Drawings by directors -- Behind the art of storyboarding, and why directors like Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton use it

By Walter Thomas
April 23, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Classic movie scenes are born in the mind’s eye. Bringing that vision to life sometimes starts with a pad and a pencil. Here’s how a few of the world’s greatest directors drew their inspiration.

To the woe of scriptwriters everywhere, movies are made with a camera, not a typewriter. And for a unique collection of cinema wizards, the birth of their slick, seamless celluloid dreams is no more than a sketchy idea. Literally.

Directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton have drawn their inspirations with varying degrees of artistry and detail, and their sketches have been at the creative heart of such films as North by Northwest, Raging Bull, Brazil, and Batman. To celebrate the tradition, an exhibition of directors’ drawings has been painstakingly assembled by curators Mark Pollard and Marc Glimcher of The Pace Gallery in New York City. Arne Glimcher, the director of The Mambo Kings — who also happens to be an art dealer, the founder of the gallery, and Marc’s father-got the idea for ”Drawing Into Film: Directors’ Drawings,” while coproducing Gorillas in the Mist in 1988.

”I was working on the film’s storyboards and I realized that most people don’t understand this part of the filmmaking process,” says Glimcher. ”A lot of great directors draw, so I decided to mount a show that would reveal this art form that is so much about concealing that very process.”

For some that process is, perhaps, more maniacal than for others. ”I try to visualize the script as far as I can, breaking each scene down into components, until I know exactly how I want to enter the scene, exit the scene, and everything in between,” says director Martin Scorsese. For Taxi Driver, he created an almost-unheard-of 400 drawings. ”I even did boards for the close-ups of people talking,” he says. ”But it’s for action sequences, like the boxing scenes in Raging Bull and the pool-game scenes in The Color of Money, where the need to draw out a scene is most crucial for me.” These sequences act as self-contained movies within the larger story. ”[They] become film moments made up completely of celluloid and motion,” he says. ”They represent pure filmmaking, and the rest of the movie — the way it’s shot and how it looks — is determined by them, and grows out from them.”

Like so many filmmakers, Scorsese acknowledges directors’ indebtedness to Hitchcock, and in the case of 1980’s Raging Bull, he went so far as to base its goriest fight scene on one of Hitch’s most unforgettable sequences. ”For the storyboard of the last Sugar Ray fight where [Robert] De Niro gets beaten but won’t go down, I decided to literally follow Hitchcock’s lineup of shots from the shower sequence in Psycho. I looked at it a number of times and then duplicated its editing pattern.”

The scene’s final storyboard consisted of 36 drawings and took 10 days to film. ”It’s really interesting,” Scorsese says, ”because you can look at the storyboard of that fight and see that the first shot in the scene is the first drawing of the storyboard, the second shot is the second drawing, and so on. There’s very little intercutting left up to chance in the editing room.” The result of Scorsese’s precision: an Oscar for his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Batman‘s Tim Burton, an art-school student who began his career as an apprentice animator at the Walt Disney Studios, is no less a perfectionist than Scorsese, but for him sketches are less a plotting of the film than a way of focusing his mind. ”It helps me to hone in on my thought process, which tends to be all over the place,” Burton says. ”Plus, sometimes a doodle will remain with me and I’ll draw it over and over. In a weird way that’s how I know something has meaning.”

Despite the uncanny similarity between his drawings and their cinematic descendants, Burton says his illustrations aren’t to be taken literally, and he uses them as a litmus test when hiring actors and crew members. ”If someone gets the spirit of them, I know I’ll like working with him, that he’s probably an artist with a mind of his own who can look at something, understand it, and take off from there.”

Storyboarding is also an excellent way to communicate the director’s vision to the specialists who must bring it to life — the production designer, art director, costume designer, director of photography, technical crew, and special-effects team. And storyboards help minimize costly confusion. ”Movies are so expensive,” laments Robert Benton, Oscar-winning director of Kramer vs. Kramer, who also prepares with storyboards. ”You don’t want to find yourself wasting everybody’s time, walking around saying, ‘Maybe we should do this, maybe we should be over there, maybe we should do endless things.”’

For many filmmakers, the comic books and cartoons of their childhood created their fascination with telling stories through pictures. ”As a child, I was infatuated with comic books and comic strips in newspapers,” recalls Scorsese. ”When I was about 8, I saw The Magic Box, a British film about the life of William Friese-Greene, who was one of the inventors of cinema. There’s a scene played by Robert Donat where he puts little drawings in the margin of a book and then flips the pages, causing the drawings to move. At that moment I understood how motion pictures work.” Eager to put his newfound insight to work, the young Scorsese began drawing or painting his own movies, including biblical epics and war films.

And in the end, the practice of storyboarding may all come down to this: ”I guess what I do when I’m storyboarding today is re-create the condition of a small child hiding away in a room somewhere drawing little pictures,” says Scorsese. ”It’s a very special time for me.”