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The Digital Eye: Previs Wizardry

Peter Plantec contributes to the Digital Eye column this month with a riff on the wizardry of previs.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Editors Note: This is the beginning of rotating contributors to this column.

This is my first column for VFXWorld, and Im pleased to be here. Some of you may know my columns in other magazines. If you do, you know that I sometimes take a unique view of things because, in addition to being an animator, I also spent more than a decade as a clinical psychologist, and that tinges my perception. I always try to tell it like I see it and damn the repercussions. Thus, I find myself in a bucket of hot tar about as often as not.

Today, Im writing about those long laboring, unsung heroes, finally coming into the light: the previs wizards. The field, recognized by some as Digital Film Design, is becoming more clearly defined and growing in importance all the time. Here Ill dig in and just look at 3D-animated previs.

Digital Directors

All kinds of directors are becoming savvy about 3D-animated previs because its like insurance and brings out their best stuff. Feature directors especially want their personal vision to be realized as accurately as possible. For most, its more than an ego thing; its about passion for their art. But often that artistic vision is a bit diaphanous. Much as a premise is not a screenplay, a directors brilliant artistic vision is not a shooting plan.

You and I know that directors love previs because it brings their ideas to a tangible state where they can be evaluated and manipulated. Previs also brings the director into the vfx process so they can mess with us early on. Even older directors are seeing the light and damn if they arent using previs in lots of new ways. Previs software development is becoming a separate industry while old standbys like Character Studio are constantly updated to churn out quick and dirty procedurally animated characters sashaying through their marks. These tools help us bring storyboards to 3D life.

Most directors can be taught to play with camera moves, refining shooting plans long before live action begins. In fact, most up and coming directors are super digital savvy and theyre getting more hands-on all the time. Im not sure how good that is because some directors can be a royal pain with the hands-on stuff. I say hire the best, give them your vision and trust them to come through.

Clearly, previs saves time and money and in the right hands might actually lead to improved storytelling. God knows we need that. So many great vfx films have gone down in flames because directors were so seduced by the vfx that they forgot story. I want to make that fight scene longer; its so cool with all this digital enhancement crap. Its especially a problem for new directors who nail a B.O. hit out of the starting gate and then try to figure out why it was a hit. Too often they figure it must have been the awesome vfx; when, indeed, it was the combination of awesome vfx and great story. Never forget that story is king.

Just Imagine the Possibilities

As you know, previs is becoming more technically refined as I type. Some of you may know that I designed the first animated virtual human interface, Sylvie. Shes an intelligent, animated character that you can talk to and even interact with. Depending on what control channels shes hooked up to (X10, IR etc), she can figure out what you want and make it happen. Shes also got a sense of humor about things.

Virtual Actors

My long time friend Steve Tice, co-inventor of full body and face MoCap for speech, approached me some six years ago with the idea of developing a really cool directors previs tool. Steve was developing a previs platform aptly called Geppetto, in which he planned to eventually use libraries of MoCapped action that could be attached to various animated actor stand-ins, and used to block a directors shot ideas. We wanted to make the characters so intelligent that the director could actually give them voice direction much as he or she would give a live actor. His idea was doable at the time, but too expensive to develop.

I recently found Steve at Quantumworks and he still has a passion for previs. These days more than ever, directors need to eliminate, or at least reduce shot risk to a minimum; and previs is the way to do that, he says. The more control a director has, the happier theyre going to be. With the quality of realtime MoCap animation we have today its ironic but you can now use humans to previs animation shots in realtime, and then you can turn around and use the same technology in reverse, taking the MoCapped characters and use them to previs live-action sequences.

Intelligent Cameras

I believe that within eight years, most live action will be run through by animated characters taking voice direction. Interestingly, you can also make any camera into an intelligent character. Eventually, directors will be talking to virtual cameras, giving commands much as they will with virtual human stand-ins. Imagine just telling the camera to change lens or to try a new angle. Youll maintain a library of every conceivable camera type, lens and Zeus configuration. There will be libraries of angles and moves, all accessible to the director with a few words. For complex moves, a director will take joystick in hand and control the camera intimately, accurately recording every move for the library. When the time comes, all these moves can be fed into digitally controlled cameras to exactly duplicate the directors best shots on the set.

All of this coming realtime automation might threaten some talented pre-visionaries, but fear not. Its not the same animal you saddled. Giving directors the ability to quickly check out rough camera angles with character action is a wonderful thing, but it doesnt replace the team development approach commonly used in vfx work. Here creative human synergy helps the team to envision what new vfx are possible in service of the story.

Vfx development is about seeing whats never been seen before and then figuring out how to do it. To get talented people with great ideas imbuing vfx previs with life and beauty, youre not likely to resort to realtime quickie stuff. Nope, you want 3ds max or Maya or even Softimage and Im seeing previs work being done in Studio 4D as well these days.

I suspect, in the not too distant future, vfx previs may involve hand building complex low rez 3D environments with easy manipulation handles for the director to play with. Shell apply your vfx ideas in different ways until the scene works to her satisfaction. Then with a single command the chosen parameters will be fed directly into a vfx engine that will render the necessary passes in final form. Sure its a lot of automation, but itll keep costs in line while not eliminating the most important design process: your digital eye.

Who Do You Want Creating Your Previs?

