Before we look at the Cimmerian village in Conan the Barbarian, I’d like to share a brief Q & A I had with my friend, artist Aaron Lopresti.
Aaron asked (after seeing my Conan comic book page-style storyboards): These are fantastic, Bill. But why so detailed and finished for storyboards?
Every film I’ve boarded has had a different degree of finish to the art. My Conan work is one extreme. I’ve also done quick, near-stick figure drawings and everything else in between. It all depends upon the film and depends upon the director.
For Conan, I was trying to kill two birds with one crowquil; I was designing for real lots of the film’s visual elements (costumes, armor, sets, props, etc.) at the same time I was telling our story with my boards. That’s, of course, why it was taking me so damn long to do each page.
The work I was doing inside the panels was so detailed that I could hand copies of the panels off and get that stuff built. I didn’t want to draw generic comic book sword and sorcery stuff (Marvel Comics Conan); I wanted what was on the page to be very, very specific.
You also have to remember that up until Conan the Barbarian, there were no sword and sorcery films. We were making up an entirely new movie genre from scratch. The Europeans in our art department didn’t get it. “Is it like a gladiator movie?” “A little bit…” “Is it like a Viking movie?” “A little bit…” “Is it like a samurai movie?” “A little bit…”
One of the most difficult things to get across was that Howard’s Conan stories were originally written for horror pulps like Weird Tales. Ron Cobb and I kept emphasizing that this film should be SCARY! Those seemed to be fights we didn’t win all that very often.
There wasn’t really anything I could point to to explain this new genre. Frank Frazetta‘s work looked great but most of what he painted wasn’t functional and worked only for the moment that Frank was depicting. It looked cool on a book cover but ridiculous when we tried to build some of that stuff for real (for what I consider an embarrassing example, look at Cher‘s period of Frazetta-influenced costumes. Yikes!) Remember, everything we designed also had to be — or at least look — functional (Cobb’s Wheel of Pain really worked; it was truly functional). It really helped having Ron’s and John Milius‘ historical perspective to ground us in a kind of fantastic reality.
Cobb and I were really the only two guys on the film who knew what this new movie genre should look like (except for some of the sculptors and sword makers we hired for specific jobs, the two of us were the entire Conan art department for over a year or two). We had to draw and paint up a storm to get across our vision in a way that our fellow filmmakers could understand. I personally went through the major prop houses in Madrid and hand picked items we could alter to achieve our vision. There was a lot of mix & match used to get what we wanted.
Now, let’s look at little Conan’s Cimmerian village.
Here is Ron Cobb’s map of the village:
Here’s my re-drawing/clarification of that map:
…and a production drawing I did of the village (with little Conan chasing a dog):
A quick hut sketch: