Tefft Smith II discusses the extensive use of pitchvis, previs, techvis and postvis on Brad Bird’s new fantasy adventure.
While it may be true filmmakers are having a hard time conjuring up believable cinematic “wow moments” for increasingly sophisticated audiences, it’s certainly true that those same filmmakers are expanding their use of visualization to help in that conjuring, especially when they’re at the helm of a $150 million “wow moment” factory. One of the top visualization companies assisting those filmmakers is Halon Entertainment, providing pitchvis, previs, techvis and postvis expertise on many of the biggest films being produced today.
Coming on the heels of almost three years working as a previs supervisor and artist on Disney’s Tomorrowland, Halon’s Tefft Smith II took some time to speak to AWN about the scope and focus of his company’s work on the film as well as the dynamic of working with two-time Oscar winning director Brad Bird.
Dan Sarto: You worked on Tomorrowland for a really long time…
Tefft Smith: Almost three years. I started in September of 2012. I started on pitchvis with a very small crew. They brought me and a couple content designers on to do some digital concepts. Brad [Bird, the film’s director] was really testing ideas of how the city comes to life. We wanted to make a new Tomorrowland, and so we did a lot of early designs of how do we actually take architecture and give it life, whether it would be with layouts or buildings being able to morph into things. We came up with a lot of different ideas that showed that this is the future. This is the land of tomorrow.
DS: Give us an overview of the scope of Halon's involvement in the film, and what your role was on the project.
TS: In the grand scheme of the project, Halon brought the initial concepts and ideas into an animated form. Then, we prevised several of the major sequences in the film in order for Brad to figure out what would and wouldn’t work before he shot anything. Additionally, before they shot everything we also did a series of techvis which allowed them to figure out what kind of camera rigs, what kind of sound stages and what kind of equipment they needed in order to get some of the complex shots accomplished.
Once everything was shot they brought us back for postvis, which is where we incorporated a lot of the digital elements they needed to add in order to tell the story. So, we removed a lot of bluescreens. We did a lot of visual effects, a lot of stuff that we could actually handle, getting a lot of shots done for screenings of the film in order [for Brad] to figure out the story of the film before they went on to final effects. Then we actually ended up doing a handful of shots as well, which made it into the final film.
My role was I was the main supervisor on the pitchvis, previs and techvis side for Halon. We also had two other previs supervisors that worked a long with me, Brad Alexander and AJ Briones. For postvis I came in as one of the lead artists and worked underneath Michael Jackson, who was the film’s postvis supervisor.
DS: Historic and futuristic visual design is central to the film. Going back to early pitchvis, were you working with concept designs and assets created by an art director or production designer? By Brad? Were you creating these initial pieces yourself?
TS: In the beginning it was actually myself and one artist, and we worked heavily with four or five concept artists under Brad's supervision. Brad was coming in pretty regularly, suggesting ideas, but he and Damon [Lindelof, the film’s writer] at that point were both still writing, and they were up for a lot of suggestions. They came to us and said, "Okay, so how do you see the future, and how would you imagine it?"
I remembered as a kid, watching things like old Tex Avery cartoons where cars turn into briefcases, and buildings would move around trying to get out of the way of vehicles. We were just trying to go back to when we were kids. What made us go, "Oh my God, I can't wait for the future." That was the big thing that Brad kept on stressing - he wanted to bring the wonder back into film and filmmaking, where after you see it you're like, "I want to do that." You get excited. With everything that the world has become, so apocalyptic, it's like he wanted to go back to when he was a kid. We all experienced that same point in our childhood where you see a movie and you're like, "I can't wait to be that…I can't wait to be there!"
That idea of excitement was really stressed to us regarding a lot of the designs and architecture we were trying to come up with. How do we take Walt's [Disney] idea of Tomorrowland and bring it into today's generation? There was a lot of back-and-forth with Brad, Damon, and some art department artists.
DS: Is this early focus primarily on the visuals? Were you taking any early story elements and integrating those into the visuals or was is it just more about environments, buildings and the look of future technology - what you thought would be cool?
TS: Yeah, initially it was just visuals because at that point the story was mostly in Brad and Damon's heads. We were allowed to see pages but it was never in sequential order, like, "Let's figure out this sequence." We were never trying to go with story. We really were trying to develop Tomorrowland. Our biggest goal was trying to figure out, "Okay, how do we get Tomorrowland to be the vision of what Brad and Damon want and what Walt would have wanted?”
That was the big challenge in the beginning. For about two months we spent all our time on that, coming up with our initial base design. That was our footprint - our blueprint, and we would expand or take away from that. But, work on the design of Tomorrowland happened constantly throughout the entire production. All the way even to the end they were still adding, modifying and improving what Tomorrowland looked like.
DS: What came next? Integrating story and visuals into scenes?
TS: Once we had the city, we started getting initial script pages to start figuring out how do we tell the story and how do we lay out cameras. Brad would sit with us, directing in the computer how he wanted the film to be shot. We did some digital storyboards. We knew roughly what actors were being looked at, we had general thoughts of how they were going to look, and though nothing was set in stone at that point, we could at least start getting out key scenes and start telling the story. We could see scenes in sequential order where we had accurate cameras, sets, and stuff that Brad wanted to see.
