Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Get Out the Crayola's

Over the summer I picked up a coloring book job for Canson. I created five pages for an insert that was to be included in with sketchbooks sold exclusively in 500 Wal-Mart's around the US.  I did them because they met the following criteria:

I was in charge of the creative content, with the one request from Wal-Mart that the images fell within the realm of fairy tale/fantasy.

I have permission to share the images on my blog.

One pass at roughs, one pass at finishes.

About two days of work or a little more.

I have a good relationship with the folks at Canson.

That being said, I rifled through my art books for inspiration.  I noticed I kept going back to the same illustrators, like the Red Rose Girls, Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Rene Bull, W. Heath Robinson, Stephen R. Kidd and others.

How talented those legends were. In retrospect, I wish I would have spent more time on developing them, in order to solve some of the problems that bug me every time I revisit. Out of the five illustrations commissioned, I like the ones shown above the most. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Binge-Watching: A Marathon of Stories We Love

Above: Four of my favorite on-demand shows 

I’ve never followed more than one or two television series at a time. Years ago, I tuned in weekly to “The Simpsons,” “The X-Files,” “Ally McBeal” (something I could watch with my wife), “Star Trek Voyager,” and Gilmore Girls. (Yes, I watched “Gilmore Girls.” I admit it. I developed a crush on Lauren Graham in the process. But hey, it was a good show).

Today, with the seamless integration of on-demand viewing services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others, it’s become tempting to binge-watch any show at anytime.
The restless Rick Grimes as played by Andrew Lincoln
Binge watching has come in handy for me. “Battlestar Galactica,” “Family Guy,” “Daredevil,” “Devious Maids,” “Vikings,” and oldies like Columbo have fit the bill at one time or another.  While my current roster of weekly broadcast shows include “The Walking Dead” and not much else, I take advantage of the many options where I can watch other shows at my own pace.

Walter White  and company
I recently finished the entire 5 seasons of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix. There have been many accolades of this AMC original series, all deservedly so. I wasn’t as tuned-in as everyone else was to “Breaking Bad” when it was first broadcast on AMC.  I heard amazing things about it, not just from friends and associates, but from news shows like NPR’s Fresh air. When I was shopping around a TV pilot a few years ago, industry professionals were saying the best writing was being done in television.  It’s easy to agree with them.
Marvel's "Daredevil," a Netflix original series, renewed for a second season
What makes viewers carve time out of their busy schedules to watch show after show in one sitting? What ‘triggers’ lead to watching the latest original series on Netflix or Amazon? Holidays, bad weather, days off from work, romantic time together, break-ups and surfing the web all may be contributors. The bottom line is that at some point we all want to be entertained, and we all want to experience the plethora of emotions that accompany storytelling.

New Yorker’s have come a long way since WHT, (Wometco Home Theater) and hot cable boxes.  Before the rise of cable service we had 7 channels to choose from. After school, the 4:30 movie was a bonus for highly edited versions of “Planet of the Apes,” “Godzilla,” or “The Great Escape.”  Most Mets and Yankees baseball games were televised, easy to find, and a staple for summer nights. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch the “Six Million Dollar Man” or “Emergency” in its original broadcast time slot, you had to wait a few months and search TV guide for a rerun.
Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha: Don't mess with the dress!
Today, click, scroll, select, sample, nestle in, watch and off you go. There is no limit to what viewers watch, or how much. Like a book too good to put down, we want to keep turning the page to see what happens next in our chosen series.  With smart TV’s in our living rooms, mobile apps in our pocket and laptops in our offices, binge watching is a few clicks away (get a good Internet service).

"House of Cards?” Tom Cruise marathon? “Modern Marvels,” “National Geographic,” Disney Animation, or “The Office?” All are here, for your downfall or delight

I still haven’t been compelled to watch Lost, Mad Men or Orange is the New Black. Give it time. With today’s multiple viewing options, anything is possible.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


HR Giger's "Necronom IV" was the primary visual target
for Ridley Scott's 1979 "Alien."

Before beginning my freelance storyboard career, I had the privilege and good fortune to be an Art Director in several full-time roles. As hard work led to opportunity knocking, I learned a thing or two about the world of Art Direction. It can walk a fine line between creativity and paper pushing, requiring an overall commitment to design and mood, yet punctuated by a “hands on ability to roll-up one’s sleeves and help with production work,” as the classifieds love to state. At one time or another, I’ve experienced all of the above.

