Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
(*Archived here with Permission)
Storyboarding the Menace
With Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, it took tremendous innovation in the areas of animatics, non-linear editing, sound design, computer effects, and character animation to bring George Lucas’ vision to the big screen. For Episode I storyboard artist Ed Natividad, however, the job wasn’t about technical innovation, but idea generation. “A pen and a paper, that’s all I need,” Natividad says with pride. “And the pencil around my neck.”
An Ohio native, Natividad joined the Episode I production team in 1997 and spent his first year fleshing out some of the initial storyboards for the film. A storyboard is an artist’s rendering of a specific point of the story from the camera’s point of view. Put together, the storyboards create a shot-by-shot prototype of the final film.
“While there were all these advancements in effects, storyboards were kept pretty much the same as before,” says Natividad. “We were keeping in the tradition and style of the first three films. Joe Johnston’s technique was carried throughout.” Renowned for his concept and storyboard art for the original Star Wars films, Joe Johnston had “the best visual style – ever” according to Lucas. A tough act to follow.
Where the primary focus of storyboarding composition, continuity, and screen direction, efficiency is key. “It’s very basic, mainly pencil and maybe some black marker,” explains Natividad. “We use normal 8.5 by 11 inch pages, each with three panels. Then we enlarge them with the photocopier and cut them out. You can’t spend a lot of time on them.”
A storyboard veteran of films like Armageddon and Batman and Robin, Natividad notes that the use of standard tools didn’t mean that The Phantom Menace was business as usual. In order to ensure that the many people involved in production would be clear on the direction from the beginning, it was decided that the script and the storyboards would be created simultaneously.
“In other productions, we would get the full script,” Natividad says. “In this case, we never received copies of the script. Every Tuesday we would sit around a table and George would come in and read off new pages while we would draw primitive sketches. In the following days we would embellish them very quickly and present them to George on Friday.”
“Each new scene would start with an establishing shot, like a large Kurosawa-style battle on rolling hills from a high angle. Doug Chiang would draw the scene’s establishing shots and keyframes – the high points in the action – and we would fill in all the necessary boards in between. But later on they would change accordingly once design, exact location and casting were finalized.”
Natividad and colleague Benton Jew spent most of a year exclusively storyboarding, but the storyboard team itself would often grow to a group of four or five as the need would arise. “Anyone in the art department would jump in if they weren’t busy with other things. Doug was the leader and Ian McCaig was very instrumental, but we all contributed. There wasn’t much specializing. Everyone had to be able to draw everything.”
With such an iterative process, it is not surprising that the storyboard team had to adapt to significant changes along the way. “There was going to be a fight with the droids and tanks in the desert,” Natividad recalls. “The Jedi powers were a little bit more magnified. They could jump 100 feet in the air and turn invisible – they would kind of shimmer. Obi-Wan could make a suggestion with the Force and a legion of droids would turn on each other and blow themselves away… to kind of lessen the Jedi’s effort.”
As the storyboards were completed, they were pinned to foam boards in sequential order. “We had them all over the room,” Natividad says. “Ultimately we ran out of space, but it was amazing to see the entire movie before your eyes.” Laying out the boards like that also made it possible for director Lucas to pre-edit film sequences, often removing boards or changing their order to make a scene more exciting visually.
At that point, the storyboards were shown to Industrial Light & Magic. “Because of the large number of effects required, the storyboards were very critical for ILM to determine their financial estimates for the film,” explains Natividad. “They came in and George actually took some markers and color coded what would be a digital matte, computer generated elements, sets and miniatures. The quality and accuracy of the storyboard drawing had to be much higher than for other films. Everything had to be clearly represented. Nothing left to question. The computer guys take things very literally when they do their modeling.”
With the initial round of storyboarding complete, for the next year Natividad turned his attention to concept design for the countless elements needed to populate the Star Wars universe. With major themes in place, Ed helped the artistic team in coming up with a look for everything from the Jedi temple to Gungan weaponry to statues to costumes for secondary characters and down to even smaller details like tables, chairs and light fixtures. “In the art department, we all have to be versatile and able to jump in wherever we are needed,” said Natividad. “There were so many things to design. We would just take what Doug and Ian McCaig had established aesthetically and would springboard off of that. ”
But storyboarding did not end when the shooting of film began. As live action footage progressed, the storyboard artists were called upon to produce ‘effects boards.’ “We would receive stills from blue screen filming and it would be up to us to fill in the blue void,” says Natividad. Once the effects boards were complete, the team was also responsible for drawing storyboards for any reshoots that were determined to be necessary through the editing process.
Despite the repeated and detailed involvement Natividad had with each scene from Episode I, the final product was still a mystery. “The pacing was different than I expected. It went by a little bit faster than I thought,” he says. “Actually, I didn’t want to see anything from the movie before it was done. I avoided every opportunity to preview the movie…anything.” He saw the film theatrically 13 times throughout the summer.
Natividad was relaxing in Hawaii when the call came with the invitation to work on Episode II. He accepted “in a heartbeat” and doesn’t expect the storyboarding process to change much. “We have a schedule to meet, so I think it will be a little more efficient and won’t take as long,” he predicts. “But I think pencil and paper is still the best and quickest way. Everything is moving towards the computer, but what if the director wants you to come up to his office and come up with some ideas? You can’t bring the computer up there.”
“The film is the final artwork. My drawings are ideas.”