An Exploration of 'Prometheus' Previs

Halon’s Clint Reagan shares how Ridley Scott embraced the power of previs for the very first time.

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long anticipated Alien prequel, brought him back to the world of sci-fi after three decades.  The film represented several firsts for the director: it was his first foray into stereoscopic 3-D as well as his first use of CG previs. Halon previs supervisor Clint Reagan and his team worked right alongside the famed director as he experienced firsthand the power of previs, helping shape the mood, the flow, the action and feasibility of a number of key sequences. We recently talked with Clint about the project, including previs objectives, process, tools and the dynamics of working with the legendary director.

Dan Sarto: Tell us a bit about your work on Prometheus.  When did you get involved and what was the scope of your involvement?

Clint Reagan: I started as the previs supervisor here in Los Angeles at Ridley Scott’s offices.  He had an art department that had already been working.  Often, that’s not been the case on shows that I’ve been involved with.  They had a lot of art work they had started.  I started off supervising a scene where they hadn’t done any design yet except for one of the ships.  I started right out on the opening of the movie where the ship approaches the planet.  We did that scene first.  We quickly ramped up to five artists.  There were several that had worked with me before that I wanted with me on this project. I needed really solid people [to put] in front of Ridley. 

One of the interesting things about this show was they didn’t want to do simultaneous sequences.  So I supervised the first sequence until they were happy and then started the next sequence from scratch.  That was different.  Usually I’m spearheading several all at the same time.  But they really wanted to focus on the mood and just stay focused on one sequence at a time.

DSWas that type of single sequence focus unique to Ridley Scott, the way he approached the initial previs on the film?

CR:  Yes.  This was the first time he’d really dealt with previs that I am aware of and I was told several times, you better knock this out of the park because he’s never touched previs before on his own and so it’s all riding on you.

DSThat’s nice to know. No pressure here!

CR:  Oh, yeah, going in, of course!

DSI would imagine, the filmmaker that he is, he took to it pretty quickly?

CR:  He did, he jumped right into it.  Within the first session he really started to understand what we were doing and then use us as a tool, which is what we wanted. He adapted really quick.

Engineer previs image from opening sequence. All images courtesy Twentieth Century Fox - TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication..

DS:  So how long were you on the show?

CR:  Well, doing one sequence at a time, we started on the first sequence, took that through to end of November [2010] and then in December, we were already onto a second sequence.  They were going to stop there.  They had previs also being worked on for the crash landing sequence by another group in London, but I wasn’t involved with that sequence at all.  But I was really glad to hear that they liked what I was giving them so much, they sent us several other sequences to work on.  And so from start to end, I believe I was on it for a total of five months.  April 2011, we finished our fourth sequence.

DSCan you describe the dynamic of how that previs work was then used? What was the primary objective of the previs work you were doing?  Was it to flesh out story, flesh out visual design, figure out live action set requirements?

CR:  Good question. Initially, because Ridley hadn’t seen stuff [previs] come back yet, we really were focusing on the mood and on telling his story before we spent much time really pinching budgets and pinching frames and saying this shot could be done a little simpler if we do such and such, which is often a goal. Once creatively you’re where you want to be, you can really go back in with the visual effects group and anybody else that wants to help shrink it so that it is accomplishable.  But we ignored that to start out.  We ignored practical aspects just so Ridley could see what it [previs] could do.

We focused heavily on mood.  In doing that I cut together a lot of scratch-track music, which he was really happy with, to help accomplish that mood.  Of course it’s not music that’s going to be used in the final film, but it really helped him get excited about the process.  Gradually, once he was comfortable with it [the previs], on the next sequence we started spending a little more time focusing on the practical aspects.  Meaning, what the sets actually are, what we can and can’t do based on the set design.  As a supervisor I always try to keep in mind, if I previs something that nobody can accomplish, either financially, physically or both, then I’m not really that useful to them, and they probably won’t want to use me again. 

Final Engineer sequence image.

DSIt’s nice to actually be helpful.

CR:  So that is something I’m always trying to keep in mind. I’m trying to keep things practical and real and accomplishable even if that’s not the focus, and then come back in with the VFX supervisor.  On the second sequence we did come back and we showed Ridley a pass, and then said let’s see where we can trim this back with the visual effects producer and supervisor.  We would look at it and say, “See this area, we could lower these cameras and not have to worry about this part of the set. You don’t have to build that part of the set.”  We started doing that in the latter half of the second sequence.

