Dig into the world of tentpole movie production these days and the name The Third Floor is an easy find. One of the world’s leading previsualization companies, The Third Floor has been involved in some of the biggest films produced in recent years, including four being in current release or soon to hit theatres: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, Maleficent and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I recently had a chance to speak with previs supervisor Patrick Smith about the company’s extensive work on Sony’s new superhero action hit The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We talked about the goals and practical applications of the film’s extensive use of previs, techvis and postvis as well as the rigors and realities of the increasing use of postvis in filmmaking.
Dan Sarto: Tell me a bit about the scope of your work on the film.
Patrick Smith: The Third Floor started on the project right after Thanksgiving 2012. The producers needed us to start working in New York immediately. Five of us set up for a remote location back East. We ended up staying there six months. This was right after Hurricane Sandy. The New York studio was in lower Manhattan. We got to the production office and literally, they had generators running. It was crazy. Our first day, there was still a lantern in the men’s room.
We had met Marc Webb in Los Angeles and he had given us an idea of the first sequence we’d be working on, which was Max’s lab accident. We started building assets immediately, blocking out shots, showing Marc updates to get an idea of what he did and didn’t like. Those first few reviews with him were really crucial because we got a real feel for what style he was looking for. Each director we work with is different. Some like shaky camera. Some like steady shots. You figure out a lot of things in the first few meetings. They’re really beneficial.
We worked with Marc a week before we left for New York. Once in New York, all told we prevised six major sequences. Max’s lab accident and transformation, the Power Plant battle, the Clock Tower finale, the Armored Car Chase, Spidey vs. Rhino and Harry Become Goblin.
Principle photography started in February 2013 so we had a limited amount of time with Marc before shooting started. We tried to get as much of the previs done as possible while we had access to him.
DS: At this point, what was the main goal of the previs? Are you focusing on story, tone and shot composition? Are you focusing on aspects of techvis needed to support the onset shoot plans? A combination of both?
PS: At this point, it’s all for story and composition. Marc would tell us, “Here’s my overall idea for the sequence. These are the main bullet points I want to hit.” Then he’d open the floor for us to present creative ideas and try them. Some ideas he liked, some he didn’t.
DS: Are you working with any concept art? Are the art director or production designer involved? Are you getting access to any production assets or are you producing everything from scratch?
PS: It was really 50 / 50. We’re acting somewhat as a hub of all these different departments. We’re working with the art department. We’re working with storyboard artists. We’re working with the director, the editor and the visual effects supervisor. Everyone is weighing in on what this new content looks like. Every department would supply the assets they had. If they didn’t have anything ready for us to use, we’d build a needed asset from scratch. Sometimes that would be only temporary. We’d use our asset as a placeholder until we replaced it with a more defined asset from the art department. It really was a beautifully symbiotic relationship going back and forth. They’d have some cool concept work which we’d use to build assets.
DS: In talking to Jerome Chen [visual effects supervisor] he mentioned several sequences, such as the Times Square Spidey Electro fight, where he had to get the director to sign off early because he knew he’d need as much time as possible to get the visual effects produced. What was involved in getting the previs done in such a short time? Or was there even time to fully previs some of those sequences?
PS: Each department had their own needs and schedules when it came to the previs. You do your best to cater to those needs. Jerome needed our work to help flesh out how a scene was going to be shot on set. How big do my greenscreens need to be? How close to the actors do the greenscreens need to be positioned? In setting up our scene files, we strove to recreate what they’d actually shoot on a given day. We’d really pay attention to not cheating on any of our shots unless we were told to keep something in because it was going to be a full CG shot not actually requiring Andrew Garfield or Emma Stone being eight feet in the air.
We created this world which matched a practical set. Jerome would be able to see the previs version and recreate what he’d be shooting on a given day. We’d do techvis if he needed measurements, for example, of how large a greenscreen needed to be and how close to the camera it needed to be placed.
DS: How do you figure out and integrate into the previs what can actually be shot onset and what is going to be full CG? How do you determine what is feasible to produce and how do you integrate that into your work so other departments can actually use the previs?
PS: [Laughs] It takes a lot of meetings. You sit down and talk with everyone. You get all the heads of departments around a table and say, “These are the main parameters of the scene. Let’s talk about how it can be accomplished.” Everybody weighs in. Someone might ask about the size of the set that needs to be built. Where do the greenscreens need to be? Where do the cameras need to be? Taking all that information into account, we’d go back into the previs and flesh out our versions, now knowing what those parameters were in the real world.
