PREVISUALIZATION Part THREE: How Previs Works
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HOW DOES IT WORK
Like any new technology or new art form, previs can work in a variety of ways. Much depends on the background of the director and his or her style of directing. However, the individual previs artist may bring a certain approach to the table that will certainly influence the storyboarding process. Nonetheless, a general strategy or workflow, has developed over the past couple of years, which is suited for most situations and types of directing styles.
This general pre-production or development workflow is made up of seven steps. The process begins with an informal discussion between the director and the previs artist, followed by a listing of the scenes and potential shots, which is usually drawn up by the director. Then the director and the previs artist, together, determine the type of action that will occurs in each scene. This is followed by a rough lay out of each and every set and location. Finally, the previs artist does a series of storyboard renderings; starting with very rough looking thumbnails and ending with highly polished presentation boards. During the rendering stage, the previs artist works closely with director, changing sets and props, altering costumes, and re-blocking and re-thinking coverage in order to create the best possible picture.
Now, as with all things creative, we begin with a disscussion.
All well designed movies have a look; a distinct visual style that enhances the story's main theme. This can be as simple as documenting a stage play to something as elaborate as an intricately composed Ansel Adams photograph. Usually, the look derives from the director's vision, but sometimes it can be the result of a concensus of the director, the cinematographer, the production designer and the previs artist. No matter who orginates the vision, it starts from an image; an image that embodies what the story is about. The image might be a painting, a photograph or a movie frame. Whatever its source, the artistic discussion that follows shapes the story's visual style. Some directors may be influenced by genre and therefore will want to model his or her project off of a genre type, or contrastly, play against a type. Others are inspired by the way light is used in a painting or a photograph and thus will want to mimic this artistic motif throughout his or her film. Another might be motivated by a peice of music and will try to discover an image that best articulates the mood the peice. Whatever the image may be, it will become the basis for a shot list.
LISTING SCENES AND SHOTS
Once a general look is determined, the director develops a shot list, or written visual description, of the key shots for the major plot elements of each act. A key shot is the climatic composition of a scene that best expresses the intent of that scene. Though key shots are in every scene, the director and previs artist are only concerned with the scenes that contain the major plot elements. Theses elements are the beginning, the two plot points, the climax and the denouement.
Depending on the movie's genre, each plot element will be composed of a certain type of action known as a scene type. The seven scene types are dialogue, movement, fight, chase, simple action and complex action. As might be suspected, the types of scenes describe the kind of action contained within the scene. Most are self explainatory except for movement, simple and complex action. A movement scene invovles to subjects moving from one point to another position. Where a simple action might contain a single character changing a tire, a complex action may include numerous elements such as soldiers and cannons fighting in a battle scene.
Certain plot elements tend to have certain types of scene associated with it. This generalization becomes even more applicable with certain genres. Typically the opening scene involves dialogue or movement. Since the first plot point will be a meeting with mentor, it will most likely be a dialogue scene. Depending on the genre, the second plot point may involve a fight or a heated arguement, which could be considered a dialogue scene. The climax can range from a combination of dialogue and movement to a chase scene. Finally, a complex action scene may punctuate a big action adventure movie, but in a smaller picture it may be a simple action scene. Not all movies contain all of the seven types of scenes. Most dramas open with either a dialogue or a movement scene whereas action movies will begin with either a fight, a chase or a simple action scene. The type of scene is important as it will help determine the nature of the blocking and coverage.
LAYING OUT SETS & LOCATIONS
The sets and locations have a pivotal influence on the look of the film, and therefore are hardest to produce both graphically and creatively. Many production design elements are taken into consideration, such as architectual style, the dressing of the sets, the dimensions of buildings, and the volume of space. The former values have a particular influence on the audience's perception of the story's characters and the latter features have much to do with the practical construction of the movie. For instance, two characters are exchanging dialogue. The kind of environment and where the actors are located within this environment will shade how the audience will preceive the characters. An example on the practical side would be a fight scene. Here the director and previs artist would most likely have to consider the dimensions and volume of a set in order to determine if there is enough room to choregraph a fight. Laying out the sets and locations have further advantages. If the filmmakers have scouted locations prior to this stage, they may be able to preview the locations in order to determine practical solutions to a mirad of on-location shooting problems.