If youre well healed, you want a previs team with a range of talents from model building to creative design to animation. But exceptional previs work can be done by one person, if they have uncommon abilities. I asked Alex Lidsay, former ILM staffer and founder of Pixel Corps a unique and remarkably decentralized vfx production enitity what he sees as the makeup of the ideal previs whiz: First of all, they need to understand filmmaking. They have to understand how camera movement and placement, subject blocking and lighting change the feel of the shot. A previs artists number one job is designing shots. They need to have a firm grip on this process. Beyond that, you need someone fairly well rounded. The need to be able to model, animate and composite quickly under pressure.

The emotional problem with doing previs is that you must remain content to know you had a large influence on the final look of the movie, yet nothing you created will be seen by the audience. The elite guys who build the hero models and do the animation and all the glory passes can sit in the theater and say, I did that. You can only look at the scene you designed and say, Thats based on my work. So it takes a special kind of ego adjustment. Beyond the emotional, it takes a rare and wonderful kind of brain.

It Takes a Special Mind Set

Its all about cognitive style. Thats the approach a person takes in processing their world. Most people have one general approach. For example, creative types tend to work through a random processing style very visual. They hate rules and work out details rapidly at a subconscious level in parallel hundreds or thousands at the same time often yielding great flights of creative activity. Unfortunately, most are also put off by technology. Give me a brush; I want tactile feedback from my medium.

On the other hand, technical types tend to be more linear. They like to know the rules and follow them to achieve assured outcomes. This processing type is called sequential and sequential thinkers tend to be efficient and get things done properly. They love playing with technology, but usually lack serious creativity. Often they dont get the artistic vision, but theyre capable of making it happen. Meanwhile, the pure artist needs sequential help navigating the technical challenges inherent in digital visualization. Its a kind of healthy symbiotic relationship that you see in all the big houses.

Psychologists usually define four different types of mind style and each of us has differing amounts blended into our makeup. Having the right blend can facilitate 3D animation wizardry.

Can One Person Do It?

The best individual previs whiz must be a freethinking creative type with artistic ability. He must be able to snap across mindsets and become an organized technical type able to wield complex software brushes to achieve artistic fulfillment. Finding these opposite cognitive styles operating in the brain of an individual is rare. In my experience, these dual style people can click between modes at will, but tend to be very self-critical. One half of the brain criticizes the other all the time. Nevertheless, they make ideal previs whizzes hell, they make ideal digital animators, period.

One drawback is that nearly every one of them is going to prefer to be a generalist rather than get tracked into a confined specialty such as lighting or texturing or compositing. One very notable exception is character animation, where Ive found many multi-talented dual style artists who are content to do one thing make little beasties move in clever ways. The rest want to take a vfx sequence from inception to final composite.

If you think about it, cognitive style is probably why the bigger houses like ILM, Pixar and DreamWorks/PDI tend to have very specific job descriptions. Specialists are able to develop highly refined skills in a relatively confined area. TDs do technical work, lighters do lighting, designers do design and animators bring stuff to life (God-like when you think about it). This way, ILM can hire people who do one thing and do it very, very well no distractions. Even if tight specialization is a little boring to some of us, it is a home for many of the very best vfx people. Often smaller houses, though, prefer generalists who have high-level skills across the board. They must be able to handle everything through the final composite.

Too often the best previs whizzes are filtered out by irrelevant job requirements like specific degrees or expertise with specific software. All the big name houses do it. Sometimes HR people havent got a clue about digital artistry. Requiring a college degree is a very bad way to narrow down the thousands of applicants. When will the HR people learn?

To find the right people (I used to be an art director at a game company), I tend to look for excellent work on personal Web pages showing both artistic and technical skill. Then I check out their demo reel. Take Doug Cooper. I met him on his way up and immediately recognized he was equally as facile with code (as I recall he was writing plug-ins) as with artistic design and actual hands on fine art. His nudes are awesome (and tasteful, too). He was a TD at the time, but it was clear that he had the eye and animation coursed through his neurons the perfect previs guy. But, alas, as happens with so many of these especially talented people, he was needed elsewhere. I had no doubt at all that Doug would someday be running the show and I told him that Today, hes a vfx supervisor at DreamWorks Animation and was vfx supervisor on Shark Tale, and he just keeps getting better. Doug now oversees previs and knows what hes looking for: Previsualization is an integral part of our production process at DreamWorks Animation. Rough layout artists must have excellent skills in composition and cinematographic camera design. They are responsible for translating sequences from storyboard into a form of rough blocking animation of the camera and characters that works within the confines of the 3D environment. Whereas the storyboards are about the emotional beats in the story, and illustrate the characters performance, the work done in rough layout sets the stage for all of the work that follows in the production pipeline, from animation to effects to lighting.

So perhaps the biggest problem with finding the perfect previs jockey is you cant keep them in that job. It takes roughly the same talents and skills to be an individual previs whiz as it does to run the whole shebang. In fact, these people would probably make great directors! Fortunately, a personal passion for hands-on development sometimes out-weighs the draw of power, fame and fortune. Besides, supervising can really be a bummer if you cant animate. So, savor the great ones while they indulge you with their talent, for surely they will not be around forever. Attractive new horizons, greater control and bigger paychecks beckon.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peters latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews. You can visit his personal website.

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