One of the myths to have built up around the career of Alfred Hitchcock maintains that, after planning and storyboarding his films so thoroughly, once on set he never so much as peeked through the camera viewfinder, bearing each scene from start to finish precisely in his head. This sounds barely sensible, an uncharacteristic relinquishing of control and disavowal of prospective points of detail, and it is a notion which seems to stem from an interview Sean Connery gave to Rolling Stone in 1983. Discussing the filming of Marnie – which appeared in 1964, immediately after The Birds in Hitchcock’s oeuvre – Connery explicitly stated:
‘It’s funny, but the film buffs at UCLA are constantly dissecting Marnie these days to see how it was done […] I adored and enjoyed working with Hitchcock tremendously. He never lost his patience or composure on the set. And he never looked through the viewfinder because he had every frame of the movie in his head from the first day of shooting […] Hitchcock certainly wasn’t an emotional basket case. He always had a most active mind, and he survived to eighty – pretty good for a man who never did any exercise, always weighted over two hundred fifty pounds, and had a fair whack of booze.’
Hitchcock did boast that he rarely needed to look over a script while shooting, already knowing the lines to come by heart. He also described himself as ‘conscientious’ regarding production costs, rarely working on new ideas in the studio given the twin constraints of time and money. But while he made comprehensive storyboards for his films, he also frequently diverged from these storyboards in the act of filming. And in conversation with François Truffaut, Hitchcock portrayed The Birds as one of the few films he improvised on:
‘Something happened that was altogether new in my experience: I began to study the scenario as we went along, and I saw that there were weaknesses in it. This emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.
I began to improvise. For instance, the whole scene of the outside attack on the house by birds that are not seen was done spontaneously, right on the set. I’d almost never done anything like that before, but I made up my mind and quickly designed the movements of the people inside the room […] Because I was so keyed up all of this came very easily and very quickly. Then I began to have doubts about other passages of the movie.’
Hitchcock recounts improvising changes to the scene where a sceptical town sheriff doubts the nature of the first bird attack on the Brenner household; and to the scene where Lydia Brenner, Mitch’s mother, drives up to her neighbour’s farm before discovering his ruined room and ravaged body. Still, with the various special effects required to make the titular animals appear on screen, the majority of The Birds demanded and followed careful planning.
For The Birds, Hitchcock developed storyboards with Robert Boyle, going through the script and conceiving in minute detail every phase of each scene. Boyle had first worked with Hitchcock in 1942 on Saboteur, in the capacity of associate art director; a role he maintained across 1943 for Shadow of a Doubt. In 1959 he served as the production designer for North by Northwest, and returned to the post for The Birds and then Marnie. Boyle would make quick charcoal sketches, which he termed ‘scribbles’, as he and Hitchcock navigated the script, with the director occasionally providing sketches of his own to highlight certain ideas.
Boyle’s sketches would come to cover three aspects of each shot. A ‘key sketch’ would indicate the tone and atmosphere, including the lighting, time of day, and colour. A ‘form’ sketch would relate the size of the image, a crucial concern for Hitchcock. On the scene with the town sheriff inside the scattered Brenner House, Hitchcock describes how the size of the image emphasises Melanie Daniels’ point of view:
‘The vision of the reality belongs to the girl, even when she crosses the room to say to Mitch, “I think I’d better stay the night.” To go up to Mitch she has to walk across the room, but even as she’s walking, I keep a big close-up on her because her concern and her interest demand that we retain the same size of image on the screen. If I were to cut and drop back to a looser figure, her concern would be diminished as well.
The size of the image is very important to the emotion, particularly when you’re using that image to have the audience identify with it. In this scene, which is intended to suggest that Mitch’s mother is cracking up, Melanie represents the public.’
Finally an ‘angle’ sketch depicted the positioning of the camera. Boyle would subsequently hand over to Harold Michelson, who worked as Hitchcock’s storyboard artist on The Birds and Marnie. Working with Boyle and based on his sketches, Michelson would draw the final storyboards in elaborate detail, sometimes adding elements of his own before seeking Hitchcock’s approval. In this manner scenes were typically storyboarded several times, Michelson’s finished product becoming the basis for shooting.
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The scene at the schoolhouse, with its ominous build and ferocious climax, offers one of the clearest demonstrations of Hitchcock’s use of storyboards. At Lydia’s request, Melanie drives to Bodega Bay School. She pulls up outside in her Aston Martin, and as the schoolchildren are led in song by schoolteacher Annie Hayworth, Melanie silently mouths to Annie for a word in private. Annie indicates that she will be but a couple of minutes. So Melanie waits outside, smoking a cigarette on a playground bench: but silently on the climbing frame behind, crows begin to gather.
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Moral, T. L. Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Scarecrow Press, 2013)
Truffaut, F. Hitchcock: The Definitive Study (Simon & Schuster, 1984)