Interviews with Industry

Neil Maguire, Storyboard Artist on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again & More

Neil Maguire is a professional storyboard & concept artist with extensive experience in features, television, commercials, games, music promos and animated projects. Having worked on projects such as Black Mirror, Mamma Mia 2, and Paddington 2, Neil is an established industry figure.

Lift-Off were lucky enough to speak with Neil about his background as a storyboard and concept artist, the role requirements, and his experience of working on the family favourite film, MamMa Mia 2! Here We Go Again.

Interview by Lauren Macaree.


When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?

A long time ago in a galax…well, Purley in 1989 to be honest. This is in the pre internet dark ages so required a bit of leg work. I had an idea of what I wanted to do but no idea how to achieve it. I’d seen the work of industry legends such as Martin Asbury and Mike Ploog and many others and thought “that looks a fascinating way to earn a living” as it incorporated many of my interests, film making, FX, drawing etc. So I hot footed off to B.E.C.T.U with a ton of questions and a note pad. The staff there were helpful and allowed me access to a hallowed copy of The Knowledge. You weren’t allowed to photocopy it back then so I copied down the 1800 telephone numbers and address of production companies I needed (took a while). From there I phoned every number and made inquiries. I also phoned some storyboard artists (including the lovely Martin Asbury) and they were very helpful and I followed their advice. I built up a portfolio consisting mainly of sequences from books as I had no real industry experience at that point (the old conundrum: can’t get work without experience and can’t get the experience without the work). Eventually I got a booking. Yay go me!

Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?

King Kong (1933). It was repeated regularly on Friday evenings on BBC2 when I was a kid and I loved it! I was transported to the misty jungles, given added depth and charm by being in black and white and it remains one of my all time favourite films. It has everything, and technically it’s still an education in film making techniques to this day. Wonderful.

What are your biggest influences/inspirations?

I’m always looking at new film making techniques and continue to be awed by the process, I do think you get the best look to a film by using mixed media rather than an over reliance on one technique alone. There are other storyboarders, both old and new that I get inspiration from, which drives me to try and improve. Every day is a learning curve and every day you see someone whose work inspires you. There are genius storytellers out there directing and that’s a drive in itself. I think you need to be driven, even if you’re confident in your abilities, there’s always more to learn.

What is your personal storyboarding process? Do you have a favourite software/tool that you use?

It all starts with a phone call, then a meeting. It’s during that meeting you get into the mindset of the project, they’re all different. Your job is to lay out clearly, the director’s vision. All directors work differently and have singular approaches to the process. I tend to make copious notes and sometimes sketch out thumbnails doodles to clarify any points. Once I’ve got what the director is after I go away and either work in house or at my own studio and draw up the boards. I admit I was a little nervous when first approaching digital boarding as opposed to good ‘ol pen and paper’, but that was many years ago and I’ve never looked back. I use a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet, both portable and larger versions. Photoshop is my package of choice as it allows me so much creativity visually. It’s very versatile and you can edit your boards with ease, gone are the days of Spray glue, scalpels and paper cuts.

You have worked on various projects, including films, tV shows, commercials, music promos and also a number of video games. Do you have a process for choosing what projects you involve yourself in?
Do you look for anything specific in the project? Themes? Script etc?

It would be lovely to be able to pick and choose projects but life doesn’t work that way. A storyboarder has a journeyman lifestyle. Thankfully I’m usually pretty busy and hop from one gig to another. My 1st love however, has always been film. It’s the most expressive medium, however the lines between television and film are blurring nowadays and that’s an exciting opportunity for everyone involved.

You also worked on the recent brilliant film ‘Mama Mia! Here We Go Again’. How did you become involved in with this project?

The usual way, a phone call. I was just finishing a project and the phone rang (it’s always great when timings dove tail) and I was in. It was a great experience; I loved the 1st film and got involved fairly early on in the process with the sequel. I had the added pleasure of working in a 3 person team on the storyboards alongside 2 ladies who are boarding legends.

As the film is a musical, is your storyboarding process any different? Or more challenging in any way due to dance sequences etc?

To be honest my approach was the same. I’ve worked on many music promo’s over the years and even a musical pre school television series so I wasn’t out of my comfort zone. The choreography was being handled by Anthony Van Laast who knows his business inside out and made my job far easier. I would go to the required sound stage and do a walk through with Anthony and the dancers on a mock up of the set whilst making copious notes and thumbnail sketches. Once done I’d would draw them up.

What was the most challenging part of working on this specific project?

As with any storyboarding process, each discipline has it’s own parameters . Dance has a requirement to show the moves off to the best advantage, but you also can’t go crazy with the camera as the dance routine has to fit within the visual framework of the film. Thus it has to look more naturalistic stylistically. Every story has a visual beat, a cadence that has to be adhered to for continuity within the films framework.

When coming onboard a project such as this one, what is your working relationship with the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

Directors are incredibly busy people as you can imagine and their time is far more valuable than mine, so I meet when I’m required. Usually this is pretty early on, you need to get a feel for the style of movie the director wants to shoot and adapt to the visual requirements needed. Every project is different due to it’s requirements, Some projects require you to meet a director a year before production kicks off, on some you come onboard as preproduction is mostly completed and things are ramping up for a shooting date, and on other you might be called in for some post production fixes. On Mama Mia 2, I was brought in fair early on in the pre production phase and met Ol Parker (the director) within a couple of days. He set out what he required for the sequences under discussion and was a pleasure to work with. I recall my 1st full sequence was the title song Mama Mia. No pressure then….

From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one project, figure out your next approach and go from there?

The key to storyboarding is to be adaptable. I’ve worked on singular projects that are quite consuming as well as periods when you’re boarding multiple projects at a single time. I was once worked on a horror movie at the same time as a pre school show, could’ve been messy if I’d confused the two.Q: What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of storyboard artist would be to an outsider?

The glamour….there isn’t any. I think with social media now and open access to all areas, there aren’t really any surprises left unexplored in our field to reveal. I can say it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. But for hopefuls out there, it’s hard work, long long hours and a journeyman’s existence. I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

If someone wants to pu A: rsue a career as a storyboard artist, how would you recommend they go about it?

It’s a much more open arena these days than when I first started into it which is great for people wanting to get into the industry. I would look at film courses, especially the storyboarding session. There are forums and some storyboarders give talks and classes, these are essential to understanding the process. You have to gain as much inside knowledge as you can so you know what to expect. Also, in your career you will be asked to draw anything and everything….I mean everything, so learn how to draw 1st. It’s essential that you can fall back on anatomical knowledge as the drop of a hat, understand lighting and composition and to remember that you’re a storyteller at the days end. Another approach is simple too, there can be a slight separatist feeling from people outside the industry to those inside which we all find strange. The industry is made up of very nice, very hard working people, try phoning a production company or an expert in the area you’re interested in and simply having a chat. That’s how I got some very helpful advice those many years ago, people are very open and honest. We really are a nice bunch!