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Business is Personal

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve updated this blog, and it’s been a hell of a ride; and continues to be so, as there’s currently the COVID-19 pandemic getting some serious traction in LA (and thus the entertainment industry), forcing some major (hopefully temporary) shifts in what constitutes business as usual for myself and others.

But it’s not like I’m unaccustomed to adapting to adversity. Sometimes shit happens and you have to go with a different strategy. That’s survival. This post is about how my career and life were nearly derailed by a worst-case absolute nightmare scenario, and will delve deep into my personal life.

Shortly after my last post in June 2018, my daughter, Kiki, who was just 14 months old at the time, was diagnosed with Stage 4 High-Risk Neuroblastoma (Nb). This is a rare-upon-rare cancer, and there’s only 700 cases of Nb in the US every year. The Stage 4 designation is a 50/50 prognosis, which is very grim, and came as an absolute shock to be revealed by ultrasound in our seemingly perfectly healthy daughter.

Shortly after diagnosis

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of immature nerve cells. It’s almost exclusively pediatric and originates on the adrenal glands in most cases. It’s also one of the most aggressive cancers out there, and combating it requires equally aggressive countermeasures: an 18-month continuous gauntlet of chemo (6 cycles), surgery, two (2) stem-cell transplants with high-dose chemo, 18 rounds of radiation, and 6 months of immunotherapy. Obviously, my heart, my mind, my soul sank after hearing everything my precious baby would have to be put through in order to try and save her.

After essentially signing my daughter’s life away on countless medical releases and watching her become a human pincushion, something happened that I couldn’t have anticipated. All my mental constructs of what was right and wrong, what mattered and what didn’t, and my personal sense of self were destroyed. No pride, no walls, no ego anymore. I was defeated. And it was liberating. With nothing left of myself to hold onto, or defend, I became inexplicably empowered, to do anything and everything necessary to save my family. Success or failure, no one who knew my situation could judge me, turn a deaf ear, tell me no, or limit my resolve, including myself. As my wife focused on our daughter, I made sure I was focused on my wife, and then by extension, I reached out to literally everyone I knew, and asked them to help support ME, and to further spread the word if possible. Thus we swiftly had a giant pyramid of support rallied to our cause, with work colleagues, friends of friends, extended family at the bottom, and close friends in the middle, immediate family near the top, and my daughter at the pinnacle.

I had to make some big career moves. I needed all the help I could get. I incorporated, which meant opening up my work and personal finances to professional CPAs, something I’d been anxious about for a while. I joined the union, so I’m now a card-carrying member of the Art Directors Guild Local 800, something I’d never thought I’d bother with, but now I can work on union projects and access those benefits, most crucially the healthcare. There was no guarantee for my wife to continue with her work’s health benefits, so I had to make sure I could cover us, should the worst happen. It was all so daunting, and mind you, while I’m literally running around LA going to jobs, working my ass off, wading through traffic and making calls, spending 3-4 hours a day in the hospital visiting my suffering family, and then crashing into bed, utterly alone, in my clothes, lights still on, for maybe 3 hours of sleep, back up at 5 am to race to the hospital and help any way I can before work, and repeat. For 18 months. It was hard. I was hard focusing on work and providing for my family while my daughter was being poisoned by chemo, blasted by radiation, recovering from surgery, nearly dying twice, and whimpering through the pain of immunotherapy for so long. It was the hardest thing I hope I ever have to endure.

Work/Life balance
Lots of Facetiming from onsite jobs when she was in the hospital

But it wasn’t all bad. I saw the “good” in humanity every day, with people reaching out endlessly to voice their support, sending prayers and good vibes and helping prop us up wherever things seemed to falter. I owe a lot to the kindness of strangers. I did a lot of growing, getting to know the real me, and learning how to be human, specifically, how to be more empathic with people. I realized that everyone is going through something, and we’ve all had to persevere through hard times, and have had to rely on others for help. I used to think it was best to hide whatever problems I had in my life, because showing weakness would result in others viewing me as a liability, but it turned out that sharing our weaknesses with others is an important part of social bonding, and by opening up to my clients and colleagues, I bonded to them in a way that made my work and personal life far more meaningful than it ever had before. It’s completely changed the way I approach my work relationships now. And it was GOOD for business. I actually had my best year ever, amazingly, and though it required me to leverage every ounce of social and work credit we had, we got through this dark period intact.

