John Dondertman Interviews ‘Dune’ Storyboard Artist And Concept Designer Sam Hudecki

DGC Ontario Production Designer John Dondertman (Orphan Black, Titans, Kim’s Convenience) chats with award-winning Storyboard Artist and Concept Designer Sam Hudecki. Sam has collaborated on six films with Denis Villeneuve, including Arrival, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and, most recently, Dune, which premiered in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sam is currently prepping the feature film White Noise with director Noah Baumbach.

JD: Your projects seem to take you on location often, what is that experience like?

SH: I can tell you one story: I started a show in Georgia for a week, which turned into 3 weeks, then that turned into 4 and 5 months. The project was called “Prisoners” and the company name was “Captive Productions”, and that has been the story of my life for the last decade.

JD: How long have you worked in film?

I studied film and worked as a camera assistant on a nature series shooting 16 mil with high speed time lapse cameras, and this was my internship in school. I always had a love of photography and thought I would end up doing that, and my student film titled “Character Type” was nominated for the CFC student award. Even when I was making documentaries I would make small drawings in the margins.

In addition, I worked in every department available to me in order to get into the film industry. I studied Film at Queens University, which wasn’t known for film at the time but I squeezed everything I could out of the program. I would book that last available time slot in the editing suite in order to maximize the time I had by staying till the newspapers landed on the doorstep in the morning.

JD: Is there another department in film production that you would like to work in?

SH: If there was to be a progression from story boarding, and helping to shape something and being involved with all the departments, it would be directing, and I would be fascinated to try that at some point in my life.

JD: What are your film influences?

SH: This is a hard question to answer, as there are old favourites from my childhood like Modern Times and Alien, and also directors like Nicholas Rogue. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a stand out influence as it is for most people I think if you go back in time. 

JD: What are some artists or painters you turn to for inspiration?

SH: I find this is a tough question to answer as well, as when I  explore a vision it becomes contextural, so there is not really a correct answer as I like to be nimble.

From a young age I enjoyed painting and automatically seem to like almost everyone else’s drawings more than my own. I do gravitate to first impression sketches with a living line. Recently I discovered the artist Martin Lewis who influenced Hopper and early film noir. I have also enjoyed the  early story boards for Blade Runner that Sherman Labby and Mentor Huebner drew and I have been inspired by other artists like Moebius and Syd Mead. 

A growing challenge is that the more we search on line the more we tend the “Google Garden”, or Pinterest. I have this feeling that we are all starting to pull from the same resource and it is necessary to break the confines of our own algorithms.

JD: Tell me more about your creative process.

SH: One of the things I love is developing and designing shots and how they work with the shot before and the context of the scene. It might be that you do something incredibly simple for the strongest effect such as how to introduce something with huge scale in a completely white void. As a story board artist I also have a close connection with the editors and we are like “book ends” to the project.

JD: What’s the most misunderstood aspect of your work?

SH: I really do exist in an unusual role between every department, hired by the director and pushed by the producers and working to align everyone’s work to that. I begin by feeling around in the dark to help create the world. Typically it is “we need to story board for any action sequence”. This process becomes an intermediate translation of the screen play into visuals and it can be be a communicator to saving time and resources. Of course there are other tools (other than storyboards) that are useful, but it comes down to whatever works to get the ideas across.

Some of Sam's storyboards for Blade Runner 2049.
Some of Sam’s storyboards for Blade Runner 2049.

JD: Tell me about the book you put together recently and your work on Blade Runner 2049.

SH: There are actually 3 books about the storyboards that have been published, “The Art and Soul of Bladerunner”, “Blade Runner 2049: The Storyboards” and “Blade Runner 2049: Interlinked”.

My book, “Blade Runner 2049: The Storyboards”, is an archive of the storyboards which shows some of the first drawings which get layered and some are the first pencil sketches which survived. They may be a bit weird looking, but no one ever sees this stuff so it was a thrill to share these images. There were also “feeling around in the dark” sketches that I gave off to incredible artists that get into the painting of boards.

Blade Runner 2049 was unusual as I started about 1 year in advance working in a hotel room with Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins. We had a month to do most of the film so Darryl Henley also worked with me to get most of the film together and then I went to Budapest for another 9 months. The storyboards became a primary document, almost more in a way than the script, not that that  works for every director. I also designed the helmet that opens the film. I kept working after wrap to oversee the previz and Vegas redesign scenes and guided that to Denis’ vision. It was fascinating and I was in between a lot of what was going on.

JD: Do you have a design related object that you cherish?

SH: I have a typewriter from the first film I made and I have several unique small items that I find precious.

JD: What were your childhood aspirations?

SH: I wanted to be a pilot and I was dead set on being a pilot, so I was also drawing a lot of planes. I guess I was a bit of a dreamer. My mother is a painter and my Dad is a producer, musician, and writer, and in grade 5 I embedded a bit of pencil lead into my hand, which may have set my course.

Lightning Round Questions:

Analogue or Digital: I love analogue if it is about light being preserved on grain, or the imprint of music on vinyl, but I have gone digital like everyone else as I draw on a tablet so that I can draw live from anywhere. For software my home turf is Photoshop.

Colour that goes with everything: Black.

Favourite non-work activity: Riding motorcycles.

Dogs or cats: If I could have a dog, I would have a dog easily.

Red or white wine: Red.

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