Digital Production, Part 3 – Pre-visualisation

In this, the third part of our digital production series, we’ll take a look at the pre-visualisation phase of the production, “The Toilet Guy“.

First of all, what is pre-visualisation, and what is the benefit?

Pre-visualisation (or pre-viz) is the process of realising something in a visual format, before it is actually constructed. You could say, for example, that an architectural blueprint is pre-viz for a building, or a car sculpted from clay is pre-viz for an actual car. In film-making terms, pre-viz traditionally comprises of storyboards, sketched representations of the written action in a script.

The benefits should be obvious; as with many things, the better the planning stage, the smoother the production process should go. Given the old film adage of “if it can go wrong, it will go wrong”, some form of pre-viz is essential on any size production.

During the pre-viz stage, you get a clearer sense of how the finished production will play out, you consider coverage or shot angles you may have overlooked, and you may even identify some potential problems along the way (“are we really going to fit two cameras in this crowded space?”). Perhaps more importantly for smaller-budget productions, it gives the movie something tangible in addition to the script. People can look at the storyboards or artwork, and get an idea of what you’re trying to do in a way that would be difficult to convey verbally.

Pre-viz comes in many forms. The most ubiquitous method is storyboarding, making drawn sketches of key actions; typically show from the camera’s point of view. In addition to this, many productions make concept sketches, which are less about how an element will appear on screen, but rather to imbue a sense of mood or emotion to a particular character or moment in the story. These can also serve as goals, for example when constructing a set or lighting plan.

Storyboard image

For The Toilet Guy, we made use of both concept artwork and storyboards, penned by director Mark Sum. These served as an efficient method of deciding on shot angles, and as a source of inspiration to the pre-production crew, thanks to their superb quality.

Concept image

All the sketched images were scanned and loaded into our production database. We wanted to explore the whole concept of pre-viz a little more at that stage however. So we looked into other methods. By far the best option is to gather some actors, a small, handheld camera and do some blocking shots somewhere, actually acting out the script. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t have the resources to organise that, but we were able to do some quick test shots, for which we just used the cameras on our phones (not because we couldn’t use a DV camera, but rather for the sheer convenience). This worked out surprisingly well, particularly because in this instance we were less concerned with picture quality.

Phone camera image

We also looked into other pre-viz methods. A favourite technique of the visual effects industry is to do pre-viz in 3D, building a quick, rough version of a shot using something like Maya or 3D Studio Max, but really, this is only suitable for those with a lot of resources, and even then, it is a time-consuming process. It’s also overkill in a lot of cases. To pre-viz an entire film in 3D in this way before shooting anything would probably be a waste of time and money. In the cases that it is used, it’s usually for shots or sequences that are visually complex, or will require a lot of post-production to complete.

3D image

We were able to find a good compromise however. We used a new system, “Antics PreViz” to do some 3D pre-viz on The Toilet Guy. Though the learning curve was fairly steep, it proved to be much quicker and much easier, to pre-visualise almost all of the scenes from the script. Antics is designed so that you just drag and drop items, such as props, characters, furnishings and so on, into a room, and then have them interact with each other. You then place a camera in the scene, and record an AVI file of the output.

Antics PreViz user interface

The approach we ended up taking with Antics was to recreate a scene from the script, and then use Antics to record the camera angles we planned (we also kept a log of the virtual focal lengths of each camera for use on set). Then we would just experiment, moving the camera around to try and discover new and interesting angles. We actually discovered many interesting “accidents” during this process. As an added bonus, we were able to take each AVI (we actually converted these to QuickTimes for greater flexibility) and load them into our production database, so we had a visual reference for almost every shot we planned to shoot. Even if we didn’t use Antics, an alternative would have been to use something like the video game The Sims 2‘s built-in ability to record staged sequences to create something similar.

Antics image

The real benefits of this process came next:, when we paired up our Antics system with an editing system. We used Sony’s Vegas 6 editing software to load and assemble all of the output from Antics. We then hired an actor to record the dialogue from the script, and added some temp music. By the time we finished, we pretty much had a self-contained, edited film. Doing this actually made us go back into Antics and change some of the shots so they’d cut better, and it made us consider entirely new ways to shoot some of the scenes, including which shots we could afford to drop in a pinch, and alternatively, which extra shots would be worth filming if we get the time. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, there were certain things we couldn’t recreate in Antics, usually as it would mean spending a long time coordinating different elements for a single shot. Some of these we just included from our earlier stages of storyboarding and filming on the camera-phone. Certain things, like facial expressions, were not possible at all, but the fact that we were at the stage where our primary concern was performance as opposed to technical issues had to be a good thing.

Sony Vegas user interface

Overall, we found that this particular pre-viz process lent an evolutionary twist to the entire production. We ended up changing parts of the story once we saw it in an edited context, not to mention parts of the dialogue when we realised it didn’t work, and even ended up changing the ending of the script when we were struck by inspiration late one afternoon. All of these things can be done easily at this early stage, to change them later would be costly (in time and money) at the least, or impossible at the worst.

Download the finished pre-viz (bittorrent, 32MB)…

Read on for part 4…

Posted: March 28th, 2006
Categories: Articles
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