Search form

The Third Floor Helps Shake up ‘San Andreas’

Previs supervisor Todd Constantine talks previsualization of earthquakes, tsunamis and bursting dams on the hit disaster movie ‘San Andreas.’

Summer means disaster films – not only movies that crash and burn at the box office, but movies where everything on screen, including theatre box offices, crashes and burns. Director Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, with action-star Dwayne Johnson at his compassionate hero finest, is this summer’s reigning disaster pic champ, taking audiences on an epic thrill ride careening through California’s total destruction from a truly “catastrophic” earthquake.

Working closely with the film’s VFX supervisor Colin Strause and VFX producer Randy Starr, The Third Floor, led by previs supervisor Todd Constantine, handled the previsualization and created storyboards on multiple sequences for the film, including a high-rise building helicopter rescue, a boat race against a tsunami and the destruction of Hoover Dam.

I recently talked to Todd about the project, from the sheer enormity of the digital environments involved to how their previs and techvis was used throughout the film.

Dan Sarto: What was the scope of your efforts on the film and what were the goals of the previs?

Todd Constantine: The Third Floor worked all across the film, previsualizing seven sequences and storyboarding several others.  We also created 360-degree movies of our digital environments used on a tablet by the film’s director, Brad Peyton, to give the cast and crew geographical notes. It helped to visualize in all directions the destruction that would later be added in post. 

The main goal for previs was to help map out action beats, story points and technical specifications for shot creation.  It also was used for visual effects reference and as editorial placeholders.

DS: Tell us a bit about some of main sequences you and your team worked on.

TC: Key scenes included Emma's rescue, where Ray [played by Dwayne Johnson] flies his helicopter into downtown Los Angeles attempting to save his ex-wife from a high-rise building during a catastrophic earthquake. Another sequence has Ray and Emma [played by Carla Gugino] racing a boat toward a massive tsunami that heads for the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco.  A third sequence takes place at the Hoover Dam.  We also did various sections at the Gate Building at the end of the film.  

One focus of working on previs with the filmmakers was pacing and ordering of shots. It was important to be able to dial in the anxiety and emotions for different sections, not just deliver representations of exciting action scenes. For example, there is a scene with a child at the Hoover Dam for which a number of key questions needed to be answered.  Who should save that child? How much peril should they appear to be in?  A variety of options were iterated for this and other specific action points.  

DS: Did you use any virtual production or other interesting digital tools on the film?

TC: Our focus was mainly representing detailed action and compelling sequences in previs.  On the Hoover Dam sequence, we motion captured stunt actors as well as used a virtual camera at a studio called Just Cause Entertainment.  Following that session, the director came back to The Third Floor office and used that material with our own virtual camera setup to capture many additional camera takes.

Other occasions called for us to use a lot of water. We partnered with Scanline VFX and used their proprietary water rig to fill out most of the third act previs.  We were also called on to provide various geographical angles of pre-existing city streets to aid in location scouts and shooting. 

A few key shots were mapped out with techvis.  This included a moment where a man gets crushed by a cargo container for which we delivered a variety of technical specs - distance and measurements of the container, positions for the character, distances from the character to the camera, height measurements, etc.  For a section of the boat scene when the characters drive up to a partially submerged San Francisco building, we also calculated a range of measurements to inform set builds and camera placement.

DS: What were some of the big challenges you faced on this project?

TC: One of the biggest challenges was the sheer scope of the sequences. Many of our digital environments contained entire cities filled with many digital assets.

We had several sections of San Francisco in our archive that could be re-tailored, but we needed to create detailed Hoover Dam, Downtown LA and the Hollywood Hills environments from scratch.  We also modeled and textured an array of vehicles, including Ray's helicopter, their boat and a massive container ship. 

Once we had those environments, it was on to destroying them!  For this, we gathered as much reference material as possible: YouTube videos of earthquakes in San Francisco and Japan, tsunamis and other natural disasters around the world. We also looked at blueprints of the Hoover Dam and photos of it under construction, thinking about ways the structure had been built and might come apart.  Using this and input from the filmmakers and VFX supervisor, we animated the geometry to create the scale and look of destruction that was on par with the action.  

DS: Describe you and your team’s working dynamic with the director and other key department heads.

TC: We collaborated with personnel around the production, including VFX supervisor Colin Strause and VFX producer Randy Starr, in preparation for director reviews.  We had worked with Brad [Peyton, the director] on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and he was very familiar with the previs process. Our team would build each sequence either based on storyboards or beat sheets written from the script. In regular meetings, the client would review the resulting previs with us and give notes. We also provided scene files to visual effects vendors to start on their work in producing finished imagery. 

DS: What are your final takeaways from your team’s work on this film?

TC: It’s always a great payoff to see a high percentage of the previs work make it to screen. In every sequence we were part of, the pacing, camera work, temp VFX and editorial choices worked out through previs were largely evident in the final film. This gives great satisfaction as it shows that everyone in the filmmaking process worked well together and worked to drive the visuals forward. Looking back, there's probably only one thing I'd change – lighter geometry and textures for lighter scene files!


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

Dan Sarto's picture

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