Is Previs Finally Getting its Due?
Halon’s Daniel Gregoire spoke next. Another previs veteran, Dan began by saying that people don’t realize previs is not a new thing, that previs has been a part of filmmaking for at least 20 years. He described how almost every major action-set film and many less action-filled films are using previs. In addition to working on big budget productions, Halon often helps young filmmakers previs their films, in the sub $10 million range, sometimes the sub $1 million range, to then pitch to financiers in hopes of getting them produced.
He showed a clip demonstrating a part pitchvis, part previs sequence done by Halon’s Brad Alexander for the film Snow White and the Huntsman. Dan’s teams often handle previs where the director says, “Quick, we need a pitch. We need to sell the studio on this idea because we need money for the visual effects.” They will up-res the work, making it look a little better so the director can walk into a studio or financier’s office and show their vision for a piece of the film. The clip showed the troll fight sequence they produced to help sell the scene. Director Rupert Sanders provided them a troll design on a napkin. In the previs scene, Show White kills the troll. In the final film, she calms the beast and saves the Huntsman’s life. But the tone of the scene remained the same.
Dan also showed Clint Reagan’s work on the med pod sequence from Prometheus. Director Ridley Scott had never used previs before and really enjoyed the process, working directly with the team to find the right tone and mood for the sequence, where to cut, where to combine shots, what to remove because it would be too expensive, what didn’t elicit the response he wanted. The previs actually made people queasy, which was what Ridley wanted. Through previs, Ridley was able to take two lines from the script and turn it into an important, dramatic scene.
He went on to say, “Mostly, previs is used to help people trying to get their ideas out there. They have a foundation, they’re inspired, but need to more fully develop the vision. Previs provides a safe sandbox in which to play, a safe place to fail as often as you want before you capture the good stuff, so you spend your money on the things you really want to do.”
Dan concluded his presentation with the point that because editors, designers and vfx supervisors often aren’t brought in early, previs artists don’t get as much collaboration when it comes to designing key parts of the film. He encouraged producers to bring these key people on much earlier in the production so they can have input in important decision making as it so tremendously impacts the rest of the collaboration and filmmaking process. As he noted, late in a film, “It’s tough to have to be asked, ‘Who did this and why?’
He also emphasized that previs is not just a technical exercise in putting together an animated storyboard. Previs involves artistic visual development. “Both Brad and Clint put on mocap suits and acted out sequences, shot on virtual cameras. They used a hybrid approach, like on Avatar, acting in a suit as well as making decisions on blocking and staging, then editing. It’s a fast, fluid process, to get an idea how humans move and how their weight and staging will interact with the rest of the scene.”
Ron Frankel then took the podium. He showed a broad range of clips, including work from the just released 42, where his company PROOF did almost 30 minutes of previs animation for 25 sequences, mostly hero moments on the baseball diamond. Previs was used in a number of strategic instances in a number of areas across the film. The filmmakers had to solve many important issues before they started shooting on location. Primarily, they needed to figure out how to create a large number of historical baseball stadiums while shooting on only one actual diamond located in Tennessee. In other words, how to purpose and repurpose a very limited practical set build. They needed accuracy in the stadium visuals because audiences would care about the details. They needed to know where to setup blue screens and green screens to enable all the set extensions they’d be creating. Much of this work was done at the urging of the vfx house, which was concerned with the vfx budget and how the shots would be created. For example, how much crowd and set extensions would they have to do? The previs was designed to help develop filming strategies, thus minimizing the amount of vfx needed and keeping as much in camera as possible.
As Ron described, the previs team would create 3D models, which were passed over to the art department. They would then turn them into practical sets. Those would get put back into the previs to test how well they were working. This iterative process really demonstrated the value of great back and forth collaboration throughout the production.
He commented, “There are certain essential creative steps that I see in the filmmaking process. Although it doesn’t happen often, as we discovered, starting with a script is always a really great idea. Having something written on a page is a really good jumping off point. Whether it’s the director, the visual effects supervisor, whoever is going to take charge of the visuals, they should work through some sort of storyboarding process, even if it’s just thumbnails or diagrams, something that begins to describe the structure of the scene. That’s a tremendously important step in the process. It’s really critical. Previs does some amazing things. It’s creative development.”