I’ve been Art Director in publishing, advertising, and video games, and I’m certain my experiences have contributed to my effectiveness as a freelance storyboard artist, one who is able to deliver powerful dramatic images while understanding the needs of my clients - be they art director, brand manager, producer or writer.

The Influence of Visual Targets 

As an artist, I automatically ask myself a question when I start a new project. What is my visual target? What kind of look, mood, graphics or design sensibility is necessary for me to sell the idea?

That same thinking applies to Art Direction. If you’re an Art Director who must sell your vision to more than one person, visual targets are a must. A visual target is typically a sample of what the finished project should look like. It can be a piece of swipe, music video, game trailer, film clip, photo or a piece of concept art. Anything that helps you specify the visual qualities of the project is acceptable. Most times the visual targets are obtained quickly by the Art Director or wrangled by someone assisting him or her.

Without these references, your team members are working twice as hard and hoping for the best result come approval time.

Maybe you’re shooting a commercial spot and your visual targets are frames from a Wes Anderson film. Or maybe a game-play clip from Prince of Persia shares the visual structure of your upcoming console adventure. Saul Bass’s movie title designs may influence your series of NYC subway ads, while the digital designs of Ray Gun will inspire your latest print campaign. Monet’s Water Lilies may have the color palette for your next photo shoot. Whatever you have in mind, you may cull from a wealth of resources. 

Striking color and central point perspective are prominent
 visual signatures in Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014)

The Sell 

Once visual targets assembled, the Art Director needs to obtain “buy-in” from the project manager, producer, studio execs, or powers-that-be. Whether in publishing, video games, web, or advertising, first gain the blessing of your project head. Create a power-point deck, a pdf brief, a pitch-board or a style guide with your visual reference. Walk “the client” through your ideas, mentioning what you love about the graphics, layouts, design, mood, colors, etc., and why you think these sensibilities speak to the project.

Next, share the material with the team. These are the hard working artists, designers, writers, project managers, coders, UI artists, modelers, etc. who work with you to make your vision a reality. This is your chance to rally the masses! Inspire and excite them with the visual and conceptual possibilities of the project.
Unconventional font usage in Art Director David Carson's
"Ray Gun Magazine," (1992) influenced the deconstruction style of
 design used in music, pop culture and lifestyle publications of the 1990's. 

Don’t expect them to remember the presentation details afterwards. Publish the visual targets and presentation somewhere – and provide everyone with access. Maybe it’s on the project server, internal web site, or anyplace they can visit to review the guidelines and see latest changes or updates to the material. Broadcast them in email threads and on bulletin boards, cubicle walls, common areas and such.

Case Study: Visual Targets in Video Games 

When I was an Art Director at EA Sports on sports games like “Madden NFL,” there was a time when visual targets were not so commonly accepted as a pipeline practice. Artists, engineers, producers and designers frequently had different ideas of what was an acceptable standard for finished assets.

If you asked the team what the visual goals were, you would get 10 different answers. As the studio grew in size and art leadership, the Art Directors organized protocols for visual development and discovery, pre-production and approvals. Establishing a visual target was embraced throughout the studio, with much success.

I had some key moments as Art Director at EA. One of them was spearheading early efforts to create an original IP for the latest Nintendo platforms. I looked for visual targets that would speak not only to the demographics of savvy Nintendo DS and Wii users, but also rally the interest of every in-house artist, engineer and designer who wanted to do something outside the box. I wanted the art to be unusual, memorable and unique. I had to sell the idea that our IP would be not just fun to play, but visually groundbreaking. 

My Visual Targets and Pre-Viz for original video game IP (2008)

Since the project was to be designed from scratch, there were no existing models, environments, codes, or files of any kind to repurpose. There was no pipeline like there was in “Madden,” and we had to start from nothing. We didn’t have a game engine. In fact, we hadn’t even finalized the licensing agreement with Nintendo to develop on their platform! Everything was an unknown – pixels, animation, memory, legibility, and so on were all based on estimates.

I sweated nervously under a self-imposed regimen to find visual targets and develop inspirational art. My references were found in a variety of media. I culled designs from toys, animation, and illustration. It was a period of discovery for me. I partnered with a designer and a producer, with limited access to a staff concept artist and environment modeller. With their help, I began to define visual targets for characters, environments, UI and color.

No sooner had I pinned up the first prints of my results than people were stopping me in the hall, asking about the project. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Unexpectedly, I received email requests from engineers and artists asking to join the team. All this, and we still didn’t have a green light!

