Is Previs Finally Getting its Due?
Spend any time perusing the conference session lists of events like FMX, SIGGRAPH and VIEW and you’ll find ample selections focused on various aspects of previsualization. And while every day the value and demonstrable production rewards of expanded previs efforts become more apparent, many in the filmmaking community are still in the dark as to how previs is used and, as silly as it might sound, what it really looks like. The reasons for this chasm between practical relevance and general understanding are many. First and foremost, no one can really talk about most previs projects until well after a film is released, which in some cases, is months if not years after the work has been completed. Second, since much of the work is not final, polished, rendered visuals, getting studio approval to publicize often simple looking concept work is not always easy. It’s also hard for many creative professionals schooled in and comfortable with more traditional methods of content development to shift their contextual focus to uniquely collaborative contextual previs methodologies and applications.
But it seems things are changing, and if the April 15th Motion Picture Academy’s VFX Convergence event focusing on previs and postvis is any indicator, maybe the time has finally come where previs artists and their studios can share more of their work with the community at large, paving the way for more understanding and acceptance of the increasingly important work they do. Maybe, previs is finally beginning to get its due.
If you’ve ever spent a day at an industry conference, you know sessions are often a mixed bag. Speakers of various capabilities, some insightful and riveting, some, who after speaking 30 seconds, have sucked all the air out of the room. It’s quite frustrating when your expectations for an informative session are dashed by the presenter’s obvious lack of preparation and ultimate inability to stay on track and actually talk about the topics spelled out in the program. Such laziness if really appalling.
This Academy program, however, was everything a well-organized program should be. It was well planned, with expert presenters who came thoroughly prepared, who spoke intelligently and thoughtfully. They each showed a wide range of illustrative video clips from some of Hollywood’s biggest films. Most importantly, they each presented material whose subjects dovetailed beautifully, with very little overlap. Each presenter covered new ground, but always within the context of everything discussed by the previous speakers. The danger inherent in five speaker panels is that by the third presentation, there’s no new ground and for the rest of the session, you want to gouge your eyes out.
The evening was broken up into two segments – presentations and Q&A. The panelists, fronted by host Michael Tronick, himself an editor and Film Editors Branch governor, were some of the top names in the previs business: Third Floor Inc. CEO and previsualization director Chris Edwards (Iron Man 3, Thor), Halon CEO and previsualization director Daniel Gregoire (John Carter, Cowboys & Aliens), PROOF President and previsualization supervisor Ron Frankel (42, Immortals), visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal (The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3) and visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra).
The presentations began with Michael showing a series of previs sequences from a film he edited, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He walked through a number of clips from the mini-van chase sequence that included first unit photography with basic animated previs sequences and storyboards cut together. Michael made the point that they were lucky enough to reshoot the scene several times as the final sequence took shape, something not every production can afford and something that previs can help productions avoid. As he described, “It [doing previs] really opened up a world of possibilities to me as an editor. It was very liberating as far as putting scenes together.”
Chris Edwards spoke next, focusing on explaining how previs can impact the visual development of a film from the earliest stages, through onset production and handoff to final post-production.
In its early days, previs was used by vfx supervisors to help visualize and plan more elaborate and complex effects sequences. Previs was seen as more of a technical tool needed to plan complicated shots. That, Chris said, has changed. “Over the years, it’s become an all-inclusive process, a hub of communication, a new medium in which all the various departments and players in the making of a film, commercial, or video game cinematic, can gradually improve the quality of the work they are collaborating on. It’s exciting to see previs come into the forefront and be recognized as that medium of change.”
As he explained, his focus is to support the director, producer and key filmmaking departments in making the film they set out to make. “It [our previs work] really is a continuum of support from its earliest stages where a filmmaker with big dreams wants to create a little pitchvis of their project. Basically, [we help create] a teaser trailer or proof of concept for their project that many production companies and major studios are using as a tool to raise financing and confidence in their project, their director, or both.”
Chris showed a pitchvis clip of the car chase sequence from Total Recall that demonstrated the degree of detail that can be brought to creating a “world” to help sell a movie sequence. In this case, the director wanted to show his unique vision for a particular sequence, something that was not yet part of the script, something he himself wanted to bring to the property, to sell himself to the studio as the director of the movie. The director, Chris said, figured he could add a car chase sequence anywhere in the movie. “Let’s build it and then we’ll figure out where it should go. We need that type of intensity, we need to show off the ‘world.’” To create the sequence, Chris’ team was embedded at the director’s production company, working alongside the art department and production designers. Any spare time the director had he used to review the sequence and give input. The pitchvis showed many of the more exciting visual elements of the magnetic cars and highway, the complexity of the ‘world’ that ultimately were in the final film.
On Oblivion, The Third Floor provided previs on 12 major sequences. In an especially effective and eye-opening clip, Chris, with permission from director Joe Kosinski and the studio, showed the film’s trailer in a split screen, with previs displayed alongside the corresponding final film segments. This technique really demonstrated how concept becomes reality in the production process.
He finished his presentation by adding that previs was an area that might help the vfx industry work through recent economic upheaval by reinforcing Hollywood as content creators by helping producers and directors build a strong blueprint for their movies.