We would do full-on edits of the film but in 3D, creating pretty much an animated film. The benefit was that everything was related to the real world. Once it looked good and Brad was happy, then that animation provided the data that he could go and shoot with.
DS: So the goal of the work at that stage of the film was to help determine how and what gets shot onset?
TS: Yes. There was a lot of stuff in the script that once laid out, we could figure out one, this could be too expensive, two, this doesn't work story-wise, and three, this doesn’t work location-wise. With Google Earth, we can get accurate location information, and figure out weather, stuff like that. For example, we could figure out, "Okay, if you want something that looks like this, let's see how big this location is in Spain.” Then we’d do tests of that location in the computer. People were still doing location scouts, but we could lay out some accurate camera motions, things like that, so we could see how this would work, or if it even did work.
It was a great tool for Brad. It was like his sandbox. He could play with things. He could test a bunch of ideas he wanted to try much more quickly. Obviously it's much cheaper than going to shoot with a full production. We were able to knock out sequences fairly quickly for him to look, see, say "yes," say "no," and then move forward.
DS: The work at this point is considered techvis?
TS: Yes. On this film we were involved with principle shooting to the point that we were able to give the crew everything before they went and shot. Remotely, there were a couple times while they were off shooting when they contacted us saying, "Hey, can you help us? We're in a bind. We need to figure out how this works. How did you guys do this?” That's where the techvis would come in, where we could give them more accurate dimensions, square footage, camera lengths and distances, and the distance of subjects. They then used that information for what they were shooting.
DS: I'm assuming then that fairly early on when plates were coming back you guys started to do postvis as well?
TS: We didn't start too early on postvis. Probably about a month or so after shooting wrapped we started getting plates. I think the thought process behind it was Brad really wanted to just get into the editing room and kind of see what he had first before they started trying to figure out, "Okay, now how do we do this?" They spent their time looking through footage and working on an edit, and then once they had a starting point we moved ahead with full force for almost a year.
DS: That's a long post.
TS: It was. It was a big post. A lot of our work was to help the editor figure out story points and how the city works in with what they shot. We even ended up getting back into previs in order to solve some editorial issues and answer some questions before they did reshoots.
DS: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges you faced on this film?
TS: I would say, specifically, there was a certain shot we did that required a continuous camera movement, and it was meant to be one view. So it started and ended in the same location, but covered multiple locations throughout Tomorrowland. It was where Casey kind of wandered through Tomorrowland. But the camera needed to be continuous. They couldn't stop so there were no edits. We needed to figure out the best way to solve transitions, which isn't so hard except we were solving transitions among multiple states and multiple countries because of the constant change of location. It was trying to figure out how to seamlessly have these cameras marry into each other in a visual and technical sense so that Claudio [Miranda, the film’s director of photography] could go shoot this physically.
DS: This is a big huge Disney film. This is Tomorrowland. This is not a trivial effort, and it's certainly not a trivial property. Tell me a little bit about the dynamic of working with Brad Bird on this project.
TS: Brad is a strong, strong storyteller, and because he has a background as an artist and animator, his approach to filmmaking is unique. It was a great experience for me. The movie that got me into doing what I do was The Iron Giant [(1999) written and directed by Brad Bird], and so for me years later to work with someone who influenced my career was amazing. The dynamic was great. He was so articulate in describing what he wanted. He was receptive to ideas, and thoughts, and always so gracious, always so nice. At least two or three times a week we’d meet with him on sequences. It was never like he wasn’t around for a month or two. He would sit down with us and you saw an artist at work. He would have so much fun with us, talking about theory, why we were doing this and that. When he got involved, he physically got involved - if the character needed to fall on the ground and roll around, he would say, “Take video…like this!” and we would capture him rolling on the ground doing the motions himself.
DS: Because Tomorrowland is such an important icon and brand, because of what this film means to Disney, did you feel any greater pressure on this project than any other?
TS: We were dealing with content that was very sensitive, so we were very reluctant to go way overboard, but at the same time [we wanted to] push it as far as we could. If there was ever any type of added pressure or stress, anything like that, it was never perceived by the majority of the production. I'm sure that if you were to interview everyone, someone would probably say, "Oh my God, Disney is going to kill us if we do anything different," but the producers’ attitudes and the way that they ran the production was really smooth and fluid. We all were able to push our specific capabilities.
Mind you we would submit stuff, hundreds of things and they would get rejected. But it was always rejected in a positive way, even from Brad. Brad would always say, "Yeah…can we try this?" He never said, "That's bad. I don't like it." He would say, "Let's try working it this way. Maybe this will tell it better," or, "Maybe this will get the point across better." In general, we all had heightened awareness because it was such sensitive subject matter but it never came across in a way that impacted how the production was run or the stress level on the production.
We were always excited to be there because of what we were working on. We never felt, “Oh my God, it's such a stressful day!” It was always, "Ooh, can't wait to go and work on Tomorrowland.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.