Storyboard artist, Giacomo Ghiazza, was born in Asti (Piedmont, Italy). Until now, the “comune” has been widely known for its sweet sparkling white wine, made from the Moscato Bianco grape.
Today, more and more people living in the northern town or just stopping by Asti’s Palazzo Mazzetti, are discovering An Italian Pencil in Hollywood. Giacomo Ghiazza Storyboard Artist (how the exhibition’s title tellingly recites). So far, over three thousand visitors have admired Giacomo’s storyboards and this number is sure to rise, as they will be on display until September 17th.
Giacomo, who has been living in the Los Angeles area since the mid-80s and currently lives in Ventura, betrays a bit of nostalgia towards how Hollywood used to be in the late 80s and early 90s, when the chain of production was well-oiled and his desk was always busy with pages and pages of sketches and drawings.
That is not to say that, back then, there were no ups and downs in the business, but, today, it seems harder to get a new project off the ground.
That is the case of Hypergraphia, a very interesting film based on the Inman Diary by Arthur Crew Inman, an obsessive-compulsive and secluded man who spent most of his life inside his apartment in Boston. The director, Lorenzo DeStefano, commissioned the storyboards to Giacomo Ghiazza three years ago, but the film still struggles to take off.
We, from L’Italo-Americano, warmly wish them to bring their project to fruition soon, cause the “dream factory” – more than all others – needs to work in full swing.
Please introduce yourself. How did you learn to draw? Was there a specific moment of realization in your career path?
I’ve been drawing since I was ten. I learned by looking at my father’s sketches and by copying the old comic books in Italy. I was enthralled by their illustrations and kept sketching again and again.
First, I had my education in an art high school in Turin, then I went on to receive a regular formation in fine arts. Back then, I had no notion about storyboards or commercial art.
In the early 80s, I moved to Rome where I spent three years, working in advertising as storyboard artist for two big agencies, that realized car commercials for Ford Italy and Renault.
As long as I lived in Italy, I never had a chance to work in any film. Up until mid-80s, despite my big dream was to make it to Hollywood, I didn’t know what to focus on in the movie business. I could either pursue a career as a production designer or as a storyboard artist.
My moment of realization occurred in 1984 in London, as a friend and I went in a bookstore and we stumbled upon a book, titled “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Illustrated Screenplay.” Back then, the first installment in the Indiana Jones film franchise was my favorite. As I looked through the pages, it really struck me and I resolved I wanted to become a storyboard artist in Hollywood.
How did you end up as one of the most sought after storyboard artists in Hollywood?
I was lucky that, back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was so much work available for everybody. I was working nonstop and, often, forced to turn down job offers, cause we were overbooked.
I started working with Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who was about to shoot Total Recall (1990), a sci-fi movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, that would develop a cult following over the years.
Before meeting with Paul, I already knew the production designer, who hired me to draw sketches for him along with storyboards for the director. I worked at the film for almost a year straight.
So far in the course of your career, you’ve alternated collaborations on family movies, such as A Little Princess (1995) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), with more adult, action films, the likes of Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997). Does your approach to work differs in the two cases?
Of course, there are very distinctive features between the two categories. In family movies, there needs to be no blood and no violence at all, as compared to the freedom you have in more adult films. To be honest, as storyboard artists, it is way more exciting to draw action scenes.
In the case of A Little Princess, I was lucky to work with Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who, at the time, was not well known, while today is an Academy Award-winning director.
It was a very nice experience. I drew several action sequences, with kids running around and jumping from a rooftop to the other, but also a couple of flashback scenes, set in World War I, because the little princess’ father was an American Army officer fighting in France.
When you work in action movies, not conceived for the general audience, you deal with a completely different world, overflowing with violence.
The two approaches are disparate and it’s the storyboard artist’s task to be flexible and adjust to the needs posed by different genres.
You worked with several prime filmmakers, such as Paul Verhoeven, John Woo, Alfonso Cuarón, Berry Levinson and J.J. Abrahams. Could you share with us some anecdotes that may give us an idea of their way of directing?
It’s interesting you mention two big names in particular, Paul Verhoeven and John Woo, who both have left Hollywood, with its current ups and downs.
The first, who today works in Europe, used to be very methodical. Since the beginning of production, he knew exactly how he wanted every single shot to be. Paul provided you with highly detailed sketches, drawn by himself, and you just needed to follow through with his directions. There was no space for any creative inputs from us.
John Woo, on the contrary, sometimes created on the spot. His type of action, cop movies are characterized by a very fast pace and a constant movement of the camera. He pioneered a way of picking unusual camera angles, that had been unseen in Hollywood before.
It was very challenging, during my meetings with him, to take quick notes and sketches, as he explained the action he wanted in a very abstract way.
I remember how once he was repeating two or three times a very complicated shot, involving lots of people. He summoned all the assistants in his office to stage the scene for us. He made someone lay down on the floor pretending they were dead, some other had to put on a fight or had to simulate a shooting. In the meanwhile, we took photos and really understood how the scene needed to be.
That makeshift scene was fun to watch, but also extremely helpful, to get a clear idea of his vision.
Your storyboards for Ang Lee’s multi Academy Award winning film, Life of Pi, earned you a prestigious recognition from the Art Directors Guild in 2013. Could you elaborate on working with one of today’s greatest contemporary filmmakers?
When I was hired to work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled to finally meet one of my dream directors.
When I first met him in a room, filled with the visual effects supervisor and the other heads of the various departments, I felt so intimidated. He used to talk in a very abstract way and it was difficult to follow his vision about the shots.
At some point, Lee came up with a dream sequence, that was not in the screenplay. After the ship, on which Pi and his family are sailing from India to Canada, sinks into the Pacific Ocean, the main character plunges down and sees strange fish and monsters swimming around him. As Pi reaches the bottom, he finds his family is having a picnic.
This dreamlike and complex sequence took about a month of revisions to be completed. Every day, I had some sort of doubts that my work would come up to his high expectations. He used to come to my office and give me inputs, until we were able to work it out together.
Unfortunately, the studio decided to cut down the dream sequence to a third of what was conceived by Lee and I, because it was made up exclusively of expensive visual effects. Only 30-40 % of my storyboards actually ended up on the screen.
Luckily, there are plenty of other cases, like the emotional end sequence, in which all the storyboards went into the final film.