Masters of Previs: The very best at bad 3D

Increasingly Previz is being used in Features, Commericals and Film Clips.

Perhaps the 3 best previz artists in the world are David Dozoretz, Ron Frankel and Colin Gree, at JAK, Proof and PLF respectively. We spoke to them recently about the state of the art in Previz and some of their films such as Fight Club, Minority Report, Panic Room, Star Wars and at their current films such as Peter Pan, The Matrix Revolutions and Cat in the Hat.

Previsualization or Previz as it is known, is the task of mocking up scenes and sequences with normally very rough 3D animation prior to production to allow directors and produces to explore both creative and technical issues.

Previz falls into two primary categories, first is focused on pure story telling, allowing a director to see how a sequence or story is flowing and get a feeling for narrative pace. The second is problem solving, which can often involve producing both an image sequence and a host of production data on lens, angles and technical measurements. We spoke to arguable the three leading worldwide authorities in previsualization, Colin Green of Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) famous for its work on such breakthrough productions as Fight Club, and most recently the new Matrix films (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution), Ron Frankel, founder of the new Proof Inc and formerly creative Director of PLF, LA, and finally David Dozoretz, founder of Persistence Of Vision (POV) and chief Previz artist of JAK films, the Previz team of Lucas Film and the current Star Wars Films.

So what is previzualisation? It is the process of using a computer, normally with clunky unpolished 3D animation to completely map out a sequence or an entire film, before any real film is shot. As Previz never involves texturing, lighting or shadows or motion blur, it has been often referred to as “clunky-vision” or the very best, bad 3D.

Modern 3D previz actually owes a debt to early film making, as well as early traditional ink and paint animation, for it was studios such as Disney and Warner’s pushed by the need to produce animated films with extremely small shooting ratios that perfected storyboarding to a point of story reels. With these early animated films the detailed storyboards and key frame sketched were filmed and worked out prior to traditional production. Warner Brothers actually became so focused on sorting out the visual gags that the Story Reel replaced a formal script. As a result, according to Previz expert Peter Giles at ARFTS, animation became to be so precise that editing was completely minimized, all the timing decisions have been made prior to production.

From these early animation backgrounds, key production designers adopted similar strategies to live action. The perhaps best known and respected title designer Saul Bass, who credits span The Seven Itch, Vertigo, North by Northwest to Alien, Goodfellas and Casino, was actually credited as title designer and “Pictorial Consultant” on Hitchcock’s Psycho. The famous shower scene from Psycho featured 145 cuts, the fastest and fastest edit to date in cinema in 1960. According to Giles, rumour has it that Bass shot the whole shower sequence in rough form to work out the imagery prior to principle production.

In 1977 the term previz was still unheard when the original as yet un-named ILM team hand animated star fighter sequences based on WWII dogfight footage for the original Star Wars Ep IV pre-production. In contrast by the time the latest Star Wars Ep II film went into production the entire film had been previzualised. One of the leading creative forces in that process was David Dozoretz. For Episode I, David and his team completed over 45 minutes of 3D previzualisation for director George Lucas before any footage was shot. By Episode II, that would grow to between 8000 to 10,000 shots – allowing for revisions and testing. All performed by just 5 people over 2 years. There was between 2 to 6 versions of every shot in the film blocked and animated by the end of Ep 2’s production. Dozoretz’s JAK films division (named after the initials of Lucas’s kids) actually completed over 100 final shots for the film, including Lightsaber effects, C3PO puppeteer removal and set extensions. The other difference between Ep 1 and Ep2 was the later used less storyboarding. Dozoretz recently spoke at a AFTRS function where he pointed out that film is one of the only professions that has not changed in over a 100 years, and that his group are focused almost entirely on story telling, plot and character development. Almost none of the work his team did on Star Wars was done for technical measurements or lens calculations, and almost all was just focused on narrative. He sees the entire movement of previz today as just being the basis of digital film making tomorrow, with the opportunity for the same team to move from previz to final shots.

David Dozoretz was in Sydney as part of 500 shots his company, POE, are working on for the upcoming PJ Hogan 2003 release of Peter Pan, but in his own words, he is available whenever George Lucas needs him. Actually Lucas film has been a real for the industry at a whole, apart from POE, the second person Dozoretz hired at Lucas film when he started was Alex Lindsey, who has since moved on to form DVGarage, not to mention the Orphanage, Banned from the Ranch and many others. This group is also marked by its use of the Macintosh. Many of these companies used Form Z but now like POE, are moving to Maya. Most of the compositing is done in After Effects and Premier.

