Science Fiction Films) Dear Mr. Mercer. Thank you for agreeing to give an overview of your work and art. You are a storyboard and concept artist and you have worked on many films such as LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995), PREDATOR: UPGRADE (2018) or for the TV series X-FILES. But before we get to your professional work, would you please be so kind and tell us first what you did before you entered the film business?
Martin Mercer) Before I entered the film business, I attended school and was represented by an acting agency for young kids. I worked on a couple of TV shows and did some commercials. I had planned to go to Art College after I finish school, but had an opportunity to work on the film so I put college on hold and worked on Labyrinth which was my first job.
SFF.) As far as I'm informed (please correct me if it's not true) you apprenticed with Clive Barker. How did that happen?
M.M.) I actually was an apprentice for a special effects supervisor named George Gibbs. I met George through his son, who was my friend at school. He could see that I loved making things and models. George would take us out on the weekend to visit the movies he was working on like BRAZIL (1985) and INDIANE JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984). I was about to finish school so I took the opportunity to ask him if I could be a trainee in his company. He offered me a non-paid job on LABYRINTH (1986). I had to sweep the floor, make tea, and trainee tasks but it was my door into the business. After a short period as a trainee, I was eventually earned a paid position. George was my mentor for quite a few years; unfortunately he passed away last year.
SFF.) Yes, that is unfortunately true. I was about to do an interview with him when the news came. So, you don't just do storyboards or concepts, you also designed creatures. What do you enjoy doing more?
M.M.) I enjoy doing storyboards a lot more now. Initially, I wanted to do more concept art but over the years, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy helping to bring the story to life. Storyboarding is visual storytelling, so I enjoy that much more.
SFF.) To design storyboards, you certainly need many talents, such as creativity, stamina, spatial imagination, or drawing talent in general. What do you think are the basic skills needed to do the job you do?
M.M.) One needs to have a sense of storytelling skills, camera angles and movements in order to tell the audience the intended vision of the director. I think a good skill base is figure drawing, quick rendering skills and spatial awareness. Knowing composition and how to balance the frame is another important aspect of storyboarding. I tend to enjoy looking at older films like David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST (1948) and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) because of their strong visual and composition especially black and white photography.
SFF.) How exactly do you rate the importance of storyboards? Are they just another tool to tell stories or do they have a special feature that only storyboards can have?
M.M.) Ridley Scott rates the importance of storyboards highly and so do Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Denis Villeneuve. Boarding out the story and ideas helps to create a smoother collaboration between the above the line, below the line, and cast and crew to work together with a clear vision. The ability to pre-visualize a film, which is storyboarding, is different to pre-viz. Storyboarding is more of a feeling of the film, a blueprint of the film or project more than computer pre-visualization, which is much more technical. Storyboarding is basically the emotional heart of the film.
SFF.) If you had to explain your job, how would you do it?
M.M.) My job is to translate what the director has in his or her mind to make it easy for them to communicate their vision to the production team.
SFF.) Storyboards are the visual sequence of the previously written script. To what extent are other people involved in the design of the storyboards? Do your storyboards "only" come from your head or which people have a significant part in the development (besides the director and the screenwriter)? Who are the most important people you work with?
M.M.) The most significant person is the director. The director explains to the board artist what they want on screen. Directors have different ways to communicate. Some are very detailed and provide shot lists such as Kate Herron on LOKI where every shot is listed. I then translate that pictorially. Sometimes, I’ll suggest an angle or a way we could do the shot/sequence and it’s up to the director if that works. Many times, our suggestions are welcomed and in some productions, we are involved in story development. Some directors present you with the script and ask you to do a pass, and then they will go through it and make changes. Other important people are directors of photography, visual effects supervisors, and production designers who will interject from time to time depending on what type of show it is.
SFF.) With many (or almost all) films or television series there are reshoots. These often happen relatively quickly. How flexible do you have to be to visualize these reshoots beforehand?
