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Previs: Bridging the Gap Between Animation and Live Action

In the first edition of the new monthly column, The Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland talks about balancing the eclectic mix of personalities on an animated project to create a successful team.

Previs was an integral tool on Pixars most recent short, One Man Band, about a peasant girl who encounters two competing street performers competing for her attention and coin. © Pixar 2005.

Previs was an integral tool on Pixars most recent short, One Man Band, about a peasant girl who encounters two competing street performers competing for her attention and coin. © Pixar 2005.

While previs is the big buzzword in live action, very little has been written lately about its utilization in animation. After all, previs has its roots in storyboarding and animatics. And while live action previs has fully embraced the virtual 3D world of the computer as a tool for the director and the visual effects and art departments, previs or rough layout continues to thrive and evolve in animation. In fact, in some quarters, theres even an attempt to introduce some live-action previs principles to animation to make it more efficient. VFXWorld surveyed a number of animation studios and filmmakers to explore the differences between previs in live action and animation and how they are merging together.

The outstanding difference between previs in live action and animation is that the animation process actually requires the layout, so that the raw materials within the layout process are utilized by animation and lighting and all the other departments down the road, explains James Williams, head of layout at Sony Pictures Animation, who recently worked on the first animated feature, Open Season. In terms of the process, they are very closely related. We employ the same techniques and creative expressions and work closely with the directors to translate the story into 3D. We have a lot of discussions about camera lenses and camera moves and what will lend themselves to a particular project. We also give crude reference to lighting direction and more specification direction to character blocking, all of which is there as a blueprint for the departments that come after us.

We tend to start rough layout directly after the storyboard has been approved and edited, so that we actually have timing reference for the shots that have been created. The way in which a scene or sequence is broken down into shots is determined by our art department. We would regard the layout process as the first step in production, which is the difference between layout and previs, so we very much are under the clock to produce work for animation. Our schedule tends to be dictated by when animation starts. Things like making sure we have characters that are correctly rigged, props that are correctly rigged, models that are ready to move into production all those things have to be prepared during our process. Visual development works prior to us and at the same time as us. Obviously, we use a lot of reference from them to help us get a feeling for how the movie is going to work. The dominant relationship is with the directors.

Because of Sonys unique infrastructure in which the new animation department works closely with Imageworks, the elder visual effects department, Williams adds that it is the hope that Sony Pictures Animation can produce a much more detailed blueprint for Sony Pictures Imageworks and our relationship to make sure that we make the transition from story into production as efficient as possible.

James Williams of Sony Pictures Animation, who recently worked on Open Season, emphasizes that the main difference between previs in live action and animation is that animation actually requires the layout process. © Sony Pictures Animati

James Williams of Sony Pictures Animation, who recently worked on Open Season, emphasizes that the main difference between previs in live action and animation is that animation actually requires the layout process. © Sony Pictures Animati

Meanwhile, in terms of the Imagemotion hybrid of performance capture and animation within Imageworks that was launched with The Polar Express and has continued with Monster House and Beowulf, Williams says previs is handled slightly differently. Most of that previs is actually done with the production company themselves and so we inherit that at the studio and then we try to translate that into a functioning scene. On Polar Express, we had artists that were loaned out to [director] Bob Zemeckis and worked directly with him in his Carpenteria studio and they were very beneficial to the process because they understood the pipeline at Sony Imageworks and that whatever was produced there could work. I believe the other projects have roughly the same breakdown as we do here; the only difference is that on Monster House [which Zemeckis did not direct] the previs department was actually on site.

At Pixar, previs is adopted differently for each feature, depending on the specific needs of the director. It was also an integral tool on the studios most recent short, One Man Band, about a peasant girl who encounters two competing street performers competing for her attention and coin. Every film since The Incredibles has utilized it, says Band co-director Andy Jimenez, who came to Pixar after working with Brad Bird on Iron Giant. Brad wanted to be a little more complete with the story reels, whereas [on Cars] John [Lasseter] wanted to get a little more in the 3D later on. Were trying to find that fine line between doing all the work in story and shielding the story process from all this other technical stuff. But once the story is locked, then we want to open the floodgate and utilize all this previs camerawork that weve done.

Thats what were really tackling right now. We want to try and make previs more efficient but for who? Whats efficient for one department is inefficient for another. Is there a cutoff point with our story reel in trying to make every part of that translate directly rather than saying here is what weve learned and lets rebuild it? I know in story I like to draw more than I like to get bogged down in technical stuff. But I later need to get bogged down in [pure camera dynamics], which takes me away from the main question of what my character is going to do next.

The Imagemotion hybrid of performance capture and animation within Imageworks will continue with Monster House (above) and Beowulf. © Sony Imageworks.

The Imagemotion hybrid of performance capture and animation within Imageworks will continue with Monster House (above) and Beowulf. © Sony Imageworks.

