Has previsualizing now become soluble in animation, after being long confined to the video game and movie sectors? For Duncan Burbidge, from The Third Floor, and Daniel Gregoire, from HALON Entertainment, the answer is yes: elimination of production process borders, increased pipeline flexibility, re-use of assets from libraries for production cost optimization, and more. For HALON, the best previsualizing is the one that's totally transparent to the director.
The Third Floor
After working on the pre-production of such films as Matrix, Clash of the Titans and War Horse, Duncan Burbidge became the main producer at The Third Floor in London, in 2011. His work approach combines a unique in previsualisation, VFX and facility infrastructure.
Daniel Grégoire has been a Previs Director for some of the most exciting projects in the last decade, for example: Star Wars: Episode II and Star Wars: Episode III, THX 1138 (George Lucas), The War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones 4, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Last Airbender, Cowboys and Aliens, World War Z and Star Trek Into Darkness. He has worked for DreamWorks Animation, Apple, The Mill, Method Studios, Kia, NBC et AMD and is also a founding member and Treasurer for Previs Society.
Head of Technical Industries and Innovation
Since December 2011, Baptiste Heynemann has been in charge of the innovation and technical industries unit at the CNC, which supports the mutations in audiovisual and the cinema due to the development of digital technologies.
previsualization, previs, postvis, techvis, pitchvis, HALON, Third Floor, libraries, performance capture, virtual camera.
Previsualizing or "previs" is becoming a more and more integral part of the production stages behind feature films. But this practice which previously was only linked to live films, including numerous visual effects, is currently being used in animation productions. Is it just as pertinent for them?
As a pioneer among previsualizing studios, having learned from old hands on George Lucas' team (for Star Wars "Episode 1: The Phantom Menace"), The Third Floor has now grown into a company with over 120 employees in several offices in L.A. and (since May 2011) London.
For Duncan Burbidge, senior producer: "Previsualizing can start with the very first elements of a given production: script, storyboard or even concept art." Previsualizing gives an idea of what a future film will look like from a directing team's perspective, through the choice and positioning of the cameras, while pitchvis – which is done over the course of a few days – is itself designed to present a project to potential backers, especially studios. "This is because a single picture is often worth much more than a long text," Duncan Burbidge states, or more specifically: "script + pitchvis = financing". As for techvis, it intervenes over the long haul of production, whereas postvis allows for digital effects to be added to previously-shot live-action sequences.
After detailing previsualizing and its many variants, the main topic of debate remained: can this process be replicated with animation productions? "Previsualizing represents a welcome advantage during the pitch phase, when it's necessary to win over studios or broadcasters so they'll invest in the project. This also concerns the writing and scripting work, as well as the preparation of concepts, storyboard and animatics/story reel."
The idea of "shared assets" linked to previsualizing also makes much sense in the animation sector. "The life of a digital element begins in the art department, and then continues on to animation via previsualizing. But in fact there is never a real crossover point between these three. If we could share the assets, there would be considerable time and money saved and we could maintain these assets as part of the creative continuity." Using the example of a horse rig built by The Third Floor, Burbidge went on to explain that "once created, this rig is reusable in as many productions as desired, at no extra cost."
Because of this, The Third Floor developed The ARK, a CGI assets library which team members progressively feed in to as services are provided, thereby optimizing production times and improving the quality of the achieved projects.
For The Third Floor, previsualizing can also play a major role in the layout phase, whether for "rough layout", with its simpler elements used in determining artistic choices – "a crucial phase in production workflow", according to Duncan Burbidge – or for "final layout", to block certain points coming from preproduction.
Recently The Third Floor has worked on a number of projects, says Burbidge, among which the theme ride Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 3D at Orlando, Florida's Universal Resort, adapted from the film of the same name by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, or the TV series Tooned, in England, "which we did in a single week". He admits that these are extremely tight deadlines, "but the very fact of our having available libraries enables us to optimize our production process."
