Visual Disruptors Podcast 3: Visualising avoiding death

Mike is joined by stunt legend Guy Norris and his son, Harrison. With their new joint venture, PROXi, they are transforming action sequences through virtual production.They’re the brains and the skill behind stunts in films such asMad Max: Fury Road and Suicide Squad, and they discuss their work on two upcoming movies—X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Netflix’s Triple Frontier.

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It’s 1981, and the second film in the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Road Warrior, is in production. At 21 years old, stunt performer Guy Norris is literally risking life and limb so that Mel Gibson and other cast members didn’t have to. There are no rigs, trusses, or safety cables—it wasn’t possible to paint them out back then. Norris ends up with a broken leg, although that doesn’t stop him from shooting his final fight scene, with his damaged limb propped on a box just outside of camera frame.

Fast forward to 2015 and Mad Max: Fury Road. Guy Norris is still director George Miller’s go-to guy when it comes to stunts—only now he’s coordinating and designing them instead of hurling his own body through the air.

Stuntvis

Stunt teams have always been quick to adopt new technology, and Guy and Harrison Norris are no exception. They’re now at the forefront of the field in developing new systems to enable production teams to collaborate on action design, and to explore creative possibilities before shooting happens.

Stuntvis is a form of previsualization, but it’s an evolution of it. Traditional previs is a pre-rendered shot-by-shot representation of a film—a somewhat static tool with limited usefulness during production. Often, the entire previs is developed and rendered offline before the director of photography (DoP) has started on the film; not surprisingly, the lighting and camera angles in the previs representation are therefore usually not what the DoP had in mind. “As such, a lot of this typical previs reaches set and is disregarded,” says Harrison Norris.

“When the DoP reaches set and sees this previs, he’s not interested in doing somebody else’s vision, he’s interested in doing his own.”But because previs rendered offline is so time-consuming to change, redoing the previs with the DoP’s input isn’t an option. This is where the father-and-son team sought to provide a more interactive, iterative tool that stakeholders like the DoP could actually use, handing creativity back to the creatives.

Using UE4, Guy and Harrison Norris created a tool able to handle fully interactive environments representing an entire sequence. Working in collaboration with the production team, they can place the camera anywhere in the scene, edit lighting on the fly, and try out various performances. Capturing whole sequences of action at once, rather than working shot by shot, provides much greater creative freedom in storytelling. The team also knew that it was important to provide an environment with enough accurate detail to give creatives a realistic picture of how the final scene would look. The interactive tool they created with UE4 is able to use all manner of input including 3D models, topographical maps, accurate color palettes, and VFX like dust and volumetrics to create a precise “digital rehearsal”.

Below are comparisons between the quality of the virtual production previz and shots from the film Fury Road.

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To be clear, while Guy Norris and others worked on this film, the did not do Previz on the Fury Road. His ‘previz’ shown here was done later to demonstrate the image quality as no imagery can be shown yet from Dark Phoenix or Triple Frontier.

Collaboration

While the original goal of stuntvis was to improve planning and execution of stunts, the entire crew was soon drawn to the instant feedback these interactive sessions offer. In effect, the Norris’s stuntvis tool provides a collaborative representation of the film that all creatives can use to iterate on different options. Even the wardrobe department gets in on the game, using the tool to try different costume options and iterate on various color palettes to see how they work with the set and action.

“The fact that we’re able to do this so rapidly means that everybody can freely contribute,” says Harrison Norris. “It really is a collaborative, creative sandbox that all departments can dive into, and essentially have a rolling experimental form of the film early.”

Guy Norris concurs. “It becomes a tool that everyone actually gravitates toward because they understand that it helps them do their job better,” he says. Harrison adds that the interactive environment they created with Unreal Engine offers the dual benefits of both more creative opportunities and significant time savings in production. “You never really find a piece of technology that is both a value-add creatively, or allows for more creative experimentation and expression, but is also a huge money-saver,” he says. “It really feels like lightning in a bottle.”

Special thanks to Brian Pohl for this article.