Hitting the Bullseye 

Result like this are encouraging for an Art Director and exciting for the team. A healthy buzz goes around the studio, alive with possibilities that lie ahead. A strong visual target and the subsequent development designs will add adrenalin into what may sometimes be viewed as standard fare. The momentum gained from such focus will boost the production cycle out of the starting gate. If done well, it will elevate an Art Director’s professional regard among execs, managers and peers, while gaining the respect and trust of the production, creative, development and support staff.

Visual targets bring groups of experts into alignment, galvanizing diverse skills toward a unified result. What better place is there for an Art Director, than to lead a team of eager creatives all sharing a common goal – to make an entertaining experience with a distinctive visual signature? Who knows, the results may echo for years to come as a resounding work of art!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Seven Healthy Habits of Highly Effective Freelance Artists

So much has been written in career columns about how to survive as a freelancer, that it's daunting to offer any new insight.  How to stay positive amidst the slow periods? How to get things done when you're your own boss? How to say "no" to friends and family who think you're home on vacation?

While advice on these topics is valuable for the freelance artist, anyone who finds it a challenge to work independently at home will appreciate these SEVEN simple points as essential to your health and well-being.
1) Get 8 hours sleep.
In my twenties, I would deprive myself of sleep, thinking that I could accomplish more creative artwork if I could sleep less. Twenty-plus years later, this same behavior will threaten to kill me. Caffeine, Ginseng and 5 Hour Energy Drinks are no substitute for what your body needs.  With 8 hours sleep, I'm less cranky and more able to deal with adversity than when I burn the candle at both ends. Sure, I still pull the occasional all-nighter when needed. But having a full 8 hours sleep is the key to a productive day. For creative night owls like me, this reality was a hard one to accept. Listen to your body when it craves rest. You will enjoy the stamina you get in return.

2) Write it down and get it done.
I keep a "to do" list of things I must do every day, and star each in order of priority. In this manner I can balance my day and quickly recollect what I need to accomplish to stay on the success path. Write down your dreams, your goals, your plans. Make a separate list for today's goals, short term goals and another for long term goals. You are more likely to reach them once you can verbalize them and put a deadline to them.

3) What do you listen to while you work?
When I'm cranking out frame after frame of storyboards for my latest commercial spot, I've got to determine what background noise will make me most productive. Music sites like Pandora, iTunes, podcasts,  audio books (LibriVox has public domain audio books that you can download for free), or my CD collection all provide choices to complement my mood. TV show reruns, movies on Netflix or DVDs like Family Guy, Star Trek or Columbo are great for those late night deadlines. It's key that you've seen the program previously, so you aren't compelled to watch while working. Directors commentaries add an informative listening experience that will entertain you while conditioning you to embrace your workload. 

Listening effects your work speed and concentration levels. Know what makes you productive and what slows you down. What you listen to is as important as when you listen to it. Although I love BBC World News, I can feel myself shifting to slow gear after an hour or two. In this case, I'll change my state of mind and my physiology by jacking up some Blondie or B-52's.  In some cases, silence may be all you need. "Know thyself" and you will feed the artist within.

4) Break regularly.
I've learned that working long hours builds stamina and promotes artistic break-throughs.  But sitting too long in one position isn't good. Experts say a break every 25 minutes or so maximizes your focus. Get up and grab some coffee, take out the trash, empty the dishwasher… just step away for five minutes. If you don't, your neck, back, and hands will notice. Try hitting a deadline with a stiff neck, achy back, or cramped fingers…it ain't fun. Healthy habits will avoid that problem.  No matter how euphoric you may feel while painting your latest masterpiece, take breaks often. When you return to your desk you'll evaluate your progress with more objectivity.

5) Drink water.
Sounds boring doesn't it? That's because it is, at least for me. The only time I crave water is when I am parched with thirst. If that is your experience, your body is crying out for hydration. We all know muscle cramps can result from insufficient water intake, and who needs aching hamstrings when on deadline? If water doesn't tempt your palette, try adding a squeeze of lemon to each glass. It stimulates your metabolism and adds some flavor to natures' universal solvent.

In love with your favorite coffee blend? No worries. I love coffee and can drink it all day, and I would, too, if Chock-Full-O-Nuts wasn't so Chock-Full-O-Bad Breath. After one or two cups, wash those coffee beans down with a big glass of water. You'll feel a bit cleaner and healthier inside.