The Graveyard Book, another project presented, is a feature film being developed from an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel about a baby "adopted" and raised for years by graveyard ghosts. After a first treatment by Henry Selick, the film is now to be directed by Ron Howard. "For this project, we pushed the previsualizing even further by including facial movement capture for the first time."
Last of all, conjointly with The Imaginarium, the London studio founded by Andy Serkis, The Third Floor has set up a workshop on performance capture and previsualizing.
Does your library have sound designs? If so, what are the sources?
As a matter of fact, we have a sound and narration library that we've set up in-house, but we don't have a team solely dedicated to sound design.
Doesn't what you call "rough preview layout" foreshadow the end of storyboarding?
Of course not. We actually have a team of storyboarders on board at The Third Floor, but the way we preplan this step is in direct relation to the artist we're working with.
Don't you get the feeling that you're disconnected from production?
To be truthful, we're more and more present and involved in the production. And, more generally, the key to previsualizing is feedback. We're here to explore ideas – but if there's no interaction we don't do as well.
Although HALON Entertainment celebrated its tenth anniversary in June, its founder, Daniel Gregoire, had already worked in previsualizing for thirteen years. He honed his skills in the video game field before being contacted by the movies for such films as Star Trek into Darkness and World War Z, not to mention Avatar. "My first joint project for the movie world was on the 2001 shoot of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, for an incredible series of camera moves, a kind of hallucinatory sequence shot which had to run across a huge number of sets. At the time, I knew nothing about previsualizing but I had a computer and software and so I just jumped right in!"
Today HALON has seven permanent supervisors from diverse career backgrounds – video gaming, movies, TV, architecture and more – and that "helps nourish our previsualizing work." Over the past ten years the studio has worked on 47 features and over 80 advertisements. With just a touch of irony, Daniel Gregoire says that "right now we're the only growth industry in Los Angeles!"
For Gregoire, there are many keys to all successful previsualizing (in the widest sense of the term: including pitch-, pre-, tech- or postvis), and they are perfectly adaptable to the animation field. The foremost among them is flexibility: "With the massive and near-systematic onslaught of 3D computer-generated images, if you're not flexible, you'll never make it. Even if our sector is maturing steadily, we nonetheless remain quite a young industry." A think-tank structure that foments the continuous exchange of ideas and innovation is necessary for long-term survival.
For the development and pitch phases, HALON's founder points to the fact that previsualizing can supply a vast array of services, all of them modular: "This could be anything from a movie's trailer to its key sequences, on through to drawing design, rip-o-matics, storyboarding and even full-blown previs."
Previsualization remains "the nexus of information, the keystone of any visual project. You've got to work by iteration, while keeping a good dose of reactivity on hand. Previs is also the only place where you can test your wildest ideas and still seed all the production steps to follow." It can also be used in allocating budget to certain production phases rather than others.
Used in layout, "it's a tool that not only provides total camera-positioning visibility, but also enables the blocking of certain characters." However Daniel Gregoire insists on the fact that the storyboard remains a top priority and that it must be applied to the letter. The use of previs during the animation phase affords greater flexibility, helps to generate ideas and to test scenario options.
HALON Entertainment also provides services in the field of virtual production, having developed virtual-shoot equipment with an LCD camera that can navigate through digital environments. "This represents a fine opportunity for some animation projects. I know, for example, that for The Blue Umbrella (Disney•Pixar) testing was done on this." As far as Daniel Gregoire is concerned, this is a sign that the age-old borders are inevitably fading.
Previsualization must become totally transparent for the director, according to the HALON founder, who is also betting on the Cloud to speed its adoption, especially for on-line and evergreen virtual worlds.
Do you use off-shelf software or rather tools developed in-house?
We really don't have a lot of time to prepare ourselves and then design our own tools. There are just a few in-house plug-ins that we add to our software package, but their purpose is more to "glue" the existing bricks together.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
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