Previsualization in Current Filmmaking

The Hollywood Section meeting was held at the AMPAS Pickford Center's Linwood Dunn Theater on November 16th, 2011, as an in depth examination from working professionals "of the role of Previsualization in current filmmaking". The program opened with the very funny 1928 Warner Bros. Vitaphone short “Shaw and Lee in The Beau Brummels” selected by Dick May.

Section Chair Eric Gsell, of Dolby Laboratories, introduced the topic of "The Emerging role and Current State of Pre-visualization in Production" to an 85 person audience of SMPTE members and guests. Eric then introduced Garrett Smith, Vice President of Production Technology at Paramount Pictures. Mr. Smith led a distinguished succession of industry professionals speaking to the context of coordinating artistic and technical services through Pre-visualization (Pre-vis), Virtual Production and Post-visualization (Post-vis), and visual effects, as may be used for motion picture or television storytelling.

The presenters were Ron Frankel, of Proof Inc, and one of the founders of the Pre-visualization Society; Colin Green, from Pixel Liberation Front, President and a co-founder of the Pre-visualization Society; David Morin, from Autodesk, Co-Chair of the Virtual Production Committee; John Scheele, a VFX Supervisor and Co-Chair of the Virtual Production Committee; Thomas Tannenberger, from Gradientfx, VFX Supervisor and Co-Creator of the company GLoW, for Gradient Location Optimized Workflow; and Marc Weigert, a VFX Supervisor on the films 2012 and Anonymous, and CEO of Uncharted Territories. Garrett Smith first introduced Colin Green, who showed the audience many early video clip examples of computer and model-based pre-visualization, including a Levi's commercial rendered from wireframe layouts, and other scenes from the LucasFilm Star Wars trilogy. Several video examples were shown from Industrial Light and Magic’s production design and effects development, such as showing progressions for action sequences from flat art two dimensionally hand drawn storyboards to early stage computer generated three dimensional pre-visualizations, and then into the final film with full rendered objects, textures, and effects.

 In the presented examples, one could see the differences in the final images compared to the 2D storyboards. Colin Green pointed out that the 2D storyboards, and other illustrations for inspiration, or key moment depictions could be faster in the beginning stages of visual development to create than having to create a virtual world first. It was explained that, once in a virtual world, given enough rendering, object definition and relevant levels of sophistication, one can accurately determine object sizing, precise angles of view, geometry, accurate character and set design, story point potential or action progression, and then tie the visualization back into dramatic storyline interrelationships for review and change.

Garrett Smith then introduced John Schelle, who also introduced Alex Witt, the 2nd Unit Director and Cinematographer for the motion picture Fast and Furious. Together, John and Alex presented video clip examples of the pre-visualization of a passenger train and bridge car and truck sequence, including the car running off the cliff portion. Marc Weigert followed, and presented the audience with video clips depicting a script to screen translation of the limousine sequence in the beginning of the motion picture 2012, showing how one half of a page of screenplay became approximately a three minute action sequence. After showing the audience in power point some of the initial flat art production illustrations that were created, Marc illustrated through video clips how the visual effects team set about to create a pre-visualization of the virtual set that could be used to stage action, motion, characters, props, camera positions, and time correlated editing. This was first shown through examples with flat shading, and then shown with successive approximation of final rendered detail in the "look development" process of working toward the final graded imaging that was to be actually used in the motion picture. The limousine, a key action prop in this sequence, for example, was said to consist of over 45,843 polygons, and in binary form, represented a 7.1MB file for Maya. An approximately 60' x 100' platform built on hydraulics was the physical basis on the green screen set for the actors and picture vehicles and house exterior to portray the earthquake realistically. This was used until the actors were in the limousine, and until the full visual effects virtual sequence intercut with actor close ups inside the vehicle, began.

 Marc also explained how pre-visualization also helped in the production design, making it apparent that detail inside collapsing buildings would need full virtual set treatment and decoration, as the absence of perceived detail could easily become apparent and ruin the effect of the imagery and screen action to appear real. In this regard, he showed video clips of how some real-sized prop cars and other objects were manipulated mechanically to be tossed about in front of large green screen backgrounds, so they would provide a visual reference for effects, or to serve as real objects to layer into the virtual sequence. Marc followed these examples with video clips illustrating the creation of a virtual set of historic London, and the Globe Theatre, for his role as Executive Producer and Visual Effects Supervisor in the current motion picture Anonymous. In these examples, live action photography with certain physical props and set elements was shown to be correlated through sound stage work with the virtual elements as replaced through green screen effects compositing. The production design for the green screen fill in virtual portions was largely based on digital modeling and included the use of grafted or overlaid textures taken from real objects from Marc’s photographic trip around England, such as walls, doors, windows, and period appearing stone textures. In some scenes, 20,000 virtual extras are visible, rendered with clothing motion, texture, and animation. Moreover, the camera moves were matched into the live set cinematography to blend digital art fluidly with actors performing in otherwise constricted spaces.

Thomas Tannenberger presented video clips and software emulation examples of pre-rendered and rendered 2D pre-visualization, such as for location scanning using laser based "Light-R Scanning". This scanner was stated to be accurate from 1/4" up to 900' from the laser source, and for a developmental pre-visualization program for virtual planning using the current complete Paramount back lot. The final speaker for the evening, David Morin, explained the joint interests of the Pre-visualization Society with industry organizations Visual Effects Society, Art Director's Guild, International Cinematographer's Guild, Producer's Guild, and the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Mr. Morin also presented clips from the making of Real Steel, which used a virtual camera with GPU-based sophisticated character renders for composited effects images, and similarly, for Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. Through a series of charts, David also illustrated the changing percentages and time constraints of budgets earmarked for pre production, production, and post production.

 He pointed out the current trend to overlap the time frames within which significant decisions are made by key creative personnel, such that “the lines of the traditional stages” or steps of movie making have become blurred into one stage, within which computer visualization has now progressed to be of significant importance to the entire process in some cases, from concept all the way to final completion. Curtis Clark, ASC, was mentioned several times throughout the evening for his supporting role with the early stages of pre-visualization.

Pictured left to right are: Eric Gsell, Dolby (SMPTE Hollywood Section Chair 2011-2012), and Garrett Smith, Vice President of Production Technology at Paramount Pictures.

--Chris Bone, reporting Section Manager (emeritus)