Pete Von Sholly is a legend within the world of Storyboard Art and recently spoke with The Last Cinema about a long and colourful career.
With movies, sometimes the most exciting work takes place off camera. Some of it even occurs before an inch (or GB) of film has been shot. One of the most fascinating processes of filmmaking is that of the storyboard. A medium which can range from almost indecipherable sketches to mini-masterpieces, they serve as the bridge between concept and actualisation and form an intrinsic and vital role within the formation of any feature.
It’s a facet of the industry which has, for better or worse, changed dramatically within the last 20 years. As individual artists are being pushed aside in favour of teams of young, eager interns and graduates, the old pros are either leaving the business or finding other outlets. One such master is Pete Von Sholly.
With over 100 credits and 30 years in the storyboard business, Von Sholly is also a renowned cartoonist, illustrator and author who has helped to shape the worlds of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Mars Attacks, The Mask and almost countless other classics across all genres of film.
It was an early addiction to comic books which ignited a passion in the young Von Sholly, who began his career in upstate New York. There were two major publishing houses; DC and Marvel. “I certainly wanted to start there, but I simply wasn’t good enough,” he recalls, “I wanted to, so thank god for denial! People generally think we’re better than we are, but that allows us to keep going, and not get discouraged. I didn’t know that at the time, of course. Now I think that, hopefully, when you notice faults in your old work that it means you’re getting better.”
A more inclusive form of the medium which existed in the ‘70s was that of underground comix, which were usually self-published or released in small runs. This was where the counter culture truly blossomed, and was the stomping ground of progressive titans such as Greg Irons, Kim Deitch, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez. The sense of anarchy appealed greatly to Von Sholly:
“In those days you could draw whatever you wanted, and if you had a little bit of money you could get a black and white book published.”
This gave Von Sholly his first leg up in the business, which led to him relocating to LA. “I started to become interested in animation there,” he explains “During this time I first saw storyboards. I thought, as they looked kind of like comics, maybe I could learn how to do it and get paid. Making a living drawing pictures is not easy (never has been, never will be), but animation and storyboards looked like a legitimate way to use the same skills, but applying them to another medium.”
There was another reason why Von Sholly felt that storyboards would be a suitable form to work in, and it related to the untarnished and naturalistic manner in which they are (or at least, were) produced.
“I like the pencil part of illustration. You’re moving it across the page and it has more life and energy then than it will ever have after that point. Once you start tightening it up and messing with it, you lose some of that magic. Storyboards were like that then. These days it’s a little different, it’s more competitive and it’s more illustrative.
Modern storyboards look more and more like finished comic book art and illustration than they used to. They used to be rawer and rougher, but they told the story and did what they were supposed to do. It’s frustrating when people want really finished, illustrative art for storyboards. What for? Why do you want to waste the time to do that when really, all you’re trying to do is get clarity on the page so everyone knows what’s supposed to happen and you can get on with the show?”
“The process is changing in many ways,” Von Sholly explains, “These days there are huge FX movies and they’ll hire a team of between five and eight guys to do storyboards and divvy up then work. They don’t have one on one time with the director, generally speaking. I’m sure that the people who are doing it have fun. Most of what I still do, I do the old way. I did a bunch of Chucky movies and Don (Mancini) works the old way where he sits down with you, along with a pile of pencils and paper to work out the shots. Don usually knows what he wants; he’s real specific that way.”
Traditionally, when an artist is storyboarding, often nothing has been done. The sets haven’t been built yet, the locations haven’t been picked; “So you’re just making stuff up. Sometimes what you make up has a big influence on what ends up on the screen. Sometimes not. When you’re the first one drawing something it’s very exciting. It’s really fun.”
Being involved in those early sages is something which comes with a certain conspiratorial sense of joy. The fact that something is being created which has the potential to have a huge impact on the world or, alternatively, fall flat on its face. It raised the question of whether Von Sholly knows if he’s onto a winner or not.
“Yes, but sometimes you can be dead wrong. I did a movie called Heathers for Michael Leihmann, who also did Meet The Applegates. A lot of people love it, but I thought it was a horrible script. In those days they’d send you the script early on, so that you could look at it before deciding whether to work on the project or not. The truth is, who cares what I think? I would do a good job either way.”
