All in the Wrist

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While creative directors, copywriters, and art directors may toil in anonymity, it's a relative anonymity. At least they can find their names in an awards annual here and there, or maybe in the trades. But what about storyboard artists? Even among art directors, they're sometimes referred to as "wrists" - disembodied hands with a knack for rendering in pencil and ink. "It has a double meaning," says Matt Myers, a former Deutsch and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners art director who now freelances as a storyboard artist. "They envy the talent, but they're saying we don't want your brain, we want your wrist."

"We're viewed as these nerdy, comic book, weird guys who just draw," says Jeremy Shires, who's boarded everything from Cliff Freeman spots to Moby videos. "We're like the blue-collar end of the advertising creative equation."

Storyboarders may produce unsigned work seen by just a few, but it's the few who count - like the people on the client side. And usually, the artists work at a tremendous pace. New York-based storyboard rep Andrea Warshaw of Warshaw Blumenthal says her artists have to be willing to put in long hours. "They'd better be prepared to not have a life," she says.

"There's only a handful of really good storyboard artists in New York and you're always calling them at the last moment," says Cliff Freeman AD Guy Shelmerdine. "Storyboard artists are expensive, and you definitely have to move swiftly from one board to the next." For this kind of productivity storyboarders charge day rates in the $750-$1,000 range.

Nor is the work limited in stylistic scope; boards come in at least 57 flavors. For starters, of course, there are shooting boards and boards for client presentations. Among the latter, there are boards that are drawn (either in color or black and white), boards that are "swiped" from stock footage or stills, and even low-tech cartoony animatic boards. Which type is used in a pitch depends on prevailing tastes. For example, Shelmerdine says that before he came to Freeman from Ground Zero in Los Angeles, he pitched using his own rough renderings. On the other hand, former Kirshenbaum executive CD Bill Oberlander says he's seen movement in the opposite direction, toward photographic-quality presentations. "It used to be that the ideas were fancy but the comps were rough," he says. "Now I would argue, the fancier the comps, the easier it is to sell the idea." Oberlander recalls trying to pitch Tommy Hilfiger with hand-drawn sketches. "It was painful," he says. "The guy didn't know what he was supposed to be looking at. We went back with tight photographic comps and then we were on the same page."

Less than a decade ago, it looked like hand-illustrated presentation boards might be on the way out. Storyboard vet Shires says he even sought refuge in grad school as many illustrators fled the ad industry to board features. And while computers have obviated the need to create hand-drawn comps for print work, the market for hand-illustrated broadcast boards remains strong. "More comps aren't being done for print, maybe, but they still board their boards," says Warshaw. "We're in demand again, whereas six or seven years ago, for a good number of years, everybody thought they were going to solve their problems with computers," adds Shires.

Still, the boards that are being drawn today differ from those of the pre-Photoshop era. Rather than competing with photorealism, illustrated boards have become more freely drawn. "A lot of art directors used to want to have every little detail noodled to death," says Mike Barry, who has been drawing boards since 1978. "That's hardly ever the case now." Mark Miller, president of Famous Frames, an agency that reps Shires and other storyboard artists, agrees. "The tight, beautiful comps are not as prevalent as fast, fun drawings," he says.

Illustrated boards are not only faster, they have another major advantage over stock: originality. "Hopefully, what you're going to present to clients is something that hasn't been seen before," Myers says. "If it's something new, you have to draw it."

And so the "wrists" hang on well into the computer age. Some freelance. Some work in-house at agencies and production houses. And many are called in, en masse, to ramp up for impending pitches. "You walk into an agency obsolete and by the end of the day you're an apparition," Shires says. "People sort of look at you like you're this weird guy from the past who draws."

There are no Pytkas and Kinkas, no Wiedens and Freemans, in storyboarding - every creative says he or she knows who the world's greatest storyboard artist is, it's just that no two agree - but the board is where the rubber meets the road and where the client meets the concept. Here's a look at four well-known spots, at the boards behind the spots, and at the artists behind the boards.

Spot "Spaceship" Client Mountain Dew Agency BBDO/New York

John Cote compares storyboarding to translating a book. "There can be many translations," he says, "but one will tell the story better."

Earlier this year, Cote boarded the epic spot featuring the "Dew dudes" who commandeer an alien star-cruiser. The commercial debuted during the Survivor season premiere, right after the Super Bowl. According to BBDO senior creative director Bill Bruce, the spot - despite far-flung location shooting, Lucas-like effects, and Kinka Usher direction - was not pitched as a spot for the big day but was picked from several concepts during a routine presentation of new work. As for the importance of boards in selling an idea, Bruce says, "It's not just presenting the idea to the client. It's presenting the way we see the spot playing out."

