Storytelling Week with David Prescott

Bringing stories to life through innovation and vision

Last week was ‘Storytelling Week’ in the UK. To mark the occasion, we thought we would pick the brains of one of our foremost creative minds here at DNEG!

David Prescott is our SVP Creative Production for DNEG Feature Animation. With a career spanning over three decades he has been widely recognised for his creative and technical achievements and innovations across the creative arts. Over the years, he has contributed to a wide range of high-profile projects, both live action and feature animation, and is dedicated to helping young and upcoming artists develop their skills and creativity to reach their full potential.

Why do you feel storytelling is important? Why do stories matter?

Storytelling can be a way for history to live on forever, but it can also be about fantasy and escapism. You can go back in history and see storytelling even in caveman times; telling stories through paintings and making sure future generations recorded history. For me storytelling came from sitting around the fire, telling stories, passing on history, experiences and knowledge to future generations.

Nowadays, a big part of storytelling is entertainment and sometimes education through entertainment. A lot of stories, films and shows will approach a topic that might be uncomfortable for most to talk about and bring it out in a way that forces, or at least encourages conversation. I think that’s powerful as well, especially in our current era. Stories that discuss those topics are really critical, because they bring awareness to people and keep the conversation alive.

Are there any differences in your approach to storytelling in live action projects versus feature animation projects?

In live action, technology plays an important role in storytelling; it allows creators and storytellers to tell stories they didn’t know were possible before. De-aging and aging technologies are a perfect example of this. When they want to tell a story and there’s no real way of currently doing that, well that’s when visual effects come in; that’s when we have to be innovative and invent the technology that’s missing.

Now, with animation, there’s been the idea for decades and decades that it’s this thing we do for children: a Saturday morning cartoon or the typical Disney or Dreamworks kind of feature animation project. But what we’re seeing now is a growth in people telling stories, different types of stories, not just for kids, but also for adults, using animation because they feel it’s the right medium for them. So it’s an interesting time for animation, and I do think it’s important to ask ourselves ‘Why is this animated? Why are you choosing to do this through animation rather than live action?’ With any medium, but very much with animation, you have to ask yourself why you’re telling your story this way and whether it’s adding something to the story.

When talking about our work we often focus on the importance of ‘innovation’ and ‘collaboration’ – why are these important parts of our approach to storytelling?

It ties in with what I was saying before. Innovation in our industry, whether you’re looking at animation or visual effects, allows storytellers to tell stories they weren’t able to tell before. For example, you can look at the animation hybrid ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the innovation and the technological advancements that went into that project allowed it to come to life. You couldn’t have told that story without innovation and new technologies and techniques being created.

Obviously, there’s a lot of innovations that have driven the ability to tell a story and then vice versa. I think innovation is key to enabling storytellers, but it should never drive the story. You shouldn’t make a movie or tell a story just because you have this technology. If it doesn’t support the story, then there’s no point to having it. Then it’s just a mad science project.

Just because you can, often doesn’t mean you should. At the end of the day, it’s all about supporting the story.

How does DNEG Feature Animation work with the director and filmmakers to capture their vision?

A very important thing that we focus on is building a core supervision team that we present to filmmakers as part of their filmmaking team. We don’t see our Head of Character or our Visual Effects Supervisors, our Producers, or Heads of Layout as solely DNEG employees, we see them as part of the director’s filmmaking team. As much as in live action, you would have the director, the Director of Photography, the VFX, etc, the team that we provide them is at the core of their filmmaking team. At the end of the day, our team is meant to be enabled in a way that they can always say yes to the director, that they can always bring that director’s vision to the screen. They are a core part of the collaboration and it can’t be a client and vendor relationship. It has to absolutely feel like it’s part of the same studio.

Due to the nature of the animation process, it’s easy to imagine that an artist’s work might be focused on one particular shot or sequence. How important is it that everyone has a full understanding of the wider story, and how do you achieve this?

When you’re working on a movie, you can’t work in isolation. If you’re working in a sequence with a character that did something half an hour earlier in the movie, if you don’t understand what that character’s motivation is, then you don’t have a movie. No movies are made in isolation, whether it’s animation or live action. And so that goes not just for the Animators. It goes to Lighters, Riggers; everybody really needs to understand where their core is. What we’re trying to implement at DNEG is a bigger version of a style guide so that when somebody joins a show, they really understand the show they’re on. They understand the style of the show; whether it’s animation style, rigging style, modeling style, whatever it might be. And that way, when you truly understand the rules of the world you’re working in, then you can kind of add on top of that and add value to the story.

You are also an accomplished photographer. What are the challenges of telling a story in a still image?

I enjoy two types of photography. I enjoy capturing wildlife and scenics, trying to make someone travel through the image. If  they see an image, they hope they’re there. Every image I think can have a story, but my style of photography is less about storytelling, it’s more about capturing a moment in time. And for me, it’s about capturing the light. The light that exists for this specific moment in time. I’ve always loved the challenge of photography of that instant when you click, over and over, and you can only capture one second at a time, one frame, one moment.