March 2020

As of February 2020, My daughter Kiki is nearly 3, and nearly 6 months out of treatment. We don’t use terms like “cured” yet, it’s just too soon to know. But her oncologist is pleased so far, and we are slowly but surely phasing her into as normal a life as we can manage, enrolling her in dance classes and preschool, and still taking it one day at a time. We’ve recently additionally been blessed with the birth of our new son Robbie, a treasure and hope for new beginnings.

So far, 2020 is off to a rocky start, but not just for us, but for the whole world it seems. Fear of COVID-19 is spreading faster and farther than the disease itself, like a cancer, if you will, causing widespread severe repercussions in every industry, and time will tell how this will shake out. I hope that sharing my story might provide some inspiration to those reading, to find inner resilience, and courage to reach out for support when needed, and strength to adapt and change and grow accordingly to the needs of what may come next.

If my story had you compelled, oh man, this is just the index card version. Our entire saga played out publicly with regular updates on social media via gofundme, facebook, and Instagram. If you would like learn more about that incredible journey, I encourage you to visit our gofundme page (no obligation to donate) for the complete story, and certainly connect on facebook as well, where I like to post about my personal life and interact with our friends and supporters. My Instagram is more art-oriented, but a good third option if that’s your preference in social media.

I wish you and your loved ones well. Stay healthy as best you can.

Next up, more blog posts about storyboards.

:30 Animals Animation B&W Cartoons Family Females Kids Males Music Video Shoot Boards Storyboarding Toys Uncategorized VFX

Talk, Read, Sing! First Five California – Storyboards

Here’s a very fun project I did a while back, that I’m excited to share- storyboards for the First 5 California “Brainy Birds” commercial, which was part of their Talk, Read, Sing! campaign.  Basically: talk, read, and sing to your kids, and watch their little brains grow!  What a fun message.  And I can attest (I’m a new dad myself), kids soak up your words pretty quick, and you gotta watch what you say! Lol!!

There were a lot of challenges on this project- very tight timeline, multiple layers of client approval, and of course, character designs and music lyrics all undergoing revisions as I’m drawing the boards- sometimes it’s like trying to hit a moving target!  But I’m used to it, so it never phases me.  I still had fun with it, and I’m sure that comes through in my drawings.  One particular storyboard issue when blending live action with animation, is whether or not the “animated” parts should be drawn differently from the “live action” parts- like how do you make the animated part of a shot look different from live action, when it’s all “drawn” by nature of the fact it’s a drawing to begin with? But in this case, only the bird characters were animated, so it’s wasn’t as much an issue.  At some point, people have to use their imaginations.

I really enjoy working on animated projects as well, and drawing happy families for me is a snap, so even with all the known and unknown unknowns, I remember this being a fun project.

Here’s the boards:

And here’s the final spot!

 

Hope you liked it!  See you next time.

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AT&T “Market Mishap” Storyboards!

A while back, I got called in to my good clients at DirecTV (now AT&T) to work on a spot for their Adworks campaign- a commercial about commercials! How funny!  But really, it makes sense to make sure your advertising dollars aren’t going to waste, right?  That’s why you hire ‘Ol Maxy, right? and then you use Adworks to make sure the Ads go in front of your target audience!  Otherwise, well… see below!

Our Hero “Ad Man” runs from setting to setting, doing his best to sell product to the most unmatched of buyers- with very predictable results.  But the laughs are an easy sell! Lol!

Here’s the boards!  I hope you enjoy them, this is some of my finest work!

Here’s the final spot!!

Yup, no matter how hard you try, Gladys at the nursing home isn’t going to buy your reduced price Lamborghini.  You just have to face facts!

