The Coen Brothers' 10 Best Storyboards & the Stories Behind Them

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The Coen Brothers are filmmakers with 18 feature films under their belt. In Hollywood, Joel and Ethan Coen are known for always working together in their filmmaking and sharing the credit for writing, directing, and producing.

Their body of work spans a variety of genres and styles, and one of their trademarks are frequent hybrid genres, as well as subversion or parody. In their unique writing process, the Coen Brothers do not outline their stories before writing the script, but they storyboard the movie shot by shot and don't improvise. The following is a look at the storyboarding work for ten of the best Coen Brothers feature films.

The Coen Brothers and storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson

Artist J. Todd Anderson is the Coen Brothers' storyboard artist of choice since Raising Arizona. Anderson studied at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and started working in the film business after graduating. His other filmmaking work includes feature films such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Stepford Wives and Leatherheads.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Joel and Ethan Coen rely heavily on storyboarding as filmmakers, and they've enabled J. Todd Anderson to become one of Hollywood's great storyboard artists. It takes him about six weeks to complete the iterative process for a Coen Brothers movie. They narrate the film to him as he sketches, then later Anderson refines his drawings, adding outlines and shadows in ink.

I like the challenge of doing a movie and achieving the director's ideas. It's almost like a performance.

Storyboarding for the Coen Brothers requires Anderson to be just as good at listening as drawing. "I go inside their heads, try to understand what they are thinking, and put it on paper. I always try to make the drawings theirs, not mine. It's like they're making a movie in front of me."

Anderson stresses that he doesn't create shots but interprets narrative language into visual language. Without animation, his storyboards represent motion through their own visual representation, including cinematography clues: solid black arrows indicate the movement of character action, outlined white arrows show camera movement.

The best storyboards from the Coen Brothers' work

After high school, Joel and Ethan went to college in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Joel then went to film school while Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton. They've been making movies together since their childhood in the 1960s with a Super 8 camera.

Despite their range of genres, the Coen Brothers' visual style remains consistent throughout their feature films. Barry Sonnenfeld shot their first three films, after which they started collaborating with Roger Deakins. Frames of precise composition based on storyboards define their cinematography. Another trademark of their work is the Coen brothers' preference for clean singles for dialogue, giving them more editing control. It's rare for the other actor's head or shoulder to appear in both the storyboards and scenes for dialogue.

The following are ten of the best IMDb movies by the Coen Brothers. With many of their storyboards floating around on Imgur and Tumblr, we'll also look at the stories behind their storyboarding work.

Raising Arizona

Hailed for their film noir debut, Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers were offered the chance to make Batman. Tim Burton directed the 1989 movie because the Coen brothers declined as they wanted to work on their own original material instead. Raising Arizona from 1987, starring Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Frances Mc Dormand was an unexpected follow-up, a movie best summed up by the film's logline "A comedy beyond belief."

J. Todd Anderson was working on a TV movie in Texas at the time and went to Arizona to apply for a job with the Coen Brothers. A fan of Blood Simple, he begged them for a job and sketched the baby chase scene for them. After deliberation, the Coens took him on for a trial week, then for the whole production.

According to Anderson himself, the Coens felt sorry for the guy from Dayton, Ohio. "Watching Raising Arizona on the big screen at the preview was an incredible experience. Nothing before or since compares. Seeing my silly little line drawings come to life was exhilarating." Anderson commented that not all scripts afterwards were as good as that first movie.

Blood Simple

As independent filmmakers, the Coen Brothers have had the final cut on their films since Blood Simple. Critics have compared their 1984 debut to Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Sergio Leone's work.

They shot the movie with Barry Sonnenfeld before they collaborated with J. Todd Anderson, so they did their own storyboarding. Many Coen Brothers signature trademarks are already present in the low-budget production: genre-blending, a meticulous approach, tight scripting, controlled composition and a visual style of their own.

A Criterion Collection release includes a comparison of final scenes to their original storyboards, featuring commentary by the Coen Brothers, Barry Sonnenfeld, and Frances McDormand.

Fargo

Roderick Jaynes has been nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Editing for Fargo and No Country For Old Men. Roderick Jaynes is the pseudonym the Coen Brothers have used since 1984 for editing credit on their movies. Likewise, J. Todd Anderson receives joke credits such as 'graphite operator' or 'pen grappler'.

