In just a few years, this talent born in Uruguay and raised in Colorado (USA) has worked in many high profile movies, including I Am Legend, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Where the Wild Things Are and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In 2009, Federico D’Alessandro was picked by Marvel Studios to become its head storyboard artist and animatic supervisor, adding to his impressive resume Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers.
Taking time out of his busy schedule -which includes Iron Man 3- Federico talked to DesdeHollywood.com about his rich career and future projects.
Born in Uruguay” is the first thing people read in your bios. Why do you communicate that fact so prominently?
Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the USA, I still feel an enormous amount of Uruguayan pride and I always try to live up to ‘La Garra Charrua’: Being resourceful, daring, never giving up. That’s me at my core. Being such a small country, Uruguay is frequently the underdog, but no matter what the situation, we stand up and fight. I strongly identify with that.
How did you become a storyboard artist?
I was planning on being a comic book artist. I love storytelling, and I love to draw…so it made sense! I went to The School of Visual Arts in New York City and trained under some legendary comic book artists like Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando, which was an amazing experience, but my life changed when I took a storyboarding class. I realized that storyboarding combined two of my biggest passions, drawing and film. I was hooked. The icing on the cake? I learned that a storyboard artist can progress to working as a director, which is something I always wanted to be but never realized I could attain. I dropped everything, left the school, and came to Los Angeles. I worked on my portfolio, joined a storyboard agency, and began working storyboard jobs.
What do you enjoy the most about creating animatics?
I think what I enjoy most is having control over how my vision is conveyed to the viewer. That means not only representing what the scene looks like in my head, but how it feels. When I create an animatic, I want the viewer to have an emotional experience. That means having control over not only the visual storytelling, but the pacing, the sound design and the musical cues. When all of that comes together and I’m able to show the viewer the same scene I imagined, that’s enormously gratifying.
How important was I Am Legend for your career?
It was hugely important. It was my first big studio film, and I think that having a movie like I Am Legend on my resume made it easier to join other major productions. It also gave me the chance to work alongside some brilliant artists who I learned a lot from.
How did Marvel Studios come your way?
I was recommended by another artist for Thor. When I came in to interview for the job, I met with Kenneth Branagh (the director) and Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) and showed them some animatics that I had done on The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It was a great meeting. I worked closely with Ken and Craig Kyle (the film’s brilliant producer) and they graciously gave me a tremendous amount of creative control, so I was able to put my thumbprint on the movie more than any other film I had worked on previously. Marvel then asked if I would come on board permanently to work on all their films, and of course I said yes! So it’s been a great relationship.
Visually speaking, what were the main differences between Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger?
The obvious difference is that with Thor there was much more flexibility when it came to inventing the world of the story, whereas Captain America couldn’t stray too far from the historical WW2 backdrop. Visually, Thor was a much bigger canvas to paint on.
What were the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of working in The Avengers?
The most rewarding aspect of working on The Avengers was working with Joss Whedon (the director) to combine my vision with his. He is a brilliant writer and I really enjoyed the challenge of creating scenes and moments that lived up to his expectations.
However the biggest challenge working on Avengers was that during that time, my father was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I had to work through that pain, because I knew how important this movie was to Marvel and they were counting on me to bring my best work to the table.
What have you learned about directing from those you have worked with at Marvel?
I learned how Shane Black manipulates audience expectations to keep them guessing and riveted in the story. I also learned how he creates true suspense to maintain tension throughout the story. He’s been a huge influence on my storytelling.
Joss Whedon showed me how a filmmaker can inject his personality and sensibilities into a film. Joss is a very charming and hilarious man, and watching The Avengers I see his personality shine through in every scene. He also showed me how two characters having a conversation can be as entertaining as the best action scene.
Joe Johnston is a very practical guy. He comes from old school filmmaking, and was a big time art director, so he taught me not only how to create a scene that needs to be grounded in reality, but also how to manipulate sets to serve the purposes of the storytelling.
Kenneth Branagh is one of the most charming men I’ve ever met. His personality puts you at ease, which is wonderful, because a director’s personality seems to filter down through the rest of the crew. He’s also very open to other ideas and opinions while still knowing exactly what he wants, so that was a big lesson for me. I hope that when I direct, I do it like Ken.
What can you say about Iron Man 3, your current project at Marvel Studios?
I can’t say much, because I don’t want to be killed by Disney assassins! However I can say that Shane Black is a master storyteller and the movie is in really good hands. The story delves deeper into Tony Stark’s character. By the end of the movie, audiences will have a much better understanding of what his fears are and what makes him tick. I think audiences are really going to enjoy that. There are also some really cool action scenes. It’s going to be a thrilling movie.
Congratulations on your directorial debut, the short film Recollection. Are you happy with the response so far?
I’m ecstatic that Recollection was received so well. Winning Best Horror at the NYC Film Fest and Comic Con was huge. I’m just glad the film turned out well despite the challenges making it. Tiny budget, technical malfunctions, key props breaking. Whatever could go wrong DID go wrong. The schedule was so compressed that frequently I only had a few takes for each shot. The pressure to deliver my vision under those circumstances was tremendous, but thankfully I had done keyframes and an animatic for the entire movie and so we had a good roadmap to follow. Also, I had a dedicated and hard-working cast and crew who were fully committed to the film and never complained about the grueling schedule. I’m so proud of their efforts.
What are the upcoming projects at WestLawn Films, the production company you co-founded?
I can’t really discuss them yet, but we have several exciting projects we are working on at the moment. There are some really fun and original stories I can’t wait to make. The potential for some of our films is tremendous. Also, because of my intimate involvement with Marvel, things are heating up for me as a director so I hope that will give me the opportunity to bring some of these projects into the world.
Being such a soccer fan, how much are you enjoying the current success of Uruguay’s national team?
It’s like a dream. It’s still hard for me to comprehend how far Uruguay has come with football. I remember my dad telling me of the glory days, but growing up I rarely saw that on the pitch. Now, the world finally respects us as a footballing nation. It took a while to get here, but it’s another testament to La Garra Charrua: Always working hard, never giving up. I wish my dad was around to see it.
Many thanks to Federico for such insightful responses, and also for giving us the exclusive with that never-before-seen storyboard panel of The Avengers. Already an iconic scene of the genre!
Editor in Chief of Desde Hollywood, based in Los Angeles. Covering the latest Hollywood projects since 2009, in English and Español.