Pixel-packing “Previs” Computer Whizzes Make Movies Faster, Better, Cheaper
By Phoebe Berline
Holding a flat computer monitor rigged up with buttons to look like a camera, Chris Edwards runs across the floor of the Director’s Layout or “D-Lo” Room. Fingers looped through two side handles of the virtual camera, Edwards sees on his iPad-like screen a window into a computer generated imagery (CGI) scene, a long stretch of beach where a giant silver robot is facing off with the Allied Forces Army.
Edwards pans left and a soldier in fatigues leaps off a truck. “You riff off ideas,” he says. “You can zoom in on this guy, and get a visceral camera move.” Edwards spins around and hits a button on the side of the iPad-like screen. “I can change lenses. And look up into the virtual world. What are those helicopters doing back there?” Ultrasonic sensors on the ceiling are driving the virtual camera, tracking its position, and storing every spin and detail of how he is filming this action on a computer, down to the last millimeter.
“So our movie is well on its way,” Edwards says with a grin, playing back the master scene on a large overhead monitor. “There are only 3,000 shots in a movie, so we just need to do a few more of those and it’s done.”
It’s a typical day at the office, for the CEO of The Third Floor, a Previsualization studio in Los Angeles. “Previs,” (pronounced “pree-vis”) is the newest Hollywood department. Often confused with Special Effects (the “other geek department”) Previs Supervisors have to keep their work a secret. Studios typically will not release or make public any previs shots or videos, until months after a movie’s premiere.
Across Los Angeles, burgeoning previs studios of pixel whizzes generate preliminary versions of movie shots or sequences, predominantly using 3D animation tools on a computer. In a creepily-futuristic moment that most associate with the like of James Cameron, Edwards has shot a digital movie scene in a minute in a half.
But the similarities between previs and Avatar end there. Previs isn’t a special effects tool; it’s a process that makes life easier for the Director and departments including special effects, as they actually produce their movie. “Making a modern movie is so complex [and the steps] and expectations of all that money being spent are so high,” says Colin Green, president of the Previsualization Society. “You really need a previs process to ensure that making something great, is as successful as possible.”
Previs looks like a video game, but works as a 3D, accurate, technically detailed, blueprint for a movie –a blockbuster or live-action 2D film. Think of it as a highly evolved story board. A previs shot provides just enough cinematic excitement to show if a scene will work on the big screen. “We can see the future,” Edwards jokes about his minute and a half digital movie shoot, which will cost a mere fraction of Avatar. But previs is no laughing matter within the movie-making business.
“It’s being embraced like never before, because the alternative is that the shot doesn’t make it, or gets left on the cutting room floor,” Edwards says. In other words, previs saves money by eliminating the possibility of getting things wrong on-set, when daily costs can top a half a million dollars per day.
But is digitally assisted creativity a good thing when it comes to movie making? Depends who you ask. First, there’s the debate about whether previsualizing movies with computer plans goes too far, and hurts artistic integrity. Then, there’s the question about if previs eliminating the need for creative input cinematographer or Director of Photography jobs as previs wages a PR campaign to prove with results how it can empower people on set to do their jobs, just differently. A culture clash exists between cinematographers who are sculpture of light and Previs artists who handle lens decision, cameras and pacing to create shots in a believable way in the virtual world. Finally, the other disruptive [tricky] aspect of previs: It’s a secret.
Edwards’ desktop is like a private screening of the most exciting tent pole movie moments that an audience will never get to see. He cues up a fly-through of the world of Avatar, featuring the digital sets his crew created for the lush previs world surrounding the Ohm Tree. Edwards also cut his teeth working with George Lucas. He works fast and as he zips his cursor to a folder marked Star Wars Episode Three a clip pops up of a surprisingly fit Yoda jumping through the high council room, a scene conceived of entirely on previs. Another previs shot, for 2008’s Valkyrie, shows a digital Tom Cruise running from an explosion of Hitler’s headquarters. Of course, it’s not really Tom running; previs artists block out a live actor with a rough digital double, just to give the cinematographer a facsimile feel for how it will look when executed… with notably less trial and error. Other Edwards highlights? Director Tim Burton asked him and his team to previs the Alice in Wonderland finale scene, wherein Alice slays the Jabberwocky TK other detail. Figuring out five different ways to cut off the head of the Jabberwocky trusted on a creative level in cinematic and storytelling idea worthy of being chosen. And when Edwards plays the final fight scene from Iron Man 2, it maps, almost exactly, what appeared at your local Cineplex , (To get that one, digital artists at the Third Floor dressed up because the new norm of previs is integrated from start to finish organizing and crafting the film – if real audiences see this or not.
Make way for Hollywood’s newest techno job description, coming out from behind the scenes. Sometimes the studio will ask for a robot fight scene mock up in 24 hours, as happened in real-life for Iron Man 2. Some days Edwards makes a shot from a napkin doodle from Spielberg that reads: “Wooky Takes out Crew” for Star Wars Episode III. Sometimes Edwards is on set and plays a scene on his laptop for the Director.