For Fargo, J. Todd Anderson used the Artist Formerly Known As Prince's symbol, but lying on its side with a smiley face in the middle. This wasn't for his storyboarding work, though, but for his role as 'Victim In Field', another joke between him and the Coens; just like Prince, they're from Minneapolis. Anderson told the Dayton Daily News in 1996: "I'm the storyboard artist formerly known as J. Todd Anderson. That's all I can say about that."

Anderson describes the storyboarding process for the Coen Brothers as follows: "I read the script and then I sit down with the director and they start telling me what the film is going to look like visually. Up to that point, everything has been shackled to the words on the page. I'm the transitional person, the translator, turning the words into images. They try to document every camera set-up. You don't draw every shot, but you do try to plow through every scene."

No Country for Old Men

No Country For Old Men is a 2007 genre-bending Coen Brothers film best described as a neo-Western crime thriller. It won four Oscars at the 80th Academy Awards, and many critics list it as the Coens' best feature film.

The film's storyboards exhibit all the typical J. Todd Anderson elements: they're detailed but not to the point of perfectionism; black arrows point out movement within the scene; white arrows indicate camera movement; rectangles indicate the camera frame and comic book lettering stands in for sound effects.

At the beginning of the storyboarding process, Joel brought a shotlist to Anderson and Ethan had his own thumbnails. Anderson made initial sketches on storyboard paper, which he later traced in a second pass. The Coens' offered further input and Anderson improved his drawings without investing too much time.

The storyboarding wrapped up a couple of weeks before shooting so the cinematographer or production designer could review Anderson's work as well. He views sharing as part of his job, making everyone else's work easier. Roger Deakins, who regularly works on cinematography for the Coens, often sat in on storyboarding sessions and drew his own overhead plans for lighting and shooting.

Miller's Crossing

Neo-noir gangster film Miller's Crossing had to compete with 1990's other, arguably more significant gangster film, Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese. The story is based loosely on the books The Glass Key and Red Harvest by author Dashiell Hammett. The main character Tom Reagan, played by Gabriel Byrne, plays two gangs against each other.

In the words of Byrne himself: "When I read that script, I was just like anybody I think who read it, just really impressed by how visual and literate and how complex those relationships in the story actually were. When you unravel what that movie is about, it's even more audacious that someone could base a storyline on that single conversation between Steve Buscemi's character and mine at the bottom of the staircase. All the twists and turns, the betrayals..."

The Coens held back Tom Reagan's entrance into the film for five minutes, which was all laid out in the storyboards. With no establishing shot, the movie opens on ice cubes in a glass. Jon Polito, as Johnny Caspar, begins narrating important information, and eventually Tom comes into the conversation.

Miller's Crossing is the first Coen Brothers film with Steve Buscemi and John Turturro and the last of three with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. He established a camera style specifically not to distract from the complex dialogue. Unlike in Goodfellas, there isn't a single panning shot.

The Big Lebowski

Since its original release in 1998, the crime comedy The Big Lebowski has garnered a cult following. The Coen Brothers cited Raymond Chandler's stories as an influence: narrating a complex plot in episodes, characters unravelling a mystery, an anti-climactic resolve at the end, and an all-seeing narrator.

"It's like a Beatles song. Each Coen film has its own character," artist J. Todd Anderson said about The Big Lebowski. Originally, the Coens' storyboarding process with Anderson was born out of low-budget necessity but became its own distinctive trademark. The Coen brothers, cinematographer Roger Deakins and Anderson produced the storyboards for The Big Lebowski over six weeks.

Set decorator Chris Spellman said the Coens have a "clear vision of what they want before any film rolls." Anderson's storyboards communicate that vision clearly to the movie crew, enabling a crucial knowledge transfer with no chatter, no filler, and a highly visual peek inside the Coens' minds.

The Big Lebowski is also one of the examples where Anderson tried to draw on the cast for the characters. His drawings resemble comic book versions of Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro.

The official storyboards for The Big Lebowski are available in book form from Clark Kersey Publishing on J. Todd Anderson's website.