At that point, a lot of the sets had been designed and we were able to work straight off of art department designs and live within those confines even as we explored creatively.  So by the third and fourth sequence, we were doing both at the same time and we didn’t have to reign back in that much because Ridley was very comfortable with it.  He could see what we were accomplishing both creatively and that technically, it was doable.

DSRight.  When you say, you were focusing on setting the mood, what does that really mean?  How do you set a mood with previs?

CR:  Yeah, usually in previs, it’s slap-dash as fast as you can as long as you get your point across because there is so much to do.  What we did differently was that we spent a little bit more time on the sets, building them with a little bit higher resolution.  We had the art department to help us.  We were able to use their sets and then do much nicer lighting.  There was a lot of making sure our models were a little nicer and the lighting was much more dramatic instead of just plain lighting, so you could tell what’s going on all the time.  That was probably the biggest part.

Setting the mood meant spending a little more time on each shot.  In many other productions, we would get it working and then move on.  This production, we got it working and then we made it a little bit nicer, added some depth of field looks, kept improving the animation until the shot was not just good enough but quite good.  Certainly not final, but we were given an extra pass on each shot to just make it a little better, get rid of some of the clunky rough animations, maybe some rough poses, maybe some poor lighting in order to set those moods.

DSYour previs work, how did the visual effects people use it?  Did they use your work directly or start completely from scratch using your work as reference?

CR:  They could have used some of our shots and our cameras to inform some of their cameras.  I’ve done a lot of that before.  In this case, they used the people they had in London to reframe what we had done under Ridley’s guidance.  And they recreated it for the shoot.  So once they had it for the shoot, they actually came back to us and we did a postvis pass.  We took their plates, in some cases it was some of the shots that we had designed in previs, and then we started comping in rough visual effects, at least place holders for the visual effects based on the exact plates which had been informed reference-wise by the previs.   There were a number of other sequences where we did postvis that we didn’t do previs on that were just to help visualize visual effects that were coming from the visual effects house.

Previs image from sequence where David explores the Engineer.

DSSo the four sequences you did previs for, that work was separate from the postvis work you did?

CR:  It was.  I supervised the previs work and by the time the postvis came along I was on another show.  Our company has a really good postvis supervisor, Michael Jackson, who is very good at just focusing on the 3D tracking, getting that work done really sharply.  So I had him spearhead the postvis work.  I did oversee it, but only just to help bridge the gap between the people I was familiar with from the production and handing them off to our postvis supervisor.  Then I kept track of it so I made sure it was what we wanted to deliver.  He did an amazing job for us so I didn’t have to watch that closely.

DSSo you guys were involved through the entire production in one way or another?

CR:  We were involved for a long time. We had a gap while they shot the film.  Once they shot the film they did came back and we were involved for another two or three months doing the postvis work until they finally had to hand it all off for final visual effects.

DSWhat were some of the tools that you guys used to do the previs work?  I assume you have an asset library at your disposal.  How many assets did you have to create from scratch?

CR:  We do have a library and we used some of those assets.  There were some things that they needed built from scratch, so we built some things from scratch.  But, they also had the art department working ahead of us and we would get some of the more important, highly designed elements, like the big space chair or the room where the engineers were waking up.  We received those assets from the art department.  But because they design in high res, and we need to stay as light and nimble as possible in order to have everything in the shot because we don’t do a lot of comping, we would revise those assets so that they were light and quick but still looked like and represented what they had designed.

DSYou had to slim them down?

CR:  Exactly.  So we had all three inputs going all the time.  Art department, back and forth.  Often we would take assets from the art department, slim them down, then sit with Ridley and find a few cameras and realize, “This is not working.”  I remember in one case the floor of the engineers’ chamber kept moving up and down as we tried to find different angles he had hoped to do.   We said, “Well, then we need to move this platform up, or down, move the floor up, or down.” We played with that and then handed it back to the art department so they could update all their materials and continue from where we had left off with Ridley exploring in the full scene. They were just focusing on individual assets.  So then we had this round robin effect where the art department would support us with assets and we would come back with notes from Ridley, give it to them so that they could be up to date with everything Ridley had asked for and where he was at with the scene and carry that into their set design.  So we had a really great circle of communication with the art department.