6) Exercise!
If you're anything like me, you let the exercise slip all too often. Jog, lift weights, jump rope like Rocky, shoot hoops, play Frisbee, rollerblade - whatever floats your boat. Stay active and hydrate. After a morning run or hike, I feel energized and focused for a day in the studio. And that habit from #5 is a heck of a lot easier to enforce, as your body craves water after fitness. If jogging is your latest thing, here's a tip: The app "Map My Run" is a free download for your mobile device that will help you track and measure your progress. You can share your results with other runners in real-time, which makes it more fun to exercise.

7) Motivate yourself.
How do you keep plugging away when you have an onslaught of storyboards to finish by midnight? Can't get through that dull bookkeeping or the next round of phone calls?

Whatever your task, find motivators to get you through each phase. Maybe 5 minutes of your favorite movie trailers, an after-lunch frappuccino, or a bite of that dark chocolate you hid in the freezer for special occasions may serve as a small motivator. The smaller and less frequent the reward, the more relevant it will be as an instant motivator.

It's important not to use motivators continually or they will lose their effectiveness. 
Dolphin trainers in parks like Sea World reward their mammals with a fish snack after every few tricks they perform. The dolphins don't know when their reward is coming, but the possibility of getting a snack any minute for their hard work keeps them motivated. This technique may be controversial, but it shows that the principle of random rewards is effective at bolstering peak performance. As a result, you are building good habits and experiencing a gratifying feeling of accomplishment. 

8) Socialize
I know, I promised SEVEN habits, but hopefully you aren't counting… .
Make it a habit to reach out to an old friend, acquaintance or family member on a regular basis. A five minute phone call to say "hello" helps reassure you that you are not alone in the world. Schedule a short lunch with a friend or colleague during the workday, or meet for a coffee break.

I have a daily ritual where I call one of my best friends  who I've known since fifth grade. We were clowns then and we are still clowns now. Although we have plenty of serious business and personal matters to discuss, every phone call is punctuated with seemingly pointless joking and humor. The light-hearted vibe that ensues reminds us that humor is present in almost any situation.

Old friends are like throwing on old pair of jeans, sneakers and a tee shirt. One always feels comfortable with them. If you haven't caught up with an old friend recently, make some time for it. Your soul needs it, your friendships will flourish, and your effectiveness at work will strengthen.

If these habits sound familiar, good for you.  If not, I hope you will find success with just ONE of them.
Ultimately, good habits mixed with talent and perseverance will lead to your freelance longevity and lasting career rewards. Good luck, and get busy! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Art Directors: 5 Steps for Choosing a Storyboard Artist

In today's ever-advancing technology of commercials, film, animation, cable and video games, hiring the right creative for the job is more important than ever.

As an Art Director you may only get one chance to sell your intentions to clients, executives, colleagues or peers. While Power Point presentations, sizzle reels, and handouts are informative and explanatory, they don’t always satisfy emotionally. That’s when you need a Storyboard Artist.  

In my experience as a Storyboard Artist, the line-quality, value, color, design and stylizations of illustrated storyboards triggers a provocative, gut-level response in clients. 

If you are an Art Director thinking of hiring a Storyboard Artist for you next visual presentation, here are 5 Steps that will likely get you a perfect match.

1. Need a Pair of Hands or Partner in Creativity?
Some Art Directors know exactly what they want. Some don’t. Which Storyboard Artist you pick will be based on your needs.

Do you want someone who is eager to collaborate? Help solve story problems? Are you open to suggestions?
If so, find a Storyboard Artist who can help develop your shot list. They will sit with you and draw thumbnails (postage stamp-sized sketches) and roughs based on your ideas, and discuss solutions for any roadblocks that concern you.

Reach out and ask something like "Have you any experience brainstorming ideas with a director, writer, etc.? Are you good working with a team of creatives, in a conference room setting or similar set-up?

If they answer "Yes" then bring them in. Most Storyboard Artists bring their own supplies, but if you are dead-set on them using an Eberhard Faber col-erase #1280 pencil, please mention it. Very few of my clients ever get this specific. Most will ask for “pencil sketches” when what they really mean are “rough drawings.” What medium I choose matters little to them at this stage, as long as I am communicating the important visuals.

On the other hand, if you are an Art Director, Director, Producer, Writer, etc. who has every shot visualized in your head, you want to hire an artist who is comfortable interpreting your images literally, right down to hairstyles, wardrobes and camera angles.  You can give them the shot list with appropriate references and come back later to see their progress.

