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Previs: Love it or leave's here to stay

What do you do or say to someone who's adamantly opposed to the idea of using previsualization? Is previs a tool of the devil or a blessing bestowed from on high? Without solid communication and an experienced previs team, its usually the former and not the latter.

What is it about previsualization that seems to elicit either a dyed in the wool religious response or a near rabid hatred of the technique? Whether previs is being used to technically plan options for the VFX supervisor, act as a budgeting tool for the producer or serve as an exploration process for the director, many have stated  previs either dramatically enhanced their film or down right crippled their production. 

While its fairly easy to see the evidence of several successful directors effectively using the previs process, there are those in the opposite camp who have made their distaste of previs perfectly clear. Perhaps they have good reasons for their disdain. None, however, was more vocal about his disapproval of previs than Joe Johnston, director of Marvel's upcoming Captain America. Strangely enough, he claims he's never even used the previs process before. 

Now before I begin criticizing anyone, I want to make it perfectly clear that everyone has a right to approach filmmaking in their own way. Judging from his remarks, Joe appears to be a purist.  His amazing storyboarding and VFX background has uniquely prepared him to implement a style of work that serves him well. But after his blog post on, I was disappointed that no one from the previs community had anything to say. Well, its a year later and I think its time to reexamine some of those issues. 

For those of you who haven't read Joe's diatribe, here's the link: 

Joe Johnston's blog on

For the sake of those preferring to stay here, I'll summarize Joe's issues into several educational talking points. Hopefully we can all learn something through Joe's honesty on the subject.

#1. "I hate previs, I've never used it, and I will never use it." "Its useless." "Evil." ~ Joe Johnston

Wow. That's harsh. Particularly coming from a seasoned veteran like Joe. For those of us who are calling this craft our career, it makes me wonder if I'm serving the great dark Lord Cthulu or something. Let me put down my necronomicon for a second and ask what's the core issue with declarations like these? Is the entire previs community misguided? The fact is there are several directors just like Joe who see previs as a detriment to the creative process. Previs, if it is to be used at all they claim, should be for technical solutions only and never used to attempt capturing the director's vision.

I believe everyone is entitled to an opinion. Whether they've acquired this mindset through a bad experience of their own, heard a horror story from another director buddy (despite dozens of success stories that previs works) or they just simply resist change. The fact is there are some directors who prefer using traditional techniques. While those techniques are certainly battle tested and proven, folks like Hitchcock may have done things entirely differently if he had a modern previs team at his disposal. 

Today we work in a non-linear digital age and collaboration and preplanning are critical in making a movie, especially in VFX laden films. Unlike the animation world, live action films are rarely granted the luxury of a dedicated story department.  A live action "story department" usually consists of the director, the script writers, and the storyboard artists. Previs is a relatively new participant to this arena.  The issue I find is technology is so dramatically changing the creative landscape, many directors don't want to be bothered with information that seems irrelevant or try processes they believe are unproven. Call it information overload, but to some directors previs is in direct conflict with their creative process and we need to respect that. Directors are leaders and sometimes a leader's ability to control the situation gets lost when presented with too many options. But as I mentioned before, filmmaking is a collaborative art form. Despite Hollywood bestowing creative ownership of a film to its director, there lies an entire substructure within and beyond the director's purview that contributes to the success of a film. Previs attempts to unite that substructure and marry it to the director's vision. In my opinion that should result in better technical and conceptual clarity.

So what's the solution? Typically its a educational one. This is where organizations like the Previs Society come in. Work is underway within the Society to help define standards and practices that inform the unconvinced, but in addition to that, directors like Joe need to realize that there are several types and usages of previs that can serve very distinct purposes. Once these specific processes are understood for the value they can provide, unrealistic expectations about previs can be put aside and specific personalities can be matched with the type of previs services they need. 

#2. "Previs tells the crew this is exactly what you want and I think it's much more of a crutch than anything else." ~ Joe Johnston

Essentially this translates into the "handcuff myth" that previs is somehow immutable and that intern becomes a creative liability. In many ways, Joe is right here. Without proper guidance or someone to control the client's expectations, the previs process can rapidly spiral out of control and define absolutes or make promises that the production can't cash. Hiring inexperienced previs teams or randomly grabbing a couple of spare animators out of the VFX pool does not help the situation either.  Is this the fault of previs? No. The fault lies in the lack of communication between the client and those supplying the service. It also lies in the potential lack of having experienced previs supervisors as an official part of the preproduction process. A director doesn't have to be hand cuffed by previs. But some directors willingly put on those cuffs because they feel trapped.  In order to prevent this from happening, a creative trust has to be established between director,  producer and previs supervisor. This will go a long way towards using the process more effectively. But more importantly, I always try to emphasize to the director and producer that previs can be as free flowing or as restrictive as they require. Its up to them to set that precedent. 

