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Virtually Cool: The Third Floor Delivers Previs and Pop Culture for ‘Ready Player One’

TTF previs creative director Joshua Wassung, previs supervisor Todd Constantine, and storyboard head Doug Lefler collaborate with director Steven Spielberg on a host of visual gags for the sci-fi feature’s complex race scene.

‘Ready Player One’ © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC.

As much as Steven Spielberg is known for directing different genres of movies, he has a special affinity with science fiction from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Minority Report to Ready Player One, where the economy of the world is driven by a virtual reality realm known as the OASIS. In order to envision and integrate the dystopian future with virtual environments where users are restricted only by their imaginations, The Third Floor provided previs and storyboards for key sequences, in particular for the Dakar Rally inspired race that features iconic popular culture references.

“We’ve worked on a number of Steven’s movies and it’s always a pleasure to be among this group of collaborators,” notes The Third Floor previs creative director Joshua Wassung. “Ready Player One had a set of really unique creative and technical challenges. There was the duality of the story, the duality of looks and rules between the real world and the virtual world. There were also a lot of questions to answer: What does it feel like to be in the OASIS? How can you convey that sense of 360-degree freedom to an audience in a theater? How can you feature so many unique characters and visual thrills without overwhelming the viewer? It was exciting to help tackle such a unique project.”

Looking after the creation of 360 degrees previs renders and previsualization for the film’s complex race scene was The Third Floor previs supervisor Todd Constantine. “While we created previs and storyboards as the main purpose of our work, there were numerous creative and technical challenges given that the film innovated the perceptions and presentations of virtual reality and augmented reality in a cinematic form,” he remarks. “We worked primarily with Steven. During meetings at Amblin, he would introduce ideas for the gags in the race and we’d expand on those or pitch our additional ideas. We would explore the rules of the game, how they affected the main character and help develop visual ways to cue the audience into what was necessary to be a part of the race.”

“We worked on the project around nine months,” explains Wassung. “A big part of the work was visualizing the opening race scene, which set much of the look and tone of the worlds and helped define the rules of the worlds and how the game worked. We also created visualizations, working with Production Designer Adam Stockhausen, to help inform looks for the end battle from key locations stretched out in 360 degrees.”

Storyboards were an important part of the development process. “The Third Floor’s Doug Lefler drew boards for across many scenes, especially the opening and closing sequences,” Constantine notes. “As he worked on storyboards, we built assets based on original artwork or licensed pop-culture material to be used in the film. Since the movie is based on a virtual word adventure, numerous ideas were thought of during production to help highlight the digital fantasy world the hero would live in.”

The Third Floor previs creative director Joshua Wassung.

The Third Floor storyboard head Doug Lefler approaches his work from the standpoint of how to help make the visuals service the story. “Ready Player One had two source materials, the book and the screenplay. Between the two, there was an abundance of inspirations,” he says. The first conversations with Steven Spielberg about the project took place during the production of The BFG. “He was reading the book at the time, and I was trying not to spoil the ending for him! When I began creating storyboards for Ready Player One, the early discussions centered on the challenge of making sure the characters carried through the weight of the concepts and visuals that a virtual reality world made available to us.”

The Third Floor previs supervisor Todd Constantine.

Storyboards were created using Adobe Photoshop with several custom actions written by Lefler to facilitate his workflow. “I started early in the process as the art department was still ramping up,” he says. “It often happens that storyboard artists begin work before production designs and locations are available and, with images being so powerful, sometimes the first versions of characters, locations or props stick around to inform the final look. Working with Adam Stockhausen was a pleasure. I admired his previous production design work and would jettison any designs I had initiated in favor of the ones from his art department as soon as they came available.”

The Third Floor storyboard head Doug Lefler.

“We worked with the filmmakers to experiment with look, action and story in the early phases,” Wassung recounts. “A lot of the race visualization was getting into the details to think about and help define how the virtual world and the game worked. This ranged from specifics like, ‘What happens to virtual pedestrians, how do you collect points and how do you win the game?’ to more existential questions like, ‘How does a user function in a virtual world?’ There was a lot of exploration with the OASIS as we tried to provide glimpses of what it would be like as a user in that world and visualize what it would be like to be in 360 degrees in the world of a film and what is possible cinematically in VR.”

