A Review of Past Lives (and Career Plans)

Earlier this month I watched Past Lives, the Korean American drama film from first time director Celine Song. It's the perfect embodiment of the type of film I want to make: something autobiographical, something that feels real, something that navigates the messiness of friendship and romance.

More concretely, last year I had my heart broken. And this film's final act is the first time I've felt anything like closure.

There's one scene where the wife catches up with her childhood sweetheart from Korea. Later that night, her husband tells her

"You and him make such a good story. And in that story I'm the big bad white husband standing in between true love"

In a lesser film they'd end up fighting, or she'd leave her husband. But instead the director navigates this whole love triangle so delicately, and in such a real and mature way.

Every artist wants to put a piece of themselves into their work, and the plot of this film was one of the stories I most wanted to tell.

Last year I quit my tech job to study art, with the notion that it'd enable me to tell emotionally moving stories. Stories like Past Lives. I'm planning to study until Fall of 2024, then find work as a storyboard artist at an animation studio.

But Past Lives is live action, and it wouldn't have been as emotionally impactful had it been animated. There's something special about seeing real people, in real settings, grappling with problems we've experienced ourselves.

Most animated movies are action, fantasy, and scifi. There's a visual wow factor that comes with these settings, and drawing these films often ends up looking better and being cheaper than the live action alternative. However, fantastical visuals aren't needed for dramas that feel straight out of ordinary life. And pressing record on live actors is faster than painstakingly modeling, texturing, and animating characters.

I now have some questions

  • Has learning art been a waste of time?
  • What should I do differently over the next few months, knowing that live action is better suited than animation for the types of films I want to make?
  • Is becoming a storyboard artist for animation still a good first job for me to aim for?

Has learning art been a waste of time?

Storyboards are an important part of preproduction for all films, not just animation.

Steven Spielberg relied on them heavily, and Martin Scorsese called storyboarding the most important filmmaking process.

Alfred Hitchcock famously storyboarded all his films, and once said

"Once the screenplay is finished, I'd just as soon not make the film at all. I have a strongly visual mind. I visualize a picture right down to the final cuts."

His final shots match his preproduction storyboards nearly 1 to 1, and he apparently never looked through the camera's viewfinder as his crew could just follow his boards.

Fun aside, Werner Herzog is an ardent hater of storyboards

"I do not use storyboards. I think it is the instrument of the cowards."

Being able to plan, ideate, and control the visual component of "visual storytelling" is something that's very important to me, and it's why I've been studying storyboarding.

Knowing that live action films are better suited than animation for the type of stories has made me realize that my draftsmanship is much closer to where it needs to be than I thought as. As a filmmaker who uses storyboards. I need to be able to communicate clearly, and at times inspire with art, but I don't need to create beautifully detailed storyboards.

Instead of studying anatomy and rendering in perpetuity, the thing I should spend time on is the actual practice of storyboarding. Becoming proficient with the language of film, shot choices, composition, and ideation via storyboarding is what I need to spend countless hours practicing.

What should I do differently?

Previously, my plan for the next few months was to finish storyboarding classes in August, then learn 3D animation, modeling, and texturing with Blender so I could start making animated short films.

Now that I'm prettty sure I want to make live action films in the long term, learning 3D animation and other art skills "for the sake of it" is no longer my top priority.

Instead, learning photography and how to write fiction for screenplays is much more important for me. After watching Past Lives I bought a used camera to practice composition, lighting, and color grading — skills that also feed nicely into storyboarding.

That being said, I think being able to craft compelling stories is the most pressing skill for me to develop. I get the sense that you can learn on a project and fake it till you make it with vfx / cinematography / lighting / actors and get functional results. But if the story is weak, the rest will fall apart.

This feels very daunting, as writing fiction is something I have no experience in. But over the past year I've gone from a complete beginner to a somewhat decent artist. It was hard, took a lot of time, and required me to sacrifice a lot of legibility. But I've done it once, and I believe I can do it again.

Should I still aim to work in animation as a storyboard artist?

Aspiring to be a screenwriter and filmmaker is scary. There's thousands of people online who try and fail to produce anything of note. In contrast, storyboard art feels like something that is very obtainable for me.

That being said, I have to be cautious that I'm not pursuing this to avoid a scary but more important life path.

I think that working with others is amazing for learning, making professional connections, and for increasing the amount of chaos in your life. Despite what I've said above, animation is still a wonderful medium for film, and storyboard art is the only job that I'm aware of that is both obtainable for me while also developing my storytelling abilities (both visual and narrative), and this is true even if animation isn't the medium I want to stay in forever.

Looking forward

Over the next few months I'll be continuing with classes, while also making independent projects to practice storyboarding, photography and how to write compelling fiction.

I'm daunted by how much I need to learn, but also incredibly excited by all the pieces of art I'll be making soon, and throughout the rest of my life.