Barton Fink

The Coen Brothers lost themselves in the script-writing process of Miller's Crossing, though they reject the description of writer's block. As Joel said in 1991, "It's not really the case that we were suffering from writer's block, but our working speed had slowed, and we were eager to get a certain distance from Miller's Crossing. Barton Fink sort of washed out our brain and we were able to go back and finish Miller's Crossing."

Writing the script took just three weeks, and though they produced detailed storyboards as always, Barton Fink was easier to shoot than Miller's Crossing, wrapping up in eight weeks instead of twelve with a third of the budget. The film was the first ever to win all three major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, garnering the 1991 Palme d'Or as well as awards for Best Director and Best Actor for Turturro as Barton Fink.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins said about working on Barton Fink with the Coens: "I think their approach to filmmaking, and my experience with them then and since, has affected the way I work and the way I see things, definitely. [...] They're notorious for storyboarding everything and being so specific about what they want. [...] To work everything out very tightly beforehand and just shoot only the things that you really want, it's a different approach."

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Coen Brothers began writing O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 1997 after a spontaneous idea. The storyline is based on Homer's Odyssey, but neither brother had read it. They were only familiar with it through a comic book version and pop culture references and adaptations.

The film was the fifth collaboration between the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Shot in lush, green Mississippi, O Brother, Where Art Thou? required colour correction to achieve the Dust Bowl look the brothers were going for. Deakins was in favour of digital mastering, and the movie became the first Hollywood production to be shot on film and colour graded on a computer.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside LLewyn Davis from 2013 is a film based on the 1960s folk music scene in Greenwich Village in New York City. The character of Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, though the film doesn't follow the folk singer's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Joel Coen admitted: "The film doesn't really have a plot; that's why we threw the cat in."

The cat, and Llewyn's chase, are symbols by which the Coens navigate something unarticulated in the movie, though we receive plenty of hints: a movie theater is playing The Incredible Journey, and the cat's name is Ulysses. Like Homer, Llewyn Davis is on a journey, but an inward one of self-discovery.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel portrays winter in New York in cool colours, with the warmth of the cat's yellow coat as often the only contrast. The composition uses long perspectives, narrow hallways, at the end of which may or may not be that which eludes Davis.

True Grit

True Grit from 2010 is an adaptation of Charles Portis's novel, which was also made into a 1969 John Wayne movie. Once more, the Coens worked with artist J. Todd Anderson and immortalized him in the film itself: one of the many aliases of the outlaw Tom Chaney is John Todd Anderson.

For storyboarding True Grit, Anderson said that he and the brothers did not go back and watch the 1969 film but focused on the novel instead. When Anderson began drawing, the cast was already complete, except for the character of Mattie Ross. Therefore, he knew how to draw Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin, but not the little girl, eventually played by Hailee Steinfeld.

J. Todd Anderson also used True Grit as another example of how the Coen Brothers are very thorough in their filmmaking process and "cover everything with a drawing." An exchange between two characters who hardly move can be covered with one or two set-ups, but when the camera moves in close, and a lot of action happens, more than one set-up is required: "Making westerns today is not as easy as it was in the '40s and '50s because with the animals, all the regulations are different. So, the CGI elements in now, like gunshots, where they never had the ability to do that before, and that has to be drawn and documented because it has to go to someone else to get costs for those effects. The better I draw it, the better the cost we get, which makes it very important to draw every shot in an action sequence."

For scenes with many elements, for example, when Mattie and Cogburn are looking down at the Lucky Ned's gang in True Grit, a lot of documentation is necessary. As Anderson points out: "We started with small toys all over the floor and went to the drawings from there. Joel and Ethan would tell me where the camera was, and I would draw until we got it right. And then they went out on locations to make sure they had a good frame, and then there was a revision based on that. Then they put people on different sides; once they figured out where the sun was, so we had to redraw things again because of the elements. That's how incredibly technical and organized they are about getting what they need in those shots. What you don't see in the drawings is all of that brainpower."

It's clear that J. Todd Anderson is proud of his work with the Coen Brothers. They've formed a strong professional bond where he plays an important role in their filmmaking: ""Once I get those images on paper, I'm the first person to actually 'see' the movie. "I'm always very proud when I see the movie after it's been shot because they shoot so close to what we've drawn."

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