Creative Lives — Illustrator Neil Maguire gives us a sneak peek into his life as a storyboarder

Posted 24 February 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali

If you’ve ever studied media or have experience of TV or film production, you’ll likely be familiar with the importance of storyboarding. As the prerequisite to any motion picture, animation or media sequence, it narrates a story through illustrations. We spoke to Neil Maguire who has worked as a storyboard artist since 1990, about how he brings a director’s vision to life as one of the production teams most vital members. Having now worked on titles including Paddington, Black Mirror, Mamma Mia, and with brands like Volvo and Innocent, Neil takes us back to the very beginning – when he was jotting down 1,800 different production agency names until he finally secured his first meeting with a director. We find out why there’s no such things as a ‘normal’ day in storyboarding and reflect on the inevitable peaks and troughs of freelance life.

Neil Maguire

Job Title

Storyboard and Concept Artist

Based

London

Selected Clients

Paramount, Disney, Fox, Warner Bros, Sky, Netflix, BBC, ITV

Website
Social Media

Neil’s workspace

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
My day-to-day job is to visualise the script for the director in a series of sequential drawings. We’ll sit down with various heads of department and talk through the requirements. A lot of the time this is for action, FX sequences or complex camera moves.

The types of companies I work for vary from mega-bucks feature film production companies, to indie films: along the way are all the commercials and promo companies – all of which have differing resources and budgets. No gig is too big or too small.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
There isn’t a typical working day. I could be in the office, at a studio or out on location, or if I’m lucky, at home in my studio. Usually I’ve got my notes from the director and a set of rough thumbnail sketches drawn up from previous production meetings. It’s then my job to get them drawn up and annotated to the specialist requirements. There are some hectic times when you’re juggling various projects; once I was working on a horror film and a children’s show at the same time – thank god I knew which was which!

What are the least and most enjoyable aspects of your job?
Some changes in scenes can be a little arduous, especially if it’s an animated gig, as you have to re-jig numerous panels just to add a few little things. The great side to my job is I get to work in a unique field with incredibly talented people all year round. The life-work balance can be a low point, as you’re usually on call 24/7.

Neil’s work for ‘Anomalous’ , ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

Neil’s work on commercials

Neil’s work on commercials

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Film has always been my first love, the great aspect about the work is the variety of mediums you are involved with. Having said that I’ve been working remotely this last year on a game, very hush-hush, and it’s been very fun.

What was it that first drew you towards working in the illustration and storyboard world?
As a kid I was always creating action-packed scenarios for my toys. I’d be crashing toy cars through barriers made of loo roll that I’d coloured to look like oil barrels – or sending my action man flying out of the window. I was just drawn to the whole thing, I loved action and camera angles and only as I grew older did I realise the importance of angles as a storytelling device. I wanted to do something different that engaged me, so I decided on storyboarding as it encompassed all of my favourite things; action, FX and drawing.

“Film has always been my first love, the great aspect about the work is the variety of mediums you are involved with.”

Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside full-time work?
I do have longterm personal projects that I intend to set in stone when I get a little free time, like graphic novels based around stories I’ve had floating around for years.

What skills and tools would you say are essential to your job?
The first thing you need is a pencil and a notepad; you’ll be making copious notes and sketches throughout production meetings. As for the more high-tech final results I draw on a Wacom Cintiq tablet utilising Photoshop as the software package. It’s easy to use and gives good results.

Neil’s work for ‘Mamma Mia 2’

Neil’s work for ‘Mamma Mia 2’

Neil’s work for ‘Mamma Mia 2’

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A marine biologist or stuntman.

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
It’s irrefutable that your upbringing influences everything you do. I have a very practical scientific influence growing up and I find that physics and chemistry are a useful set of tools to add to your cannon, especially as you need to be designing sequences that can actually be achieved.

When first starting out, what were your initial steps?
I started out in 1989, the pre-internet dark ages! I went to the union BECTU and copied down 1,800 production company contact details – and then I phoned around. It took ages but many people were very helpful and gave me tips and advice. There’s an old conundrum that you can’t get work without experience and you can’t get experience without the work – it has always been like this.

I was advised to storyboard paragraphs from books so I had something to show to a director. It took a while to get a meeting with one, but once I did I’ve never looked back. It’s not all been plain-sailing though; as in any freelance career you have peaks and troughs.

Neil’s work for ‘Paddington 2’, ‘The Awakening’ and ‘The Gilded Cage’

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
You are always looking to get as much detail out to the director in a storyboard as possible, whilst actually only giving the impression of complexity. ‘You don’t need to draw every face in a crowd’ is a simple analogy. It’s very easy to over-complicate work when it’s the basics that are needed.

Neil’s work for ‘The Awakening’

Neil’s work for ‘The Awakening’

Neil’s work for ‘The Awakening’

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Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Study production, look at all the ‘making of’ extras on DVD and Blu-ray, get magazines such as Cinefex to understand the FX side of things. Research the masters like da Vinci and Canaletto. Look at modern masters like Mike Ploog, Bernie Wrightson and Martin Asbury.

Find your niche – some boarders stick to games, films, TV, commercials or music videos. You’ll stand yourself in good stead if you can adapt your work to all these mediums, as they all have different requirements and approaches.

Above all, be a good communicator and learn to listen. Leave your ego at the production office door, as it’s not about how good an artist you are, it’s about telling a story. Listen to what the client wants and tune into their mindset so you understand their approach. That’s why a lot of directors will stick with a boarder they’ve worked with before.

Also, learn to draw – it sounds obvious but be adept at drawing almost anything, and keep the muscle memory of that shape alive in your head because I can promise you the requests are endless. The job is to succinctly show a complex situation that can be understood at a glance, and that’s harder than it appears.

Posted 24 February 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali
Introduction: Siham Ali
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Neil Maguire

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