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The Third Floor Takes On ‘Maleficent’ Previs

Previs supervisor Mark Nelson walks us through almost 18 months of previsualization on Rob Stromberg’s hit film.

Disney's Maleficent is rare for a visual effects driven movie - it shows considerable visual restraint. Maleficent marks Avatar and Alice in Wonderland production designer Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut, and he’s managed to deliver what many describe as a cinematic masterpiece. Maleficent succeeds in presenting just as much spectacle as needed, without ever taking thing too far. The visual effects never muscle their way ahead of story or character development, which is unique for a $180 million movie. Previs played a huge part in defining and delivering the world of the film, and was handled by The Third Floor. We caught up with previs supervisor Mark Nelson to talk about the studio’s previs, techvis and postvis work on the film.

Dan Sarto: Tell us about the size and scope of the project?

Mark Nelson: This was a pretty big show for us. We started before the movie was green lit when we were asked to produce some pitchvis, which consisted of a 2 or 3 minute piece that was intended to help show Rob’s [director Rob Stromberg] vision to the studio. Then during production we did previs, techvis and postvis.  In total there were something like 30 different sequences, consisting of around 1,200 shots. I think in total we prevised over an hour of the movie though not all of that made the final cut. All in all we were working on the project for about a year and half.

DS: How many people did that involve?

MN: At our height we had 28 people, spread between our teams at Pinewood Studios, in our Soho office in London and back in LA. We had a pretty big crew for a while during the previs phase. Postvis started with a smaller team – myself, six artists and a coordinator at Pinewood.  Then after shooting completed, postvis was moved back to Los Angeles as the movie went into post-production.

DS: What did the initial pitchvis piece consist of?

MN: We worked from some artwork Rob provided. The pitchvis was fairly simple. It featured the younger Maleficent, who walks up to a pond and starts playing with some fairies. It gave a sense of this is the world and who this character is. She’s sweet, she’s playing with the fairies but she has these wings she can’t control. We only had a week to produce it, so it was fairly fast and furious. But it gave a little sense of the world of the movie, and what kind of girl Maleficent was.

DS: What was the primary goal of the previs?

MN: In the beginning it was 100% supporting the director in trying different ideas and seeing which one served the story the best. That tends to be what's most fulfilling to me. At that stage we weren’t worried about how to shoot things, we were just taking the script and developing it visually. We had an office close to the director and visual effects supervisor in London, and Rob would come in every day and look over our shots. We'd keep reworking them, trying different things to flesh out the story. As it started coming together we were also supporting development of the look. Dylan Cole, the production designer, would come in with these amazing matte paintings which we would put into the previs, to really help everyone get on the same page as to what the look of the film was going to be.

DS: Early on, was the art department providing a lot of source material, or were you primarily creating visual designs and assets from scratch?

MN: We started very early in the project so we built a lot of assets that we eventually replaced with updated designs.  As an example, the costumes designs hadn't even been started yet, so when we first built Maleficent we had to take a very early piece of concept art to get an idea of what she was supposed to look like. As the project progressed, we would try to change the costumes and the character designs in the previs as new artwork was provided. But sometimes we just didn't have time. So in some of the previs and even some of the postvis we used older character and costume designs. If you saw any of that material, you'd see that it doesn't quite look the same as it did in the movie.

With the creatures, there were so many different designs coming out, Rob had to sit down with us and say, “You know what, these character designs aren't finished yet, but this is the closest one so let's go ahead and use this.” Sometimes we were replacing creatures with different designs four or five times throughout the previs process. Luckily a lot of them would just drop right in. We would build new models, texture them, but still use our existing animation data. It was very organic and there were a lot of changes, but at the end of the day that’s kind of your job during previs!

DS: Right. That's what you're supposed to be doing.

MN: Exactly. Move quickly, think on your feet, make a lot of changes!

DS: Were there any particularly challenging sequences?

MN: Well, there was what we referred to as the middle battle sequence, which was challenging because there were a lot of changes, not only to the characters but the story as well. We had to give a lot of thought as to how Maleficent was going to fight…how aggressive she was going to be. At one point we had her barging through a group of soldiers but we decided that was too harsh. So we ended up using her wings, and she blows them back. And again, while we're working on previs the character designs are changing, so we're having to keep it up to date. Then eventually when we got into postvis on this sequence it was particularly challenging, because there were just so many fast camera moves, and it was really a challenge to track all the shots.