This project was a little more extensive than most and we had time to board out some “B-Roll” if you will, with options for other shots to help sell up the humor a bit.  It was all optional and really, at the end of the day, humor depends on the performance of the actors and more, so you do a lot of alternative takes to see what works best.  But I did my part and boarded it out my best, to give it a fair shot at success.  So, next up you’ll see some boards that are disjointed in continuity but will hopefully spur a neuron or two and make you chuckle.  Enjoy!

 

:30 B&W Family Females Humor Kids Males Pitch Boards Samples Storyboarding

Love, Depicted

I’ll leave out the specifics on what product/company these frames were advertising for; suffice to say, it was a collection of short spots of families and loved ones reflecting on the nature of their relationships (with some product placement tastefully featured in the periphery).  Rather, Let’s consider these boards an example of how I really try to bring a sense of acting and characterization to my drawings- bringing forth a sense of deep human connection when called for.  I think the work speaks for itself.

Just as often as I’m called upon do depict amazing action scenes, or elaborate fantastic worlds, I’m then called upon to draw a tender moment of kindness, or humor.  That’s the world of Storyboarding Commercials- you draw everything and it’s thus I believe it’s the best artistic training ever.  The work demands you never get too comfortable drawing the same thing every day- I draw vehicles, animals, people, places, animation, live action, humor, horror, sci-fi, and even in new media like VR!  It’s a new challenge every day and I love it.

Thanks for stopping by!

 

:30 B&W Family Food Kids Pitch Boards Products Samples Shoot Boards Storyboarding VFX

Nutella “Spread the Happiness” Storyboards

 

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OMG pancakes!!!

Woohoo! In addition to the previous Nutella spot, I happened to do the boards for the most recent follow up- “Spread the Happiness!”  Once again produced by my great clients at Brand New School.

They are playing this spot a LOT on TV right now- which is great, since it rocks!  It’s fun, it’s pop, it’s delicious.

The challenges involved in this spot were finding a fresh take on simple transitions and how best to style them in an appetizing way and choreograph them best to the music.  I drew a LOT of frames for it, as we would build many animatics to see what worked best- there was a lot of experimentation with different kinds of wipes and reveals.  But that’s the best way to get things perfect!

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I always enjoy drawing families having fun.  It turns out though, one thing that is hard to draw is people sitting around a table.  It sounds simple but it’s really tricky because you have to draw in near perfect perspective just to get the height and distance relationships right between the chair and the table, and then again for the people who actually sit in them.  If you draw it wrong, all your chairs will look like they are different sizes, or even like your actors are sitting on phonebooks or booster seats.  It’s tough!  One of those things that you only notice if you do it wrong, and since I think mine turned out pretty decent, I have to make a point about it 🙂  I left the extra “empty” space at the top of the frame because at one point we weren’t sure if there would be text, logo, or slogan superimposed there.

Here’s a great drawing of a product shot- always important to draw the product really well!!!

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Here’s the full board sequence:

 

And for comparison, here’s the final commercial!  Turned out pretty cool!

 

It’s a fun song, but when you work with the editors and animators that have to cut the commercial together, you have to listen to the song over and over and over and over again until it loses all meaning.  Yup, there’s a limit to how much happiness one can take!  Ha!

Thanks!  See you next time.

-Max

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Nissan Rogue “Launch” Storyboards

How many storyboard frames do you need for a 30 second commercial?  It’s an interesting question.  Sometimes you just need a handful of “pitch boards”, to sell the idea along, so maybe 5-8 frames in that case.  Sometimes you are drawing “shoot boards” which are critically important to be as clear and explanatory as possible, so as best to inform the production staff exactly what they are trying to capture on the shoot day.  In those cases, anything from 16 to 30 frames is normal.  That’s a lot of range.  I typically work off a storyboard template I designed that has 24 frames on it.  That’s about 21 shots to spell out the entire commercial, plus 3 frames as optional shots to try and get on the day of the shoot.  There are so many contingencies in filming, which is why storyboarding is so important- it helps ground the process amidst the chaos of an actual shoot.