As we spoke further, Von Sholly treated The Last Cinema to a rare oral history of his time working on some of the best movies of all time, along with….well, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. The following excerpts are in his own words.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
People always get excited when I tell them that I worked on that film. I knew Frank from Nightmare on Elm St Part 3, because he and Chuck Russell were writing together a lot. They’d be together when I’d meet with Chuck and became acquainted and then eventually friends. Frank directed a straight-to-cable movie called Buried Alive, which was the first time we worked together. Then when he was setting up Shawshank, he hired me again.
We went to Mansfield, Ohio, to look at the prison together. Now, they didn’t shoot a lot of interiors, as it was closed down. The building was simply too old, so they used a huge warehouse in the town to build the cell blocks. The cells in the real prison were so tiny that you couldn’t shoot in them anyway. It must have been awful to have been in that place, as they supposedly had two or three people per cell.
This was one of the rare times that you get to travel when you storyboard. Frank and I rode all around the town and saw a bank, where we discovered a vault we were going to use for a scene. It was all very atmospheric. Mansfield was a town where everybody smoked. Coming from California, we weren’t used to that. Even the waitresses in the restaurant smoked while they served you.
The opening had to be storyboarded in great detail. It’s a helicopter shot which follows the bus, which Andy (Tim Robbins) is in, to the prison. The helicopter rises and you see all the men in the yard, then it angles around to pick the bus up as it turns and comes around the back of the prison. That was a shot which required a lot of planning. There were so many people involved and the timing had to be just right. It all had to sync up.
Frank had a camera with him and he took tonnes of pictures. I went with him to all the locations and, if the place didn’t exist, we’d sit in his office and discuss the storyboards. He took me to the set one night and was so proud and excited about this immense cellblock they had constructed for the film. We went up the scaffolding, to the third or fourth tier, and were looking out over the set; they were just getting ready to shoot. It was magnificent. I finished up and came back to LA before the shooting really began, however.
The budget for Shawshank was tight. It was a really low budget movie, and they didn’t need to storyboard very much, as what you usually storyboard are special effects and stunts; that kind of thing. There weren’t a lot of special effects in the movie. There’s a scene up on the roof where the prison guard was going to threaten to throw Andy off. I think they used some harnesses and things that ILM was going to paint out. When he escaped originally, he was going to hop on a train but, for various reasons, that didn’t happen. There were going to be a bunch of elaborate harnesses and devices, but it never came to be.
We storyboarded a scene where a prisoner is thrown off the cell block from high up during a fracas. He was going to be put into a harness and lowered and the camera was going to track from way high up looking directly at the guy as he plummeted to the ground. I don’t think they shot that either unfortunately.
Nightmare on Elm St 3 (1987)
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, you would work with the director. You would sit down with them and have a direct meeting. I worked with a lot of first time directors during that period. The people at New Line were fond of the work I did on Nightmare On Elm St 3 so they hired me a lot. I did The Hidden (Jack Sholder) and a lot of their movies in those days. After a little while I was more experienced, so they wanted me to work with first time directors a lot as, maybe I could help them focus, because they didn’t know what they were doing in terms of shots. It gets really specific when you start storyboarding.
When a director would say, “Okay, I want to open on a wide shot of a room that has two people in it talking!“. Before you even get to the next shot you’d have to find out where the camera is. What the room is. That might be the moment when the director realities he hasn’t thought of those aspects yet. You can say anything in a script, but if you’re not specific enough, you could get twenty people to storyboard it and get twenty different scenes. You really gotta get specific when it comes to that kind of direction. Where are the people sitting? What are they doing? Then when you get to the next shot, it’s over the shoulder say. You make little sketches and give them examples. You really start getting into the nitty gritty.
Somewhere between a script and a finished movie is this thing called a storyboard. This is somewhere half way in between, because it’s visual, and this is often the first time that this stuff becomes more than just words on a page.
On Nightmare 3 there was this Freddy snake that swallowed the girl. There was no Freddy snake yet. It was something that was written in the script, so when we’re storyboarding it, I’m drawing pictures of it and really just designing the snake itself. It’s just Freddy’s head on a fleshy snake body, so there’s not a lot of quote, unquote designing to do. Still, the drawings that we’re making are the first time that this thing has taken visual form. Then, when Kevin Yagher came up with the final result (who would have probably made the same thing with or without the drawings, I’m not trying to take credit for what he did), but it’s so cool that you’re drawing this thing, then somebody builds it, they shoot it and you see it end up on the screen.