Cote says he dropped out of art school in 1985, a few days after being hired as a storyboard artist by Hill Holiday, three credits short of a diploma. Happily busy, Cote, who has boarded spots for Cliff Freeman, Young & Rubicam, and Lowe Lintas, currently works primarily for BBDO, where he has illustrated work for FedEx, Doritos, and Pepsi One. As for the story of the Dew dudes and the spaceship, Bruce says, "We knew we wanted to start off with some sort of abduction and end on the English countryside. The question was: What to do in between?" What happens in between is a star-cruiser careening about like an over-priced skateboard before the aliens decide they've had enough and eject the dudes from the ship. A few things were added to the pitch board on the way to the finished product - some folks looking up at the out-of-control spaceship to add some "humanity" according to Bruce, and a POV and voiceover from inside the ship, an idea kicked in by the editor. "We just started batting around ideas and this kind of came from that," Bruce says.

Spot "where bad fruit go" Client snapple Agency deutsch/new york

Matt Myers, who rendered these boards for Deutsch's latest round of Snapple work, knows what he's dealing with. That's because he used to be an art director at Deutsch on this very account. Before that he and copywriter Cheryl van Ooyen were teamed at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, again working on Snapple. So it's understandable that van Ooyen, who now oversees Snapple for Deutsch, calls on Myers when she needs boards.

Myers, 40, lives in Montreal and hires himself out as a storyboarder and art director on commercials shoots, subsidizing his career as a painter. Having seen it from both sides, Myers says he's accustomed to meeting the needs of art directors. "At the stage that a comp artist is pulled in," he says, "the art director doesn't really want to hear any new ideas."

As far as directors go, Myers says it's surprising how literally directors sometimes take the presentation boards. "It's amazing how often cinematographers go straight from them," he says. On the other hand, "sometimes it pisses the directors off," when the boards are tight for the sake of reassuring the client.

Myers sees an advantage to drawn boards: their ability to illustrate ideas that have never been seen before. Like, say, two pieces of anthropomorphic fruit in a prison-yard knife fight.

Spot "word" Client coca-cola Agency cliff freeman & partners

Jeremy Shires, the artist who drew these frames for Cliff Freeman's new business pitch to Coca-Cola last year, misses the good old days of boarding. "It can a be very alienating profession in agencies because you aren't given much respect as an illustrator anymore," he says. "You show up with your toolkit and they throw you in a little room." The 39-year-old Shires can remember a time when most art directors knew how to draw, which gave way, in the early '90s, to storyboards hammered out in Photoshop and an unhealthy reliance on stock books. Shires insists that if you want a concept to look totally new, you can't swipe it from stock. "The whole idea of storyboarding is to draw quickly and to be able to draw events, gestures, and expressions without reference." Freeman AD Guy Shelmerdine values the emphasis on speed; the hard truth is "when you get to the point of drawing up the script, it's always at the last minute."

For these frames for Coke's "Word" campaign Shires tried to capture the "Gen-X, quasi-drug feeling" behind the rave culture featured in the spots. He also says Cliff Freeman is a "very inclusive place" when it comes to storyboarding, with a lot of give and take between creatives and artists. At some shops, Shires says, "they tell you how important you are when they need you, but no one really wants to talk to the guy who draws."

Spot"running with the squirrels" Client eds Agency fallon/minneapolis

Colin McGreal, 32, says that "storyboards are the side job that takes up 90 percent of my time." He worked with Hungry Man to craft these early boards for EDS's "Running with the Squirrels" from this year's Super Bowl. McGreal, like many artists, didn't set out to do storyboards. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, starting with a focus on illustration but finishing with a degree in film. He's been on the other side of the production equation, directing commercials in Asia, where he shot spots for Vietnamese television via Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett.

As a storyboard artist, McGreal has worked with Marcus Nispel and Richard Avedon, adding many major production houses - Propaganda, Radical Media - to his client list. With his experience as a director, McGreal says he brings an understanding of cinematic flow to his illustrations. "When I work with directors, I think they value me," he says. "I'm a director at heart and they're able to work with me."

Boards were not a part of Fallon's original pitch to EDS. Instead, the concept was presented via a "personality package" that included footage of the running of the bulls in Pamplona and even stills with squirrels Photoshopped in. "We really did our visual homework upfront before we got to the storyboard stage," says art director Dean Hanson. "Some clients buy the storyboard and then grab onto it like life preserver. The beauty of presenting this way is you've got the script but the client knows it's going to be an evolutionary process."

Hungry Man director John O'Hagan - who also directed EDS's famed "Cat Wranglers" spot - was involved in the evolution of "Squirrels" from early on, and the client was presented with a series of shooting boards as the spot developed. McGreal met O'Hagan when they were both in college in Providence - McGreal at RISD, O'Hagan at Brown - and is one of three or four artists O'Hagan uses regularly.

"I love working with a storyboard artist, to see these ideas come to life," says O'Hagan, who usually begins the process with his own rough sketches. "And it's good when they can suggest an angle or spark an idea, rather than just draw."

"At its best," says McGreal, "it's like two kids in the back of the class passing a drawing back and forth trying to make it funnier."

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