In sharp contrast to POE, Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) is unconnected to Lucas Film and a Softimage-Wintel facility. PLF is known for exact motion control rig simulations and complex problem solving, although this tough technical label does not sit well with company founder Colin Green. While PLF is very well respected for its work in complex live action and visual effects simulations and previz, Green maintains that this is not at the expense of putting the story first. PLF have data and software versions of almost every motion control rig in the world, but Green is at pains to point out that only some of their work is the legendary problem solving, much is creative, and their highly creative team can provide technical data in addition to other blocking and timing issues. Green looks for staff with a cinematic eye, he points out shots need to look like feature film shots, not a game or commercial shot, and while having a solid technical background doesn’t hurt, – film language discourse is paramount.

Green has just returned from Sydney, where PLF has been handling previz on the Matrix sequels. In Sydney, the PLF team was 5 artists and 1 co-coordinator, plus perhaps 7 people in the US before arriving. The team is known for being heavy XSI users, but on the Matrix as some downstream vendors are working in Maya, the team has also been using it. All work is done 640 by the aspect ratio of the final film; all shots are done at 24fps, with a conversion to either PAL or NTSC for video playback.

PLF was founded out of people from Mass Illusion. Green’s own credits include Fight Club, Godzilla, Starship Troopers and Judge Dredd. PLF have always aimed at being focused on Previz, thus allowing them to collaborate and not compete with some of the strongest visual effects companies in the business.

For five and a half years Ron Frankel was a member of the PLF and co-founded the LA office, most recently he has started his own company Proof Inc. His credits include Panic Room and Minority Report. For Frankel his Previz experiences with the two Directors, Fincher and Spielberg could not have been more different, illustrating both uses of Previz. Both excellent directors on big budget projects, yet each approached their films from completely opposite directions. Fincher wanted, according to Frankel “a map for each setup, with what equipment, lens were needed – a precious map”, while Spielberg aimed to have animatics that allowed the director to ” get the major beats down”.

While Minority Report focused just on the creative timings, but not so much the exact blocking, Panic Room accurately models lens, camera moves and actor placements. In each case, Frankel describes the Previz artists role as simply providing what ever the production needs. On Panic Room (done while he was still at PLF), Frankel’s team did over 60 script pages or 2/3 of the film in previz before production started.

Frankel looks for a design sensibility and communication skills most in anyone starting out. “They need to absorb information quickly and reflect it back accurately, the danger is someone who always puts their own spin on things” he comments. For Dorzoretz, the secret to a good show reel is to see story telling ability, he doesn’t need to see masterful technical skills, but a narrative flow is vital.

Unexpectedly, none of these three artists arrived at previz from traditional visual effects. Dozoretz started in the art Department with films such as Forest Gump, Jumanji and Disclosure, it was on the later that he convinced ILM to buy 1 copy of Form Z. Even to get that purchase approved he had to find a distributor willing to invoice ILM in two $600 amounts, or else the software would have exceed his departments $1000 limit and never been approved by management. ILM at that time could not see any use for computers in the Art Department. Colin Green came from doing previz at Mass Illusion, and Ron Frankel came directly to previz from Architecture.

For a film such as the Matrix Reloaded, an artist may take two or three days to set up a scene, sometimes more and then produce 10 to12 shots from that base scene. Almost no audio is investigated during Previz, unless an especially keen editor provides it. Green points out the Wachowski brothers do their own live audio treatments –”to get into the head space”, including sound effects and mimicked folley. Most material is presented on video, although there is a move to digital projection to gauge scale and speed on a large screen. Frankel points to the roof top transports scene, in Minority Report. The real-time speed of the ‘cars’ was intended to be 70 to 80 mph, but in previz this was adjusted to 30mph to make the scene seem to work, but once Spielberg finally approved the scene on the big screen, the actual mathematical speed of the ‘cars’ had to be halved to read correctly on a projected wide screen.

Looking ahead to the future of Previz, recently some companies such as ILM have experimented with using Gaming technology to produce real time previz allowing the director on set to see a composite shot, no matter how much the camera moves. While Dozoretz and Frankel believe that is the way Previz is heading, there are still questions about who is going to do it and who is going to develop the technology. Green also points out that PLF did extensive research into real time tracking solutions and found there is no current “silver bullet”. All the systems that PLF tested had either limited lighting range or required the entire ceiling of the studio covered in special calibrated tracking markers such as ILM used in Spielberg’s AI, based on the BBC’s real time camera system.

Whatever the future holds Previz has come of age, in the past Ron Frankel had to explain what Previz was at initial meetings, now Previz is regularly now used in $40 to $50 million dollar films and increasingly in independent and TVC work, but with this more wide spread use there have also been problems, he adds, and quite often simple 3D mockups or fly through the sets are labeled previz. According to Frankel this means the task now is to make sure directors expectations are correct and can be correctly matched to the needs of each individual production.

This story is reprinted in Digital Media World Magazine Australia, where Mike is an associate editor. . There is no financial relationship between DMW and FXGUIDE. – We just like ’em 🙂

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