The toolset used for asset building and previs included Autodesk Maya for modeling and animation, and Adobe After Effects for compositing. “On this project, we also created and delivered shots as 360 spherical renders that could be viewed by the director and other executives via Samsung Gear VR for environment exploration,” says Constantine. “Most of our assets were done with a level of detail for previs. But in terms of number, we built an enormous library of pop culture assets, ranging from famous planes, spacecraft, cars, motorcycles and creatures to robots and locations for the sequences our team worked on. We interfaced with the director and production designer to bring in notes to further develop and evolve the assets. We would take asset-building notes from Adam and also update the assets when Adam would get notes from Steven. Steven would also review our edit version and provide notes.”

“A big part of the work was visualizing the opening race scene, which set much of the look and tone of the worlds and helped define the rules of the worlds and how the game worked.”

Visual contrast was pivotal in distinguishing between the real and virtual worlds. “We thought about this a lot in previs with Steven, and Doug’s illustrations brought in some interesting and comedic concepts to link up and contrast the real world and the virtual world,” Wassung remarks. “For example, the shot of Wade in The Stacks that is seen in the trailer, has him climbing past a woman in live action living out an alter-existence as a dancer in VR.”

Some rough thumbnail sketches were drawn by Lefler. “Two sequences to which I contributed detailed boards were the opening -- with Wade descending The Stacks past all the windows where his neighbors lived, and the climax of the movie, which I illustrated several times,” he says. “The race features extreme action and a lot of characters. The scene needed to establish the primary characters and at the same time define the cinematic rules of the virtual reality world of the OASIS. The storyboard work required many iterative discussions with Steven. Familiarity with the source material was helpful; I was glad to have read the book a few times before we started.”

“In the race, there were a lot challenges in defining the rules of the road,” Constantine admits. “We discussed concepts for how best to serve the story, for example, with Parzival not having any money, that he’d need to collect money or items during the race to actually stay in the race. Steven’s great idea of having any avatar who died spill their collected contents, lent us to finding exciting ways for Parzival to pick up those items while driving. Other considerations included determining how many cars would be on the road at once, what size of each iconic car looked good in frame and what identifiable traits those iconic vehicles would display.”

“When we started, the look of the characters, including how realistic or stylized the actors would be when they entered the virtual world, was still being developed,” Lefler notes. “Since I knew this would evolve during preproduction, I had to focus more on what the characters were doing than how they looked while doing it. If you think drawing vague characters doing specific actions is easy, you should try it!” Characters determine the camera position and composition of the storyboards. “Their emotional state in the moment or the way the audience should feel about them suggests if the camera should be tight or wide, if it should look up at them or down on them. Every choice made about camera lens or camera position makes a statement that can either deepen your engagement, or distance you from the action.”

According to Constantine, previs for the race sequence employed a combination of standard realistic coverage and CG camera moves. “We made typical chase camera decisions, like the use of a Russian Arm setup as well as cameras mounted on various sections of vehicles for exterior and actor close-up coverage,” he explains. “We then used various CG cameras to cover action points, such as when player’s inventory would explode and fly into the open door of the DeLorean.”

Each vehicle could be modified by the user to add defensive or offensive weaponry. “Steven wanted the pacing of the race to be as relentless as possible, so we explored numerous gags to challenge the racers. At each discussion, we’d put in more dangers at every turn. It was jam-packed with over-the-top hurdles. In producing 360 renders to help explore the main end battle, we were aiming to look at each section of the battlefield, show how far out the shield reached from the castle and evaluate what types of castles designs worked from the production designer where ways we used the 360 renders,” Constantine continues.

“It was a great, fun challenge to collaborate with the filmmakers to visualize the big race sequence, where the hero, Wade Watts, races avatars of all types through a virtual city full of obstacles that try to prevent everyone from winning,” he remarks. “Part of our work was to help develop those obstacles and how they could be overcome across five and a half minutes of visualized action. We also provided experimental visualizations to help explore the cinematic expression of VR. There were a lot of film language questions to answer and we presented several multi-thousand frame shots for review that looked at everything from ways to go between real and virtual worlds to different creative and technical aspects of the audience’s experience.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.