To explain a little further- commercials, especially 30 second commercials, are generally shot in one day.  At first, it sounds like plenty of time to film 30 seconds, but it’s actually a mad race against the clock.  I often hear about shoots that start at 6 am and then run straight through to 4 am the next morning- nearly 24 hours.  I guess that’s a “day.”  Probably greatest contributing factor to the time it takes to make this stuff work is the lighting.  Every single shot needs perfect lighting to get captured on film camera as intended, and these lights are heavy and complicated and temperamental.  A director friend explained that every time the camera moves, it takes an hour to re-light the scene; so you can extrapolate from there to understand why even a very “simple” commercial can take so long to shoot.

Over time I’ve learned that there are two roles in production that are essentially contingent on the availability of the shoot boards, and thus, these are the people that I typically look out for and try to coordinate delivery with- the Assistant Director and the Line Producer.  I never fail to be impressed with the character of these individuals.  They have similar roles, in so far as what they are responsible for: with the help of the storyboards as a guide as to what the final product should be, their job (among other duties) is to coordinate the production staff and organize logistical solutions custom to the likely challenges on the day of the shoot.  It is an incredibly complicated task- planning and re-planning against known and unknown information- and then retooling as new information comes in.   To give a few examples of typical curveballs and contingencies- Sunrise and sunset times shift every day; Child Actors must have guardian supervision and technically can’t “miss school” or they are considered truant, so a tutor must be present and additional complicated labor laws apply; many shoot locations have limited accessibility and parking; considerations of flight paths of planes and helicopters overhead; mandatory breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner- these are typically baked into a union contract along with many many other services; the list goes on and on, each contingency narrowing the available windows to do the most important thing- shoot the darn commercial!

Sometimes what is planned for is not guarantee-able; and thus backups are additionally planned for, and then swapped out at the last minute, and then swapped right back.  With so many known unknowns, the storyboard can represent an anchor of stability to rally around.  So I know that my role of storyboard artist is an important one, and when I’m asked to draw additional frames that may or may not have a final role in the end product, I always do my best to comply, because it may be that on the day of the shoot, the particular angle I’ve drawn for a hero shot might just not be available, and so a backup option is needed.

All of this explanation to help explain the context of a very difficult day of storyboarding.  And so here we go; I’ll recount the day fully to paint a nice clear picture.  I was due at 9 AM to be onsite for my good clients at Slim to draw shoot boards for their Nissan Rogue commercial.  I had left about fifteen minutes late (my bad) and the Los Angeles traffic gods where further amusing themselves at my expense- so I was about 40 minutes late to meet my clients at their office – a terrible way to start out, but I’ve done a lot of work with these clients and we all knew I could make up the time.  Still, we had to hit the road running, no time to waste- the directors and producers needed to leave at 2pm to go on a tech scout (where they examine the likely shoot locations to evaluate and make final decision on how to structure the shoot schedule).

As per usual, I had no real previous knowledge of job/concept before arriving- I used to think that was a bad thing, and that I would do better if I could anticipate the night before what I would be drawing the next day, but after a while I realized it was much better to just come in like a blank slate with no preconceived notions about how things might be.  It’s gonna be a hard day, no matter what, and knowing more about the project can’t help- only making sure I have all my equipment seems to matter. After swiftly setting up, I was given the script and told the concept- its a 30-second Nissan Rogue commercial, and I’m drawing shoot boards.  They are shooting this weekend and the boards are due at end of day.  I quickly read through the script.

The commercial narrative opens at night with mysterious POV footage of a light cast in front of camera at passing trees, houses, streets, neighborhoods- searching for something, and finally finding a garage door that opens in front of us- these shots are intercut with a young boy playing with his toy spaceship at his house, we can see on his face that his imagination is taking him to other worlds.  Our two threads tie together as the POV light (now revealed to be the exciting 2016 Nissan Rogue) and the boy enter the family garage from opposite sides and meet head on- an exhilarating introduction with a sci-fi slant.  The boy is in awe- his father has brought home an awesome new futuristic car- and shortly they easily pack their camping gear into it (with all that extra cargo space!) and head off on a road trip into the night, the theme of traveling through space still palpable.  The commercial culminates as the car pulls up to a campsite (Mt. Hollywood in this case) and the new car is ogled and awed at by the boy’s amazed friends, already at the site.  “It’s a rogue.”  A great concept and I appreciate these kinds of commercials that get across a kind of concept without explaining it with words- it’s really all visual storytelling.

