During film and TV award shows like the Oscars and Emmys, inevitably one of the winners will say something about their work being just a small part of the community which worked to make the production they are being lauded for. It sounds like humility unless you get an accurate glimpse into the many vocations and tasks involved in the TV and film industry. For every face you see on screen there are literally dozens or more who did their job properly which enabled the images we witness to take place in the action of the story. One of the very first people to put their hands and talent into movement in every production is the storyboard artist. Many of them never see even a hint of the glamour and excitement that surrounds the set, celebrities, and premier events involved in a production. It is their ability to take the verbal communication of producers and directors and translate them into images that will enable the cinematographer, director, and cast to use this template in framing their work. Binbin Ma is a successful storyboard artist and graphic designer with a wide and diverse lists of credits to her resume. Her recognized artistic talent is a great deal of the reason that she has been sought ought by so many filmmakers but, it also her ability to communicate and comprehend the way these same filmmakers want to frame their ideas and shots. When watching any of the number of films she has worked on, you can see the flavor of the director but there are “signature” elements of composition that those familiar with Binbin will recognize. She is able to mold her abilities to the professionals she works with while still retaining the vehicle with which they are delivered.
Skate at 16 would seem at first to be a film about a young boy’s crush and bullying. In truth, the film is about any individual coming to the point in life in which they decide to be a victim or stand up against an aggressor and suffer the consequences. It is about discovering who you are in the face of adversity, and letting others bear witness to the courage it requires. Julian is a young teenage boy who interacts with a homeless girl who is living in a skate park. He reaches out to her partly due to his kind heart as well as the fact that he finds the girl cute (further proof of the fact that he doesn’t see her as a type of person but rather, simply a person). Almost halfway into the film, he is bullied by a 21-year-old and his skate shoe is humiliatingly stolen by the bully. Julian doesn’t fight back for himself but when the bully leads a gang who is stealing Tecla’s (the girl) belongings, Julian finds the courage to stop this bully. Skate at 16 is almost Shakespearean encompassing young love, family tragedy, the overly aggressive antagonist, the revelation of inner-strength, and a potentially fatal injury which results from the confrontation. All of these emotions which Julian experiences are captured by the camera with different angles and compositions; one’s which are easily imagined as pieces of art. If the colors on screen were more primary and somewhat exaggerated, it would be easy to see them as a graphic novel. Skate at 16 is so adept at using the angle and perspective of the camera to bring audiences to the same emotional state as Julian, it’s easy to see how Binbin’s work was the early staging for this approach. The line of communication and understanding between director, storyboard artist, and cinematographer is seamless; it definitely appeared so to the Los Angeles Cinefest when they nominated this fine film. Director Mario Aranguren gives credit to Ma for the look that was achieved in Skate at 16 by stating, “Binbin’s amazing work really helped me to clarify the blocking and shot angles in my mind. Before doing this, I was a mess in the head. The process of defining the shots with someone as talented as her and then having her return to me with an even clearer representation of the ideas…it’s such an important and vital part of the filmmaking process.” Binbin describes the process for those unfamiliar with her profession, “I worked with Mario, the director of the film, discussing the shot list for each scene. After that, we started drawing the shot basic on the shot list, through the angles, character blocking, and camera movements. Because Skate at 16 is a film about sports, the character movements were sometimes difficult to draw, and also the blocking between many characters could be confusing. Because of the film’s schedule, I had to prepare everything very quickly; it took about ten days for me to finish. The great part about my job is that, once everyone sees the completed storyboards, they become very energized and excited about the film and want to get to work right away. It’s a very rewarding feeling to see something I create have such an immediate effect on other talented professionals.”
Guillermo Cameo was so enamored with the look of Skate at 16 that he hired Binbin to be the storyboard artist for his film Robots & Cowboys. There are some similar themes between the two films (feelings of loneliness, isolation, finding one’s sense of self) but there is more of a lighthearted and whimsical look to Robots & Cowboys. There is also a sense of fighting one’s self as well as others, a feeling that childhood can often bring. The main character, Joe, brings drama to his heroic actions, even as we smile at the way he shifts genre’s in his identity and imagination. We often see wide shots when the actions is overwhelming and threatening, while close ups give a sense of comfortability and control in the same way that the backyard tent (which is a make believe tepee) is a safe and controlled environment for Madeline (the young female character). The film is set in rural Philadelphia and has moments that transport the viewer to a Spaghetti Western. Although Cameo knew that he wanted this approach, he needed Ma to relay this visual approach to the crew in a very clear manner. Achieving his vision would empower the film with sweetness as well as intensity, but being just a shade off of his intent could make it come across as shtick. Gulliermo states, “Binbin Ma is one of the most exceptionally talented and qualified graphic artists and storyboard artists of her field. Robots and Cowboys has been one of my most successful endeavors as a filmmaker, and I am certain this is due largely to the fact that I included Binbin as a leading member of the film. The film was enormously popular among festivals and awards centered around children, and garnered wins and nominations from The Kids Festival as well as the Young Entertainer Awards. Furthermore, the film won several awards from the internationally recognized International Euro Film Festival, establishing our production as one of the most inarguably successful children’s films of our field. These enormous achievements among some of the most highly regarded critics and film festivals across the world are indicative of our film’s high standing, which is no doubt thanks to Ms. Ma’s leading role.”
Both the opening scene, depicting Joe playing with Sir Steely (a robot toy based on Ma’s little brother’s robot ideas) as well as the final scene, complete with sunset and Copeland-esque soundtrack, were shots right off of Binbin’s storyboard. Whether close ups or wide vistas, Ma has a talent for structuring things that transfers easily to the cinematography. Explaining how to communicate images in a way specific to Robots & Cowboys, Ma states, “I used a lot low angle to make it easy to see things from the kids’ point of view. When I draw with children, I always keep that in my mind, try to bring the real character to frame.” Both Skate at 16 and Robots & Cowboys have a youthful vantage but discuss the trials all of us can relate to in one form or another. Only a professional like Binbin Ma has the eye and training to enable us, as the viewer, to revert back to our earlier selves and feel what the characters are feeling, without being aware that it is the location and framing of the action (brought into reality by Binbin images) that makes it all so real.