Ellen Wolff takes a look at the evolution of previsualization in animated features from 2D sketches to 3D moving storyboards at DreamWorks Feature Animation and Pacific Data Images.
In an era when live-action movies contain more digitally created elements than ever before, computer previsualization is increasingly common. Intricate effects are worked out in advance in CG animation, so that when a director arrives on set, a rough draft of a shot is available as a reference. Now it seems the influence is working both ways, as more animated movies are being swayed stylistically by the conventions of live-action filmmaking. One sign of this trend can be seen in the computer previsualizations that comprise the moving storyboards for modern animated features. Nowhere is this more evident than in the previs being done at two sister studios DreamWorks Feature Animation in Glendale, California, and Pacific Data Images in Redwood City, California.
DreamWorks layout supervisor Damon OBeirne says, Weve slowly introduced previsualization, and its definitely making our cinematic approach more sophisticated and, in a way, more like live-action. We now talk more like photographers about F-stops and focal lengths. Thats becoming our vernacular. OBeirne, who supervised the layout of DreamWorks traditionally-animated Sinbad and is now working on the studios 3D/CG feature Over The Hedge, thinks there are differences to be reconciled. When animation invented itself, it invented its own terminology. Panning, in traditional animation, is more like a dolly or a tracking shot in live-action. So Im trying and get our people thinking more in live-action terms.
Weve started to take on new conventions, notes OBeirne. One of the things we did on Sinbad, which were continuing to explore, is the idea of shooting coverage. The big difference between live-action and animation is that we storyboard and storyboard until weve got every scene exactly worked out. Its locked down compared to live-action, where they shoot 20 takes of the same scene and then use cross-cutting to come up with something unique. Thats the pure genius of filmmaking. And weve never really been able to do that in animation until now. Using previsualization - which we call animatics were now getting to the point where well shoot whats indicated in the storyboard, but then well give the editor an intercut or a couple of different angles. By giving editors the opportunity to cross-cut, they can create something with a real live-action feel to it. Thats what previsualization has brought to our process. Its a much more creative interaction with editorial. Our editor will ask, Can I have a cut in on that? Or well show the director two versions of the same shot, and instead of picking one, hell say, Send them both to editorial.
The live-action feel of the camera movement in the PDI/DreamWorks movies Antz and Shrek were also the result of editorial options explored during previs. PDIs Layout Supervisor on both films was Simon J. Smith, who also directed the recent stereoscopic theme park film Shrek 4-D. Its very important that the head of layout communicates with the editor, asserts Smith. Normally, storyboards have 25% too many cuts. So you want to make sure that it feels like its been shot like a traditional movie thats normally establishing wide, then medium, medium, closeup, closeup and then a funny thing in the middle somewhere. Thats how you start, though you dont want to do that literally every time. But there are things that you want to be more economical about, or things that would make the film more dynamic. The editors going to be expecting a certain thing, and if he doesnt get it, hes going to want to know why. With Shrek we had loads of coverage we did several versions of sequences with 10 or 15 different shots.
Live-action cinematographic ideas are especially striking in 3D-CG movies, where a virtual camera moves around three-dimensional models in 3D space. Because you are operating in 3D, notes Smith, You have the same problems that normal DPs have on set - and hopefully you have the same inherent solutions. The styles of Antz and Shrek were very live-action based in terms of camera movement. You make sure that youre a little bit late on the dolly, and that the dolly never matches up perfectly with the pan and tilt. Audiences should feel there is someone behind our computer camera and reacting to what theyre looking at. To illustrate his approach, Smith at once brought his camcorder to PDI and jumped up and down to simulate camera shake, which was then rotoscoped.
An emphasis on cinematography is actually a key concern in the layout of all DreamWorks animated films. OBeirne says, (DreamWorks co-founder) Jeffrey Katzenberg, and to some extent Steven Spielberg, started this emphasis with Prince of Egypt. What we do for every show is pitch cinematic ideas. Just like an art director might say, Were following a Monet style for this movie, the people in our department talk about camera styling. Initially its in broad terms. If we want to make an Indiana Jones-type movie well look at Spielberg films and see the types of decisions he made. Its often unlikely I would show anything but a live-action piece to a director and say, This is the type of staging and blocking Id like to do. My references are more likely to come from live-action.
A key benefit of previs is that it helps clarify the vision of the film early on, exposing problems when they can be solved with the least expense. Smith remarks, If theres any area where you can experiment, its rough layout. Thats exactly what its for. Once it goes past that you dont want to start fucking around. We CAN do different versions and thats the beauty of it. The talent here understands how far to go in order to communicate a particular moment in the story. Can Shrek look out the window here? Is he too big for the table? Can Donkey jump from here to there and look spectacular? All these physical aesthetics can be worked out quicker because we can manipulate them in 3D space.
For example, we know roughly that Shreks casual walk is so many units per frame and his run is so many units per frame, and his panicked run is so many units per frame. We can block out how far he is going to get in a particular shot. The essence of previs is that it provides confidence for the rest of the crew. When youre trying to convince people that an idea is going to work, previs gives you some beautiful visual evidence.
Eyes Of The Beholders
Smith is quick to note, however, that beauty is a relative term when it comes to previs. Despite PDIs sophisticated proprietary software, he admits, Layout previs looks dumb. Some directors have a problem with it because its the simplest, ugliest picture in terms of aesthetics. But its the most important jump in the pipeline. It forms the visual backbone for the movie.
Fortunately, he adds, Its a huge advantage that Jeffrey (Katzenberg) has learned to read our rough layouts. During Antz the previs was appalling because our crew was new. We had stick figures, and we just concentrated on A and B positions of characters that ice skated across the floor. With Shrek we had more experience, and in our previs characters had eyes with moving pupils, and hands with fingers. The heads bobbed on the dialogue and the eyes darted. We got a much better idea of how the full-resolution characters were going to appear. While PDIs Linux-based hardware has speeded up the process, Smith thinks the look of previs will likely remain just good enough to communicate the necessary ideas. Not much has changed between Shrek and Shrek 2 in this respect.
Previs As A Collaborative Tool
To goal of previs is communicating the arc of a story, presenting the elements that the director finds essential. Which means the amount of detail can vary widely. While the main issues, notes OBeirne are choreography, staging, cutting and cinematic elements, if an effect like a water splash is part of the composition, we need to represent it. Well stick an image of a water splash on a card and animate it, so that everyone clearly understands theres a splash there. Its crude but its still clear in terms of size, shape and timing.
DreamWorks has developed software plug-ins for Maya, which expedite doing multiple iterations of shots and delivering them in QuickTime format to everyone in the studio. Whats been really interesting to me, coming from labor-intensive traditional animation, is seeing the economies that come with doing previsualization. You can clearly indicate the intention of something, and its definitely spiked our creativity. You never think youre going to get those two things together the element of control, where everyone is really clear about which way a sequence is going to go, along with a huge element of creativity. Those are normally independent of each other.
An Invisible Art
Of course by the time a finished film appears, previs animations are distant memories. Smith observes, Its tough being a rough layout animator. Youve got to take solace in the fact that youre learning about filmmaking; youre discovering how to make movies. Because nobodys going to come up to you in the street and say That was beautiful layout in that film. Theyll never see it!
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.