RENDERING THE SCENES
Depending on the nature of the project, the amount and quality of scenes rendered can vary. Short undertakings, such as commercials and pitch decks are fully illustrated at the highest quality. Whereas features and television shows are only be partially executed and at the lowest quality. Much depends on the budget of the film and the time alloted for storyboarding.
Nonetheless, most endevors follow a process of rendering through three tiers of quality, thumbs, roughs and presentation. The rendering stage is roughly modeled after the workflow used by most 2D storyboard artists. In the world of 3D, this process allows for the most flexability in a convient amount of time. Each of level of quality, includes four elements that are rendered in increasing degrees of detail. They are sets and locations, costumes, blocking and finally coverage.
The original concept for the sets and locations are usually done in the rough. If a production designer is particularly adept at generating computer 3D graphics, then those set and location models can be used. Nonetheless, as the boards progress through the three stages of quality, the sets and locations can go through a number of transformations due to changing taste and practicality. Though costumes are not given much consideration during the thumbs stage, they are certainly rendered in detail by the final step.
Often overlooked and undervalued, blocking and coverage are two of the three most important tools in the director's creative arsenal. The third most important tool being that of casting and directing the actors. Blocking is the decision making processing of deciding where and how the actors are going move about the set or location. Coverage is the process of deciding where the camera will be placed in order to capture the scene's action. It is important to determine the type of scene, in terms of action, as this will have a tremendous influence on the blocking and coverage. For instance, a dialogue scene would be blocked and covered quite differently from a chase scene. The former would probably be covered with an over the shoulder or a set of reversal shots. However, this would be inappropriate for the latter, which most likely would involve a series of following and leading tracking shots.
The first step begins with thumbnail sketches or "thumbs" for short.
Some previs artists literally sketch tiny thumbnail frames of the entire project. However, most artists will render the film in the form of 3D computer generated images (CGI). Often the panels look quite rough as they are designed to show the placement of actors and camera and give a general sense of the compositions. Generally, they will exclude set dressing, poses and optical specifications such as depth of field and focal length. However, they are likely to include colored blocks for buildings, domes for hills and flats for vegitation.
The primary concern with thumbnails is mapping out the shots and figuring out the blocking. In other words, what are we going to see and where are the actors going to move.
Much like working with a writer, the director will review the thumbs and then suggest changes to the blocking, and to the arrangement of sets and to the compositons. He or she might add a thought as to how the costumes or sets should look.
The next pass involves a more refined version. Locations and sets are completely constructed as opposed to using primative shapes to represent buildings, hills and trees. Sets are dressed in the areas where the actors will be working. Complete and detailed posing with detailed and finished props are included. Facial expressions are also set.
The primary concern of the roughs are the sets, the locations and the costumes. In other words, what are the sets and locations going to look like and do the costumes fit the characters.
Usually the director makes quite a few dramatic changes at this point. A vehicle might be changed for another type. Another story might be added to a building. Or an actor's outfit or hairstyle might be changed.
When the roughs are completed, once again, the director will review the renderings and consider more changes. However, this time he will contemplate the camera angles and compositions.
Presentation boards are the finished product. The location and sets are done in detail, including all foreground and background set dressing. Most importantly, the mood of the shots are established with detailed camera compositions and lighting.
The primary concern of the presentation boards is the look. This version of the boards shows the actors and the investors what your movie will look like.
SET UPS AND SHOOTING TIME
Once the presentation boards are completed, it is a simple process to determine the number of set-ups and how long it would take to shoot a particular scene. Using the top down illustrations provided with the boards, the previs artist and the assistant director, count each camera position and then associate all of the shots that would be filmed from those camera locations. The assistant director can then quickly determine how long it would take to execute all of the shots from each of the set-ups. Within an hour, a fairly accurate estimate can be made of the time that will be involved to shoot any particular scene. Furthermore, the previs artist can compile a visual list of the props, and set dressings for helping the art department determine additional costs.
In our next chapter, we focus on when is the best time to hire a previsualization artist. We begin by looking at the various stages of filmmaking and then concluding with making the decision as when is the best time to hire a previs artist.