'ARGO' as Visualized by WIRED, A Week of Wired BONUS!
The first time I heard Argo pitched as a magazine story was back around March 2007 in WIRED's monthly pitch meeting on the 3rd floor of our swanky SOMA offices in San Francisco. These meetings would take place towards the back of the open floored offices in a large conference room with a gigantic fluorescent pink rolling door. There was never enough seats so people would be crowded around the conference table, standing along the perimeter, calling in etc.
Nick Thompson, who was pitching this story, was calling in through a VTC from the Condé offices in NYC. I genarally loved when Nick pitched because he would always just go for it and the stories and writers he sourced were often fringe, his enthusiasm palpable.
Check out the three other parts of "the Week of Wired" here:
Even so, as convincing as Nick was, all of us in the room scratched our heads when we heard him pitch this story written by Joshua Bearman about a fictional film crew trying to free american hostages in 1970's revolutionary Iran.
I mean what was WIRED about that? Cool high tech helicopters? Secret alien listening devices? A futuristic teleportation machine? Turns out the hook into Wired, as argued by Thompson, was that the group of CIA agents tasked with doing the freeing posed as a film production company making a Science Fiction film called "Argo" so that they could get into Iran and sneak the hostages out. That and it was one hell of a story and we could be the ones to break it. Still it sounded pretty flimsy until we had a chance to read the draft.
He was right, this was one hell of a read!
Once Nick got the green light the next question was how do we treat the story visually? This was a real challenge since there was no documentation available. This was a covert OP after all, luckily we managed to get our hands on one photo taken of the group of CIA guys who pulled this off. That wasn't much to work with.
We punted for a couple of days throwing ideas around between Bearman, Thompson our Editor Bob Cohn, Creative Director Scott Dadich and myself until I heard in passing that Bearman was thinking of optioning this story as a movie. My synapses fired up and I thought hell, why not storyboard this as if it is a movie and let's get a bone fide Hollywood heavy hitter to do it.
I had never seen that kind of treatment done on an editorial story before, it was exciting to do something different. The group got behind the idea and gave me the go ahead to make it happen. I had to hustle, finding a good storyboard artist who will entertain the idea of working on a magazine story is more difficult than one would think. Not to mention there are many different styles of storyboard artists out there. I had to find the right artist who was fast, had the right attitude, the look I wanted and would deliver the goods within my budget. No small feat.
So as one does I researched artists for two or three days between other duties, gathered my favorites, ran them past Scott until he and I zero'd in on a handful we thought could pull this off. I spent another few days on the phone pitching the project to the list. Some didn't have the time, others wouldn't do it within budget, some were not interested in doing editorial. It was looking grim, I was getting tight on time... then in a stroke of luck I managed to sell the idea to Tim Burguard. He was my guy! Having films such as Back to the Future, Aliens and even freaking E.T. under his belt made him a perfect match. His style was clean, communicative and had enough nostalgia to feel right for this era of period piece. On top of that he was super cool to deal with, luckily.
The next step was to read the story deeply. I needed to make sure I knew intimate details so I could help Tim surface them in the boards. I'm a huge fan of layering in elements so readers can look again and again and discover new details to get excited about. To tackle the problem I dummied out the layout. Roughed out the amount of boards I thought we needed and created a first pass list of possible scenes I thought would work. Next I sent that list to Burguard, Dadich, Cohn, Thompson and Bearman to get feedback. Most of the list held up, the feedback was strong and I gave Tim the go-ahead.
It was a trip to see the sketches come in, they were so different from any material I had ever worked with. The energy was awesome and we could tell that this crazy idea might just work. Once I started to work with the board images I realized that I needed to do some art directing. This was a bit disconcerting to Tim at times since he was not used to the editorial workflow, the deadline was tight an boards after all are generally loose.
But I worked for WIRED and we always push hard, and so I pushed!
Issues I wanted to resolve were Tim's variance in style, you can see in the final work where he sourced photographs vs where he added color washes. I realized at a point I needed to embrace the variance, we were asking a lot of him on a short turnaround. I didn't want to burn him out, and that was liberating. I also did something that generally wouldn't happen, I asked his permission and drew into some of the tiles myself to add depth as the boards were not printing well, they looked washed out and needed more density. Another detail I added was movie detail notes like "Pan" "INT" "O.T.S", I had Maile Holliman help pencil the notes about the scenes which came from my original list and I added numbers to show the sequence.
It was starting to all come together.
While all those pieces were coming together I was working out the background treatment. I still had to figure out how to make the boards look right on the page. Originally I thought, just lay them out until I did that and it looked cold and sterile. It was clear they needed an environment. At first I thought cork board as if someone was going to pin these to the wall however text doesn't read so well over cork so that was switched to match the paper swatches a bit to neutralize the noise since there is a lot going on especially on the opener. You may notice there are two different paper textures used to provide a subtle shift and let those boards pop ever so gently from the background.
I laid out the whole story actual size, pinned the paper and all the boards to the background which I had attached to a piece of plywood and had the piece shot by one of our photographers on staff. The next stage was photoshopping all the details together and moving elements around till the energy felt right. Every panel has it's own pin angle, shadow and shape that is unique.
I wanted the pull quotes to pop since the story was so monochromatic I thought a stamp font would work till I used a few and they feel forced. It became clear at that point I should have actual stamps made to get the effect right. That meant I have to get the font I wanted, we had had to pick the pullquotes rag them in the layout then prepare the file for getting stamped and wait a couple days for them to be made. luckily we made no spelling errors in that process and they all came back flawless.
All in all it was a hustle and was a lot of fun. It's not the typical WIRED story in either text or presentation, but that's what makes it great. An original read with an unusual, pragmatic layout treatment... Taking risks just as WIRED should.
I asked Bob Cohn to share some of his thoughts on the process:
I have two principle recollections. First, that we struggled over whether to do the story at all. There was nothing that made it obviously a WIRED piece -- no great science or tech angle, no narrative of creative destruction or reinvention. But there was this triumph of ingenuity and innovative thinking by the CIA guy. Plus -- and mostly -- it was a hell of a story. So we got over that hiccup. The second main memory is the incredible layout. In fact, after seeing the movie trailer I went back to look at all those images. What a great marriage of edit and art: WIRED at its best!
Argo is also joining in the legacy of other movies that have been born from magazine articles, a few I can think of are:
Saturday Night Fever -- New York Mag
Fast and the Furious -- Vibe
Brokeback Mountain -- The New Yorker
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- Rolling Stone
Coyote Ugly -- GQ
Know of others? add them to the comments!
The trailer for the upcoming Ben Affleck directed, Argo: