raiders of the Lost Art,” and revealed that two Tuskegee Airmen watched an early screening. Gooding said in the Free Press, “They were so caught up in the aerial battle scenes that they were hunching their shoulders and moving to the left and right, as if they were in the planes themselves.”

The flight scenes have a special connection to history and the Airmen. Executive Producer George Lucas asked illustrator Russell in 2008 to design key action sequences in “Red Tails,” including the opening attack scene. Russell’s father, James C. Russell, was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, and he was thrilled to work on the project.

Russell wanted to make the viewer’s feel they were “in the cockpit,” and brought his considerable storytelling abilities (as a concept illustrator and story-boarder) to bear, enhanced by his father’s wartime experiences.

Seattle Post Intelligencer critic Tim Hall wrote: “What does work for ‘Red Tails’ is the intense action sequences. Each dogfight puts you right in the cockpit with the pilots.”

Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge described these airborne scenes as “dazzling.” When asked in a recent interview how he directed airborne sequences, film director Anthony Hopkins said: “you take storyboards for all the action sequences, you give them to computer artists who then animate those storyboards. I was able to sit with the actors and talk about the sequences, so they knew what I was asking.”

Graffiti had an opportunity to discuss storyboarding and concept illustrating of films with David Russell.


GRAFFITI: Has it been your experience that nearly all movies have a pre-shooting storyboard?

DAVID RUSSELL: In general, yes. Storyboarding provides the first visual roadmap of the proposed film. This is important in many ways, as (it) not only allows the director to help realize his or her particular vision, but also serves as a critical budgeting device, especially in regards to the design of complex action and VFX sequences.

The storyboard artist, who works in a close, almost exclusive collaboration with the director, must quickly become familiar with the script, often to a degree exceeded only by the director himself. The storyboard artist must likewise control a wide range of skills specific to the field: understanding the camera, shot continuity, VFX design, stunts, dramatic staging and lighting, composition, graphic design, good draftsmanship, the ability to render quickly in black and white or color (either by hand or with digital techniques), an extensive knowledge of past and present films, awareness of social and political issues-these comprise the basic skill set.

However, the most important ingredient is imagination, which powers the creation of memorable film imagery.

In a typical live-action film, perhaps 30 to 50 percent of the film will be storyboarded, usually the most challenging or dramatically significant passages. In animation, however, the storyboard is quite literally a shooting guide, and every minute of the film will be boarded, often in great detail. Complex 3D animated features might require one to two years to board, with teams assigned various segments of the script.

GRAFFITI: Since you began work with Mr. Lucas on “Jedi”, did you work any on “The Phantom Menace,” which went into 3D release recently?

RUSSELL: No. I was not approached to work on the new trilogy. I would have passed on the job in any case, since I feel it’s unethical to create a sort of hero out of a pathological killer. Still, the new series was visually amazing, and I appreciated its interesting political sub-text, most of which seemed go unnoticed by the public.

GRAFFITI: During your history with Mr. Lucas, how enthused was he about the “Red Tails” saga?

RUSSELL: As we know, George had been promoting the project since the 80s. My father mentioned his visits to the L.A. branch of the 3332nd club on several occasions. The subsequent history of the film’s development has since been described by George himself in numerous interviews (in which he discusses the 20 years of development).

GRAFFITI: What do you think kept him shooting for the big screen?

RUSSELL: George is a feature film director; I don’t think he ever envisioned placing “Red Tails” on the small screen.

GRAFFITI: Since Lucas seemingly has a large amount of wealth, funding the film himself would have probably been possible before this year. Any reason(s) why the “Red Tails” flick went into production when it did?

RUSSELL: I believe George wanted to wait until all his “Star Wars” films were completed before tackling “Red Tails.” Many Hollywood projects take years – if not decades – to reach the screen, so “Red Tails” is hardly unique in this way.

GRAFFITI: Did your father or any of the men who flew provide supervision for accuracy during the shooting in Prague? Could you see any character as “dad” or did the writers stick with more composite characters?

RUSSELL: My father was not involved, but many of his friends consulted with George on a regular basis. Some of their experiences were woven into the “Red Tails” storyline.

GRAFFITI: I was surprised to learn that so much of the dog fights were CGI generated and that in reality there were only a few real planes in the air. The process occurred seamlessly. How many team members join to turn a few planes into an armada?

RUSSELL: The usual huge team of often-unsung digital artists helped this project fly. George is an absolute master of the art of digital imagery; you might say that, in some ways, he wrote the book on the subject. He was obviously determined to ensure that the action scenes in “Red Tails” looked and felt real, and in this he succeeded.

GRAFFITI: What are some of the features that you currently have in production or are working on?

RUSSELL: I spent most of 2011 working on Alex Proyas’ epic feature “Paradise Lost,” based of course on John Milton’s venerable poem. This is a completely unique, ground-breaking film, and it was a privilege to be part of the storyboard design team.

I’m currently involved in penning “Mojo in Oz,” an ebook due for release next month. The sequel to my recently released ebook “Enchanters: Glys of Myradelle” – a modern fairy tale with a dark edge-is also underway. I’ll be tackling two feature films this year, the first of which starts up in April.