The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Star Trek
CAS Part 1
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Previs Glossary
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback

According to Hatch, the different goals and needs of the two departments make it difficult to combine them. Previs is concerned with timing and framing, and the models and character rigs are very simple; they have a limited number of controls so they can be easily manipulated in real time, with no rendering. By contrast, artists making visual-effects shots that will appear in the movie have to create photorealistic images, so their models and characters need to be complex, fully textured and rendered out, making them very difficult to work with in real time. “I like to think of previs companies as speedboats: We’re very fast and can change direction easily,” says Hatch. “A post house is like an oil tanker: It can carry a lot, but when it switches its engine off, it’ll cruise for two miles before it can stop.”

Production designer Alex McDowell has used previs for both live-action and animation projects. He is currently working at Dreamworks Animation, where he has participated in numerous discussions about “assetizing vs. disposability.” Assetizing means creating assets (such as CG models and camera moves) during previs that can be used by other artists as the basis for visual-effects shots (or other aspects of post), so they don’t have to start from scratch when they do their work. At the moment, the consensus is that trying to preserve assets too soon can undermine a critical aspect of previs: the ability to try things out and discard attempts that don’t work. “Disposability is super-useful,” says McDowell. “If you try to assetize, you lock yourself in.”

How detailed should previsualization be? “In the beginning, [the mandate] was, ‘Keep it rough and don’t texture,” says Dozoretz, who became one of the industry’s first previs artists when he joined Lucasfilm in 1992. However, when his team began to work on the pod-race sequence in the fourth Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, they needed to show the speed of the racers rushing by, which required them to create texture.

Today, previs artists and facilities offer a range of polish in their animations. Yamamoto says each movie’s narrative dictates the level of detail and how and where it’s used: “If we have a 30-foot robot running through a city street, it’s part of how we tell the story that the robot is this large, has this much mass and runs this fast. It might not be that important for me to put textures on the sky, but it would be important that the robot is not floating on the ground and can actually take solid steps. We might also add the details of his feet sinking into the ground, because those details tell the story of a 30-foot robot running down the street.”

All previs practitioners advocate making a scene’s dimensions and scale as real-world as possible. At the moment, though, there is no standardized way to match the virtual cameras in previs to real ones. (One workgroup within the Previsualization Committee has been exploring the best ways to achieve that goal.)

An even more pressing need is to increase the role the cinematographer plays in the previs process. “The main problem I’ve encountered has been getting some of the cinematographer’s time,” says Yamamoto. “The first chance I get, I want to ask him what aspect ratio he wants to use, what lenses he likes, and what kind of equipment he plans to use — if he’s going to have a 20-foot crane, I don’t want to put in a 30-foot-crane move. I also try to research the cinematographer’s style, not just the director’s, to try and get a handle on how he frames things.”

Until now, many cinematographers have had little occasion to interact with previs artists. Schaefer, who has used previs on several pictures in addition to Quantum of Solace, including Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction, says he has never been asked about the process by another cinematographer. Some cinematographers might fear previs will lock the production into a narrow vision (i.e., shoot the storyboards), and Schaefer believes that concern is valid: “The bad side of previs is that people tend to see it as the written word, the Bible. It’s important to treat it as a basic guide. If your approach abides by the previs too strictly, it can limit your thinking.”

Previs practitioners are acutely aware of those dangers, but they contend that the process should never lock anyone into doing what was planned if a better idea emerges on set. “Don’t be afraid of it, and don’t feel you’re being boxed in,” advises Edwards. “Previs doesn’t prohibit you from responding to happy accidents. Actually, it frees you up to respond to what’s going on.”

One danger some have encountered is that a producer or studio will have its own agenda for previsualization work. “What drives me crazy is when the director does previs and the studio says, ‘That’s it, that’s what you have to do,’ or, worse, the studio tries to take it over,” says Dozoretz. “It’s a bastardization of the process when the director is not allowed to think on his feet, or when previs is used against him.”

One of the most controversial aspects of the previsualization process has been its use very early in prep, in some cases to convince studios or investors to greenlight a project. This work is sometimes done even before a director is attached, which raises thorny ethical issues for previs artists who see themselves as part of the director’s team. In other cases, a director might commission a previs to demonstrate his vision for a project. In one instance, this ploy failed to get the director hired, but the previs house that did the spec work was hired to work on the film with a different director.

The less-than-intuitive nature of previsualization can frustrate filmmakers as they interact with it. Schaefer says he hasn’t leaned on previs as a tool for creative exploration partly because he finds the process a bit clumsy. “Maybe it’s the interface — I’m a Mac person, and previs is very Windows-based,” he muses. “It could be a lot more useful if I felt more comfortable with the interactive manipulations. If they could give it to me on a computer and I could do it on my own time, it would be a more creative process for me.”

One relatively new option that could facilitate the process is the growing use of handheld interfaces that mimic a camera; these tools make it possible to physically move around in CG space. Basically, after a CG environment is built, it can be displayed on a portable screen that behaves like a handheld camera within the scene. A director, cinematographer or production designer can then carry the screen around, exploring the space and setting up shots. “You build an environment, and then the director and cinematographer can have a meeting in that environment,” says Edwards.

McDowell says this capability represents an enormous change for production designers. “Most of my peers had to learn to translate abstract thoughts into blueprints, a completely inappropriate medium,” he notes. “Now, we’re able to carve space. I can build a [virtual] set and ask the cinematographer to look at it. Everything can happen almost instantly.” He adds that the latest generation of interactive devices is no longer so driven by the technologists, whose influence was greater in the recent past. “I’m finding that you don’t need to know anything about the tools, except that they’re there for you in some form or another. You don’t need to be technical in any way [in order to use them].”

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