DSIt sounds like you worked quite closely with them?

CR:  We did, and it was really beneficial and I think it showed and helped a ton.

Previs image from sequence where the Engineer awakes to navigate the ship.

DSWhat were you animating with, what were you using for modeling, can you tell me a little bit about the tools you guys used?

CR:  Yeah, we model in Maya and do most of our work in Maya.  In some cases we jump into Mudbox to do some texturing or some high quality modeling for creating better textures.  In the case of Prometheus we had a guy on the team who had a particular skill set on Zbrush and so we had him work on a couple of things just so that we can keep that skill set. We don’t spend a ton of time in Zbrush or Mudbox.  It’s just support software.  I edited the previs in Adobe Premiere and used Photoshop for texturing and painting.  Our three primary tools would be Maya, Premiere, and Photoshop.  And After Effects, in the case of Prometheus, because we did spend some time trying to make it look nicer and that’s where we would split things off into layers and use After Effects to comp them with depth of field blurs and some lens flares and such.

We had a neat opportunity on Prometheus to try several different tools.  In the beginning, we started with just keyframe animation.  I had good animators and good modelers and we put the scenes together by hand, manually keying and animating the characters.  However, at our studio, we have a motion-capture stage as well as a virtual camera volume where we can shoot things virtually.  We were talking to Ridley, trying to warn him up to that [the virtual camera] so that we could use it with him.

So our sequences were scattered with some mocap and some keyframe animation.  By the third sequence, we had gotten Ridley’s approval to set up a motion-capture volume just to demonstrate it to him. A motion-capture volume for the virtual camera in terms of like what they did on Avatar, where you look into the virtual world with a screen mounted on a shoulder rack or a handheld so you can fire on the scene and find your shots.  So we showed that to him and then he went off to London so he never got the chance to use it directly except for the demo.  But I used it for one of the sequences after he left for London.  One of our scenes, the med pod scene, has some of the virtual camera work that we did.  We got to use a number of our technologies scattered throughout those four sequences with Ridley. That was fun, and notable.

DSNow those were virtual tools you guys created on your own that you were able to use on this production?

CR:  Right.  For a about a year and half prior to the show, Halon had invested in Opti

Track’s motion-capture system and together with OptiTrack, myself and two other supervisors at Halon, we built a virtual camera system prototype.  We showed that to OptiTrack, which was very exciting to them.  They began helping us build the system much tighter and much better.  We’re not programmers. As supervisors, we’re not programmers except for what we need to get by each day.  And having OptiTrack there helped us create a much smoother, much more robust system that we have used on a number of films.

DSWhat was it like working with Ridley Scott?  He’s one of the most iconic and respected filmmakers, certainly known for a wide range of visually interesting films. So with Prometheus, he’s coming back to science fiction, there is a lot of speculation about what this film is going to be.  There’s a lot of pressure on you, as you said, to “hit this one out of the park.” Tell me about the working dynamic.

CR:  That was one of the most pleasurable parts of the process.  While we all worked really hard and pressed hard to get the work done, there wasn’t an unreasonable amount of pressure to turn in more than is possible in a day.  And so we were able to focus on doing it really well.  And he has that vibe about him all the time.  He would sit down with us and review with me at the computer.  We’d first review the scene and he’d tell me what his intentions were.  And he has his drawings, his storyboard that he had usually drawn.  I always made sure I had a pad of paper nearby with pens all around, so that every time he wanted to reach for it, which he did very often, he could scribble out a drawing of what he was talking about.

We would sit there and go back and forth until he felt I understood what he was asking for,  Then we would spend a couple of days producing it.  At first, he had to understand that, yeah, I can handle delivering the stuff, because he hadn’t done previs before and he didn’t know what my skill set was.  He quickly saw that I was able to understand what he was asking for and explore it both in terms of just doing exactly what he said but also anticipating how it would affect editorially and how it would affect other things in the scene.

Previs image shows inside the med pod.