One of the biggest challenges I learned on One Man Band is we finished our story reels its warm, it has lights and for the next eight months when we started our layout and actual camerawork, we were looking at a set that looks like plastic with boxes to indicate props and our characters werent even built yet. But we had to make all these important decisions about camera. And then we went to the next meeting and we were looking at all this beautiful cloth and what the characters clothes were supposed to look like, and we were only supposed to think about that. So doing the animatics and doing the story reel was the last time until the film was completed that we could see all of these things in one place. I was so glad that we spent the extra time to do this detailed story reel, because we could always refer back to it while looking at a set with a green box or a character with no face. This story reel allowed us to remember those little gems when it was so easy to get lost in technical minutia. While its so much fun to talk about the rust streaks in the stone, well never do that at the expense of our story.

One of my roles on The Incredibles was to be the eyes and ears in both story and the technical side. If there were a middle-ground, thats the key: with the people that are creating the story and generating the look even if they arent using the same tools having their eyes on both sides of the process. Where having the art department see what the story department is doing and having the layout department see what the story department and art department are doing. And what technical is doing and what animation is doing. Thats something we have right now and it is very collaborative.

One Man Band co-director Andy Jimenez tries to find that fine line between doing all the work in story and shielding the story process from all the technical stuff.

One Man Band co-director Andy Jimenez tries to find that fine line between doing all the work in story and shielding the story process from all the technical stuff.

At Blue Sky (Ice Age, Robots and the upcoming Ice Age 2: The Meltdown), previs has been part of a natural evolution in the story development process. Traditionally, they have worked everything out in boards, and then cut the reels together to reflect timing only. Usually there is a lot of fussing once the reels are up, explains Blue Sky founder and director Chris Wedge. Like in any editing situation, you want as much flexibility as possible. In the past we would get the reels working from story panels and then go to a layout step. This was always the first glimpse that we would get of 3D. It was always a painful process: analyzing the set that the boards are suggesting, and then reconceiving the shots to fit in the real set. That puts a lot of pressure on layout to figure stuff out, and its frustrating because you have to reinvent the scene in many ways.

On Robots, we tried saving time by designing the sets first and shooting inside them. We actually made Styrofoam mockups of most of them. This makes many jobs easier, as story can draw from the mockups, and layout needs only find the best angle for shots that are already pretty well thought out. In many instances, this obviates the need for storyboards all together. All of the action sequences in Robots we prevised instead of drawn. This was fun for everybody: the previs artists (who were primarily animators) could go have fun finding cool shots, and editorial could play with different cuts of existing footage. The director, of course, gets to say: Thats cool now try it this way. All in all, we are using previs for action and camera. Nothing sells character in the reels like well done drawings.

At Walt Disney Feature Animation, which made the all-3D transition with Chicken Little and has proceeded with Meet the Robinsons and American Dog, they call previs animatic, but it serves the same function, which is the ability to rough something together with models, character and camera to simulate the content of what a film will look like. We do practice previs very heavily, admits Terry Moews, head of layout on Chicken Little and American Dog. We are creating whole new processes to expound on that method in almost a live-action manner, allowing us to do multiple camera and editing work in a previs level with just a handful of artists in layout to handle a very wide and complicated degree of previsualization. And were doing a lot more now than we did on Chicken Little. There was very little previs to speak of because we were just concerned with getting the first production off the ground. Even that previs was definitely production oriented. We would be given a sequence, but it wasnt within the context of playing with an idea or wanting to prove out this set. It was more like: Heres a sequence in our movie go! We arrived at a previs solution for that as a means of exploring a large sequence of action very quickly.

Every Pixar film since The Incredibles has utilized previs. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios.

Every Pixar film since The Incredibles has utilized previs. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios.

My background is live action-oriented, so I wanted to bring together the live-action method of gathering footage to the process, so theres a big part of the opening sequence thats action-driven and to prove it out we took a set and a bunch of cameras and covered one line of action for each camera and we able to take the best angles and the best cuts and show it to the directors as proof of concept. Thats really carried over to the work were doing on American Dog, so previs teaches us a lot. One of the biggest gains we get, much like live action, is that they are both built worlds as opposed to 2D, which is a rendered world. Its easier to go back and render something differently, to draw something differently, than it is to actually build something differently. On Chicken Little, I worked with the production designer all the time because its so easy to overbuild a set and spend a lot of money. What previs does is tell you exactly where youre going to be, and exactly what youre going to see. Its not just a way of showing the director a line of action, but to inform the whole show this is what the sets going to look like and this is what we need to build.

The previs philosophy stays the same but the stakes get bigger as each new feature utilizes larger and more complicated environments. Its in our best interest to do more previs because its going to save time and money on the production. Its a great tool. We are doing what we call The Digital Scout, which often become animatics or previs. The entirety of the work is generated in our layout department. Brian Kessinger and I build the sets together and well look at the artwork thats being generated by the production designer (Paul Felix on American Dog) and the rough storyboards, and Ill layout the way the set will look and where I think the action will go. What we do is build very rudimentary sets ourselves and that includes contours on the ground, forests, whatever we need; it doesnt go to modeling and the sets have actually become more complex than we thought. And then we stage the action and where the camera will go to follow the action, and because weve developed a technique for moving multiple cameras our cameras are rig-based we can duplicate anything that can be done on a live-action set. Weve given it very cinema-based movement patterns. So we can create multiples of these rigs within the same set, shoot them all out and then go to a program where we can input all of the images from these various cameras and, like a non-linear editor, we can set ins and outs, we can preview and can do a lot of work very quickly. And then we prove it all out and, at the end of the day, what were left with is a set that demonstrates exactly what we need to see and then we can break it down. So instead of building 100 trees, we only have to build 10. And the results of those labors are directly passed to the modelers. And so the modelers work in conjunction with the same visual development material but they replace our crude models with the real production design-approved models. But the scale, the size, the dimension, the depth and the number count are a known quantity before we even get into it.

