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Barry Howell Talks 'Battleship' Previs

The Third Floor’s previs supervisor talks about Thugs, the Beast and working with Peter Berg on his naval-science fiction slugfest.

Barry Howell

Regardless of its final box-office tally, Battleship was a complex movie to realize both creatively and technically.  Capturing and integrating director Peter Berg’s vision with input from other key members of his production team began with extensive previsualization work handled by previs studios Halon and The Third Floor.  We recently spoke to The Third Floor’s previs supervisor Barry Howell about the dynamics and challenges of this huge project.

Dan Sarto: What was your role on the project?

Barry Howell: I was one of two previs supervisors, along with Justin Denton from Halon. Justin started on the show first, having worked with Pete [Berg, the film’s director] before, and my team was brought on as the size and scope of the project increased. Both Justin and I were constantly interacting with Pete, showing him our latest sequences and going over new sequences.  We also would interact with Tobias [Schliessler] the DP as well as Neil [Spisak] the production designer. Justin and I were each responsible for our own teams and our own sequences.

DS: Tell me about the scope of the work you did on Battleship.

BH: We started working on the film at the end of 2009 with a team of 6 people and quickly ramped up to about 14.  We stayed at that size until the summer of 2010 and then wrapped up in September.

Our job was to give Pete a sandbox to toss around ideas and flesh out sequences.  The script was in the early stages and still being rewritten.  Pete had a good idea of what he wanted for different scenes and used the previs process to explore ways to create full sequences from those ideas. Initially, our main goal was to work with the art department and make sure that all the locations were as accurate as possible because they wanted to use our previs to set up actual shots when they went to those locations. One of the first sequences we worked on was the Thug fight in the engine room.  We worked with the art department to recreate the interiors of Hopper's destroyer but because this was a military ship, certain areas were off limits.   But they did allow the art department access to certain sections of the ship for them to do Lidar scans.  It was our job to take those scans and create a previs environment that would match up as closely as possible.  That was Round 1.

A previs shot from the Thug / engine room fight. All previs images copyright © 2012 Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.

Round 2 was meeting with the director, hearing his ideas on the scope of the sequences. Is this a character moment or is it supposed to be action packed?  What is the overall mood?  What are we trying to get across to the audience? He told us the Thug was supposed to be dropped off onto the ship to do reconnaissance.  He’s going to go down into the engine room to scope it out.  Then he runs into the Beast, a big burley crewman who is very protective of his engine room. The Beast jumps to the rescue, tries to intervene and then a big fight ensues. Pete gave us leeway to visualize the specifics of the action.  He would say, “I want a shot where the Thug walks right up to the Beast and looks him in the eye. I want that moment to register a bit. Then he walks away, checks out different compartments.  The Beast is worried that the intruder is going to damage the ship and he has to do something to stop him.” So we came up with a series of shots, cut them into a previs edit and presented it to Pete.  He’d take a look at it and say, “I like this, let’s keep this idea or I’m not too happy with this one, let’s change it so the Thug does this instead.” We’d build off that input, going back and forth, almost like sculpting a clay model. He’d look at the previs scene, give us revisions, add to it and refine it. Over the course of the next couple months it evolved into a full sequence. 

DS: At the point you’re going back and forth, is the main focus on narrative, shot sequence, camera angles, lighting?

BH: The main focus at this point is storytelling, trying to convey what’s going on. Let’s take a look at another sequence.  The Land Commander Rescue sequence was the first to show the audience what the aliens looked like.  Pete wanted to do it in a creepy, moody fashion. He didn’t want to go, “Boom, here’s the alien everybody.” He wanted to slowly reveal parts of it and show the crew members’ reaction.  He wanted us to find a way to prolong and hold off revealing the alien’s face until the last minute. He wanted to maximize the moment and really get a mood established. The other main aspect of that sequence was to show that the aliens don’t leave any of their men behind.  They, like us, will come and rescue their people to get them out of a hostile situation.  It was up to our team, working with project storyboard artist Richard Bennett, to show this effectively and efficiently in the previs.

Hopper's ship fires all guns in this previs shot.

First and foremost, the goal was to serve Pete’s storytelling. From there, we worked with the different department heads to ensure that the sets were accurate. We worked with the DP to make sure the camera angles and lenses were what he would choose.  After Pete was happy with the direction, we would go back in and re-work the previs scenes with Gayle [Busby], the visual effects producer, and Grady [Cofer], visual effects supervisor at ILM, to make sure it was within budget. This is Pete’s movie and he wants to show everything he can.  We just had to make sure what we were visualizing through previs was not going to blow the budget. 

DS: How was your previs integrated into the visual effects production?

BH: I would like to think that what we produced was as helpful as possible for the visual effects houses. The purpose of previs from the perspective of the visual effects company is to provide a template for overall composition and overall timing. The previs helps them see what type of action the director is going for, and what type of effects the director expecting to see in those scenes. 

We try to make our previs look as good as possible complete with lighting and effects.  By doing this, it allows vfx vendors to more accurately estimate what that sequence would cost.  For example, when the shredders rip apart Hopper's destroyer, the previs provided an indication of which shots were going to need to be completely CG and which shots would need to integrate with physical sets and what type of destruction was needed to show that these things are ripping through the ship.

The more detail we can get into the previs, the more it informs the visual effects companies of the filmmakers' intent.

A previs shot shows shredders seeking their target.

DS: Do you have a library of assets you can reuse or are you creating everything from scratch on each project?

BH: We have a considerable database of generic assets created over the past years.  Naturally each project has specific models that you wouldn’t be able to reuse, but we are sometimes able to adapt and build on our models.  On Battleship, we used a mixture of existing and new assets.  We received the alien ships from the art department and downrezzed these so they could be used in our scenes. We always tried to keep the key elements of the models while making sure they were 'light' enough for us to be able to work with quickly in our scenes.

DS: What type of tools did you use on this project?

BH: Our company uses tools including Maya and After Effects for building previs scenes. We sometimes use Zbrush or Mudbox when building certain assets, such as creatures. We also have a slew of proprietary tools that help streamline our modeling and shot production processes.

DS: What was the most challenging part of this project?

BH: As with any movie, it's about finding and conveying the director’s vision. Different directors have different styles and it's our job to get in their heads and understand the way they see this world they are creating. I just finished working on a project with director Sam Raimi and his style of filmmaking is completely different from Pete’s but both are effective in their own ways.

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Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.

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