Storyboarding The Apes

In a world full of CG and unlimited budgets, one man clings tight to his hand-crafted illustrations. As a storyboard artist for 25 years, Tim Burgard has painstakingly sketched the first images of “Thor,” “Green Lantern,” and now “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Storyboarding The Apes

In 20th Century Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, opening Friday, moviegoers get a prequel to the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. James Franco and Freida Pinto star as scientists who discover a drug that boosts intelligence in chimps. Andy Serkis plays the brain-boosted primate that leads a revolt against humans.


But before anyone yelled “action” or special effects wizards summoned magic, storyboard artist Tim Burgard, who has worked with directors such as James Cameron and Kenneth Branagh, was drawing scenes. As one of the first people in a production who illustrate what a script might look like, Burgard helps filmmakers graphically organize action sequences and camera angles, often before scripts are even finished and with little understanding of how their assigned scenes fit into the rest of the film. 

He eschews storyboarding software in favor of sketching by hand, then scanning his panels, before sequencing them on a computer. “I’ve spent a career doing it fast in traditional methods and some cases speeding it up with digital tools,” Burgard says. “I like to make my characters act when I’m drawing them, but it’s really very technical…. Once I have a good layout in my head and I know what’s going to happen, I can extrapolate both forward and reverse angles, and run movies in my head.” He laughs, “That’s my superpower.”

The most dynamic scene Burgard boarded in Rise is the escape of the apes across the Golden Gate Bridge. Primarily working with director Rupert Wyatt, “I tried to draw elements of the story that were not necessarily on the printed page, through their interpretations and mine,” he says. “You’re trying to bring the script to life and give the director some shooting choices, while sparking their imagination to suggest other things.” Storyboarding is also a tool for testing the script visually, Burgard says, to “find out what your problems are–before you start filming.”

Rise of the Planet of the Apes storyboards

In Thor, he says, “The scene where the Destroyer is sent to kill Thor was originally conceived to include a motorcycle chase and all kinds of destruction that was ultimately written out.” And in Thor and Green Lantern, sequences Burgard boarded were ultimately simplified to rule out extra props and locations–decisions he agreed with after seeing the final products. “The Green Lantern sequence I boarded was almost spot-on with the comic–when Hal Jordan gets the ring, he’s in an airplane simulator that gets picked up and starts flying,” he says. 


Unlike production illustrators who design props or sets, storyboard artists don’t often see their work on screen. “By that point, I don’t take ownership of it,” Burgard says. “In Son of the Mask, they used my cartoon dolphins as door handles. I was more stoked about seeing that than the scenes I storyboarded. In that case, I did what the director wanted, even though not everything would have been my choice. Still, I like to think I improve things every once in awhile.”

Tim Burgard

In Rise, advances in visual effects–particularly facial capture–allowed filmmakers to bring Burgard’s drawings to life like never before. “I’m pretty good at drawing animals, and this required my drawing a variety of apes–orangutans, chimps, and gorillas–with more naturalistic movements in my boards,” he says, adding, “One of the nice things about working on a big budget film is not worrying about how much the sequences you draw are actually going to cost.”

The visual effects team at Weta Digital got to streamline technology they developed for Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and King Kong to facilitate more nuanced movements and emotive facial expressions. A computer analyzed video of the actors’ facial expressions, determined which muscle groups were activated, then created algorithms that replicated those muscle movements in the chimp faces.

“It enabled us to capture the body and face of the actors simultaneously, and have them interact with other characters on-set, outside of a dedicated stage with special lighting,” says senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, the multi-Academy Award-winning director of Weta.


But even as the tech gets slicker, artists such as Burgard still kick off the visuals that bring scenes to life. He started working in comic books, TV animation, and on the Terminator 2 teaser trailer before earning his union card on 2002’s Stargate. He’s since boarded scenes for everything from comedy Evan Almighty to action flick X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the upcoming 1960s drama The Help. “I can do pretty much any type of film,” he says. “It just happens that sci-fi, superhero, and action films need boarding the most.”

[Images: courtesy Tim Burgard, 20th Century Fox]

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.