Fantastic Four (1994)
There weren’t many big superheroes movies at that point and the effects techniques were severely limited. I thought they did a good job with the restrictions they had- but you will notice there’s not a whole lot of human torch action in there!
It was more than just another job because I love Jack Kirby’s work so much and got a kick out of drawings his characters! I had another go at them when Fox was going to do an FF movie directed by Raja Gosnell… but the director had no sympathy for the material- it was not his background and he didn’t really get it. At least I didn’t think so… It’s probably a good thing that version went belly-up and never went forward!
This was from the later version- unmade- Doc Doom was going to look all wrong!
Here also is a transformation of artist Trevor Goring into the Thing- something I did just for the hell of it. Same movie… or non-movie as it happened. Or didn’t happen!
The Mask (1994)
When The Mask came up, that was a big movie for him. They had such great casting with Jim Carrey as well. Who better to play that character, as he’s practically a CGI human being. It was a real treat. CGI had really arrived at this point and I don’t think they could have made The Mask any other way.
It was the same with The Blob (1988). I bet Chuck might wish he had that CGI when he made The Blob. It wouldn’t necessarily have been better, but it would have been easier.
I loved everything that I put together for The Mask. Anytime anyone did anything involving the mask itself all required storyboarding. There was one moment when The Mask was confronted by the police in a park. He tried to run away and the policemen yelled “Freeze!” and he was supposed to just stop mid-air. I said “Well, how about if he literally freezes and we add icicles and he turns blue.” Chuck agreed and that was one of the nice instances when you get a few licks in as a storyboard artist. Those are the great moments; when you get to draw more than they tell you to.
Mars Attacks! (1995)
I haven’t worked on a lot of the huge budget movies where there’s just a big team of people, which is fine with me. On Mars Attacks! for example, there were three of us doing the boards and I didn’t have much interaction with Tim Burton on a one to one basis. It was mostly with a guy that was his main right hand man, Michael Jackson. Michael would meet with Tim on our behalf and that was the beginning of that process as I experienced it. It was less direct involvement, which is alright, but I liked it better when you’re more engaged than that.
Many movies are so FX heavy now that you need much more storyboarding than you used to. That’s another reason things have changed. It would take too long for one person to do it. They figure that they need to hire a bunch of people to simply get the job done.
The Green Mile (1999)
When Frank came to me with The Green Mile it was like “What? Another Stephen King prison movie?” We joked about that; Frank said that’s what he was going to become known for. That was shot in LA, so I got to go to the set, which I really enjoyed. My job was over by the time they were shooting, but they always asked if I wanted to come over and watch the shoot.
Being on set is really great for a while, but it eventually becomes boring as hell. You’re always glad to have done it, but those are long days and a lot of the time is spent setting things up, so there’s a lot of sitting around and that’s when you’re actually working on it. If you’re just a visitor, then it’s even more arduous.
The world sees what the camera sees, but just off frame of the camera are all these wires, people and lights; there’s just so much stuff.
One thing about storyboarding is that it’s hard to watch a movie objectively if you’ve been there and seen it all. You don’t get the audience experience. That’s why it was fun to watch The Blob the other day, as I hadn’t seen it since we boarded it and made the movie. It was like watching it for the first time. Enough distance had passed. Chuck and Frank were both upcoming filmmakers back then, which is hard to fathom.
Every now and then you get those beautiful moments. On The Green Mile there was a shot where Frank Darabont and I were sitting in a room together and it’s the scene where Mr Jingles, the mouse dies. John Coffey was going to bring the mouse back to life. We’re in the middle of boarding this scene and Frank is thinking out how to figure out the shot. Finally, I drew a picture and said “How about this? You’re close, raking the bars of the cell and this large hand comes through. In the background Tom Hanks’ character is standing there and in the foreground this huge hand comes through, palm up and says ‘Give me the dead mouse’”. That’s the moment. When Frank saw the sketch he said ‘Yes! That’s it. That’s great!’
It’s amazing when they take your ideas on boars, as likely as not, however, they will say “No, I don’t want that” and you say “Okay” and more on. Never argue.
The Mist (2007) Massive Spoiler Alert!