While previs keeps Directors armed with scenes and even the bean counters happy, some fear it could hinder creativity by forcing cinematographers and directors to shoot exactly what was created in previs, or, in the parlance of the business, “shoot to boards.” In other words, a producer [read non-creative type] will see an amazing previs shot and say, “Yes, the studio wants that exactly!” Because previs is nimble a director might ask a previs team to tackle the big opening, the tent pole moment at the end, the complicated scenes in the middle or whatever scares him or the producers the most. But Edwards says the reality is: “More often than not they [Director or DP] shoot 75% of the previs and then they riff off that they do 50% than they thought they would get.”
Previs is also shifting gears and no longer about blowing things up, but about telling story-driven dramatic moments. And it’s faster — a lot faster an idea can be mocked up in number of hours, try out options shaping the moments of the sequences faithful to the script to strengthen the vision. Watching a previs supervisor in action shows how optimized today’s previs is and explains maybe why Hollywood is a little scared of this crew of techno whizzes entrusted with decisions about artistic integrity?
A previs team doesn’t so much arrive on set, as “decamp” with networked laptops, motion capture suits and virtual questions Edwards says. Edwards builds a virtual camera shot tapping away at his keyboard, explaining the efficiency driving the backend of previs. The ARC database contains 89 different kinds of boulders, and digital assets like robots, creatures and aliens, and environments like trees and flowers and effects, like gaseous explosions. “I get a cactus and at first it looks like wire frame geometry. It’s shading and then I turn on the texturing.” Previs is light enough so that he can import a character in seconds. “I’ve got an angle standing on a cactus, which is dangerous. Then you put in a real camera, scale it up and compose a shot.”
Edwards toggles between Director-speak and technology-speak with ease. That’s because a previs artist works simultaneously on story and technical previs analysis, decisions about lens choices, shot lengths and dimensions how things are arranged relative to each other. And the job requires knowing how to edit shots into sequences, the language of special effects and creating real camera moves that can be done within budget for the VFX supervisor. It needs to read well as an artistic composition, so not a job for an animator at a workstation or work with editor or editor of the movie. People skills, especially interacting with A list Directors and proving to cinematographers, DP, VFX how they can empower them to do their jobs. “We’re here for the Director of Photography,” says David Dozoretz, the first previs supervisor hired to report directly to Lucas. Previs creates slick studio pr campaigns needs access to people like art department and DP editor early requiring shift in budget mentality to spend more up front and save money in the end, why it’s expanding., and is now using these skills to hone its own message and reach out to help empower everyone. “We have some education to do.”
In the trenches where a big blockbuster animation movie that no one can talk about is in full swing, on the third floor of The Third Floor’s mid-Wilshire office in Los Angeles is where the real battle is fought. The workroom is set up like a hub, first stop is storyboards, then animatics where storyboards are animated in a computer, to previs and back to the guy reading the script. Edwards is a fresh faced, lanky 6 foot three man in motion, who checks in on the scene, like some guys might do a cross-training circuit at the gym. A previs supervisor sometimes reports to several bosses – director, cinematographer, set design, producer, visual effects supervisor.
Fueled by jellybeans, bananas and starbucks previs artists work on high res double monitors, mocking up roughly one shot per day. Behind every shot is a layer of fire wire frames, data the studio will need to recreate the shot like the Matrix. The 3D Maya Autodesk software they use is accurate to the inch and also used to design cars. “Whoa,” someone has just moved a tree on set. Five seconds? “If you tried to do that special effects,” says Edwards, “you would blow up the computer.”
Previs Supervisor on deck for the evening, Eric Carr says: “There’s some changes in the script that’re being made. We’re not sure. We’ll have to redo it.” Ah, reality. Edward gives Carr a nod. Despite the swirl of activity in the Virtual art Department (VAD), Hollywood is not getting automated, not tonight. Fixing it in pre costs thousands but fixing in post could cost millions, and there’s no technology needed to wrap your head around that. “Often previs does expose problems in the entire film and this is a good thing,” says Edwards. “We may mock up something up that ends up on the cutting floor. We take one for the team.”
As light shines through reflecting the rich colors from a storyboard artist’s work that is tacked up on a Tarzan board that Edwards saved form his alma mater Disney animation, he lingers for a moment over the artwork. His job is to imagine the 2D art in motion, to exposing new opportunities and challenges and even though these previs storyboards will be up for two months, not two years like might happen at Pixar. The experts say Previs has bells and whistles but is not trying to upstage, look cooler than or replace 2D concept art. The best previs is a central hub that fosters collaboration between the 2D and 3D artists: “It’s an additive process.”
Previs began as an experimental special effects tool seen as a throwaway. But today because a virtual camera can mimic a real camera as in the case of Tron the entire movie can be prevised and the digital data carried through the entire production. Today the lightweight digital technology Hollywood can use previs as the underlying framework. “So we’re really talking about a change of mindset from the idea of preparation is a plan that you make, and then go out and make the movie,” says Edwards. “To the new mindset we’re making the movie from the moment we sit down and start working with the initial creative team and it just gets better and better.”
Movies don’t look to getting any less complicated, and the previs is in step working as a communication and collaboration plan to hold all the pieces together, shape and strengthening the key moments, and save money and time in the process looks bright.
Now that the previs secret is out, will it mean better movies? That’s the multi-million dollar question.