And then there were the shots of Aurora floating. I remember getting a still photograph from Carey Villegas [the visual effects supervisor], which I think was from a fashion photo shoot, and it was of a model seemingly under water. He said, “This is how we want Aurora to float when she's under the spell.” So of course, we tried to copy it as best we could during the previs. But then the challenging part was figuring out how to actually shoot it. Casey and his team decided the best way to shoot it was with a phantom camera at really high speeds, using one rig that would turn her very quickly, as well as a motion control rig. When you slowed it down, her hair and her turns would go real slow. We had to back all her animation into the motion control camera. There were a lot of technical challenges to get that look in real life using the real actress. So it wasn't challenging per se to do the previs. But when you have to help figure out how to shoot it, that's when the challenges start.

DS: From talking to a lot of previs folks I understand that's where the difficult work comes in.

MN: Yeah, I think that's why I like previs so much.  It’s creative. You just have fun with it. Of course then there comes a point where you switch brains to the technical side and are working to help figure out how it's all going to be shot.

DS: Your team must have a tremendous understanding of the entire filmmaking process in order to do techvis on these big complex productions.

MN: Definitely. A lot of the people who work at The Third Floor are filmmakers, so they already have a good understanding of the language of film. But I remember when I first started in previs a number of years ago, you'd deliver a QuickTime movie and then you'd move on to the next project. And now it's so much more involved. We work very closely with the art department, set builders, and many other groups on the film. As we're building the models we need to take intricate measurements, stick to real world scales, figure out where the set walls are going to be, are they moveable, all kinds of things.

We have an actual model of a camera man and a camera so we don't make the mistake of putting the camera somewhere onset it won't be able to go. And then we have technical crane arms built to scale in 3D, and a lot of work goes into making sure everything we do can be done in real life. At the end of the day, we're trying to help out the filmmakers. Most of the films we work on aren't animated projects, so you need to figure out how to shoot the scenes for real. That's part of our responsibility.

DS: So when did you shift into postvis?

MN: It was maybe 2 or 3 weeks after shot plates went into editorial and we had the first rough cut of a sequence approved that we started on the postvis. I believe it was a scene where Maleficent goes on a rampage and causes havoc in the human world. So we were postvising shots as they were still shooting the movie, which is often the case.  

Postvis is a very different process, going from mostly working in 3D software to doing a lot of After Effects work. We were also using some new tracking software on this project, PFTrack, so there was a bit of a learning curve. It is very much a shift of gears going from being able to place the camera wherever you wanted to now having to stick things into a plate and track in your 3D elements. In a way it's less creative, but still fun because you feel as if the movie is really being made now, more so than in previs. It's a totally different mindset.

DS: Whom are you working with at this stage? The director, the editor and the VFX supervisor?

MN: Yes. So editorial would send us the plates to work from, and we'd show our work to Carey, the VFX supervisor, who would give notes. Then Rob would come by and watch it, or sometimes he'd just see it in editorial as a full cut. Actually, sometimes I would go down to editorial and sit with them. There were times where seeing the sequence postvis would help the editor figure out what was and wasn't working, and they'd change it up a little. It was a very organic process.

DS: What kinds of things were you adding in to the plates?

MN: We were doing greenscreen removals, adding in set extensions and a lot of creatures. There were a large number of scenes with pixies and fairies. A lot of times we'd key out the greenscreens and use our previs environments as a background. Eventually Dylan and Rob would come back with more and more matte paintings that we could put in. They'd give us Photoshop files, and because we had layers we'd be able to create a nice parallax effect when the camera moved. But the majority of the work involved creatures.

DS: What the quality of the previs you’re producing and does that change at all throughout the production?

MN: A lot of it comes down to having good assets to start with, and we have some great artists who are creating really high quality models and textures. Then when you're in production and you need to turn a shot around in a couple of hours, you can just do something really simple and block out the key poses to get the idea across. Of course, when you have quick turnarounds things like lighting can suffer, but as long as you have quality assets it should look pretty good. Sometimes we'd even just present still frames to get an idea or concept across. But we always strive for the highest quality because the better it looks the more excited people get.

DS: This all sounds like an extraordinary project for your studio.

MN: It was a delight to work with Rob. He’s a great director and has such a great eye for visual design. The whole crew was a pleasure to work with. Being in London for 10 months, it was just a lot of fun. You have pixies and fairies flying around, dragons, Angelina Jolie with wings, the whole experience was unique.  And having amazingly talented artists on this show, we were able to put out high quality work without a lot of time.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.