Beyond Drawing Basics: Drawing Storyboards for the Coen Brothers Movies

Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd AndersonOhio artist J. Todd Anderson took his talent for drawing to Hollywood and, as a storyboard artist, became part of the award-winning Coen Brothers movie-making team, creating the storyboards for such movies as Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men.

 by Linda S. Price

Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd Anderson, Boots and car
The Coen Brothers shoot scenes that adhere very closely to J. Todd Anderson’s storyboard drawings, as this pair showing the artist’s storyboard and a still from the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men shows. Anderson’s drawings have a jauntiness that seems absent from the more serious cinematic depiction; Anderson says he is simply trying to inject as much of a sense of action as possible into each scene.

J. Todd Anderson modestly describes himself as “a guy who draws for the movies,” but because the movies include almost all of the Coen Brothers’ renowned films—including No Country for Old Men, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture—his job as storyboard artist is considerably more prestigious than that. “It’s a real practical application of drawing skills,” he goes on to say, explaining that although most of today’s movies use storyboards only for important scenes, Ethan and Joel Coen like to storyboard everything, which means that Anderson creates as many as 1,000 drawings for one movie.

His role, he stresses, is less creative than interpretive. He reads the script a month or two in advance, then he meets “the boys,” as he calls them, in their New York City office, and they start from page one. Joel has a shot list, and Ethan has already done thumbnail sketches. “I take dictation and try to make sure their vision is clear,” Anderson explains. “I go inside their heads, try to understand what they are thinking, and put it on paper. I always try to make the drawings theirs, not mine.” As they talk, Anderson draws. “It’s like they’re making a movie in front of me,” he says. “They tell me the shots. I do fast and loose drawings on a clipboard with a Sharpie pen—one to three drawings to a sheet of regular bond paper. I try to establish the scale, trap the angle, ID the character, get the action.”

His listening skills are as important as knowing how to draw, the artist is quick to point out. “Sometimes I have to ask questions to get at what they want, but I prefer their minds to flow. I don’t want to slow them down. I may do two or three takes before they approve. Rejects go on the floor. I spend anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute for each drawing—depending on how much coffee we’ve had. They are cryptic line drawings—some are just a few rough lines—but they represent where we are going.” He also takes notes, using word association techniques to get the information down quickly and not break the frantic pace of the process.

 Anderson estimates he creates 20 to 30 drawings in a s

Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd Anderson, walking across street--low shot
Wide, white arrows in this drawing indicate the camera’s direction, while small, black arrows indicate movements by actors or objects in the scene. Anderson explains that he makes a point to shade in the environment and people in every night scene to remind the crew of the conditions they will be facing. The word pull indicates that the camera will seemingly be pulling the actor forward as he walks. Note how Anderson initially placed a lot of dark ink in the far background, then taped some of it out. “I need to make the picture work,” he says simply. “I will make areas darker or white out some of the black I’ve laid down—whatever it takes so the drawing communicates what’s going on in the scene.”

ession, which he then takes home and traces on a light table. Because he can’t necessarily repeat the energy or urgency of the original drawing, he finds it more effective to trace them. Then he works on making the drawings tighter, neater, and more comprehensive, adding, for instance, details of faces from his visual memory bank. He also adds reference points, such as a highway or a piece of furniture that’s essential to the shot. The next day he hands the drawings to the Coens and makes any revisions they want on the spot. Once the drawings are approved, the men continue on to that day’s new scenes.

Anderson’s work doesn’t end when the movie goes on location. He still walks around with his pencils, notebook, and clipboard, and he has his light table installed in the production office. This is the opportunity to add more detail to his drawings. By asking questions he can find out from the prop man what type of gun a character will be using or discover details on furniture and wallpaper from the set decorator. Sitting in on costume meetings ensures that the clothing he depicts is accurate. “The more information I can get on paper,” he explains, “the better the communication on the set will be.” At this stage he also tries to get the likenesses of the actors, so they are not just anonymous, expressionless figures. (This, he admits, is when his small electric eraser comes in most handy.) As he works he’s very conscious of values, trying to get as many into a drawing as possible. The last step is using ink and a brush to add the darkest darks, such as shadows, which can’t be produced with his favored 3B pencils. This provides depth, and it allows him to direct the viewer’s eye on the page and create sequential action—he finds that people focus on the darks while leafing through the book of drawings. Next his drawings are photocopied and the department heads get a thick compilation. The complete storyboarded movie is published to the crew roughly one to two weeks before shooting begins. Now, because the storyboards match the shot list exactly, everyone—from the assistant director to the prop man—immediately has a good idea of where they are going.


Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd Anderson, car crash
Note how Anderson pointed out the impact of the gunshot with sound effects in drawing Setup 43A, which is crucial for the end of the shot (B), in which the point of view changes from ours to the character walking into the frame. “It’s the classic transition from a subjective shot to an objective one,” says Anderson.

The artist calls his methods “old-fashioned but effective,” explaining that, “The problem with computers is that you end up with a set of instructions; it never becomes a piece of art in the hand.” He admits, however, that he does like the convenience of computers and may eventually end up working on one. He also describes his work as “ephemeral,” pointing out that it’s the movie that counts.

So how did Anderson end up with this dream job? He always knew how to draw, honing his skill by drawing comic-book characters, scenes from television shows, and football games—he taught himself anatomy by sketching action scenes of the Cleveland Browns. Further inspiration came from the black-and-white drawings in Mad magazine. Later he put himself through Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, and because he’d been hooked on movies since childhood—sometimes staying up all night to watch the old ones on TV—he studied film. “All those good old films I loved were storyboarded,” he explains, and while making his student films he discovered his own came together more easily and were better organized when he storyboarded them.

Upon graduating, Anderson headed west to hunt for a movie job, specifically storyboarding, and ended up working on made-for-TV movies in Texas. “Horrendous” is how he remembers a job that paid $300 a week for 60 or 70 hours of work, where he had to do everything and was yelled at every day. So he went to Arizona to meet the Coen Brothers. “I pleaded for a job,” he says. “They felt sorry for the boy from Ohio and gave it to me.” He began working with them on Raising Arizona and has storyboarded all their films ever since. “Watching Raising Arizona on the big screen at the preview was an incredible experience,” he says. “Nothing before or since compares. Seeing my silly little line drawings come to life was exhilarating.”

Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd Anderson, car crash 2
Note how the above still shot from No Country for Old Men
matches up closely with Box C drawing.

Anderson and the movies were a good fit. “I had drawn all my life but never had accomplished anything as an artist because I had no direction,” Anderson admits. “Movies gave me deadlines and a direction that made me a better artist. I’m constantly trying to get better. I like to draw. I like the challenge of doing a movie and achieving the director’s ideas. It’s almost like a performance.” He says he’s also been inspired by such artists as Norman Rockwell, who continued drawing and painting until the end of his life. Not that Anderson has much time for painting; he considers himself “a pencil and ink man.” Nor does he draw without a purpose, although he admits to occasionally sketching people on napkins in bars. “Storyboards work for a lot of unexpected things,” he adds, as he recalls being in an automobile accident and storyboarding the event for the police. They’ve also proved helpful in interpreting dreams.

Asked how to get into being a storyboard artist for the movies, Anderson has no magic solution except study a lot of good movies and understand how they work, develop your drawing skills, and work hard. And be lucky enough to find someone who is making a movie.

Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men--end result of storyboard drawing by J. Todd Anderson, two banger
This sequence “is a classic reveal, a two banger,” says Anderson, meaning that two drawings for one shot will efficiently provide a key aspect of the unfolding action for the viewer.

About the Artist
J. Todd Anderson grew up near Dayton, Ohio, where he still lives. He received some early vocational training in art in high school and went on to study at Wright State University, in Dayton. After graduating, he began working in the film business, and in 1985 he started storyboarding for the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona and has done every one of their films since, including No Country for Old Men, the winner of four 2008 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s a job he claims he got by a fortuitous combination of persistence and luck—being in the right place at the right time. “The Coen Brothers are the reason I’m in this business,” he says. He’s worked on movies by other filmmakers, too, including George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Leatherheads. Other credits include Little Man Tate, The Addams Family, Search and Destroy, and The Stepford Wives. Anderson and George Willeman, who is a film archivist for the Library of Congress, have a weekly radio show on WYSO 91.3 FM in which they discuss what they consider perfect movies. Shows can be downloaded from their website or through iTunes and NPR podcasting.





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