Inside Ron Frankel’s Wonderful Virtual World of Feature Film Visualization

The veteran creative director and founder of Proof Inc. shares his insights on previs, postvis, pitchvis and the growing importance of visualization across the entire filmmaking process.

Ron Frankel at the Proof main office in Los Angeles. All images except where noted are courtesy of Proof Inc.

If I ever need to really “understand” something related to visualization or virtual production, I talk to Ron Frankel. There are certain people I’ve met during my tenure at AWN, people who have a knack, a gift if you will, of being able to explain often complex ideas in a succinct and understandable manner.  And make it interesting.  Ron, I dare say, could probably describe the inner workings of a cyclotron in a way that would actually make sense, in a way that would make anyone suddenly feel a career in Physics was now possible. Even desirable! Alas, I am neither succinct nor understandable.  But after a conversation with Ron, I always feel a wee bit smarter.

As the founder and creative director of Los Angeles-based Proof Inc., Ron has been a seminal figure in the ever-expanding feature film visualization business for more than a decade. With a wealth of experience leading teams on some of the biggest, most effects-laden features, Ron understands first-hand the value that collaborative storytelling, design and visual development efforts can bring to a film. Over the course of several interviews in three different countries, Ron spoke to me at length about the art, technology and business of feature film visualization, as well as the dynamics, the politics and the growing awareness of its value within the filmmaking world.

Check out video interviews with Ron from SIGGRAPH and FMX exclusively on AWNtv.

Dan Sarto: Before we dig in here, help me understand the relationship between virtual production and previsualization. 

Ron Frankel: Sure.  The topic of virtual production, obviously, is a big topic these days.  There are two ways people think about and approach virtual production right now.  One of them involves the changes that are happening onset and nearset.  So, virtual camera, SimulCam, real-time computer graphics onset, that whole thrust of these new technologies.  Then, there is the broader definition of virtual production, which starts to encompass all of the digital technologies and visualization technologies that are happening from the early days of pre-production all the way through post.  Three, four, five years ago, what we were talking about was the digital evolution of digital production, which was the migration of digital tools into pre-production as part of the design and planning process for feature filmmaking.  Believe it or not, that’s only happened in the last few years. It’s just really been within the last 10 years that you’ve had 3D set designers working in art departments.  Up until then, it was draftsmen working with pencil and paper, whereas in the visual effects world, we’ve had 20 years of really robust digital effects. 

In the pre-production world, it’s really just been in the last 10 years that those technologies have come into play.  And previs was part of that.  Previs was part of this migration of post-production tools into pre-production.  Back then, when it was happening, we referred to that as digital production.  Now, with the advent of real-time onset computer graphics, like the stuff that you saw in Avatar or Real Steel, like the Lightcraft Previzion system, now we are talking about virtual production.  Regardless of what you call it, what is happening is kind of fantastic, because there really is starting to be cross-departmental, cross-production collaboration.  You’re beginning to see how all of these tools are beginning to transform the creative process.  For me, that’s really the key.

Avatar. Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

When I got involved in the world of previsualization, what really drove me, what motivated me, was this idea of creative decision-making.  Creative decisions are very difficult to make alone.  Creative decisions are incredibly difficult to make in groups, trying to get a whole group of people on to the same page with the same creative idea.  So, one of the things that’s really changed for me over the last year or two is, for instance, is that with my company Proof, I now refer to us as a visualization company.  We certainly do previs, that’s a part of what we do, but it really is only a small aspect of what we are engaged in now.  In addition to doing previs, which is “pre,”  we are doing postvis which is “post.”  We are doing onset visualization, which is the stuff that’s happening during principal photography.  So, it’s not really accurate anymore to describe us as a previs company, because that ignores essentially two-thirds of what we are engaged in.  I think the business is still predominantly about previs, but those other parts are growing at a very encouraging rate right now. 

DS: The last few months have seen even more turmoil in the visual effects community than usual. How does the continued shakeout impact your work and the studios you work with?  Is there more opportunity? 

RF: My business experience with Proof has been that previs is being relied on even more heavily.  Filmmakers are taking the time earlier in pre-production and production to make creative decisions rather than waiting until post. We’re being use more as creative collaborators on a film. Something definitely needs to be changed in the way the visual effects industry works. What I’ve been seeing is that productions are waiting longer and longer before awarding the visual effects.  There has to be more creative collaboration with visual effects earlier on.  I’ve always enjoyed opportunities when the previs team can actually work with the visual effects vendors. Those end up being the best collaborations because we can take the issues and concerns of the visual effects companies and reflect those to the filmmakers. The whole process can benefit from the integration between pre-production and the post-production vendors, breaking down those barriers between the two and not just relegating post to post. I don’t know where that fits into the business model but on a purely creative level, everyone would be a lot more satisfied. You’d end up with a happier industry in general.

