Is Previs Finally Getting its Due?
On Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Boyd described how they needed extensive previs since they had creatures, lots of action, practical effects, stunt work, lots of things going on, all shot in native stereo. They had to pay attention to types of lenses, focal length, placement of the lenses and movements of the cameras. He explained, for example, how he learned that you can’t do the same fast action cuts in 3-D because the audience can’t process the 3-D in fewer than 18 frames. “You have to slow things down in stereo,” he said. “You have to let shots breathe.”
Boyd finished up by saying he hoped that soon, we’d see productions where assets were created early on by production design, taken into the previs environment and used all the way into postvis, and that the assets will be accurate enough to hand off to visual effects.
Heads stuffed with dizzying reams of “viz,” the audience took a short break. Normally, on a work night, an evening program loses a large part of its audience after such a pause. However, in a testament to the program’s overall excellence, the majority of the attendees faithfully filed back in for what ended up being an extremely informative Q&A.
Highlights from the Q&A included:
The room filled with laughter when one gentleman asked, very honestly, “I’ve never actually been aware of the work that you do. But I have previously known what a storyboard does. The two seem hardly connected. I’m wondering where the director’s vision stops in the work that is done? As a voting member, how can I realistically evaluate one director’s work versus another except that he has hired the wrong previs company?”
As Chris Edwards explained, previs is not the same as storyboarding. They don’t replace each other. Previs artists collaborate with, not replace, the director. “Storyboarding is an awesome, valuable discipline that will continue for many generations. There are some things that are easy to draw but very hard to do in 3D. But there are certain things that are quite the opposite. Previs is a collaborative part of the puzzle the directors can use at their discretion. We don’t replace the director’s vision. We’re simply trying to keep up with the director’s vision Sometimes they are very specific about what they want. Sometimes, they say, ‘You know what? This is the mood I want to evoke in this sequence. I don’t know specifically how to do it. But while I concentrate on these other aspects of this really complicated movie, you guys go to town, give me a couple different options. I’m going to evaluate them and then steer the ship.’”
Boyd added, “I’ve worked with a number of directors who will come up with an idea and say, ‘I have an idea for a chase through Paris. Go!’ I’ll get all the resources together and hire the company that seems right for the job. I’ll go through it and I’ll design with the storyboard artists.” According to Boyd, some directors are happy just to have something done. They don’t need to watch over it during development.
Ron commented that there are two directions where the previs usually comes from. “One is you have a director with a vision that the previs team and the rest of the production is trying to keep up with. The opposite is you have a director who doesn’t necessarily come with a well-developed visual sense of what they’re looking for, but will know it when they see it. But they have to see it first. It’s just a different creative process.” As he explained, you’ve got the production designer, the vfx supervisor, the previs team, everybody trying to put something together to put in front of the director so they can understand what that director’s vision is, so they can know what to expect when they get onset for the shoot.
“Storyboards work incredibly well as an initial process, to get the visual idea down on paper,” he commented. “Where storyboards start to come up a little thin is when things are in motion. Trying to convey that sense of motion. Car chases don’t really work well in storyboards. Big action sequences with trolls and forests tend to fall apart a little bit when you’re just working with storyboards.” Previs, he concluded, can be crucial in helping fill the gap between the nascent idea and when you show up on set saying, “OK, what do I do?”
And in a fitting finale to the evening, someone in the audience wondered why standalone previs companies ever got started in the first place, stating, “I would have thought that the major visual effects companies would want to have that in their realm.”
Sheena’s take was that the director may feel that the vfx company may suggest doing a scene a certain way based on the price, that they may have ulterior motives in their recommendations.
Boyd added that visual effects houses have established pipelines and particular ways they like to work that don’t necessarily lend themselves to quick or nimble iterative collaborative work. As he explained, previs teams are designed to work really fast, turning stuff around in 30 minutes sometimes. “If it has to go through a big machine, with a production coordinator saying they’ll have to check but they can probably get it done next Thursday, it just can’t work that way. You have to work iteratively with the artists.”
Ron added, “A lot of the work we’re doing is not for visual effects. We might do a lot of work with stunts. We certainly do a lot of work with the art director, the art department, helping them test out their set designs. By keeping the previs independent from all the departments, it isn’t really the domain of any one department. While the defacto clearinghouse for this work is often visual effects, there are a lot of films that we work on that have very little to do with visual effects.”
And finally, Dan added that many of these films use lots of vfx houses. “Scanline is doing the water effects, ILM is throwing in the robots. Keeping continuity between all these different components and pieces of the film, it’s better to have it in one group that understands it from beginning to end how it works.”
The evening ended with a final round of well-earned applause. At least for one night, the industry spotlight shone brightly on the field of previs. Hopefully, such deserving attention becomes more the rule than the exception.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.