#3. It's [previs] is a sequence that was created in a computer, and it has no relation to what's it's going to be when you're really out there, on location, on a stage with real actors who are hitting their marks and saying their lines." ~ Joe Johnston

And somehow simple storyboards don't have this problem either? The fact is today, more than ever, previs strives to achieve a more perfect union between the conceptual and the real. We're not here to take away someone's job, but rather we want to provide new lines of communication to an already complicated, digital process.  As a previs supervisor, I routinely ask for treatments, storyboards, schematics, and set information from the production designer and his cadre of art directors. We talk to DPs, studio execs, stunt people, VFX supervisors, the art department, and the camera department all with the understanding that obtaining knowledge is power. We then turn around and present that information to the three people who need it most, the director, the producer and the VFX supervisor. 

This level of technological integration has gone even further with a new process called virtual production. Here the sole purpose is the seamless unification between the virtual and the real rather than just the preplanning of it. Virtual production goes beyond previs' planning procedures and actually moves them out of preproduction and into principle photography itself. The result are films like Avatar. The two, though related, are two distinctly different evolutions of filmmaking technology and philosophy. As such, a fourth player, the editor, should really be more involved in the early preplanning phases of production because the editor holds the key to ensuring proper film continuity. 

Now in Joe's defense, there are times where previs is brought on so early that accurate data about the scene or its sequences are unknown. But in many cases like these, the director and the studio are searching for clarity. Storyboarding can start the process of defining that clarity, but previs can actually allow for greater story flow exploration especially when working with a seasoned editor. Once conceptual sequence exploration is over, if a director or VFX supervisor wants to move into more technical specifics, its certainly possible to do so. Problems only seem to arise when the line between conceptual and technical processes remains undefined. That is where directors really start feeling trapped.

#4. "I think storyboards are great and do more than previs can do, and they do it in a form that everyone understands." "[With previs]'re moving through a virtual set and it all becomes very misleading." ~ Joe Johnston

This one really stretches it for me. There is no doubt that the fastest way to get ideas out to the crew is to grab a piece of paper and a pencil and whip up a few sketches.  But last I checked, storyboards can't provide dimensional information, accurately portray lens selections, define camera or environmental setup limitations, infer timing, assist in creating more accurate vfx budgeting and planning bids, supply camera positional data, improve complicated sequence design, enhance conceptual digital workflows, organize grip truck planning, provide real time visual feedback within virtual sets, or assist editors and actors understand their green screen surroundings or footage. Many years ago, the idea of using video assist on set was unheard of, but today its used without question and the video feed supplies information to an array of people camping out in the video village. But if you asked someone back in the late 70's and early 80's if a video tap was a good idea, many would have said "no" claiming it would slow production, cause directors to distrust their creative decisions, and potentially alter the creative makeup of the film. Hmmm, this is sounding all too familiar. 

#5. "Animatics, while they sometimes stray dangerously close to the evil previs, are more like moving storyboards that can give you a sense of timing and, for people who look at storyboards and can't imagine what the sequence is, animatics are ok." ~ Joe Johnston. 

So obtaining timing information is ok, but anything else, technically or conceptually, is irrelevant? Again, this doesn't make sense to me. In essence, it seems like Joe is saying if you can't read my mind, don't bother. Previsualization is all about communication. It acts as the hub of a new digital process of making movies. Information from multiple departments coalesce within previs and when orchestrated correctly, previs provides an array of advantages (both technically and conceptually)  to a director that were unheard of years ago. Some have chosen to embrace this new process while others have not.  This is a choice which I respect, however the lack of some directors willingness to embrace the process doesn't negate its validity or existance. 

New ways of creating films are being explored in this non-linear CG age and previs is just the first of many manifestations of that evolution.

Like it or not, previs is here to stay. 

For more information on previsualization, visit Brian's homepage or the Previsualization Society.   

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