DS: Wouldn’t that be nice?

RF: Absolutely

DS: The recent Motion Picture Academy VFX Convergence event on visualization in storytelling was extremely insightful. Really, a fantastic evening. What’s the key message people hopefully came away with regarding feature film visualization?

RF: That’s a great question.  I hadn’t thought about that [laughs].  It would be great if people came away with a better understanding essentially of how prevalent previs is throughout the film production process.  It still feels to me often times that people think it’s a “luxury good,” a specialty item that is reserved only for the very top shelf big budget productions.  The truth is that yes, those films do get a lot of attention.  They get all the press because they are very exciting.  But, you’re really finding previs, postvis, the whole spectrum of visualization being utilized on so many more films than you would ever expect. So, hopefully people came away with an understanding that this is a practice, it’s a discipline that has its uses on a wide variety of films for a wide variety of reasons. It’s not just about the big, vfx-driven feature hero genre film. 

DS: You’re not just a front end process for visual effects.

RF: Right  

The Academy presented "Pre- and Post-Visualization - Today's Storyboarding," at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, CA, on Monday, April 15, 2013. Pictured (left to right): previsualization director Chris Edwards (The Third Floor), previsualization director Daniel Gregoire (Halon) and Ron. Image © A.M.P.A.S. Credit: Todd Wawrychuk.

DS: Are you seeing any significant changes in the acceptance and use of previs in Hollywood?

RF: Sure.  It’s been expanding. It’s more widely accepted. It’s more widely used. Previs is being used for an even broader range of applications than I would have imagined just a few years ago. Previs on lower budget, mid-range, almost non-visual effects films is pretty frequent. Previs for the big visual effects tent-pole films, we’re almost getting to the point where we’re prevising the entire movie. With the exception of the handful of dialogue scenes, we’re doing all the major action beats, which for these big superhero films, is basically the lion’s share of the film.  We’re even getting involved in areas where we’re testing ideas for marketing, prevising trailer ideas and trailer shots so that the marketing department can test those to see how they’re working before they go film them. We’re getting involved in areas of the film production process that are actually outside of production.

DS: Why would a studio not want to previs every single thing they possibly could? Why would anyone want to step onto a set without having at least gone through the process of seeing what they should expect to encounter during filming?

RF: For complex filmmaking, for visual effects filmmaking, where walking onto a set is not just that organic process where you can just “wing it,” because everything is being done by different people, in different places at different times, and your live action component might just be your actor, for those instances, you have to previs it beforehand.  Or else, you have no idea what you’re doing. You have no idea the scope, the scale, the pacing. 

We just finished doing some work for the film 42, the Jackie Robinson story.  That was really just a location shoot. There was a bunch of previs that went into planning what they were going to see regarding the CG set extensions. So, in an instance like that, it made sense not to previs down to the specific shot, not to give them a blueprint of “this is what your shot’s going to look like.”  It was more about giving them an envelope to work within, saying, “Your wide shots will be about ‘this’ wide.  Your tight shots will be about ‘this’ tight. As long as you’re working within this envelope, you can do whatever you want.  But once you get outside that envelope, you’re going to break the visual effects budget.”  That was their big concern - how many wide shots and how wide could the shots really be.  They didn’t have a really big vfx budget.

For 42, Proof was initially brought in by Hammerhead, the VFX vendor for the film, to design some of the hero moments. They ended up working closely with Director Brian Helgeland, Production Designer Richard Hoover and Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Dixon to devise strategies that maximized the visual impact of the shots in the historic stadiums, without breaking the bank on the visual effects budget. The previs was used to determine how many extras were required for specific shots and where digital set extensions would start and end. 42 images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

For 42, Proof was initially brought in by Hammerhead, the VFX vendor for the film, to design some of the hero moments. They ended up working closely with Director Brian Helgeland, Production Designer Richard Hoover and Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Dixon to devise strategies that maximized the visual impact of the shots in the historic stadiums, without breaking the bank on the visual effects budget. The previs was used to determine how many extras were required for specific shots and where digital set extensions would start and end.  42 images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

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