M.M.) Re-shoots are usually budgeted for and it’s no surprise when it happens. For me, it’s the same process. The director goes over the changes and time wise it’s not usually that different for me.
SFF.) How difficult is it to create a storyboard in general? What hurdles do you have to overcome?
M.M.) The most difficult thing in storyboarding is the time pressure and filing all the various sequences, numbering the pages and frames. The technical organization of the sequences and frames are tedious and time consuming.
SFF.) In addition to feature films, you also work for television. Currently for the TV series LOKI. How quickly do you have to work for television? Is there a big difference in storyboards compared to feature films?
M.M.) I have done a lot of TV from the movies of the week in the 90’s to shows like CSI and ER. The main difference then was time and budget, which was not the same as movies. Now that has changed. LOKI was like shooting a six hour movie. You have big sets, and almost every frame has visual effects of some type or other, so working on a big budget TV show is like doing a movie now.
SFF.) When you create a storyboard, do you have the whole film in front of you? Do you sometimes find it hard to create a story if it doesn't feel right or coherent to you?
M.M.) You usually have the whole script and each artist is assigned a sequence. For example, on AQUAMAN (2018), I was given the arena fight. James Wan shared with me his ideas, but said I was free to expand upon them which I did and he responded well. On other shows, sometimes it’s a challenge to get into it but I always try to find something to bring the scene to life. I rely on my instinct when reading a scene marrying that with knowledge of the particular director’s style. So far, it’s proven to work.
SFF.) How much of a say do you have in films and their development?
M.M.) When a film or project is being developed, usually before the green light and a budget/release date, producers and directors hire us to make pitch boards. Generally the boards help used to sell the idea of the project. I have done these successfully on shows such as POWER RANGERS (2017) movie directed by Dean Israelite. We worked together on boards and presentation art to pitch Dean’s vision to get the film made.
SFF.) How do you draw today? Digital or still "old school"?
M.M.) I do draw digitally using Procreate to sketch and then transfer to my laptop and using a Wacom tablet with Photoshop to finish and render the boards. I also always keep a sketchbook with me in which I use a bic pen. It’s just so nice to sketch onto paper so I enjoy that but I do love digital sketching just as much.
SFF.) Which artists have made a lasting impression on you and to what extent do their creativity flow into your work?
M.M.) Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Even at a young age, the way they moved the camera, used visual design within the frame and staging of a scene. Who can forget the opening to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (1977) or the design of VERTIGO (1958)? I always try to think of those when working. No matter how advanced camera equipment or technology changes, those timeless images always inspire my work.
SFF.) Hand on heart: Which project would you have liked to be involved in?
M.M.) I would love to have been involved in the Harry Potter films I really love those always admired how rich they were in detail and world creation.
SFF.) One of the most important questions I always save for last: What was the hardest professional experience in your life and what was the biggest challenge?
M.M.) The hardest professional experience has been just basically trying to keep up with the skills needed including digital software knowledge and technical drawing skills. I never went to college so I’m a self-taught illustrator. That has always been a consistent challenge because there are so many amazing artists around so to try and find a space amongst all those talents has been tough.
The hardest professional moment was when I was working on SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) for director David Ayer. I had been there only for a few days and was approached by the producers to show the director what I had done. Foolishly, I sent my very rough scribbles that I used to map out the scene. As expected, they were probably thinking…. “What the F are these?” Afterward, I was told I’d be finished at end of the week. At first felt angry but then I just reflected on the process. I kept working diligently all week to finish my scene. At the end of the week, Director David Ayres came around and went round the room looking at each artists work. He stopped by and asked, “What you got?” I was caught off guard, but was prepared to show him my finished boards pitched him the scene. A short moment after Ayers left the room, the producer came in and said, “You guys did great.” and pointing his finger at me added “…and that includes you!” Needless to say, I got my job back. Big lesson there, sometimes it’s best not to show scribbles and also it’s good to persevere.
SFF.) Thank you very much for your time and the opportunity to learn more about your profession. Stay healthy and good luck.
M.M.) Thank you very much! Really enjoy the page.