I was very relieved to find the director had prepared a shotlist for us- a very intelligent, well thought out, descriptive explanation of each shot, one by one, and as I read through it, I could see the shots clearly, and the concept came through, and it was great.  I love shotlists because the director has already taken the time to think critically about the work they intend to produce.  And I also get a very clear picture of the amount of frames needed, and thus I can plan my day very efficiently.  But there’s a catch- there are 43 shots on this list.  About twice what would be typical.  The reasons were twofold: there were a lot of unknowns associated with the shoot day, and thus the director needed a lot of options to pad out how the story might be told in the same way, but with alternate angles; and the story narrative was visually driven (as is usually the case in these “international” commercials that have to appeal to audiences that speak different languages) which also typically necessitates more frames than a typical “walk and talk” commercial, for instance.  So, I had about 3 hours to rough out 40+ frames, and that’s very tight, but doable- the shot list was clear and I at least didn’t have to distract myself with typical stuff like ideation, fixing story problems, muddy concepting, or ambiguous intent.  Just draw my butt off- and luckily I’m quite excellent at that.  Around 1230 the lunch order came in- it can be somewhat expected to be provided lunch in these scenarios, especially if everyone else is ordering- it just gets expensed I guess, and who doesn’t like a free lunch.  But whereas I might have indulged in a nice juicy pastrami sandwich on another occasion, today I knew I needed to steer clear of the dreaded “food coma” which typically accompanies a rich meal, so I opted for the lentil salad, which was light and filling. I only took a few bites, knowing that with the clock still ticking, the better use of my time was to finish out the rough frames and then I could finish the meal while the directors reviewed the drawings and came back with their notes.

So I did so, and they did so, and as expected, the boards looked exactly as intended, with a few minor changes.  And a few more optional frames to tag at the end- since they wanted a few key frames to include an option for a younger brother character alongside the principal actor, in case the client insisted.  Oh, and get a few shots of the Bose audio system and logo in there too, since that’s a premium feature on the car that the client wants featured.  That brought the total to 50 frames.  And I have until 6pm to turn in all the finals.  No problem, I guess.  Actually, the directors were very pleased to have at least a comprehensive rough draft all ready to go, which is great to bring on a tech scout- so they had those roughs printed up and they hit the road, leaving me to finish up by myself, which was kind of a relief- just had to get a finishing pass on 50 frames in four hours.  No big deal.  Yeesh.  Thankfully, after 10 years at this job, I know every trick in the book in terms of being efficient with my drawing style and getting the maximum drawing quality out of a specific limited availability of time.  So I just did my thing, and got it done.  By the way, I don’t trace my cars to save time- because in my experience, it takes far longer to find the exact reference to trace, and it feels like cheating anyway if I do.

Here’s the boards:

 

And here’s the final commercial:

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I thought it turned out well, but obviously, they didn’t use all the shots I drew.  I looks like they didn’t even use half of them, actually, and I noticed some that I didn’t draw at all- it’s common to find a new, previously unforeseen approach on the day of shooting.   The feel is a little different than I had thought was originally intended.  I think they were going more sci-tech and aggressive, which works, but I also think the lighting in some of the shots was a little garish- not sure ultimately why that would be (many times, it’s a client request to crank up the appearance of the hero product), but if I ran the zoo, I’d opt for something a little softer and dreamlike.

They swapped out the retro spaceship design that they originally wanted (I also felt that it reinforced the stronger sense of imagination and freedom) with a realistic NASA type shuttle.  I also noticed that they didn’t include the Bose product shots, or much of the front end playing-with-the-spaceship-around-the-house shots.  So much is out, it makes me wonder if they have another, much longer version out there somewhere, like a 60: internet-only version.  Makes sense to me.  Also just goes to show that what you see on screen is just a sliver of the thought and work that went into it.

Oh well.  On to the next one!

 

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