This quickly became a really nice collaborative environment where we sat in a circle and tried to understand his intentions and then gave suggestions   He would say, “Yeah, let’s try this.  I really want this vibe.”  When he knew what he wanted, he would ask for it.  We would ask him for his approach, if we did it this way or that way, was it going to accomplish what he wanted.  He’d say let’s try it.  Other times, he’d just say, “You know what, let’s just see how it goes.”  He got that familiarity and comfort, that these previs guys are filmmakers, not video gamers, and they can interpret both what he wants and how it will affect things downstream.  I was grateful to have that working relationship, where we could go back and forth and I could help him build the film, instead of just have assigned shots that hopefully worked somewhere downstream.

He would come in and once we had it working, he would sit down, watch things two or three times, just seeing what he felt about the scene.  And then he’d lean forward and say, “Okay, scrub through the edit.” I would scrub through the edit and he’d say, “Okay, from this shot all the way to this shot, cut it out.”  Then we’d play it again, all in this editorial session, until he felt like, “Yeah, you know what, this is working.  Now do these couple of bridge shots and we’re done.”  While it was painful to have your shots cut out, you could see that once you did it, it improved the pacing of the whole thing and it worked really well.

DSUltimately your work is there to serve the vision of the director. He gave you the leeway to explore, but in the end, he’s going to cut it how he wants to see it.

CR:  Exactly.  I enjoy interpreting what the directors want.  I feel like I’m good at that, where I can understand what they want and give them options too that they appreciate.  Sometimes they have what they want, but sometimes they love to explore and venture off into new ideas.   I love it when I get to do both, really help the director both visualize what he wants and show him other ways that might accomplish what he wants.  It’s really a fun process.

DSIt sounds like he really began to trust you and your team’s capabilities early on.

CR:  Yeah.  I was quite pleased that he clearly trusted us very quickly.  They had plans to do only two sequences [with Halon] and then when he moved to London, he wanted me to supervise two others remotely.  He trusted me enough to do that and still hit his vision.  That was rewarding.

DSWhat would you say were the greatest challenges for you and your team on this project?

CR:  I’d say, unfortunately, the first one that comes to mind is having a baby right in the middle of a big delivery!  That was rough.  That wasn’t my team's doing.  That was my doing. 

DSThat means your other team.

CR:  Yeah, the home team, a big challenge.  Not to say that there weren’t any challenges, but honestly, working with the folks at RSA, Ridley Scott’s company, and working with him, was one of the most pleasurable working environments I’ve been in in a long time.   They gave us the room to be able to do a good job.

Another interesting note, working with Ridley through this creative process, was when he’d say, let’s try this, and I’d quickly move some shots around and re-order them.  I’d quickly do an edit in two or three minutes. Now, Ridley has made a lot of films. So during those two or three minutes, it would never fail that Ridley would wax into some war story of some film he’d produced or directed in the past. My artists just loved that because they would get to sit there listening to Ridley while I was editing as fast as I could to hit his notes.  It was a struggle for me not to get distracted by the great movie making stories he was telling my artists while I was rushing to get the edit done in three minutes. 

DSI imagine that was fantastic.

CR:  It was great.  I just loved that.  He was very conscious we were hard at work on his movie but he’d say, “Ah, I just love telling stories.”  It was so pleasurable working with him.

DSThat sounds great.

CR:  Yeah.

DSYou’ve worked on a number of films. What were the major differences between your work on Prometheus and your work on other shows?

CR:  On this film, more than others, the director took the time and the production prepared ahead with the art department already working so that I could focus with the director on designing the general performance and flow of an entire scene, editorially and performance-wise for our rough animated characters, so that it would communicate the story ideas well.  There was a lot of preparation.  He gave us the time we needed to make a great creative product. 

Often production schedules are so tight and budgets are so tight that the right people aren’t there at the right time and that leaves me having to do too many things and shortcutting too many aspects.  That has been a big challenge on other shows.

DSSo how much would you attribute that focus on preparation to the director’s filmmaking style or skill?  Or, was it just an issue of available budget?

CR:  I think it is that Ridley understands the creative process very well.  He enjoys it.  And I think also because of what he has accomplished, he has the leeway to be able to spend the creative time he wants to spend.  There are a lot of very creative people I’ve worked with that are very good at what they do, that should have just been given a little more time so that they could soak in their creative juices like Ridley was able to.  Ridley does understand the process and he quickly gathered that previs is not really much different than exploring it on set or exploring it on paper.  It’s just a slightly different tool.  With screens.

--

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