Harold and Lillian Michelson weren't a superstar couple, but their work made a big impact on the film world — so much so, that DreamWorks animators immortalized the two by dubbing them King Harold and Queen Lillian, Fiona’s parents, in “Shrek 2.” “It got to the point where they were this center of knowledge and friendship and family,” says Art Director Norm Newberry, in "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story," a new documentary from director Daniel Raim that sheds light on the Michelsons, Hollywood’s secret power couple.
Harold was primarily a storyboard artist, as well as an art director and production designer. In his decades-long career, his work helped birth some of Tinseltown’s most iconic scenes from "The Birds" to "Dick Tracy." Lillian was a researcher who ultimately bought and ran her own library that supplied directors and production designers with the visual aids they needed to build realistic images. Her work came to influence films like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Full Metal Jacket."
"Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story," delves into the relationship between this unsung couple. In their 60 years of marriage, their careers flourished in tandem, as they often collaborated with each other on projects. Raim looks at the Michelsons as individuals and as a couple. He also brings to light the importance of the work they did behind the scenes.
Harold started out as a storyboard artist, meaning that he drew a frame-by-frame vision of how the movie could unfold. Ultimately, though, he earned acclaim as an art director and production designer. In fact, he was nominated for Academy Awards for his art direction for "Terms of Endearment" and his production design on "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
Lillian started out as a volunteer for the Samuel Goldwyn Studio where she researched films like "Cape Fear," "The Birds," and "The Manchurian Candidate." When the studio was going to close its library, she bought it and moved it to various different locations over the years. At one point, her library was housed at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Later in her career, she settled in at Dreamworks.
"Harold and Lillian" is the third installment in director Raim's trilogy of documentaries that take viewers behind the scenes of the film world. In the late 1990s, Raim was a student at the American Film Institute, where one of his professors was Robert Boyle, the esteemed production designer whose credits included "North By Northwest," "The Birds" and "Marnie." During that time, Boyle had Harold Michelson, by then a storyboard artist and Academy Award-nominated production designer and art director, come in to teach a couple times. "I was so intrigued, fascinated by them not just as these grand masters of design and film and storyboarding, but just as people," says Raim by phone. He wanted to document the behind-the-scenes masters. That he did, beginning in 2000 with "The Man on Lincoln's Nose," a short documentary focused on Boyle's career. He followed that up in 2010 with a feature-length look at the artists behind the movies, "Something's Gonna Live."
In 2013, Raim realized that he had two interviews with Harold Michelson that covered the breadth of the artist's career. Around that time, he also found footage of Lilian Michelson, Harold's wife who ran a research library that served filmmakers for decades. He thought both Harold and Lillian would make good subjects for short documentaries. But, once he started doing more interviews for the intended shorts, something clicked. "It became quite clear to me that [Harold and Lillian] were inseparable, not only in life, but in story." Raim merged those stories together to form "Harold and Lillian."
Tim Burgard says in a telephone conversation that he wishes he knew about storyboard artists when he was a college student. "I went through three and a half years at Art Center, one of the top art schools, and I hardly learned anything about this job and what went on," says the storyboard artist, whose credits include "Jurassic World" and "The Revenant." Now, Burgard teaches storyboarding to Art Center students. He also runs a panel on the subject through the Art Director's Guild at San Diego Comic-Con and reviews portfolios at WonderCon.
For the storyboard artist, the main task is to provide a series of drawings that convey actions in the film. "You have to have a sense of storytelling that basically encompasses movement," says Burgard. "Illustrators can get a sense of movement and they try to do it in a single image, but I'm not only thinking about what's in front of the camera, I'm also thinking about what the camera is doing. Is it panning? Or, is it stationary or is it on a crane or is it on a drone? A helicopter? You have to be aware of continuity. Make sure that you don't confuse people with which direction people are looking or going."
In some cases, the storyboard artist works off of the designs that have come from the concept artist. "A concept artist would design the space ship," says Trevor Goring in a phone conversation. Goring is a storyboard artist who is working on book documenting the history of the field. Meanwhile, Goring would draw "the space ship crashing into a planet. Other times, they might be working from a script before any of the other artists have a chance to work on designs.
Both Goring, whose storyboard credits include "Independence Day" and "Thor: The Dark World," and Burgard have backgrounds as comic book artists, which shares some similarities with storyboarding in their narrative-driven, action-packed style. "I took what I learned in comics into storyboarding for commercials with the angles," says Goring. "Then I brought back into comics what I learned in film, so it's a back and forth process for me."
Storyboard artists might not be household names, but their work has significance to film fans. "Even Hitchcock used his storyboards sometimes in the promotion of the film," says "Harold and Lillian" director Raim.
As for the researchers, that's a job that's a bit more obscure. "I think this is definitely a revelation to even hardcore cinephiles," says Raim.
Today, the film world's visual artists might turn to the internet for their research. For decades, though, they relied on research libraries like the one that Lillian Michelson ran. She moved her library around to 12 different locations before a heart attack forced her into retirement in 2011. "The job fit me," she says. "I loved history and I like nurturing young people and it just was a fit."
Lillian's job involved finding the visual references that artists could use when developing the look of a film. In addition to books, she spent lots of time collecting clippings and organizing them into files that would suit the needs of the directors and designers. She pulled together collections on broad subjects like "U.S. Social Life," dividing them into decades and different topics. She had a "Resistance" folder for the Vietnam War-era protests. She loved finding documentations of period costumes. "You see the progression of civilization through the costumes," she says. "I like to watch history develop. Sometimes, it wasn't very good, but, on the whole, we are evolving."
When Lillian didn't have books or clippings, she would use other means to track down reference images. She visited Edwards Air Force Base, made calls to police departments and the FBI. Once, she called the FBI to try and find out how to blow up a three-story building in a city. "I heard all these clicks on the line and they asked who wants to know and I told them my predicament and, obviously, they believed me because they gave me all the research I needed to blow up a building," she says. "Can you imagine that happening today?"
Lillian's resourcefulness resulted in a treasure trove of what she calls "odd research."
Today, Lillian's research materials are boxed up and in the possession of the Art Directors Guild. They aren't currently available for use, but they're protected from destruction.
Lillian recalls watching the finished movies and seeing her research take shape on the screen. "It's an odd thrill," she says. "You know that you really helped and that's the nicest feeling you can have."
Today, storyboard artists are still at work on films. They might work digitally now, but their art is still necessary to bringing films to life. Researcher is another story, as much of the job of the researcher is no longer necessary since the advent of the Internet and search engines. Still, the works of people like Lillian Michelson remain important to the history of the medium.
"Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story" will be shown in Palm Springs July 22 and at the Skirball Cultural Center September 5. Check their website for other screening times and venues.
Top Image: Harold's storyboard sketch of an iconic scene from "The Graduate" | Courtesy of Adama Films/ Zeitgeist Films