DS: What were some of the unique challenges you faced on some of the main sequences.
PS: The Times Square fight sequence was a real crazy one. This was a massive scene. They had one night to shoot in Duffy Square. It was an intense practical build. They built out the entire first floor of Duffy Square on a stage. Sony Imageworks had to do all the set extensions. We actually didn’t do the previs on this sequence but we did the postvis. We had to add in all those set extensions, all the Jumbotron screens that were needed, remove all the greenscreens, add effects for Electro, a digital Spider-Man flying around, effects for Electro and Spider-Man during their fight, adding those elements in post so that anyone watching a screening would get a general sense of what the final film would look like. They wanted it to feel like it would feel in the final film.
It’s not the glitz and glamour of the final render, but you get a real idea of what that shot is looking like. Everyone can sign off on it. Or they can see it’s not working and figure out what needs to be changed.
The Clock Tower sequence presented some real challenges. This was Marc’s baby from the get-go. This is a major point in the story that Marc wanted to flesh out from day one. Over many iterations, he explored each individual path you could go down. We would play with different storylines to really draw out the emotion of the scene, not only the anger of fighting Harry but also of the despair of Gwen falling.
This is really what previs is for. Marc tried out a number of different ideas and angles on this scene. He knew how to use previs as a tool for story and visual development as well as for evaluating different things before burning money onset.
On the Power Plant fight sequence, we went through a couple different iterations of the concept design. We started with short towers, but Marc wanted it to feel more like an electrified bamboo forest. We scaled the towers up. Then we scaled them up a third time to where they were in the final film. Then we started playing with various shots. Maybe Spider-Man does this when Electro does that. Kind of like a game of cat and mouse in an electrical forest. We also did a lot of look development as far as how Electro teleported through the pylons in the plant. It was a very challenging sequence.
Honestly, things went very smoothly working with everyone. Probably the most challenging aspect was just iterating sequences to hone in on what everyone wanted them to be.
DS: Tell me about the postvis work.
PS: We did a lot of postvis in a short amount of time. All told, we did six months of previs and eight months of postvis. We had a team of five including myself doing previs in New York. We picked up a couple more sequences and used four or five people from our London office as well at one point. I think we had between 13-14 people doing postvis, working on the Sony lot directly with editorial. We ended up handling over 1000 postvis shots. It seemed like we touched every major sequence in some fashion, whether it was adding screens on monitors or adding in set extensions. There was a massive amount of postvis.
DS: Walk me through the dynamic of the postvis. You’re primarily working with the director, the editor and the visual effect supervisor at this point?
PS: Yes. Those are the primary people. More so with editorial because obviously the editor is cutting all the live action plates. I’d sit with Marc and Pietro [Scalia, the editor] on a daily basis, watching the edit, getting their notes on what they’d like added here or there.
DS: So in essence, your team is there to bring together previs elements already created or newly created elements to fill in as temporary digital assets as the final cut of the film is being made.
PS: Correct. Basically, we’re removing greenscreens and bluescreens from live action plates, or doing roto around things if needed, dropping in our previs environments, characters or effects into that shot, until they get replaced by the final visual effects.
We didn’t create too many new assets. We did fill in some holes with previs shots. They had some ideas for reshoots that they wanted to work out, and postvis helped with this as well. They’re not huge sequences, things like filling gaps or transitional spaces from one sequence to the next. Like the apotheosis, when Electro’s giant face is bouncing from building to building.
The postvis covered a lot of the Spider-Man swinging through the city shots. The final is really spot on to the final product. That was a lot of fun to work on. That’s what every kid dreams of doing…flying through the air like Spider-Man. We got to sit and actually animate it.
DS: Describe the quality of the animation you’re creating. Are the assets fairly low res? How much lighting and texturing are being used? Is your postvis work much higher resolution and quality that the previs?
PS: It depends on the shot. There were many where the director wanted things more fine-tuned and of higher quality. You go through a lot of dailies where the director will say, “This looks really good, but can you just push it a bit more?” We found we were constantly pushing that bar. Whether it’s lighting or even the tone of the sequence, it’s not just characters sliding around on the screen any more. You’re really pushing it to the next level where it really blurs the lines in some areas of whether these are finals or not.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.