Inside Ron Frankel’s Wonderful Virtual World of Feature Film Visualization
DS: Why would a studio not want to previs every single thing they possibly could? Why would anyone want to step onto a set without having at least gone through the process of seeing what they should expect to encounter during filming?
RF: For complex filmmaking, for visual effects filmmaking, where walking onto a set is not just that organic process where you can just “wing it,” because everything is being done by different people, in different places at different times, and your live action component might just be your actor, for those instances, you have to previs it beforehand. Or else, you have no idea what you’re doing. You have no idea the scope, the scale, the pacing.
We just finished doing some work for the film 42, the Jackie Robinson story. That was really just a location shoot. There was a bunch of previs that went into planning what they were going to see regarding the CG set extensions. So, in an instance like that, it made sense not to previs down to the specific shot, not to give them a blueprint of “this is what your shot’s going to look like.” It was more about giving them an envelope to work within, saying, “Your wide shots will be about ‘this’ wide. Your tight shots will be about ‘this’ tight. As long as you’re working within this envelope, you can do whatever you want. But once you get outside that envelope, you’re going to break the visual effects budget.” That was their big concern - how many wide shots and how wide could the shots really be. They didn’t have a really big vfx budget.
For 42, Proof was initially brought in by Hammerhead, the VFX vendor for the film, to design some of the hero moments. They ended up working closely with Director Brian Helgeland, Production Designer Richard Hoover and Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Dixon to devise strategies that maximized the visual impact of the shots in the historic stadiums, without breaking the bank on the visual effects budget. The previs was used to determine how many extras were required for specific shots and where digital set extensions would start and end. 42 images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
So, what you’re seeing is there’s really no instance where you wouldn’t want to walk onset with some level of previs design planning about what goes on. The question really is, to what detail? Can you go through with broad strokes? Can you just give a general envelope, a general sense of what the production is going to encounter when they get onset? Or, do you need to get down to the level of specificity of, “Use this camera with this lens at this height and this is the shot” because there are so many other complexities that come into it?
DS: So why would a director not want to use previs?
RF: Amongst some directors, I think there is a sense that using previs is going to force them into making too many decisions too quickly, and that they will then be held to those decisions. It’s hard when you get into previs. There might be decisions about the environment. There might be decisions about the characters and how they look. There might be decisions about the cinematography, the pacing, the action, the beats. You have to respect there is a process that has to go on. That process doesn’t start by “making” those decisions, that process starts by methodically moving through all the steps that you need to move through in order to “make” the decisions, which is typically what happens on stage. So, I do sympathize to some degree with that sense that sometimes, previs puts the cart before the horse and forces a lot of decisions to be made when the production simply hasn’t had time yet to consider them, to deliberate over them and to decide on them.
Sometimes you see things creeping into the previs, and suddenly, they are accepted, and suddenly they are “there.” Suddenly, they show up in the movie and someone says, “Well, where did that come from?” and, “I know it was in the previs. So, therefore, it must be, because it’s there!” So, I can sympathize, because often times, the process, depending on how the previs is managed, can get shortcut and short-circuited a little bit. I don’t think it has to happen that way. And I certainly think that there is a way in which you can essentially respect the creative process, so that the previs is an accurate reflection of the decisions that are being made “as” they are being made. Previs can become a great medium through which decisions can be evaluated and then made. But as I said, you do run the risk of the cart getting in front of the horse at times.