The other type of photography that I love to shoot is abstract photography. I’ve always been fascinated by photographing something as a macro and discovering a whole other world we don’t get to see. I often use that as inspiration for work. I love shooting photographs that could be of sand, or could be of snow, or it could be this, or it could be that, and having someone look at that photograph and go ‘Oh, wow, that’s what that is’. It’s more of a challenge for me to shoot a photo that can have dual meanings or that can kind of fool the audience into thinking it’s something without doing digital manipulation and all that kind of thing. So, my images are less about story. I’ve never been good at doing portrait photography or anything like that. I’ve thought of my photos as just kind of either moments in time and making people want to wish they were there, or abstracts where people wonder about the subject of the photo.

When did you start getting involved in photography?

I remember taking a tiny little point-and-click thing my mom had on a school trip to a Game Reserve. I had taken pictures of these animals and then they were just tiny little pixels when they got printed out and I was so disappointed that they were so far away. It wasn’t what I had seen in my mind. And then, I took a photograph of Nigel Mansell when I was 12 and he was in his helmet and his eye was just kinda opening up and you could just really see the thought in his mind. I had this long lens, and that was the moment that I realized that with the long lens I could tell a different story and see the world a different way.

And then after those two moments, I got really into just being in the Bush in Africa, doing wildlife photography. It became this thing where I was happy to sit for 45 minutes and wait for a photograph. You know, I was happy to just sit on a riverbank and wait for something to come by and it became a way of escaping for me.

During your career you have been behind a number of technical innovations in our industry, including the development of a previs system that allowed motion-control model sequences to be determined prior to shooting. How important is the pre-production process in storytelling and what tools / processes do you currently use?

Pre-production is essential to the process because you need to know exactly what story you’re telling before production starts. Once you’re in production, you’re focused on achieving either quota per week or when you’re on set, turning out a number of pages per day of shooting. You really have to finish pre-production with a plan because when you’re shooting it, especially in live action, you don’t want to change that plan too much. And you always have to be dynamic, but you have to be clear on what the story is because that way you can make decisions a little more on the fly. In animation, the pre-production is the time to experiment, where you’re working with storyboards and you story the whole movie out; where you can float different ideas and different jokes and what not.

The previs thing that we built forever and a day ago was meant to help with motion control moves – it could take six, seven hours to program a basic motion control move back then, and it was all done manually. You had to set a light here and a model there and you had to key frame and key frame and key frame. It became incredibly difficult. Whereas we could previs that out with a tool and export that data directly onto stage and have the rig move. This way we could cut seven hours out of that eight hours and we could shoot our miniatures differently. So that was about being more efficient on stage and set. That was around 1998 that we did that, now everybody does it.

You don’t really think of the impact that would have. Back then it was just about efficiency and being a little more predictive without models and miniatures and figuring out earlier on where lights needed to be placed on set, how long the shot would take, how we would set up the rig, where we could place the hardware for the motion control platforms, etc. So that was about trying to answer as many questions as possible before you’re in production on the day shooting.

It’s very similar for animation. Once you leave that story process and you head into production, your teams need to know what the plan is because the more time you can leave them to be creative or technicians, the more time you can leave them to do their job and the better the image you’ll get back.

For the short we’re working on right now, we’re heavily looking at real-time production tools to see the effect it could have on animation. It could help us go to filmmakers with different ways of telling stories. Those tools are really focused on collaboration. They allow a director to go into a scene file with an artist working in real-time on the project, rather than waiting 15 hours to see the change of one comment.  This could change the way we produce animated projects. And it’s not about the project being faster, it’s about being able to be more collaborative with the filmmakers.

What advice would you give to young artists who are interested in storytelling and considering a career in our industry?

You know, there’s more power on your phone nowadays as far as filmmaking goes than there was in the entire facility when I started working. And I think that young filmmakers have to shake off this idea of ‘I can’t do it because they don’t have cameras or this or that’, because you could concept, shoot, sound design and edit a whole movie on a phone. And so I think that technology should, and can, remove constraints. I think we’re constantly thinking that we need a million dollar’s worth of camera gear to shoot and test a movie, when it’s just not true. My advice would be to get a group of friends together and go out and just start telling stories, just start, just do it. Everybody has a story to tell, just go out and do it. And the second that you do that first eight minute short with your friends, you’re now a filmmaker, you’re a storyteller. The rest of the conversation is how are you going to get someone to pay you for it.

I think that rather than worrying about whether your equipment is fancy enough, show people how innovative you can be with lesser equipment. And if you can tell a story with lesser equipment it’s almost more impressive, because, if you could do that with your phone, imagine what you could do with a full crew and full camera gear. Too often we just get in the way of ourselves thinking we need all this fancy stuff.

If you go back to photography, when digital cameras came out everybody thought it was going to ruin photography forever. There have been many times in life that I wish I could have photographed something, but I don’t always carry a huge camera. I do have my phone with me all the time though, and I know I can’t print in super crazy high res, but I shoot more photos and experiment more now that I have my phone in my pocket than I would have before.

I still go out on specific days to do photography and I’ll take my camera gear with me, but having my phone with me allows me to experiment. I’ll see something and I’ll play around with it and I’m shooting. I do think that people should absolutely just go out and try things and tell their stories however they can.

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