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Proof’s ‘F9’ Visualization was a Race to the Finish

Studio prevised over 3,000 shots, postvised over 700, and techvised countless others, working 83 straight weeks until the COVID-19 lockdown, then quickly transitioned to a remote pipeline to complete production on Universal and Justin Lin’s ninth ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise action thriller.

Universal’s F9, the ninth chapter in the Fast & Furious action-thriller saga, has earned more than $5 billion globally, a juggernaut fueled by gritty characters and physics-defying car chases, crashes, and stunts.  Director Justin Lin returned to helm the most recent outing in the franchise; he previously directed the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth films, each stepping the action up a notch or two as the cast, led by Vin Diesel as Dom Toretto, hurtled around the globe. In F9, Toretto and crew raced from London to Tokyo, from Central America to Edinburgh, and from a secret bunker in Azerbaijan to the teeming streets of Tbilisi. The mayhem continued to push the visual envelope in new and exciting ways. Happily and predictably, the action was fast and furious. Had to get that in at least once!

For leading visualization company Proof, work on F9 was extensive, expansive, and comprehensive. Their efforts spanned every aspect of visualization, from creative work developing ideas with the filmmakers; to detailed technical visualizations that aided the filming of complex action shots; version after version of postvis for editorial; and completing dozens of visual effects shots for the final film. Their previs alone covered six sequences, totaling over 3,000 individual shots; their postvis, over 700 shots, touched nearly every sequence in the film.

Their team was led by Dafydd Morris, Visualization Supervisor Proof London; David Allen, Visualization Supervisor Proof Los Angeles, and George Antzoulides, Visualization Supervisor at Proof Los Angeles. Allen was one of the original previs artists who started on the project in August 2018, continuing all the way through 2020 with postvis. The team eventually grew to 31 artists at its largest point, spread across Los Angeles and London; they worked on previs and postvis for 83 straight weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown; a smaller team rejoined the production later in 2020 for additional postvis and finals work. Proof London started on the project in March 2019; the team grew to around 25 at its largest, delivering previs, postvis, and techvis over an eight-month period.

“Proof London was mostly responsible for previs,” says Morris. “We worked with the director designing key sequences of the film. In addition to building the usual characters, vehicles, and props needed for previs, our asset artists designed environments that were handed over to locations and VFX to either find a similar location or build a CG version.  Our animators designed beats of action, which the director looked at as an overview.  Once he was happy, we placed cameras in the action and handed over shots to the editor.”

According to Allen, the Jungle Chase sequence is a good example of the progression of Proof’s work throughout the making of the film.  “Initially, we prevised several different versions of the action beats, as the sequence evolved over time.  This work began with the LA team, but the UK team took the lead when the production moved to London, and we continued to refine the animation and cameras until filming began.  The sequence was the first one we did postvis work for, and that typically included things like CG takeovers of practical cars, CG set extensions, and inserting additional vehicles and explosions.”

Work on the sequence was constantly evolving throughout previs. “When we first started working on the sequence, it was going to be the finale of the film,” Morris shares. “We had prevised a whole version of this sequence where the heroes were chasing the armadillo truck through the jungle before it was decided that the jungle location was going to be used at the beginning of the film and the armadillo chase would happen at the end in Tbilisi. There was a lot of work we had done that the director wanted to keep, so one of the big challenges was finding ways to redesign this sequence while keeping the elements that were working well.”

Another big challenge on the Jungle Chase previs was maintaining a seamless handoff of working scene files between Morris’ London team and Antzoulides’ LA team. “With both offices working in different time zones on the same sequence, Proof was able to kick out shots almost 24 hours a day,” Antzoulides says. “When London was finishing up their day, we were just starting ours. Every morning I would get on a call with Dafydd and we’d speak to Alex Vegh, who oversaw all the previs/postvis for Production, to discuss that day's handoff. Whatever shots London didn’t get to or couldn't finish would be taken over by the LA team. Wherever we left off, London would pick up the following day. This circular workflow to the previs was a bit unorthodox.”

Typically, each studio would be given their own sequence, and individual scene files would be assigned to just one artist. “However, due to production demands and the sheer complexity of the sequence, we had to adopt this new methodology in order to meet our deadlines,” Antzoulides adds. “It took some getting used to, but in the end, it proved to be the best way of capturing the director's vision for this ambitious sequence, while still allowing enough time in the schedule for all the other departments to get a game plan together for how they were going to shoot our previs.”

Overall, Allen notes, the main challenge was finding ways to surpass and improve upon the work Proof had done on the previous Fast & Furious movies. “Proof has provided previs for the series going all the way back to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” he says. “Most of the senior Proof LA artists have worked on multiple previous Fast movies, and Proof London had recently completed work on Hobbs & Shaw.  Audiences have come to expect each new Fast movie to set the bar higher in terms of stunts and spectacle, and we wanted to do everything we could to help the filmmakers achieve their vision.”

Post-production for F9 was headquartered inside South Pasadena’s Stargate Studios. Proof’s postvis team had been sharing the rented space with Editorial, VFX, and Sound since November 2019. In early March 2020, when word came from Universal that they were sending everyone home to await further instructions Proof acted quickly transitioning to a safe, work from home pipeline. “On that day, after everyone packed their belongings, said their goodbyes and headed home, Proof’s talented IT department packed up all the equipment left behind at Stargate and setup all that gear back at the Proof home office,” Antzoulides explains. “The project’s backup drives were up and running on the in-house network the following morning.”

“The next challenge was figuring out how to pull off a remote work pipeline,” he continues. “Thanks to some quick thinking from IT and the bold leadership at Proof, a slightly smaller postvis team was able to get back to work by the following Monday. It was uncharted territory for all of us as we acclimated to this new reality filled with LogMeIn, Teradici, Slack, and Zoom, but we persevered and managed to stay productive for the next couple of weeks.”

The postvis team had hoped to stay on long enough to complete the few remaining shots still left in progress. Unfortunately, by the end of March, with F9’s then uncertain release date, the decision was made to have Proof’s postvis team go on hiatus until production figured out the best way to proceed. “As plans solidified that summer, our team was brought back on in August to support postvis and in-house finals for three months,” Antzoulides adds. “We were glad to jump back in and see it through to the end, and proud of our contribution to Justin’s amazing film!”

Looking back on Proof’s latest Fast & Furious franchise work, Morris notes, “The most rewarding aspect of the project was seeing the plates come back.  When you have been designing shots and sequences for over six months and you start seeing shots coming back as you designed them, it’s pretty amazing.”

For Antzoulides, it was the magnet gags. “Working on those gags opened up fun, new, and creative ways for destroying cars, which makes the film feel unique, no small feat after eight prequels,” he concludes. “For me, that’s one of the things I love about the Fast franchise. They’re always pushing the envelope in unexpected ways while keeping the fans always wanting more.”

Dan Sarto's picture

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