2. Style Counts: Door Number 1 or Door Number 2?
Unlike "Let's make a Deal", choosing a perfect storyboard artist need not be a frantic guessing game. It helps to know what kind of “look and feel” will sell your idea.

For instance, if you have a classy, conservative visual campaign for Mercedes, you may want a shiny style with lots of polish. A cartoony look may not have the sophisticated feel for your Mercedes spot, but it may be perfect for selling dishwashing detergent.

Office colleagues might refer you to a Storyboard Artist they’ve worked with. Colleagues don’t make referrals lightly, because if you have a bad experience with a referral, it comes back to them. In any case, make sure you review the artists work before you hire them, otherwise you can end up with a guy who does Bugs Bunny when you really want Norman Rockwell (both great, I may add).

If the artsits’ on-line gallery is overwhelming, showing too much work to decipher, an artist rep may be of help.

Art reps may have anywhere between 30 - 50 artists that they represent, sometimes more. For help narrowing down your choices, call the agent and ask whom they might recommend. If realism is a factor, mention that. If the ability to work in loose sketches is more important, with a lot of changes along the way, then be clear that you need someone agile enough to take feedback without getting annoyed.  Reps invest a great deal of time working with their artists – they know their personality, work ethic, specialties and weaknesses.
They are a great resource, and will give you a fair market rate while working with your budget.


3. On-Site or Off-Site?
If you need to interact and brainstorm together, obviously working on site is ideal. Even if you have a shot list they are simply illustrating, you may want them near so you can review progress, or grab some colleagues to join the both of you to see if the idea is working. On-site allows you to build a presentation using the rough frames as placeholders, and gives you a chance to change direction quickly, deliver quick feedback, and even learn more about each other as you build a working relationship.
(Hint: Make sure you request a workspace from the office manager ahead of time, or they will be standing around while you deal with office protocol).

Perhaps you're very busy and don’t have time to direct another staff member. In that case, an artist working remotely from his home-studio will be perfect. Their home office/studio is probably customized they way they like it, with a powerful computer, back-up hard drives, monitor, tablet, scanner, printer, and/or traditional supplies. Add their favorite influences and inspiration like music, audio books, podcasts, and bookshelves of reference material, they can be briefed via phone and/or email, and begin cranking out frames while you tend to other matters. They can send you jpgs or a pdf that you can review while you eat lunch at your desk.

4. You Get What You Pay For:
Seasoned Pro or Storyboard-Wanna-Be?

If you are going to spend your companies tightly rolled greenbacks on a Storyboard Artist, they'd better be worth it. 

Does the artist you're interested in have a good track record? Do they have an impressive or reputable list of clients? Do they tell you something about themselves, why they do what they do? Or are they forthcoming or nebulous about their process?

These days it seems the pressure is to address costs first and quality second. Your colleagues' cousins' girlfriend likes to draw - and you can get her for cheap. But when the final frames come in, will your client love them? Will YOU love them?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a Storyboard Artist is when someone walks up to my artwork and says "Wow! These are amazing, Tony!!"  I want every member of the creative team that worked with me to feel confident that my Storyboards enhance their pitch.

And that’s the way I would want the Art Director to feel when you pin up the storyboards, show the animatic, and walk in the door on three hours sleep to meet the client in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, wherever. If I can create that certainty between my clients and their clients, then I’ve done a great job as a Storyboard Artist.

Bottom line: ask yourself if the Storyboard Artist is going to elevate your pitch to the “Wow” level.

5: Clarify Expectation and Pipelines - for BOTH of You.
Define what you want and what you expect up-front, early in the partnership. Agree upon delivery times. Review production pipelines. Ask the Storyboard Artist what makes sense to them in terms of workflow and delivery. 

Are you both clear on what is expected? What size are the frames? What resolution? Will you look at thumbnails or only want to see rough sketches? Will you submit notes in writing for the artist to address, or discuss face-to-face? What time do you need the first pass, second pass, and finished frames? Do you want the final frames high fidelity (very polished) or just tightened up a bit? Or perhaps you want to let the process unfold organically, see how it develops and plan from there.

If your expectations are set early, it’s more than likely that your Storyboard Artist will meet them with flying colors. You'll experience a smooth production cycle and have a working relationship you can count on for subsequent campaigns.

Regardless of your Art Direction and leadership style, there is definitely a Storyboard Artist who best fits your needs.

What approach has works for you? I’d love to hear about it and share it in this column.