Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Storyboard Hitman

I was referred to Nick Copus back in 2006 through one of my storyboard reps. He was directing a Yeti feature that was Disney’s answer to The Descent which was doing big business at the time. We had a ton of fun plotting out these icy horror sequences. We worked on Day of the Triffids together, Revolution, Turn, Sleepy Hollow and most recently on Salem the TV series.

Nick was one of the Executive Producers on Salem and directed many of the episodes as well. He brought me on at the beginning of season 2 to board the tricky action stuff for him and the other directors. For two seasons we conjured up some of the goriest stuff you can imagine. That was the directive - push it right up to the edge. So we did.

Brannon Braga is the creator, executive producer and writer of Salem. He’s best known for his work on the Star Trek franchise but his many film credits are equally as impressive.
At the end of season two I got the call from Brannon Braga’s assistant. “Brannon wants to speak with you about storyboards for his finale episode.” I was comfortable boarding for Nick but I was nervous working for Mr. Braga, even though I had the immense pleasure to work with the likes of Joe Dante on a previous episode. None-the-less, I was excited to work with the show’s creator and ready to execute his every wish.

But his wish was not to have me storyboard his vision - but mine. He wanted to see what I could come up with. Really? Someone pinch me. He said he’d been following my storyboards throughout the season and wanted to see what I could do. There was no script yet for this scene or the episode for that matter, so he described it to me. “Tituba gets her eyes pecked out by a raven,” he said.

For inspiration, he sent me a clip from The Omen 2 depicting Richard Donnor’s masterful melee of horror where a possessed raven pecks out Elizabeth Shepherd’s eyes.

It was meant as an homage to Donner but Brannon was really leaving the door open for me to explore it. The morning I was to begin boarding, I stopped. An idea flashed through my brain not to have the Raven peck out Tituba’s eyes, but to make this a static, evil raven who sits on a branch and orchestrates her death instead - the mastermind instead of the perpetrator. Watching from aloft, it motions to other Ravens who sweep in and do its dirty work – all along cutting back to this malevolent, black, death kite silently orchestrating these dark commands.

The idea came from one of logistics really. I knew a puppet would have to be used in conjunction with real birds to pull off such a sequence. The director would need to cut away to something to continually reset the shot. Hence the one evil raven – the one who’s making it all happen.

When I pitched the idea to Brannon Braga he immediately liked it. In fact he took the suggestion of having several henchmen ravens and expanded it to a CG scene featuring dozens of them. For a filmmaker who missed his chance, it felt like a moment of validation and I was pumped. 

Permit me, if you will, to relay one last very dark tale. Season three was in full swing and the fan base seemed to be growing on Salem. That’s when I found out I needed open chest surgery to remove a large cancerous mass near my heart. When it comes to cancer, true horror, does not compare to anything we could ever conjure up. It was touch and go for a while but miraculously, I made it through the surgery and was suddenly cancer free and back to work. The Salem production folks were all so wonderful and supportive.

The finale episode for season 3 was closing in fast and again Brannon Braga called on me for his finale storyboards. Just as before he had no script to work with yet but wanted to see what I could come up with anyway. He sent me several clips from iconic “transformation sequences” in film history like the one from American Werewolf in London and Starman to name a few.

Oliver Bell, who played the devil boy character throughout season 3, was set to die in the finale episode while transforming into a man version of himself. How was a twelve-year-old boy going to turn into a full-grown man? Well, this was my assignment. Brannon wanted something special and fitting for the demise of this uber-evil devil boy. I was being paid to let myself slip down into this dark terrain and create something really new and horrific.

In the prior episode the devil boy was drawn and quartered meaning his arms, legs, and head were ripped away from his torso by the power of Essex witches. But you’ve got to wake up pretty early in the morning to get the slip on the devil, because they sewed him back together again!

I used these sutured wounds to host my graphic gore sequence. These are the storyboard frames I  turned in to Brannon Braga.

Brannon was delighted. He said it was “in.” – I thought I misheard him at first. But no, it was in. I nearly flipped. I figured they would have to cut corners when it actually got down to filming though. After all, this was for TV and I pulled no punches on the effects, knowing full well it would be a lot of make-up and latex elements with combined with actors – one of which was just a kid. Nope, this was not going to be easy, I thought.

When I recently viewed the episode, I was so blown away at what Brannon accomplished. It was disturbing, unflinching and visceral. Not only did he get the storyboard, but he captured so much more - he created a stand-alone, horror sequence that is like nothing I’ve ever scene. Oliver was really amazing too. I was so proud to be a part of it. Thank you all for allowing me to be your storyboard hit man. Let’s do it again! 

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