Tackling Previs on 'Oblivion'

Supervisor Nick Markel takes us inside The Third Floor’s previs work on Joe Kosinski's sci-fi thriller.

The skytower in Joe Kosinki's Oblivion. All images copyright © Universal Pictures. All previs stills courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.

Joe Kosinski’s latest film, Oblivion, like his previous picture Tron: Legacy, draws deeply from the director’s background in design and architecture. Equal parts thriller, mystery, romance and action-adventure, Oblivion is above all else a science fiction film, boasting impeccable designs and rich visual development captured through a combination of in camera shots and a relatively modest number (800) of visual effects shots.  Central to the film’s visual development as well as digital effects efforts was Los Angeles-based The Third Floor, one of the industry’s leading previsualization companies. Previs supervisor Nick Markel shared his thoughts on a number of key sequences as well as the main previs challenges his team faced.

Dan SartoDescribe your previs effort on Oblivion.  When did you get involved in the project, what type of team, the goals of the previs?

Nick Markel: We started about four months before production began.  The team mostly consisted of previs shot creators but we also had group of modelers, a previs editor and a coordinator on the show.  The goal was to previsualize everything that was going to be digital in the movie.  Joe likes to get a lot in camera, but there were still about 25 sequences that we touched in previs.

DS: How did the previs effort integrate with other departments with regards to visual development?

NM: The art department had a model for just about everything we created.  We were able to downres those models and integrate them into previs scenes.  If there was anything that needed to be created from scratch, the production designer was involved in every step of its creation.

DS: Describe some of the most challenging aspects of this project?

NM: There were a number of specific challenges.  The first challenge was also a very helpful one.  Joe is a very meticulous visual director, which is great because he was able to give great direction on the previs.  At the same time, with previs being a basic representation, it was not always easy to get every aspect of what he was looking for in the shot.  I think we struck a good balance between getting it close and economizing our time across sequences.  In the end, both the producer and director were happy.

The Third Floor helped figure out the number and configuration of projectors needed to create the projected skytower backgrounds.

Another unique challenge was helping to figure out the front projection for the skytower backgrounds.  PRG [Production Resource Group] did all of the work, but in previs we started to figure out the potential of the idea by determining the number of projectors and required configuration.

The aerial battle near the end of the movie was one of the most previs intensive sequences.  A lot of the bubbleship moves were very dynamic and required a fair amount of animation to portray correctly.  We initially started with boards and developed the sequence from there.  Making the action clear in a fast moving canyon was tricky, but in the end we got the angles to tell the story.  The sequence also changed a bit in postvis.  There we added more moments of interaction with the walls of the canyon.  It really amped up the action in camera.  After that, Pixomondo developed it more and made it look amazing.

Aerial battle shot from Oblivion. The Third Floor aerial battle previs images follow below. Note the rich detail in the final shot that carried over from the previs.

DSCan you describe any new tools or techniques that were used?  Did your library of assets helped speed up the process?

NM: This show was pretty typical in the implementation of the previs.  We also did techvis and postvis.  We used our library for some elements, such as buildings, but since this was mostly a unique world, the assets had to be crafted.  But since the art department was creating a lot things in 3D that streamlined the model-making process.

DS: Any interesting anecdotes you can share?

NM: Joe, having a background in 3D software, would often sit with me to compose shots or figure things out in the computer.  He had a very good sense of what was happening spatially in the shots.  There were a couple times where he'd say, "Are you cheating this?" and then we'd check the shot in 3D and he'd be correct.

DS: How would you summarize the value your previs brought to the production?

NM: I think the normal things that previs brings to a show applied on Oblivion - the ability to plan, understand costs and have flexibility to make creative decisions.  Where I think this show stands apart is that decisions were made with the previs that held true to the end.  There was motivation to make those decisions in previs, where we could experiment with ideas and come up with the best ones and then have a plan going into production.  Even so, I don't ever think the previs inhibited production and post-production to have their own creative development.  This balance makes for going into production with a plan, but one that can change as the movie evolves.  This is the best way to implement previs.

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

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