All of the action sequences in Robots were prevised and Chris Wedge recalls how the process was fun for everybody: the previs artists and editorial. © Blue Sky Studios.

All of the action sequences in Robots were prevised and Chris Wedge recalls how the process was fun for everybody: the previs artists and editorial. © Blue Sky Studios.

Brad Blackbourn, who headed layout on DreamWorks Flushed Away and is supervising previs on Kung Fu Panda, has noticed the differences between previs for animation and live action starting to blur. Compared to the previs work Ive done for live action, the CG-animated projects that Ive directed or supervised had everyone in layout focus a lot more on the characters their timing, movement, staging and even blocking of their movement and acting. Due to the ubiquitous budgetary/scheduling restraints we all face, its usually very difficult to explore many different gross acting/blocking choices in the animation part of the process. The time is focused more to developing the delicious nuances of the acting. Therefore, Ive found that its been incredibly useful to have more performance information available in the layout stage. Different approaches to the blocking can be explored and simple, clear poses with basic acting (even simple facial poses) help to confirm whether a new idea will work as a better dramatic/comedic choice for the story. Its a chance for the director and cinematographer to get on set with stand-in actors and explore the opportunities through the camera lens.

Traditionally, CG layout on non-action sequences has been more confined to minimally/non-articulated dummies drifting to their marks to confirm basic camera movement and timing. Its been seen as an awkward/ugly step between those great boards and that beautiful animation: Make sure no one sees the layout, OK? rather than a chance to explore the various acting/staging choices on the set with capable stand-in actors. Once people see animatics with semi-accurate acting and timing with basic key/mood lighting and coloring, the benefits are obvious. If you include representations of depth of field and shadow, then your ability to explore the most visually compelling storytelling possibilities increase further. It becomes a pretty accurate sketch for the final show that informs all departments down the pipeline and allows the director to test ideas before they become too work/cost intensive.

Quite frequently, the board artists wont get the chance to see a final set with representation of key/mood lighting, the props, the space and the possibilities of dramatic/comedic staging in it, and opportunities like this may not be discovered until lighting, which is too late. Again, with limited timeframes, the boarding process tends to be more about finding the character moments, the verbal and physical gags or business for the characters rather than laboriously trying to explore the physical staging possibilities of the set. Its not usually a good use of resources for a board artist to spend precious time trying to accurately board a complex tracking shot through a yet-to-be-finaled set. The chance for visual improv with the character staging in the actual mise-en-scene is one for layout to explore

Disney refers to previs as animatic, says Terry Moews, head of layout on Chicken Little. Its the ability to rough something together to simulate what a film will look like. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Disney refers to previs as animatic, says Terry Moews, head of layout on Chicken Little. Its the ability to rough something together to simulate what a film will look like. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Now, beyond the immediate visual storytelling benefits of more detailed layout, there is also an incredible production management benefit of having a highly detailed and accurate visual/acting blueprint to communicate with downstream departments Thats why, when Im looking to put together a layout team, I always look for the best all-round filmmakers, rather than specialized artists or tds and the ability to animate characters with simple, clear, posing, a feel for composition and editing is much more important than being a whiz at particles or After Effects. Its all about storytelling.

Indeed, according to a production designer making the transition from live action to animation, its been entirely appropriate to introduce previs processes from live action to 3D animation. While the studio was resistant at first, it has begun to embrace a more live-action approach to animation previs. They are currently in a creative stage of connecting and interacting with all departments, and it appears that they can set things up differently in a way that benefits the entire production process while centralizing previs in design instead of rough layout. In fact, they are now re-labeling previs for animation Design Visualization (or DesVis).

In live action, [which plugs previs into the virtual 3D space], were used to having [it] in place in the first four to six weeks of design. And then were constantly manipulating design in relation to what is an abstract camera and abstract environment and story components, which is honed into something more and more accurate as you gather more information. The information you get is input and the whole model ups one notch of accuracy. So if its information from story, you suddenly have different blocking of the avatars within the virtual environments; then you start adjusting camera to that.

So the general agreement is that rough layout starts earlier on previs and integrating it more closely with visual development and story. Because at the moment there are gross inefficiencies happening, with story progressing over here and environments progressing over there. And not until rough layout do you test whether those two things fit. Previs is so essential now because its such an obvious tool as a forum for all departments. Its the obvious place to discuss film because its the virtual production environment.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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