Previs supervisor Jim Baker walks us through The Third Floor’s key previs and postvis efforts on the latest Marvel feature.
With the macro world playing such a big role in Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man, The Third Floor, led by previs supervisor Jim Baker, had the task of providing much needed cinematic answers regarding how best to approach the movie’s subject matter. “It’s great to work with the characters and creativity on any Marvel project!” says Baker. “Similar to other movies, our team contributed previs and postvis to help visualize the action and ways to achieve it technically on the set and in visual effects. On sequences such as the Helicopter Fight, we helped depict and develop certain story points. In contrast to other productions, a different challenge on this film was the scale of the characters. A lot of our efforts were focused on developing approaches to the macro photography, which types of shots, lenses and angles worked to sell the size of Ant-Man and the world he is in.”
The Third Floor worked closely with Marvel Studios visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, director Peyton Reed and editor Dan Lebental. “We were essentially embedded with the filmmaking team so there was a big advantage of being right there to work out ideas quickly,” remarks Baker. “Jake was always clear with what he wanted. We would sit down and go through the technical considerations of camera and what could be shot on the set. Jake has a keen eye and was able to call out improvements to the shots both technically and dramatically.” Previs assisted in calculating real-world camera distances, positions and speeds in relation to live-action models and sets for key shots. “Postvis work included adding key CG elements, like incorporating a mask on a character, animating Yellowjacket’s mechanical arms to the action or comping out blue screens, so the filmmakers could see working versions of shots,” Baker adds.
“We ran the gamut of having concept art, stills of the sets and sometimes LiDAR that helped with both modelling and tracking in postvis,” Baker continues. “For the Ant-Man suit, we started with the original concept art and updated this as the design developed. The ants were similar, where we started with a group of models we used for most of the film. At a certain point, the design of the Carpenter Ants changed a bit and we implemented that into our rigs. We started building the train set before there was a final design. When it was built on stage, the VFX crew provided comprehensive photographs of the room and train set that we were then able to incorporate into our assets.” Animation, lighting and texturing needed to be created. “We used Viewport 2.0 in Maya, which allowed us to bring real shadows into the digital previs sets,” Baker notes. “Our artists came up with some amazing-looking assets, complete with bump and normal maps. After shooting began, we used textures derived from photos of the set. All in all, the look achieved for the previs was pretty incredible. For animation, we used a combination of key frame and motion-capture techniques.”
“Jake and I would go over all of the sequences to nail down what was required,” says Baker. “When we returned to LA, we would have pre/postvis meetings with Peyton, Jake, VFX producer Di Giorgiutti and editors Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr. In these we would go through the most recent shots and discuss what was needed for upcoming sequences as we were still prevising scenes that would be all digital. It was very fluid. Dan or Colby would request shots they needed. Peyton had a clear idea of what he wanted and even did thumbnails for a number of shots, which was invaluable. Peyton would always hone in on the central point of the scene and how it played into the overall story.” Various ideas were tested. “In previs it was possible to try out lots of different lenses and angles to find out that Ant-Man would seem too large vis-à-vis his environment in a medium shot filmed with a wide lens. We also looked at ways to emphasize his tiny size,” Baker adds.
Both the Helicopter and Briefcase Fights were sequences built without storyboards. “I worked with Jake to create a beat sheet based on the script. From there we broke it down into shots and our artists went to work creating the action as previs. I would cut these together with sound and music, and Jake would present them to Peyton and the production. We would get notes back and adjust until everyone was happy. With the helicopter, they built the interior on stage that was taller than a real one in order to allow Corey Stoll to stand up. As they adjusted this, we would adjust our model. It was a challenge having five characters plus Ant-Man in a relatively confined space and keeping the action readable and moving along. The need to keep screen direction consistent kept us on our toes,” Baker reveals. “The Briefcase Fight had several key challenges, one being the need to realistically depict that the briefcase was falling and all of the physics this would mean for the contents inside. Lighting was also a big consideration, as the action takes place inside of an essentially closed environment. The display on the cellphone was our key light source and of course, that light source moves around as the briefcase shifts and falls.”
Ant-Man has to navigate through a miniature version of the Pym Technologies building while security guards fire bullets at him. “This scene has all the hallmarks of an epic action scene – running, jumping and explosions – except that it was going to be filmed by destroying a small architectural model,” Baker states. “There were a lot of considerations for where to place the camera and for figuring out camera speeds and travel distances that we helped lay out virtually in previs before the shoot.” The Final Fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket involves the destruction of numerous toys including a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. “This scene was great, not just for its action but also for its humour,” Baker continues. “There were some different POVs to consider – for example, the world of the speeding train on the track is played out like real, live-action danger from the perspective of the insect-sized Ant-Man and Yellowjacket. In the previs, we treated it as if there were full-sized actors on a full-sized locomotive, with helicopter shots and hand-helds from the roof of the train. However, switching to Cassie’s view in her bedroom, it was just the smaller-scale movements of a toy-sized train going around track.”
“Some of the biggest challenges were selling the scale and the effect of Ant-Man shrinking,” observes Baker. “A good example of this is when Ant-Man jumps onto the train set. We ran into a problem where as the character was shrinking and we were zooming and moving the camera with him, he looked like he was remaining the same size. Previs lead Jason Thielen tackled this tricky shot. The solution was ultimately to have Ant-Man lead the camera a certain amount, so that you would see him shrinking first and then would catch up to him. Traveling through his dissipating trails [of him at a larger size] also helped.” The Train Scene is one of the most noteworthy of the film. “The finals I saw before we were done on the show were amazing. It’s just such a fun sequence that showcases what is so fun about Ant-Man, taking an everyday environment and making it epic. It has action, danger and humour in all the right places. But really the film is so unique that I can’t wait to see the whole thing,” Baker adds.
“We had a great time working on this feature, I think it’s really unique in the Marvel Universe,” Baker concludes. “I loved working in the macro world and with the varying size relationships. We had great camaraderie among our crew - it was one of the best experiences. We bonded through hacky sack, which I heartily recommend to any team!”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.