I think one big problem with that film for a lot of people was the downbeat ending. If you did a Twilight Zone episode with a hard hitting, ironic ending like that it would be more forgivable, as you’re not quite as invested in the characters. I don’t know what went on with Frank and his decision to do that. It was certainly a bold, unexpected thing to do. It didn’t leave people filing out of the theatre happy.
Not only did he kill everyone in the car, but he didn’t need to. Then the cavalry arrive and it’s that final sucker punch. There are however, people who admire it for that.
(Edit: I am one of those people – Colin)
I loved the monsters. I loved the story of The Mist. In the book, however, it had no ending. That’s a let-down for some readers, as we don’t know if there’s any way out of the mist or of this is life from now on. It’s quite ambiguous and inconclusive. Maybe Frank thought that he wanted to give it a definitive ending. Maybe he wanted to remedy that problem.
The giant monster wasn’t in the first draft of the script and when I read that first draft I got to the end I thought “Where’s the giant monster?”. My son, who was in his early teens, also picked up the script and said the same thing. I said this to Frank and he asked me how you could do that.
I figured that if you saw the fleas and ants of that world, then there would also be elephants. That hint of a monster shows how unexpectedly huge that world is.
Working With Stephen King Material
Stephen King loves movies. He’s written extensively on horror movies in Danse Macabre and all that. I’m sure that, when he’s writing a story, he knows there’s a chance it’s going to be turned into a movie. He’s very visual that way.
I just did an illustrated version of a book of his called Skeleton Crew. PS books wanted an illustration for each story and that was super fun to do. The Deluxe Anniversary edition is going to have lots and lots of artwork in it and for better or worse, whether people like it or not they’re going to see it. It’s like with the Lovecraft books (Von Sholly has avast range of illustrated Lovecraft material), as opposed to movie work. At last it’s more stuff that I did with my name on it that will actually be published, as opposed to the behind the scenes world.
So, after reading all of this. Even with all the changes in the industry. I still want to be a Storyboard Artist? What do I do?
Learn basic drawing skills; a bit of anatomy, perspective and that kind of thing. Be prepared to draw everything as you might have to draw car chases, crashes and explosions. I have no advice for anybody except persist.
There’s a lot of competition these days and only so much work. That’s one of the things that make it tough. There’s a little bit of a clique; a handful of people in Hollywood that do the majority of the work, design wise too. The studios have changed. The budgets are tighter. They’re hiring a lot of brilliantly talented kids fresh out of art school who will work cheap. They’re great artists, they don’t have a lot of experience, but they have that youthful energy and excitement and they’ll bust their ass. They probably don’t have families to support so they probably don’t need as much money. I don’t want to sound negative, but that’s what it’s like.
Just believe that if you’re supposed to do it, you’ll end up doing it. Watch a lot of movies with the sound turned off and pay attention to the cuts. If you’re not listening and distracted by all of that, you’re twice as likely to be aware of the cutting. People will say to watch Alfred Hitchcock movies and you can’t go wrong there. He followed all the rules for storyboarding and there are rules. People break them but it’s good to know what they are.
There were very few books when I began, but there are more now. One very popular one, which was the holy grail for many years was the 5 Cs of Cinematography. It’s got a sick section on continuity. Get a movie script. Pick a scene you like and storyboard it. Do a couple of scenes and try your hands at making the calls. Get some feedback from someone with experience. That’s what was advised to me.
Learn screen direction. I didn’t even know what crossing the line was in storyboards when I started out. That’s where you put the camera so the shots can be cut together.The main thing is not to give up and show it to people. Don’t get discouraged. We went to see Neil Addams in New York when we were in our 20s and he said some harsh things, which hurt my feelings, but he was right. You always want people to like what you do, but it’s better to get an honest opinion. No one will do you any favours by telling you something is good when it isn’t. Not everyone will like what you do and you’ll get better.
At this point in my life I’ve been so lucky to do a bunch of horror movies and work with a lot of great people that I don’t really care anymore, because my passion is much more in the illustration and comics now. Whatever I do these days, I do it for myself. In saying that, I would take any storyboard job that came along, because I need to make a living, but at this point I don’t really care if it’s Grown Ups 3 or Curse of Chucky 4. If you can have fun in working then that’s what it’s all about.